Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – Review
Independent developer Ninja Theory has an odd reputation. They are a household name, but exist nearly under the radar with their independent label and only 20 people at the helm, producing games at AAA level with indie budgets; based in Cambridge, they originally began as Just Add Monsters, till they were purchased by Argonaut Games. Rather than face liquidation when Argonaut went under, Sony contracted them for a console debut with PlayStation 3 featuring their second game, Heavenly Sword. Fast-forward ten years later, the team is preparing launch of its fifth game with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
As it goes with independent developers, their games seem to have a cult following–and having been monitoring Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and its social engagement since its announcement in 2014–it seems to be no different. Now having played the game, I am going to tell you right now: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is perhaps one of–if not the most–deepest games I’ve ever played. The layers of narrative are astounding and thus, SPOILERS will be numerous.
Senua is a Celtic warrior on a quest to set her husband’s soul free from the clutches of Hel–the goddess of the underworld. Her journey begins as she paddles down a lazy river, on her way to Hel. Voices are whispering. Faceless, ephemeral, yet always there. “Turn back.” “Only death waits ahead.” “Does she know where she’s going?” “Do you know what you’re doing?” Their conversation picks up when she begins passing bodies. Many of them. In the water, impaled on pikes…these are recurring images throughout the game, serving as mood setters and symbols of Senua’s decaying mental health, which I will dive into shortly.
We reach land and eventually come to an impasse. Three doors. One–a gateway to Helheim–the other two, trials in which Senua must complete to unlock the gateway. The first trial (or the second, depending on which door you choose to first enter) is guarded by Surt, the Norse giant from the fiery realm of Múspell. Senua must navigate the twisting and flaming pathways through Surt’s many gates in order to get to him. The second gate is protected by Valravn. Make note, though Valravn is typical of Danish folklore, he has connections to Huginn and Muninn of Norse mythos, Odin’s two raven informants. Valravn’s trials consist of besting his illusions. Through both these trials, she will also face demons in combat (these demons and combat entirely are essential to the game’s narrative and theme). Once Senua passes the trials, she is allowed to cross the threshold to Hel.
This is where the game’s depth truly begins. First, note, both combat and puzzle mechanics serve the narrative, and the narrative serves the mechanics. This is important; there are games that require combat in order for narrative to carry weight, and there are games that require narrative to create sensible combat. Senua’s journey lies between; Both its narrative and gameplay mechanics depend on one another in equal weight. This relationship is unique to Hellblade because of the single attribute tying them together: theme.
Ninja Theory was open about Senua’s Sacrifice and its theme from the initial announcement: they would be focusing on mental health. They had a series of Dev Diaries they posted to their social media accounts, exposing their deep research process; the team contracted the help of mental health professionals to assist in accurate portrayal of each illness they wanted to include. They also held deep discussions with sufferers of each illness to prescribe a meticulousness to the game’s portrayal of these harrowing ailments. Ninja Theory wanted to make [the public] aware of the true nature of mental health disorders, rather than subscribing to the typical Hollywood approach.
This meant showing that schizophrenia isn’t voices telling its victims to kill people, or split personalities–both of these Hollywoodian stereotypes (one is even a separate illness) are atypical of actual schizophrenic symptoms–rather, victims of the illness experience hallucinations, delusions, affective flattening (where range of emotional expression is diminished) and alogia (emotionally empty speech). Keep in mind, this is just one type of schizophrenia on which Ninja decided to draw focus. This meant that each gameplay segment, whether combat, or puzzle, needed to target the accurate portrayal of these symptoms AS WELL AS tie with the narrative in equal fashion and Ninja accomplished this with effectively creepy gusto.
This is again accomplished by the game’s theme. Each puzzle and demonic fight exist as a part of Senua’s delusions. She sees patterns where others would not and those patterns serve as puzzling features. The demons she fights are representative of her own darkness attempting to take hold of her mind, ruthlessly cutting her down and the closer she comes to the end of her quest, the more ruthless they become. The voices in her head doubt her, but also support her during these times. They shout “behind you!” Or “evade!” Other times, it’s “she’s going to die. She’s not well. She’ll die.” They are there through the darkness, and evident in the light. They serve as a kind of narrator, even through cutscenes, they can be heard whispering commentary. They are as much part of the narrative as the cutscenes themselves. Each symptom of her psychosis is woven through the narrative, and eventually, we learn how it all began.
Senua had quite the troubled childhood. It all begins with her mother, Galena. The same illness of which Senua herself is afflicted, ailed Galena. Her father, Zynbel, believed the illness to be a curse brought on by the wrath of the gods. The darkness would only worsen if she defied their will–effectively what Zynbel prescribed. He thought he could exorcise the darkness by locking them both in small holes, or by beating it out of them, but he was wrong. Once he tired of doing the gods’ bidding, he burned Galena at the stake. This stands as the primary reinforcer of Senua’s psychosis. She successfully blocked the trauma from her mind, only for it to resurface when the Northmen Raiders murdered her lover, Dillion, as a Blood Eagle sacrifice; the historic Blood Eagle sacrifice was extremely horrific and one I will not detail, but you can read further here, if you are so inclined. This event serves as a psychotic trigger, pushing her schizophrenic symptoms to the forefront and forcing her into a state of despair and delusion.
It is through this delusion, her quest begins: to save Dillion’s soul at the hands of Helheim’s goddess and reluctantly begins to follow the voices in her head. Along the way, she meets Druth, a captured slave of the Northmen, who tells her stories to try and keep her focused. He advised her to kill Surt and Valravn, as they stood as clan leaders of the Northmen. Once she gets into Helheim, Druth disappears, as he too, was only a machination of her mind. In his place however, the voice of the Shadow appears–the representation of her father–yet another facet of the game’s narrative leveling. The voice of Dillion also surfaces as a guiding light in the darkness.
Through the narration of The Shadow and Dillion, we learn her village fell victim to the plague; Zynbel informed the townsfolk the plague came upon them due to Senua’s curse of darkness, and the villagers began to shun and torment her. Dillion was her only refuge and convinced her to run away from the village in hopes to ease her own darkness. Unfortunately this was not the case and even after his death. Dillion continued to be a muse through her trials. Eventually Senua makes her way through Helheim to the Tree of Woe where she pieces together a sword with the power to kill Hel herself. She continues further into the depths of Hel, where she faces the Beast, the game’s representation of Fenrir the Wolf. This battle represents Senua’s strength to overcome her own darkness, ready to face the actions of her father.
Even deeper into Helheim she travels. It is here where each combat section gets more frantic. Numerous foes surround Senua at a much faster pace, symbolizing her fight against the darkness. The closer she comes to Hel, the more frenzied each battle becomes. Eventually, Senua defeats Hel and accepts Dillion is dead. It is this realization that finally pushes her psychosis to the fringe, where actual reality is restored once more. She stands amidst the wreckage of boats from the Northmen Raiders and drops Dillion’s head into the roaring current below. The voices disappear, and Senua is whole once again.
The success of this narrative lies not within the plot itself, but the multiple layers of Senua’s psychosis. What is real, what isn’t? Is this actually a god’s realm, or Senua’s delusion of such? It could be argued the entire premise exists only in Senua’s mind. Or, it could be said all of it existed in reality, or perhaps another plane of existence. These layers drive home how tortured Senua was, both physically and mentally. Using religion and gods to compensate for misunderstanding is not only an allegory for our own scientific timetable, the fanaticism in which her father used it to rationalize Galena and Senua’s deteriorating mental states itself borders on psychopathy.
Other reviewers have lambasted the “boring” mechanics, as well as the “unsteadiness” of the narrative and while that may have been their preference, it’s my contention they did not look at them from the correct perspective as puzzle pieces perfectly intertwined with one another. Utilizing vertical layers of storytelling via psychopathic symbolism and Norse myth to execute a deep narration, Ninja Theory has crafted a game that brings awareness to the more harrowing side of mental health. It belongs to a discussion sorely needed in that field and the fact that a video game is doing such means a great deal to the industry as a whole. Games are no longer games. They are tools to convey messages, create awareness, and above all, a deep level of connectivity between the community they serve.
This is why Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice gets a full score from me.
Post Script: If anyone is curious enough to delve deeper into schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, Psych Central is a good place to start. A few good reads about schizophrenia can be found here, and here.