One of the first credits in the Hellblade’: Senua’s Sacrifice opening sequence goes to its Mental Health advisor, guy, which immediately highlights the difficult nature of the game. I’d managed to avoid major spoilers for the game, reading instead about the sensitive nature of the game: namely, its handling of psychosis and the extreme end of mental health conditions such as anxiety and paranoia. Being someone who has experienced psychosis and lives with a mental illness, I had my reservations about playing this game. It felt imperative to me to play the game, however, with the hope that it might allow me to see or experience what had happened to my mind as an outsider. Hellblade became an unexpectedly cathartic experience, though at times it was overwhelmingly terrifying and difficult to play for more than an hour at a time.
An episode of psychosis can include hallucinations, both visual and auditory; delusions and severe paranoia and anxiety, though this list is not inclusive. It is a terrifying, exhausting and lonely experience that can change a person forever as the lines blur and you lose touch with reality. Crippling self-doubt and loathing were a part of my experience, as well as the overwhelming urge to end it all. Senua’s story is remarkably similar: plagued by voices telling her she’s wrong, stupid, or that she’s going to die; witnessing her own death at the hands of the unstoppable Rot and seeing ghosts and she tries to navigate through landscapes and illusions. The rune stones that depict stories from the past appear to be the only link Senua has to her – or someone else’s – past and are as such the only sense of grounding in a game littered with illusions.
The game is best played with headphones, which is a choice I would urge those with mental illnesses to consider carefully. The unending whispering of voices casting doubts – doubts and fears I have experienced in real life – alongside Senua’s voice, the voice of the narrator and of any other characters in the game can soon become overwhelming as each voice competes. Some grow quieter, causing you to strain to hear their desperate whisper. Others boom in your ears, which had me wondering at one point if it was my own voice I was hearing in my head rather than through headphones. From a developer and reviewer’s point of view, this makes for goosebump-inducing, tremendously exciting gameplay experience as the adrenaline ceases to stop due to auditory and visually jump-scares, creating an eerie impression that you are not alone whilst playing. As an individual who has experienced psychosis, it was incredibly real. The developers interviewed many individuals who had or were experiencing psychosis and mental illness, as well as many mental health workers, doctors, nurses and care assistants included, whilst embarking on this impressive feature. And it shows: I personally felt that the game captured both singular moments in an episode as well as the overall experience of one. The “business” of solving a rune puzzle, whilst trying to listen to your guide, Senua and the narrator whilst simultaneously blocking out the panicked, angry and menacing voices is akin to my own experience; I found the puzzles to be frustrating and completely overwhelming at times and took half hourly to hourly breaks so that I could remind myself that it was just a game.
And that is the beauty of Hellblade: you can experience elements of a psychotic episode and if it all gets too much, you can switch it off and return to your life; until you switch it on again. This game can absolute trigger unsettling emotions and flashbacks. “Triggering” is is often used as an insult or to belittle strangers on the internet for being “overly sensitive” but, in this context, it is the most applicable word I can find: even those who having a psychotic episode can “switch off” at points, until they are triggered into a more severe state; whether that’s by taking medicine, not eating or sleeping properly, or seeing someone that harms them. Even by not playing the game, Hellblade manages to convey the roundabout nature of psychosis, as well as including areas of gameplay where the tension has ebbed and the world seems as it should be. Whether this period of calm is an illusion or not is up to your own interpretation.
The minute attention to details the developers have paid to typical behaviours displayed by those experiencing psychosis must be applauded. Senua doesn’t let you pan the camera round to look at her face; she turns away whenever you are near. I personally interpreted this as Senua turning away as if she can sense someone is watching her, culminating in the paranoid voices she hears throughout the game. Further, into the game, she begs for it all to stop; that she’ll do whatever this evil wants to get her love one back; without adding spoilers, I’ll leave you to ruminate whether she actually had a significant other, or if she is actually pleading for her own life and sanity. Either way, it’s an incredibly raw cut scene to watch. The narrator also challenges Senua’s inner strength as she often repeats phrases such as “she has to” or “she needs to try”, portraying, at last, the message that those struggling with declining mental health are trying to overcome their struggles to better themselves, rather than give in to the darkness or in this instance, the Rot.
Hellblade is beautiful, both in design and story. The details in Senua’s face literally took my breath away at points and I spent far too much time in its photo mode, which by the way was my first experience at using photo mode and all next-gen consoles should come with this feature. I’m usually more of a story-focused gamer but the graphics and design in this game are spectacular; the kind Bioware should have aimed for with Andromeda. It is well worth £25 and is available as digital only to keep the price down. I hadn’t played any Ninja Theory games before Hellblade, but they’ve definitely caught my attention.
To all who have read this, know that you are not alone when it comes to mental health. You can find me on Twitter @L_Aitken and I’d be happy to talk to anyone who feels they may be struggling. Please take care when playing this game, as it is a difficult challenge both in the style of gameplay and the emotions it can evoke. Thanks for reading.