Last month saw the release of Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, to the Xbox One, finally, after an initial release on PS4 and PC. Marketed as an attempt to simulate some of the experiences associated with psychosis, the game focuses on Senua, a Pictish warrior traumatised by previous life experiences and an attack on her community by the Viking-like ‘Northmen’. During the game, Senua hears voices, sees visions and has regular flashbacks that tell her story.
(And I would definitely recommend watching the latest and fantastic trailer for the game on Xbox One).
With support from the Wellcome Trust, Ninja Theory developed their representation of psychosis in Hellblade in collaboration with Prof Paul Fletcher of Cambridge University, many experts by lived experience, and Hearing the Voice, who contributed to the game by consulting on the design of Senua’s voice-hearing experiences. Hellblade’s overall portrayal of psychosis has been lauded by many. Including being named as ‘Game Beyond Entertainment’ at the recent BAFTA Game Awards, being nominated in nine(!) categories, and going home with five!
The game doubles as an allegory for the experience of psychosis, with the opening moments setting the tone. We see Senua suddenly beset by her voices while steering her canoe along the shrouded waters. The tranquillity of these surroundings is a foil for the cacophony of sound during this moment, and points towards a guiding theme of this game: unlike physical injury, severe mental health conditions have no easily recognisable signs. Senua looks like any other (Pictish) person, only we have insight into her life with her voices – or the Furies as they are called in the game. These Furies although essential to the depiction of psychosis and the Hellblade experience, are also crucial to the message the game ultimately imparts.
Senua arrives in a strange, muted land where mutilated corpses stand as a warning, which her Furies hammer home as she passes them. Though we do not learn it until later in the journey, the character’s quest in this faraway land is to save the soul of her partner, Dillion, by travelling to the Viking underworld of Helheim and confronting its ruler, Hela. This seems at odds with the reality we are seeing. A frightening land yes, but to take on the gods?
However, this dissonance again contributes to the allegory. Poor mental health, and especially psychosis, can mean dealing with perceived reality changes, with external circumstances making these feelings even worse. I know what that is like, I have lived with psychosis, the voice-hearing, beliefs, and visual disturbances, and I live with it still. Letting anyone in on this can feel scary and dangerous. Even in the moments I can begin to tell that these things aren’t actually happening, it can still be tough to contradict it. But I do have someone, just like Senua had Dillion. Support to help me through.
Dillion seems very much a symbol of the path Senua had begun to take out of what is called throughout the game, ‘the darkness’. As such, her single-minded determination to save him from Hela makes sense. By taking him away from her, her way to a ‘happier life’ was wiped before her eyes. However, to save Dillion (and perhaps herself) she has to undertake a dangerous, harrowing journey that forces her to deal with external, and internal demons.
But the road to Helheim is not a direct one. To gain entry, Senua must face the gods Valravn and Surtr. The gameplay for these takes the form of several different levels with a ‘boss’ fight right at the end, and a lot of puzzle-solving and obstacle based challenges in between. However, their place in the allegory of poor mental health is much more interesting, as together they very much reflect on the lived experience of psychosis.
You are free to pick which god’s lair to enter first. However, the one you face first will be (slightly) easier than the second. I chose Valravn first. He is the god of illusion and very much framed the confusing nature of psychosis for me.
The puzzles and gameplay in Valravn’s lair are mainly optical and illusion based. Utilising portals specifically to alter the environment. Valravn really mirrors the struggle with perception and reality you can face when living with psychosis and is something that really hit home for me. During all this Senua is still contending with her Furies, and it’s in this lair that you realise they can’t be trusted all of the time. My own experience of this is similarly one if discomfort and fear. Reality can seem changed in small ways, which when I spot can make it all ‘real’ and really set off other aspects such as voices. It is draining, and I can’t say how much. Subjectivity really does overwhelm objectivity for me in these times. Which is also true for Senua in Valravn’s lair where illusion rules over the material world.
Surtr is different, more visceral in that the element is fire. It’s undoubtedly a powerful metaphor for the nature of poor mental health and personal experiences of psychosis in particular. What is sometimes comfortably controlled can suddenly rage out of control. The ability of psychosis to self-perpetuate certain mindsets in certain situations until it takes over all aspects of your life is something I’ve dealt with many times.
In Surtr’s lair, the inferno begins to rage. This leaves Senua with the only option to run, terrified and tired, towards a gate to escape the flames continuing behind her. This bit of gameplay I feel tied in and echoes the episodic nature and experience of psychosis quite well. The struggle of getting away from its grip on your reality in particular. Sometimes you have to run for a little while until you can safely work on it.
The strain of defeating and overcoming the gods Surtr and Valravn allow the gates of Helheim to open so that Senua can confront her demons, in both senses. It’s at this point we begin to learn more of Senua’s past, as well as the role Dillion played for her. The series of challenges faced before facing Hela are interspersed with essential flashbacks of her past, in which more and more links are able to be made in Senua’s story. Through all this, Dillion is a constant feature who helps arm Senua with the tools needed to carry on in the present and challenge the individuals (and her own voices) who continuously harangue her, in the past.
With these challenges complete and Gramr in her possession, Senua continues on to the last part of her journey. The final hurdle is Garm, a rotting part-mythical beast straight from the pages of Norse mythology, and who uses shadow and darkness as its weapon of choice. The allegory is clear to see. Throughout the game, Senua and others have referred to her psychosis as a darkness that she has to fight to be free from. This penultimate battle literally and figuratively strips away the shadows and remaining misunderstandings around herself, her psychosis, and her Furies. When she faces herself and steps through a mirror portal to finally face Hela, leaving her Furies behind, this seems confirmed.
A with everything in Hellblade, perception does not necessarily equal reality. Hela is not the goddess that Senua believes she is. Instead, it becomes clear that she is a representation of the hurt Senua has endured, primarily by her father, which further contextualises the lairs of Valravn, Surtr and Garm. However, instead of achieving victory over this final hurdle, Senua is instead lead to failing without physically facing the Hela manifestation.
Senua’s apparent death is not the end. Hela takes Dillion’s head – which Senua has dutifully carried on her hip throughout the journey – and casts it into the abyss below. Upon turning back around Hela is in fact revealed to be Senua, with the Hela manifestation ‘dead’ at her feet. At this moment Senua’s development is fully realised. She needed Dillion to help her through, to see that she was not ‘cursed’, and that equally, that she no longer needs to rely on him. She can set him free. This again mirrors my own experience. For me to start to make sense of what was happening to me, I had to work through and in a sense ‘let go’ of the situation that was the catalyst for my own first episode. As well as somehow getting back to how I was before. Even without the episode I know we can’t go back to how we were before.
As Senua turns, the sun breaks through the clouds, revealing one of the most breathtaking shots in all of Hellblade. Senua’s Furie’s return, happy at still being alive, at Senua still being alive. They greet her relieved and pleased for the first time. Her ‘death’ could be seen as the watershed moment of acceptance for Senua, of her Furie’s, and of herself, including her condition. She smiles to hear them again, having realised that they are a part of her, and may always be. Living in such a situation can cause its problems no doubt. There is no denying its influence, and at times it can be a harrowing, challenging seemingly impossible task to live with. But personally, like Senua, to dismiss these experiences would be denying a part of me. This is a bold move by Ninja Theory to do this type of ‘ending’ and one which really resonated and struck a chord with me. This is a view I can very much identify with, and a view that is not always easy to find.
The message conveyed so effectively by Ninja Theory in the end, is that poor mental health need not be an adversary to be defeated or an obstacle to be removed. To not do this is no weakness of the individual. To have parts of my experience portrayed so faithfully and positively through Hellblade has only helped me in my own journey. Just, that it can be done.
To all involved in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, (I mean, how amazing was Melina Juergens as Senua? Come on!), it quite simply gave me hope – as cliche as that sounds. Play it.