A reply to Mic.com’s: ‘Hellblade’ tries to show the real experience of psychosis – but ends up using it as a plot device.
This is an entirely subjective piece by piece breakdown of why I think this article is wrong in many ways, due to lack of research or simple disagreement. This is in no way objective, nor do I state that any of my opinions are factual, they are just based on fact.
The article is also an opinion piece, and whilst I quiet vehemently disagree, I mean no disrespect to the author who I’m sure is a fine writer, nor the issues he may have faced in his life.
The piece opens with the author’s short anecdote about his mother’s schizophrenia and his father’s passing, to which he connects to Hellblade by saying:
‘So I was excited to see that Hellblade: Senua’s sacrifice, a new game from indie developer ninja theory, planned to tell a story through the eyes of Senua, the protagonist who is living with Psychosis.’
First of all, Ninja Theory is not exactly an indie developer, they’re a AA developer, and their middle market game is one of the biggest revolutions in modern gaming. I don’t criticise the author for perhaps not knowing, but I do find it important to point out.
The first major issue I take is in this paragraph:
‘However, in attempting to make the concept accessible, the narrative fell short of focusing on the topic. Instead it becomes a plot device to propel Senua through Hellheim. If you took away the conceit that Senua lives with Psychosis and replaced it with real demons, ghosts or dark magic, how different would the game be?”
Average. Crap. Not even worth a look. Because context, as always, is key. Understanding that the hallucinations, ghosts of the past and horrific events that replay in her reality are part of the mental illness she suffers IS the reason the game is so incredible to play. Associating the feeling of defeating an enemy not with stabbing a generic villain through the heart, but with winning a small battle in the mind, defeating a ghost of the past, overcoming some fear or tribulation is rewarding. Plus, the narrative revolves around the fact that this IS psychosis. The game wouldn’t make any sense if this was the usual fantasy world. Plus, the author is ignoring the gameplay aspect of the psychosis. Even if you don’t believe that the narrative is as powerful as it should be, even after finishing the game with that incredible ending, the gameplay reinforces the idea of her psychosis. Every emotional moment Senua is forced to go through, the horrors she has to relive, is entwined into the gameplay. Focus on a corpse and you will hear the distant screams, look at the sea of corpses in the Helheim section and hear the voices start to whisper ‘It’s your fault, your fault’. I don’t have psychosis, but it is a powerful representation of such an illness, one that helps the layman with no understanding of that feeling to truly feel what it’s like to have such visceral experiences, self-blame and the quest for redemption from your own mind. Senua’s quest is one of acceptance and redemption, with her own mind turning against her. The context of her mental illness is essential to the games success.
‘It’s only later in the game that you learn about her ‘curse’ – her disease – and how her abusive father tried to keep her locked away to protect her from her Mother’s suicidal fate (and how even her beloved boyfriend, Dillion, turned on her because of his misconceptions about her illness.’
This makes me think the author has not played the game to completion, or was not paying attention to the games plot at all. Senua’s curse, her dark rot, is consistently mentioned from the very beginning of the game, it’s referred to as her ‘sight’, her ‘curse’, Senua is referred to as ‘seeing the world differently’ and consistently reprimanded by the voices in her head. It’s subtle, but in no way obscured from the player. The player should easily be able to figure out what is happening to Senua, and if the player believes the demons are real as I did in the beginning, it only makes the mid and late game better, and the ending hit like a ton of bricks. The slow burning of finding more and more about her illness helps those who don’t have experience with mental illness to better understand Senua’s reality, it is as the developers themselves said. Senua isn’t in some fantasy world, this IS her reality, it is her world, a world she has created for herself in order to work through her horrors. Secondly, her mother did not commit suicide, she was burned at the stake and abused by her father, another important discovery for both the player and Senua. The ability to make the player’s emotions mirror Senua only intensifies the unity of play and character, and allows the player to sink further into their immersion – an important factor when trying to show what it is like to live with this illness. Finally, Dillion did not turn on her, at all. It is explicitly shown that this is her own self loathing and depression that drags her into self-blame, the Dillion that says those words is the Dillion her mind created, not the real Dillion. Again, this is explicitly shown. Besides, even if he did turn on her, which he didn’t, it would be anger and grief over his dead father, not misconception, that did so.
‘Those revelations should come as bombshells, but they lose their punch in the context of the game. The spectacle of battling fire giants and skull-faced killers tends to overshadow the real story of Senua’s self-blame and redemption.’
Why? The act of battling those demons is a literal representation of the fight that she is going through in her mind. Each demon has context and a reason behind their creation:
Surt is the flame giant that represents the pillaging and death that the Northmen brought to her village, and defeating it is moving through the rage she feels for what they did.
Valravn is the projection of her demons in the wild, the fear and difficulties she had to face on her own in the wild. It is her most personal demon, as the fight starts with her screaming ‘It was you who left me to die in the wilds! This time I will not run!’ – Paraphrased but close enough.
Fenrir is her father, the abuse and disdain she feels for him, and again getting through that. After defeating Fenrir, the dark voice that turns out to be Senua’s father says he was only trying to protect her. Perhaps that is her accepting that he was scared, and her father was only human. Not forgiving or forgetting, but understanding.
Finally, there’s Hella. Acceptance. Senua does not defeat Hella, but instead allows herself to be defeated by it. The final act of Hellblade is about moving through the stages of grief, ending in acceptance. Once Hella kills Senua, the game ends with Senua’s twisted reality disappearing to be replaced by what we believe to be the real world, after she accepts Dillion’s death, her last trauma to overcome.
What about that symbolism overshadows her mental illness? Without context, they are unoriginal bosses with somewhat cool designs. With context, they are elevated.
‘The problem with Hellblade is that, while it may give players some idea of what it’s like to experience auditory hallucinations or struggle with perceiving what’s real or not in game, they don’t get any standard by which to measure Senua’s journey into mental illness.
What was Senua like when she was young? What were her hobbies? What were her likes and dislikes? My mother was a brilliant woman, and I watched her struggle with her illness and degrade until she was basically a husk. Seeing her slowly lose interest in everything she loved struck me with a profound sadness. I knew she was losing the final strands that kept her connected to this world’
Is that not exactly what has happened to Senua? The only thing she had left to live for, Dillion, the man who literally pulled her from a cliff’s edge, dies at the hands of Northmen whilst she was alone in the wilds. This one traumatic event, mixed with the rest of her time discriminated by the village and her father, caused her to create a new reality completely disconnected from this world, with Druth’s stories forging a new quest for her to find her redemption. Plus, you do get context around her life before this quest. The flashback in particular of Dillion and Senua’s first meeting is so heartfelt and genuine, you can see her shyness, and her love for the beauty of Dillion’s swordsmanship. Senua is forced to do chores, only leaving the house for short errands due to her parents, what hobbies could she have other than watching Dillion and his sword? The context required is all there, you just have to pay attention. I’m sorry for how the story ended with the author’s mother, but Senua’s story ends with the opposite coin. It shows a ray of hope not for complete recovery, but the ability to live happily with the ailment she has. The ending does not magically cure her psychosis, as the voices immediately return, but the dark rot – symbolising the depression and horrors around her psychosis disappears. It does not cure her, it symbolises her ability to keep moving forward.
‘That’s why I was disgusted with the choice to turn Senua’s father into one of the antagonists. I understand how disruptive mental illness is for someone who is experiencing it, but this game completely glosses over how frightening and emotionally exhausting it can be for the people around them.’
Does it? The game is set in Celtic times. It was a time of Gods. The decision to make her father an antagonist was in part due to the historical context of the game. Plus, the fact that it is so horrific for the people around the person with the mental illness, especially close people, isn’t that shown in both her mother and father’s actions? I disagree with this point the least, but the leeway for historical context must be there. I disagree that the game does this, but I cannot deny the evidence for the author’s point.
‘By casting the effects of mental illness on caregivers in such a broad and unflattering light, Ninja Theory missed an opportunity to spotlight those who make sacrifices in attempt to make sure those who have the same issues and Senua are loved and cared for.’
In what world? Dillion. I don’t know if the author knows this but there’s a character in the game called Dillion, who gives up his fiancé Senua so that she may go find herself in the wild, wanting nothing more than the promise of her safe return. In multiple scenes he is shown as making sacrifices for her, ignoring the other villagers, bringing her out of her trances, constantly being there for her. The game does paint her father harshly, but it is in no way broad and without another side to the coin.
‘There isn’t a cure for schizophrenia, so why does the ending make it seem like there is.’
It doesn’t. Next.
‘I guess that’s why Hellblade’s narrative seems so vacuous to me. Dealing with mental illness isn’t throwing your ex boyfriend’s head over a cliff, or fighting imaginary monsters against a Norse mythology background and then being all better. It’s a lifelong war, and it’s one you’re eventually going to lose.’
Nice. So much wrong here, sorry. Firstly, the game does not state that she is cured. The game ends on her hearing voices, and saying she has another story to tell. Senua’s battle is not over, this is stated. What is shown in the ending her moving past the trauma she has experienced, through the self-loathing and the pain. That is not a life long battle. I have dealt with depression. It is a demon you CAN defeat. And the demons she defeated are all things that are possible to move through, self-loathing, rage, depression, disdain and fear. The author seems to have a problem with the allegory presented in the game, throwing skulls of cliffs and fighting demons. Remember that this IS a video game. No I didn’t fight literal demons in my struggle, nor does anyone else, but sometimes it can feel like that. And that is what this game seeks to exploit, your feelings. Her willpower has not defeated her ailment, it has allowed her to continue fighting when she had lost everything. It is a journey to find herself.
Overall, I feel like the author has made a very shallow dive into the game, and it annoyed me because I truly think this is one of the best games I have ever played, one of the best entertainment experiences I’ve ever had.