Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – A Flawed Investment
Silent Hill 2 remains a masterclass in writing for the video game medium. It is brave enough to pit players within the role of a grief-stricken murderer, while humanizing his motivations through gameplay and audience curious participation. Perhaps most importantly, it bridges gameplay with context in a psychological manner more successfully than in any other title.
*Spoilers for Silent Hill 2 follow.
The crux of James Sunderland’s journey persists through context: how the details and side plots all point towards the underlying significance of his search for his presumably dead wife, Mary. Both the player and James are given a simple, understandable, and direct motivation: to find Mary, who has sent a letter telling him to find her in Silent Hill.
The twist of course comes in the end game scenario, in which it is revealed that Mary is still deceased, and it was James who killed her out of frustration ignited by sexual dissatisfaction and anxiety. The brilliance of Silent Hill 2’s narrative lies in the significance of every single moment leading up to this scene. Each enemy design, every environment perused, the many characters met along the journey; they all imply the mental torture which is plaguing James. The game becomes a treatise on grief as a catalyst for self-denial, without ever deliberately demonizing James for his selfish actions.
It is perhaps the most understandably human narrative I’ve ever come across in the medium. It destroys the separation between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ turning its enemies into psychological constructs that serve as obstacles to revelation and acceptance.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the most intriguing games to analyze and discuss I’ve ever played, but for entirely disappointing reasons. Whereas Silent Hill 2 is consistently a treat to explore as James descends further into his subconscious, Hellblade forgets to allow the gameplay to speak for itself, hammering home its straightforward (though nonetheless introspective) point at nearly every turn.
There’s a difference between directly involving players with a narrative’s implications, and attempting to tell a story through those actions. In Hellblade, the narrative simply is not compelling enough to warrant the deeper ramifications being exposed. There is no MacGuffin here driving the player forward, as in Silent Hill 2; instead, the main focus is placed on the implications of gameplay.
But that is missing the big picture of what games have the ability to do with storytelling. Placing so much emphasis on the narrative implications surrounding mechanics takes away from their impact, causing Hellblade to come off as little more than a blueprint for what could produce a successful psychological investigation. The game never feels entirely realised, and often seems more of a concept in development than a released product.
The main issue with Hellblade is it’s difficult to interpret what exactly Ninja Theory are aiming to achieve. Most positive critics praise the work as an accurate and empathetic depiction of mental illness, something most media will illustrate as villainous or insane. There’s much discussion involving the interpretation of the ‘objectives’ and ‘puzzles’ leading the player through the game. The most divisive mechanic involves a permadeath function meant to elicit paranoia and anxiety (arguably the game’s greatest feature).
But while venturing through the Viking wastelands, I constantly was at odds with the main character’s own motivations; not even so much from a story standpoint, but a thematic one. Who have Ninja Theory developed this game for, and for what reason? Is it to simply offer a relative experience of mental illness for the uninformed? And if so, then what are they supposed to gather besides the idea that “mental illness is a harrowing experience?”
This is not intended to say that games need to be ‘Fun’ to be worth playing. Silent Hill 2 is often dreadfully unintuitive, but in order to so effectively support and inspire its commentary on the grieving process and human desire. Hellblade instead comes off as an experience without anything as impactful to say as its potential surely promises; it forgets to add depth to the central gameplay conceits.
Meanwhile, Hellblade fails to bridge its fiction with reality in a personable manner necessary to emphasize its psychological horror. Silent Hill 2 deliberately describes James Sunderland as an everyman, a protagonist whom the player is meant to lose themselves within, so to speak. His modern persona and the world he inhabits are familiar to suburban American societies, which acts as another facade masking over the dire implications beneath.
Hellblade is too otherworldly for its own good. The weight of the narrative is even further diminished by the player’s lack of relatability, leaving nothing for them to empathetically grasp at. It is arguable that this sense of otherworldliness is a defining characteristic, meant to illustrate a modern mind lost within the confines of a warped reality. But the dull, gray visage does little to engage audiences, marking another main issue with Hellblade: there is no levity to be found. Silent Hill 2 found levity in its colorful cast and often hysterical comedic scenarios (“This town is filled with monsters! How can you sit there and eat pizza?”).
When it comes down to it, Hellblade is a product composed of unrealised potential. It wants be a grim look at mental illness but falsifies the importance by composing itself with nothing but emotional baggage. The gaming industry is rapidly maturing, with titles like Spec Ops: The Line and What Remains of Edith Finch actively involving the player while also describing their own significant arguments.
Hellblade is a conceptual marvel, with numerous details illustrating thematic importance only videogames could offer. If only it could make an argument worthy of its mechanical ambitions.