Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that sticks with you. I previously reviewed the game, but I had to hold back from saying much of substance because I feel that the experience benefits greatly from not knowing exactly what to expect. Spoilers really hurt a game like this, one that depends so heavily on narrative and no small measure of confusion and uncertainty.
I still have more to say about the game, though. So, this is your last warning. If you haven’t played Hellblade all the way to the end, PLEASE do not read this article. Just go on Steam, buy it, and beat it. This will still be here when you’re done.
This is mostly going to be a freeform ramble where I just talk about the things that impressed me. I don’t have an outline or anything, I’m just going to start writing and see what comes out.
I don’t think it really diminishes the impact of the game’s biggest twist that I was able to see it coming (to a certain extent). The quality of the writing is good enough, the characterization strong enough, to carry you through. As soon as you realize that your main character suffers from psychosis, then the revelation that her journey isn’t 100% literally real, that parts of it or all of it is taking place in her mind, well, that’s got a certain narrative gravity to it, a sense of inevitability. The biggest thing that makes this work is that the game doesn’t oversell it. I was really glad to see that they didn’t use Revelation Montage #5738, where the character gets a shocked expression as you get a series of flashbacks to all the times when hints were dropped, etc. The twist isn’t even really ever explicitly stated. The final cutscene only shows it to you by inference. It’s more something you come to gradually realize the farther you go and the more outlandish things get, as well as the more things Senua remembers. It’s really the sauce over the rest of the experience, and once you start to pick up on it, it enhances everything.
I’m still being vague here because I want to give people with larger monitors who haven’t beaten the game yet a chance to check out before I get into specifics. This here, this is really your last chance.
I confess: I didn’t call the twist. I knew that the game wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but I got the objective reality of the game wrong. My first guess was that the entire journey was going to be in Senua’s head, actually. I thought that it was going to be revealed that the game was actually set in modern times, with Senua undergoing some radical new therapy that had her exploring her hallucinatory world of delusion as a way of conquering it. I had Druth pegged as her therapist, telling her stories of Norse mythology to help her find a way to overcome her condition, or something. I was actually extremely pleased to discover that I was wrong, that the game was so much smarter than that.
By making the game actually set in the time period it appears to be set in, the game avoids going off the deep end. It stays grounded in a single main problem. Yes, Senua is having a psychotic break, but it’s brought on by grief and guilt and overwhelming sadness, the loss of her love, her anchor to the world.
What was really interesting (and deeply affecting) about this was that it put me in the same mental situation as Senua herself. I really thought that there would be some solution to the problem, that Senua and I would overcome her situation together, that her beloved could somehow really be rescued, because surely he wouldn’t really be dead? Surely, once the illusion was peeled away and the darkness revealed to be just a nightmare, there would be light at the end of the tunnel?
When it’s finally revealed that Hela is simply Senua herself, that the rot can’t actually perma-kill you (and what a stroke of genius that text is! I’m gonna talk about that more in a second) and disappears without a second thought, that there is no quest, that Dillion is well and truly gone… I’m tearing up just writing this. The final revelation of his monologue to Senua as they lie together, his musings on how to properly face death, it’s all so powerful, so huge, that you can’t wrap your head around it. Yet somehow, it’s also freeing in its finality. Senua and I picked ourselves up and moved on to the next story together, in the exact same frame of mind. I’ve never had a game do that to me so effectively and completely before.
The way the game portrays Dillion is so good. That whole sequence during the sword shard trials where he’s guiding you in utter darkness as you literally replay a memory from early in their relationship when he guided her back from a psychotic break is just awesome. No better way to show the player first-hand the power of love. Senua didn’t even realize it was possible for her to be saved, but here comes this guy, whose words she can hear even when the darkness takes her.
Lemme jump back on myself and talk about that permadeath thing. THAT IS SUCH A BRILLIANT THING. It’s the last time the game puts text up on the screen, the only other text was the credits you just watched. So you take it as a message directly to you, the player, and naturally assume that it must be true. It’s like a tutorial message. I mean, never mind that the game has zero other tutorials. I was suckered in completely. And it masterfully plays on your fears as the player, to put you in this incredibly paranoid mindset. It’s just perfect, it sets your mood immediately. For the uninitiated, the game won’t actually permakill you. The rot will seem to grow a certain number of times, but it’s locked by your story progress and won’t progress further until you reach cutscenes where it’s supposed to increase on its own. But you THINK that it will kill you. Just like Senua does. The game gives you a delusion, something that you will probably believe without any evidence, because who would actually test it?
Here’s what I think about Druth: I don’t think he’s an actual person, I think he’s like a hallucinated imaginary friend. We know Senua went to the Wilds to try and conquer her darkness, and it wasn’t working. She had a confrontation with Valravn, and believed that she’d killed him, but even that couldn’t hold the darkness at bay. Then she “found Druth”. This guy who tells her stories of the Northmen, someone who’s been through what she has, someone who helped her survive the Wilds and come back. I think that Druth is a survival mechanism, someone external who could help her in that moment while she was away from Dillion, and he ended up being a persistent hallucination. He stuck around.
Given some of Senua’s dialogue about looking into the eyes of a loved one and seeing a stranger, or the fact that she left for the Wilds in the first place despite Dillion’s immense power to help her escape her darkness, I think it’s possible she had been thinking of leaving him. We do see Senua hallucinating Dillion telling her she has blood on her hands, so it’s entirely possible she’s experienced other hallucinations and delusions revolving around Dillion that made her question their relationship. Maybe Druth was even conjured up as a replacement. Which means of course, as Senua deals with her grief and her self-blame, Druth has to go away for good. He seems to die after you fight Surtr, the part of the game that has the strongest thematic ties to Druth’s stories of escaping through fire. Thing is, if you do Surtr’s area before Valravn’s, Druth comes back. And he keeps telling you his stories at the stones. He’s a very persistent hallucination, whether Senua wants him around or not at this point. What I found really interesting is that suddenly, during one of his stories in Valravn’s area, he infers that Senua is his sister. I look at this as Senua finding a way to coexist with the guy while sublimating the potential romantic interest between them.
What’s really interesting to me is that, when you realize how little time has actually elapsed since Senua came back from the Wilds, it really hits you just how far gone she is. I mean, she literally just got back from being out there. The first thing she sees is her village burned, Dillion sacrificed in brutal fashion. She immediately loses touch with reality and goes on her quest. The game begins like, right there.
There’s such powerful imagery in this game. The pulsating growling creatures in the dark during that shard trial thing I mentioned earlier were so disturbing. The fire ghost thing that chases you in the maze was genuinely completely terrifying. The tree under which Senua sees Dillion for the first time, in all the forms you see it in the game, is a striking image. Particularly when it takes on an Elysian quality as you relive their first meeting. The sea of corpses, as Senua struggles with the horror of becoming like her mother and potentially losing herself to the darkness. That final shot we get of Dillion (and his delicious chest) talking on some random night as they lay together, with Senua dying to herself, looking down into this memory reflection, letting him go as she bleeds out. Even the flashes you get when you’re running from the beast in the depths of the mountain, during that boss fight and in the darkness, those are so well done. Every detail is spot on, right down to the pitch shifting on the voices, which will go up and down at random. You can tell they spoke to people who had real experience.
The final battle is also really well done. I fully expected to be able to win, and I’m pretty good at the game’s combat so I ended up fighting for a long time, long enough that the game took away my Focus ability. It took me a few attempts of activating it to realize that it wasn’t working, and holy crap what a great way to mechanically convey that the battle is hopeless. It’s so frenzied and chaotic, and the music sets the tone so perfectly, and by the time you’ve been fighting for like 10, 20 minutes, you realize you really can’t tell what’s going on. You can’t focus, and you can’t Focus. It’s perfect. You get hit, and the whole screen reels and falls apart. You can carry on in that battle for quite a long time, and I did. Eventually, though, I started to think… oh. Oh, I get it now. I can’t win this, can I?
I wanna talk a little bit about psychosis. I feel like a lot of the discussion I’ve seen surrounding this game tends to result in the person talking about the game confessing that they have psychosis or they’ve had experience with hallucinating and such. And so because I’ve seen a lot of that sort of critique, this feels almost a little cliche to say, but yeah I’ve had some of those experiences myself as well. I feel like opening up this dialogue is a really really good thing to do, because symptoms of psychosis can manifest in people who aren’t actually psychotic, like it’s a really common thing actually, and it can come and go. We’re not all robots walking around with perfect grasp on objective reality all the time. The mind is a really fragile and flexible thing, and our brains aren’t equipped to process 100% of the world at all times. We lose touch. We get lost inside ourselves. We go into that darkness. We hear things and see things that aren’t there. This is something that happens to completely “mentally well” and “sane” people. It can happen in response to grief and despair, or as an escape from severe trauma, or it can happen just because. And it happened to me, too. I went through a time in my life where I lost touch with reality.
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here; suffice it to say that for about 10 years (I think), I was operating in a kind of delusional framework of magical thinking and superstition related to Hermetic philosophy, Wicca and Thelema, Christian and Jewish mythology, like a whole mishmash of stuff. I would hear whispers that I thought were spirits, calling my name or telling me things. I had hallucinations that reinforced my beliefs, saw things, felt things. I had imaginary friends, guardian angels, spiritual lovers. The boundary between dreams and waking reality was really blurry for me during this time. I thought my dreams were really happening.
A lot of it had to do with my upbringing. My parents were super religious, and my father had a lot of delusions that lined up with the things I would eventually come to believe as well. In a different society, in a different time, maybe my family would have been like Senua’s, and people would have said we “had the Sight”. But I saw the darkness take my father, in the form of alcoholism and following guru after guru, anyone who would reinforce his beliefs, no matter the cost in time and money, no matter the relationships he destroyed along the way. It’s been this whole thing. Long and painful. It’s something I’ve left behind me as I’ve entered my 30s, but thanks in part to this and other abuses I suffered growing up, I literally can’t remember huge chunks of my life up to this point. Some of what I can remember, I don’t know if it actually happened or not.
I’m not quite like Senua. I haven’t had anything like what I used to experience happen to me in a very long time now. I converted to Buddhism, meditated a lot, and focused a lot on thinking my way out of my delusions. I couldn’t tell you why I started doing that. There must have been inconsistencies that I finally noticed. Hallucinated characters I’d thought were dead coming back, or hearing things that contradicted things I thought I knew about my imaginary world. I put real effort over several years into tearing the whole house of cards down, finding reasons why the things I believed couldn’t be true, and eventually the other symptoms faded and disappeared. I’m lucky. Others need medication to function, or they never can function. Winning one battle leads to harder ones. I’m really, really lucky. I also have my “Dillion”: my husband really keeps me grounded. He makes me strong, gives me reasons to pay attention to reality. The game captures the feeling of that kind of redemptive, powerful relationship extremely well.
Maybe that’s why Hellblade resonates with me so much. I dunno. I’d like to think that you don’t have to have prior experience with psychotic symptoms in order to empathize with someone that has them. But also, that stuff is more common than anyone admits. Hypnagogic hallucinations happen to nearly everyone, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have a tenuous grip on reality at the best of times.
Man, I’m pooped! I hope any of this made sense, haha. I’ve been dying to write more about this game, but I just had zero ideas as to the structure of what I wanted to say. Well then, I guess that’s it. See you next time.