So, I have just finished Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and in short, it’s a hell of an experience. Much of the gaming calendar nowadays is full of sequels, remakes, and ongoing established franchises getting their yearly or bi-yearly update. To be honest, it’s never really taken a toll on me until I play something that is truly original.
Full disclosure: I am mainly a AAA title gamer. I buy most of the big releases, every year I buy Fifa for example. Destiny 2, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Resident Evil 7, Nier: Automata, Middle Earth: Shadow of War; this is the bulk of what I have played this year and what appeals to me. I tend not to get around to indies. Not for a second suggesting Hellblade is a proper ‘indie’ in the regular sense – Ninja Theory themselves describe it as a AAA indie release – and the production values in game certainly do back this up.
In game, you play as Senua, a woman suffering from severe psychosis. Based in a Celtic/Viking mythology setting, you explore an effective wasteland, figuring out the plot and character motivations throughout. One of the most striking attributes right from the start, is that the game encourages you to play with a headset, as it was designed with 360 degree sound in mind. From the outset, you discover how affecting this experience can be. Senua suffers from multiple in mind voices speaking to her, some offering support and tips, others mocking and trying to trick you. This instantly had me hooked, as the game offers no formal UI structure and as such, you find yourself relying on these voices that are clearly formed by the mental illness in question.
This is a truly affecting experience, extremely jarring and incredibly immersive compared with almost any game I have ever played.
However, outside of this, the game mechanics are not entirely interesting or dynamic. There are visual illusion puzzles to solve, mazes to circumvent, and occasional combat sequences that are hardly of industry shattering quality, but they certainly are adequate. There is no customisation on any level, including a lack of weapon or amour choice – you start the game as you will finish it.
Straight up, none of this matters.
Sometimes games don’t need to truly be ‘great’ games in the standard sense. Perhaps we can now see games as a greater form of interactive entertainment, or as a bridge between film and gaming. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice reminded me in way to Heavy Rain, the 2010 release that focussed on being a dramatic interactive experience. Whilst the themes and setting are not comparable at all, the idea of minimalistic game mechanics involved definitely do resonate.
When you boot up Hellblade for the first time, you are met with the following warning –
‘This game contains representations of psychosis. People with experience of psychosis as well as professionals in psychiatry have assisted with these depictions. Some may find these depictions disturbing, including those who, themselves may have had similar experiences…’
As many of you will know, I am an extremely cynical man. I had heard about Hellblade through various marketing as an experience that truly would be harrowing and a realistic representation of mental illness. Then, when you start the game you are informed through a cinematic scene that if you die too many times, the game progress is lost entirely and you would have to start afresh. I truly believed this was all a gimmick, and my cynicism got the better of me. All I could think was how ironic it was that a game about mental illness was going to delete my save after dying and most likely, drive me fucking insane.
How wrong I was.
Ultimately, the game isn’t too difficult so you can navigate the entire story without too much trouble. And the idea of all of this being a gimmick? No chance. This truly is a harrowing experience, filled with brief moments of beauty and humanity.
The title of ‘game’ does Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice a massive disservice. Yes, you play with a controller on a console or PC, however this is a cinematic, interactive experience, depicting and exploring themes so often stigmatised and ignored by society at large with fantastic finesse and the delicacy required.
This may well be one of the few times a ‘game’, can be regarded as a work of art.
Whilst the whole gaming industry debates over paid loot box bundles, overpriced DLC, and toxic communities sending abuse online, do yourself a favour and play Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. On average an 8 hour play through, no multiplayer or extra siege modes, but a bargain none the same. Refreshing, innovative, and a genuine attack on the senses.
Also, be sure to check out the making of documentary one you’ve finished the game (included with purchase), just to see exactly just how much effort went into making this as realistic an interpretation as possible.
Bravo Ninja Theory.