I cannot stop thinking about this game. I flew through the 8 hours of gameplay time (well, it took me more than that because I am a very cautious fighter LOL) and I miss Senua already.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the story of a warrior woman whose lover was murdered by invading Norsemen and she has decided to go into hell to free his soul.
But Senua is not a normal woman – she hears voices. Her mother heard them too. They whisper to her, constant companions since she was young. These voices have kept her separated from the rest of her tribe, which is why she wants so badly to find Dillion’s soul – he was the one person who truly cared for her. I know this sounds cliche, but I have to say that love is the one force out there that will make people challenge gods, even if those gods are not their own.
I love how the game just drops you into the story – no tutorial mode, not even a flash of instruction on the screen to coach you. You must figure it out (even if that simply means hitting “pause” to bring up the control menu) – the game designers have faith in your abilities to play from the start and they don’t want to pull you out of the narrative to go through some clunky “What does the A button do?” screen or cheesy flashback to find an excuse to learn how to make your character walk.
I really feel like this game is another great example of video games as art. I feel like to show how a thing is art, you must give examples of how it brings out emotions in us that no other format can; how it can tell a story that would not be nearly as powerful as just a printed page or even as a moving image.
I played Hellblade as the creator’s suggested: with headphones on. This let me experience the voices the way Senua did – hearing them immediately as our shared quest began and growing both frustrated and fond of their chatter. I don’t think the printed text of a novel could have done this for me and while I can be emotionally connected to a character in a movie or tv show, you can’t become them the way you can in a video game. And while I don’t think I was ever Senua, I felt like I was with her the whole way.
I know this game is already getting a lot of push back from people with mental illness. Ninja Theory, the game design company, did a lot of homework in trying to represent the different ways psychosis can feel. I’ve seen at least one reviewer who are not happy because they suffer from mental illness and didn’t think the game represented them, and I can understand that. The designers could only do so much and they reached out to professionals and got as much feedback as possible but they can’t know what it is like for someone and no game will really ever replicated that experience.
I am coming from a completely different place, and this game really made me think a lot about all of the voices in everyone’s head and how some of us can shrug them off and others are forced to hear them. The voices of self doubt, of fear, of resignation beside the voices that also push you on. I’ve never suffered from psychosis and I can’t even begin to understand what life would be like for someone living with it, but for those 8 hours, I had those voices in my ears and it made me think of how hard that can make everything – if I was struggling in a fictional world to run forward and stay focused, what must it be like for someone in modern society? No idea, I know I can never know.
While I didn’t love the ending (too soon, I wanted more), I loved the game as a whole. I really enjoyed that it was more than just a button mashing fighter game and that the (thankfully few) boss fights all had strategies to them. It reminded me of Legend of Zelda and how each “boss” was more than just a simple fight, you had to pay attention. There were just as many puzzles and hidden things to make me want to keep going, and bits of Norse legend peppered through-out which made me want to go find Neil Gaiman’s new book and see if there were more to those legends.
It was a beautiful game, I loved seeing it on my screen, watching Senua wander the mystical world. I really hope we have more adventures with her.
For more details about the game and how to buy a (digital only for PC and PS4), visit the official Ninja Theory site.