Fall season is game season. All the AAA game titles bombard the psyche of gamers around the world. While some games get center attention, others fall into obscurity. “Wait, that game came out? Didn’t hear about it.”
Developer Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of those games that was lost in the shuffle.
Originally announced at Gamescom 2014, Hellblade was released on Aug. 8. Being a Playstation 4 digital exclusive might not have helped in its promotion, but Hellblade has been well-received. Hellblade won The Independent Game Developers’ Association award for Best Action Adventure Game of 2017 and has almost broken even in sales.
“I think it’s almost broken even, or it’s about to break even in a couple of weeks,” Tateem Antoniades, Ninja Theory’s Co-founder, said in an interview with Playstation Lifestyle. “We weren’t expecting to break even for six,eight, nine months on this game. It looks like within three months, it will have broken even and then some.”
The quality of this game as well as its story is something that should be recognized and deserving of limelight.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice follows Senua, a Celtic warrior’s journey through her own mind as well as the Viking underworld, Hel (Hellheim), in attempt to lay her beloved’s soul to rest after he was sacrificed to the Nordic gods.
Throughout the game, Senua must overcome tasks that are both physical and mental in order to reach Hela, ruler of Hel. Boss fights include facing foes such as Valravn, the god of illusion, and Surtur, god of fire, to name a few.
Senua’s journey is teased to having been one where she’s failed before. When she dies at a point in her journey, a black mark on her arm will grow until it reaches her brain. When that happens, she has to start her journey from the beginning. This time around, the player gets to witness and play as Senua as she attempts to achieve her goal.
As previously mentioned, the black mark on Senua’s arm grows every time the player dies at a point in the game. When the mark reaches her brain she dies for good and the player’s saves will be deleted. The player, just like Senua, will have to restart their journey to beating the game.
“The game has an automatic setting which adapts to your skill level by default,” Antoniades said in an interview with Wccftech. “The idea is that it will be challenging no matter your skill. In addition, there are the standard three difficulty choices.”
The gameplay for Hellblade, when it comes to combat, is quite simple. Combat is the same as other hack-and-slash games. You have a strong and medium attack that you can string into different combos. You can parry and dodge, and if you do well enough you can enter a mode called “focus.”
Focus is built up during combat much like meter is in a fighting game. During focus you can slow down time and get as many combos in as you can in a certain frame of time. This game is Dark Souls and Bayonetta’s lovechild.
The game’s different levels give players different ways to play. The beginning of the game is combat heavy, where the only deviation is the environmental puzzles. These puzzles involve opening the door to the next area by finding the symbols on the doors naturally in the environment.
But because the game focuses on Senua’s perception of her own reality, some environmental puzzles can be solved by forcing a perspective in the environment. A bridge may seem collapsed from one angle, but if you force perspective the bridge is fine. These gameplay elements all pull into the message at the beginning of the game.
The game starts with the first credits directed towards mental health advisor, Paul Fletcher, neuroscientist and psychosis expert at the University of Cambridge and historical advisor, Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, Lecturer in Scandinavian History at the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge. Beyond the combat and puzzles is a game that focuses on elements of psychosis as well as Norse mythology.
These add to the gameplay in interesting ways. Players are told stories when they use their focus on certain runes that are found throughout the game. These historical fiction and nonfiction mythological aspects are optional in gameplay.
What isn’t optional are the elements of psychosis. Psychosis is a severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality. The voices in Senua’s head play a huge role in how the gameplay and plot pan out. Using binaural sounds (simulated three-dimensional sound) Ninja Theory elicit the experience of those who suffer from psychosis.
“To some extent, Senua has always seen the world differently from others, but the idea is that the profound trauma she’s experienced has triggered these symptoms,” Fletcher said in an interview with Science Focus. “Because of her experiences, Senua has lost touch with the reality of those around her. That’s really the formal definition of psychosis. We’re all more or less prone to psychosis, depending on how we view and experience the world, but trauma can often act as a trigger.”
“We wanted to represent symptoms such as voice-hearing and hallucinations, but also to go below the surface and explore what we know about normal perception. We all tend to think that we have a clear representation of reality, but most of the time our minds are actually making it up, deciding what should be there rather than what is there. It’s a kind of controlled hallucination.
Psychosis used to be thought of as this extreme phenomenon that was completely separate from the normal experience of the world. But we are coming to realise that there’s a continuum, and all of us are prone to becoming separate from reality. Hopefully this game will help to demonstrate that.”
While in combat, they’ll belittle you and at times will rightfully warn you of things to come.
What this adds to gaming
Ninja Theory considers this game a “AAA indie title.”
“In the case of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice we’ve taken a team of 20 or so developers, found innovative ways to achieve AAA production values but still take creative risks and tell a story that is different to anything out there,” Dominic Mathews, Ninja Theory’s product development manager, said in an interview with Redbull.
The game is only six hours long at the cost of $30. An affordable price given that most triple AAA games cost of full $60 and containing content that hasn’t been done to this length before.
“It’s been refreshing to see a representation of psychosis in which the person isn’t just a sort of passive receptacle for madness. Senua is the hero of her own story, trying to make sense of her experiences and work her way through them – that’s incredibly de-stigmatising,” Fletcher said in an interview with Science Focus.
“In representations of mental illness onscreen you usually have the illness first, and then a two-dimensional character attached to that. In this case, the character is fully-formed, and they are not defined by their condition. It’s been exciting to see Senua received so positively by those who have lived with experiences of psychosis,” Fletcher said.
Personally, playing Hellblade for me has been a reflexive experience. Much like what Mathews addresses in an interview with Science Focus, “people can experience hallucinations and delusional beliefs without it being a problem – the illness comes when those experiences cause suffering. Often the recovery is not about curing yourself of hallucinations, but finding ways to live with them.”
In playing the game, instances where I reach a death screen aren’t from failing during a combat aspect of the game but more so during the trials. The voices in Senua’s head are much like the voice of doubt that come from my own depression.
Playing as Senua and overcoming the tasks in the way that she does is something that I can take into my own personal life. It’s always awesome to see a game focus on this kind of representation.