Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice got notice for its portrayal of psychosis: Senua, the protagonist, hears voices, and sees things that other people don’t. The developers apparently took this seriously, consulting with mental health professionals and integrating the symptoms and themes into the game.

This sort of treatment is, honestly, something that I’m temperamentally not particularly well set up to appreciate. Because there’s another interpretation for what Senua is hearing and seeing: that she’s in contact with the supernatural. And my default when confronted with the fantastical in art is to accept those fantastical elements at face value, even when they’re mixed in with non-fantastic elements. So, sure, I could treat Totoro as a story about two girls who are overwhelmed with worry about losing their mother and who hence retreat into their imagination; but not only do I instead assume that it’s portraying a world where giant smiling panda-like creatures and catbuses actually exist, it didn’t even cross my mind that another interpretation was possible until I heard people discuss such an interpretation on a podcast, a decade after I first watched the movie.

And the world of Hellblade is a lot more supernatural than that of Totoro: it’s thoroughly embedded in a context of Norse mythology, which means that gods, spirits, and supernatural creatures are entirely to be expected. Senua crosses over into the realm of one of the gods right at the beginning of the game; so my first inclination is (or at least would be if I hadn’t heard about the game in advance) would be to treat unusual experiences as standard parts of the in-game world.


There are in-game arguments to support mental health interpretations, though. Senua’s father was abusive; and she’s seen horrific amounts of death, from both disease and violence. And, whatever the interpretation of the visions, it’s an ability that Senua shared with her mother, and one that many of her townspeople were apparently not particularly comfortable with with either woman. So there were environmental factors that could have contributed to mental health problems; and for that matter sometimes people have mental health problems even without environmental factors coming into play.

If I were pinned down, I’d probably come down on an interpretation where Senua really is experiencing a divine world, where she has been having visions for years that were showing her parts of that world, but where she nonetheless has real mental health problems. (With the voices being good candidates for manifestations of those problems.) Which is an interpretation that makes me favorably inclined towards the game for a couple of reasons.

One is an issue of representation. I’ve had mental health problems in the past, lots of other people I know also have, so why shouldn’t those show up in games? And not just in games that are about mental health: just as it’s bad to have a game industry that defaults to male protagonists or white protagonists or straight protagonists, it’s bad for the industry to default to protagonists without mental health issues (or, for that matter, physical health issues). It’s bad because it limits who sees themselves represented; and it’s bad because that’s not the way life is, life is a lot richer than an artificially limited presentation is able to depict.

And the other reason is that, looked at through any sort of morality that isn’t framed in game conventions, games (or at least games based on violent combat) present a dystopian hellscape. They’re filled with constant slaughter; your protagonist is expected to treat this as something normal and even a source of pride (indeed, generally your protagonist’s self-conception is supposed to be a hero who is saving the world, or at least their local portion of it). If I ran into somebody acting like a video game protagonist in the real world, my reaction would be to back away first slowly and then (once out of sight) very quickly; and if I’d had first-hand experience of something like what game protagonists experience, then I’d probably be woken up screaming from PTSD for years to come. So yeah, there’s something to be said for the honesty of a game with a protagonists whose violent experiences have left a mark.


The representation argument also says that games with mentally ill protagonists shouldn’t always be (or always be analyzed, for that matter) as being about mental illness. And, fortunately, Hellblade does very well on that regard!

It’s partly a horror game; a genre that I don’t spend time on but that I respect in the abstract. (I’ve played the first and fourth Resident Evil games, Eternal Darkness, and, uh, not much else?) Hellblade has gotten me thinking that I should spend more time in that genre: I don’t particularly enjoy being scared, but the horror aspect of Hellblade meant that the flow of the game was less over-weighted towards mechanics, with the environment, the plot, the non-combat aspects of your enemies, and your heightened perception of the experience taking a larger role. And spending more time with games that accomplish that is all to the good.

Not that traditional mechanics weren’t there. There’s combat; I’m not a fighting devotee, it seemed okay mechanically? And, much more unusually for me, the fighting was okay quantity-wise as well: you weren’t constantly wading through enemies, but when you encountered them, they had reasons to be their, either for plot-based reasons or to scare you. And there were a couple of different puzzle mechanics; environmental puzzles, but puzzles that had you looking around and seeing shapes more than puzzles that had you finding keys to put into locks. Nice change of pace from environmental puzzles in other games; but also a nice change of pace within the game itself, with you (usually) being able to mostly temporarily retreat from wondering what’s coming around the corner to, instead, wondering if you’ll see a certain shape if you look around in the right way.

And I liked the plot, too: a woman fighting through the underworld to rescue her love (and a rather metal woman, at that, with her love’s skull attached to her belt!), weaving in struggles with the gods, references to her previous life and the struggles and joys she’d experienced therein, and periodic byte-sized lore dumps of Norse mythology that gave another lens on Senua’s story.


The game it didn’t overstay its welcome, either: it told the story that it wanted to tell, and then it was done. So: a well-executed story, with a couple of well-executed mechanics, in an interesting environment, with a protagonist having attributes that you don’t normally see, with an overlay of horror to heighten your attention on the experience. I’m impressed; I’d like to see more games that learn from how Hellblade selected and arranged elements into a rather lovely package.

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