Battling Through Darkness In 'Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice'
Warning: This article contains heavy spoilers for the video game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
“The hardest battles are fought in the mind.”
The line above comes from Ninja Theory’s latest game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. The title released last year on the Playstation 4 and Microsoft Windows. Hellblade is unlike the majority of games that exist today in the mainstream market, primarily due to its story, characters, and themes. The game focuses on a female Celtic warrior that goes by the name of Senua, and follows her on a journey to bring back her dead lover Dillion. In telling this story, the game sets itself in the world of Norse Mythology, for Senua must travel to Helheim (this mythos’ realm for hell), and defeat its guardian Hela. She is dressed in Celtic Pict battle gear, wearing blue warrior paint, carrying a sword, and the skull of her lover Dillion in a bag.
It’s a fairly short game given that it can be beaten in around six hours. There are puzzles and fighting elements, but for the most part, Hellblade primarily focuses on narrative, and having the player travel from place to place to learn more about the story and characters. Upon Hellblade’s release, it was met with immense applause by both fans and critics. The game has gone on to win numerous awards, specifically in the achievements of its storytelling.
But what is so grandiose of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s story? What about it has grabbed hold of the attention of critics and fans everywhere, and captivated them so deeply? The answer is in what the characters, story, and game mechanics all represent. At the heart of this game is a tale about a person suffering from psychosis, and their journey in facing the horrors of the disorder and stigma surrounding it.
Telling this sort of journey was the intention of the Ninja Theory team, and to make sure they appropriately handled the treatment of psychosis in the game, they brought on doctors to speak to them about what the disorder involves. For those who may not be aware of psychosis, WebMD states it as:
“When you lose touch with reality and see, hear, or believe things that aren’t real, doctors call that psychosis. You may have delusions. That means you hold on to untrue or strange beliefs. You might also have hallucinations. That’s when you imagine you hear or see something that doesn’t exist.”
There’s much more to learn in regards to psychosis. You can read more via WebMD.
In the beginning of the game we are aware of a “Darkness” that is following and within Senua. We are never given any clarity as to what this is referring to in the game’s world, and while we as the player may be able to put the pieces together in regards to Senua’s disorder and grief, it’s in the latter portion of the game where we are offered any context clues in regards to this Darkness. What we do know is that it is a haunting presence, making her question her actions, surroundings, and identity.
From the moment we get a good look at Senua, there’s an immediate notice of how distant she appears. Not absent-minded to say, but somewhat preoccupied, as if analyzing her surroundings. Not only did Ninja Theory take notes from doctors who are experts on the subject of psychosis, but they also talked to those who suffer from the disorder. These patients described symptoms that include everything from: a bombardment of hallucinatory visuals, seeing distortion to various objects (as if they have become chipped like glass, or ripple like water), or how colors may blur and shine too brightly. These elements come into play via the game’s puzzles, and how Senua needs to find certain shapes in the environment that may unlock a door for her. There’s one moment where she is looking for something shaped like a “M” to open a big gate, and after some moving about, the player realizes that with the proper lighting in the room, you can create a fire to cast a “M” shaped shadow on the wall. This is a small example of how these visual tricks are brought into the game’s puzzles, for as the player progresses, the hallucinations and patterns become more intense in difficulty. These puzzles are formatted into a fairly linear progression of gameplay. While the world of Hellblade is stunning and full of detail, there’s only ever one set path the player must take, since the game holds narrative over exploration.
And just as much as these visual elements are a strong part of Senua’s disorder, there are also the voices she hears, and how they impact her journey (as well as the player). At the beginning of the game we are introduced to these specific voices that only Senua appears to hear; these are not to be confused with a gentler voice that makes itself known from the very beginning, acting as the game’s narrator. The game recognizes these voices as “Furies”, commenting on Senua’s journey along the way. The Furies may strive to help Senua and the player through numerous puzzles, or may attempt to provide conflicting information. Before a player starts the game, there’s a screen that recommends playing with headphones; this is to amplify the intensity that these voices bring with them, and how disorienting they can become when trying to navigate any tasks. Their overall nature when speaking to her is a blend of aggressive, cruel, and playful. They may even berate Senua, claiming that she’s making a mistake in going any further and that there is no hope.
Overtime, the game uses all its internal dialogue, all its puzzles and symbols, as well as its combat, to overwhelm the player. Difficulty is subjective to every player of course, but it would be fair to say that the constant conversations and symbols begin to assault Senua (and the player) in sensory overload. As the player, the act of constantly looking for certain symbols within the world can become a little tiresome and monotonous. Yet, it is in doing this that Ninja Theory are able to use game mechanics to simulate some elements that come from psychosis, being that of the constant bombardment of sensory detail, and trying to break it all down. Given that the main challenge in discussing mental health in any art form is to create some form of sympathy for those who may not suffer from it, Hellblade is able to do this through its mechanics, creating a physical and mental tension. As the game progresses you begin to feel some aspect of Senua’s tiredness, of her feelings of despair, and hopelessness.
The idea of hopelessness rises with the inclusion of another presence that is introduced in the game, being that of the previously mentioned Darkness. In this case, it is personified through voice (and later as an actual being). It continuously pops up and insults Senua in a much more vicious manner. This presence makes much greater attempts in attacking Senua’s beliefs and hopes, stating how there’s nothing she can do for her lover, and how she is fated to suffer. It’s by the game’s halfway point, that we begin to learn more about Senua’s backstory, and have context in regards to the Darkness.
It’s revealed that Senua has been suffering from the Darkness since childhood, and that her mother had the same disorder as well. Her mother, however, did not see it as a problem. Senua’s father, a devout religious man, saw the disorder as an invasive presence, and burned her mother alive for it. This greatly scarred Senua, and amplified the effects of her psychosis. For this, her father locked her away, physically and emotionally abusing her. We also get to see when Senua met Dillion for the first time, the latter who is a kind soul and showed Senua love and understanding in regards to her disorder. He attempted to make her feel safe, and stated that there’s nothing wrong with her, that she isn’t some sort of monster. She eventually found the strength to leave her father, and went to live with Dillion. After this, there came a plague that wiped out a portion of their village, including Dillion’s father. Senua, blaming herself and the Darkness for the plague, left to go into exile for one year. When she returned, her village had been decimated by Northmen, and her lover Dillion, had been scarified to their goddess Hela. Stricken by pain, along with the belief that she brought this fate upon the village and her love, she then decided to defeat Hela, and try to bring Dillion back to life.
With all this context in mind, it allows us as players to see not only what has led Senua to this point in time, but to understand her views. We can take this backstory, and the experiences we’ve gone through with her, and start piecing together why she feels such a great lack of self-worth. We learn that in a way the great antagonistic force isn’t the disorder itself, but that of stigma surrounding it. It’s stigma that pushes her father to burn her mother, it’s stigma that encourages him to lock Senua away, and it’s the influence of that stigma that has shaped Senua’s view of herself. Unlike her mother who accepted her disorder and visions, Senua was taught to associate shame with them. And for this, along with the hallucinations that psychosis brings with it, she begins to build this depressive framework that she’s responsible for so many atrocities.
After the backstory is revealed Senua presses forward in her goal to save Dillion. It’s the end of the game and its last level and boss where we are presented with some of its most revealing moments. There’s a hallway that leads Senua to the final room with Hela. There’s a mirror at the halfway point where Senua confronts the Furies and Darkness, banishing the former with her conviction to save Dillion. As she enters the final room, the Darkness taunts her in how pointless her goal is, that Dillion is dead, and there’s nothing she can do about it. She continues to fight waves of enemies, slowly making her way to a final platform where Hela awaits. Once arriving to that final platform, more and more waves of enemies spring up, with Senua cutting them down left and right. Much time may pass before the player realizes what needs to be done; for whenever the player is ready to “rest”, they can stop swinging, and let the enemies finish them off.
After the final blow the game goes into its last cut scene. Senua takes the skull of Dillion and looks up to Hela, begging her to give back Dillion. During this whole time as Senua pleads and begs, Hela says nothing to her. Senua continues to cry out how there must be meaning to her journey, and how after everything Hela and the Darkness have made her suffer through, she will trade her life for Dillion’s. Hela then proceeds to kill Senua with her own sword, where the latter enters a dream sequence where Dillion talks to her about the peace in accepting death. We then have Hela walk by a dead Senua, picking up Dillion’s skull to examine it, all before tossing it off into the abyss below. The camera shifts and we see that Hela is actually Senua, with the dead body in the back actually being Hela. Senua looks off into the distance, where we then have the return of the Furies. They begin to laugh, joke, and begin to return to their old ways of taunting, up until they realize … something is different this time around. With the voices of the Furies gone, Senua turns towards the camera, a look in her eyes we’ve never seen before, the narrator saying to the player that this is a new story, and that we are welcome to join.
The game does an immense job of playing with fantastical and realistic elements. Due to Senua’s psychosis we can’t tell what may be a hallucination she is suffering from, or what is real. In the end, did Senua really die? Was that the real body of Hela? This is of course all speculation, but entertaining questions in regards to the meaning and themes of the game.
But what does this all mean? Given her constant fighting with the Furies, the Darkness, and Hela, and also that Dillion was not brought back to life, what does that mean in regards to Senua’s original goal?
It is at the ending of Hellblade, and in her fight with Hela, that Senua comes to a revelation. That given all the beliefs that people have about the Norse gods and their magic, there’s nothing that Senua can do to bring the dead back to life. So on one hand, Senua learns acceptance in her grief, and is able to finally move forward knowing that Dillion is at rest and that she must move on. On the other hand, Senua, and us as the player, learn that this journey was more about Senua coming to terms with her disorder. Perhaps in one of the game’s most intimate scenes, that pivotal shift takes place when the Furies state, “It feels different.” That difference is that Senua has officially come to terms with herself, realizing that this “dark presence” isn’t some outside invading force, but a part of her. She finally takes ownership of her own pain, realizing that it isn’t some sort of mystical magic, but something she can manage. Like her mother, she is able to realize there’s nothing wrong with her, and that she’s someone capable of living a decent life.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a tale of recovery and coming to terms with one’s self. In a video game marketplace dominated by games like Call of Duty, Halo, and other AAA big company titles, rarely do we find games that are willing to explore such profound dark and personal depths. The amount of care and respect that the Ninja Theory team took on in approaching these subjects should be applauded for, and made an example of how to treat such disorders in future art work. It’s a video game that offers us a look into a very hellish life, and a look into a disorder that many people are hurt by. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a brave game, not just in its mechanics and structure, but in what it shares with gamers. It’s much easier to share stories about aliens, zombies, or monsters that we can chop down and shoot at for hours on end, but it is not easy to share stories about the monsters that may haunt us within ourselves. In today’s world, while the subject of mental health is becoming more talked about, we’re still battling stigma. We’re still tackling the damages that stigma can cause, the sort of stigma that lead some to live a life in exile along the lines of Senua. In all its work, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a profound journey into the pain and fear of mental illness, and how there is still a way to live a life beyond suffering.
Below is a short feature that the development team made about Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and all the research that went into better understanding psychosis.