Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

This game… is SO good.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a video game even attempt to do a lot of what Hellblade pulls off basically flawlessly.

Make no mistake, this is an engaging journey, but it is a highly stressful one.  It’s a downward plunge into darkness, grief, despair, and paralyzing terror.  Senua’s quest is by far the darkest and most awful one I’ve been on in a game, basically ever.  But it’s a story that has incredible cathartic value.  This is really powerful stuff, highly concentrated.  If you’re a fan of being emotionally cleaned out, look no further.  This game makes me want to hold my partner and never let them go.

Hellblade is about 8 hours long, and I strongly recommend that you sit down on a weekend, plug in some stereo headphones, and do the whole thing in one sitting, like I did.  I feel like this is an experience that would lose something if you’re allowed to take breaks from it and recover yourself.  It’s meant to be overwhelming, to be quite literally maddening and exhausting.  This is how you come to inhabit Senua’s situation and empathize with her quest and mental state in a way that I’ve never experienced in a game.

My first thought when I booted the game up and played through the opening sequence was that someone took that schizophrenia simulator that Anderson Cooper did a while back, and turned it into a game.  That’s at least partly true if a bit simplistic; hearing voices is a major component of the game experience, especially at first before you become more or less accustomed to them.  But the game is also much smarter than you’d expect based on that description.  Hearing voices and seeing visions are just where things start.  They’re jumping-off points for much greater heights and deeper insights.  All of which, I should mention, is based on both real scientific research and real lived experiences of people who suffer from these sorts of mental conditions.  Ninja Theory did their research and respected their consultants, and it shows.

On its surface, Hellblade is about a Pict warrior named Senua, who is on a journey into Helheim (the Bad Place of Norse mythology) to free the soul of her lover, Dillion.  This would be scary enough on its own, but Senua also suffers from paranoid schizophrenia or psychosis of some variety (in terms used by the game’s characters, she has “the Sight”), which manifests in a variety of ways throughout her journey.  As we dive deeper into the quest with her, all kinds of stuff comes up that I’d really rather not spoil.  This game’s story has a lot going on.  It’s heavy, and it’s huge.

The game consists of 3 main kinds of experience: you move from one place to the next, you do puzzles, and you’ve got combat.  Is it even right to break something like this down into these pieces?  Does it really do Hellblade justice to say you “move from one place to the next”, when moving is accompanied by such a rich depth of experience, such emotional highs and lows?  It feels wrong to call the kinds of perceptual explorations and reality-twisting that goes on in this game “puzzles”.  Each is rich in depth and meaning.  Every second of this game drips with it.  I particularly enjoyed the rune puzzles, which are a nod towards the tendency for those suffering from delusions to find meaning and significance in coincidences and random data.

Every aspect of this game’s audiovisual presentation is amazing.  For the first time in a long, long time, I was actually really impressed by the cinematography in a video game.  There are some truly beautiful and truly grotesque images in this game, scenes and shots that will stick with you for a long time after you finish it.  The camera has this really claustrophobic, close-in positioning that serves to heighten the emotion of everything that happens.  It pushes in on Senua’s face, swivels around her as though you’re one of her ever-orbiting voices.  In combat, the presence of every additional enemy is stifling and feels dangerous.  You come to rely on your voices as much as you dread them, since they’ll call out when you’re about to be blindsided, and it’s in depicting the positive sides of Senua’s condition as well as her darkness that the game really shines and avoids a lot of potential pitfalls.  I’m just rambling at this point.

You wanna talk about games as an art form?  This is it.  It’s $30, it’s on Steam.  You have no excuse not to pick it up.

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