kritiqal is the pet project of nate Kiernan. Based out of Maryville, TN, Kritiqal seeks to explore games at the intersection of academia and mass-market entertainment.

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Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice thinks games can do better than “crazy”

Content warning: the following contains discussions of abuse, mental illness, and full spoilers for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.

I have taken antidepressants for the better part of three years. Before them I frequently experienced intrusive thoughts, ranging from self loathing to self harm and suicide. My best hope for sleep was that I would dream of nothing, rather than the frequent night terrors which fused my reality with that of a subconscious invested in my own agitation. Now I often feel lethargic, but the thoughts are gone and I can sleep again. It is a better, if compromised existence.

I am lucky. I have health insurance. I can afford medication and mandatory checkups. I have people who understand and support me, and have found methods for coping with attacks when they occur. I am the exception, even within my immediate social group (my partner at the time had to quit her medication abruptly when her insurance ran out and the price skyrocketed). Most people who suffer from mental illness due so without support, often without even realizing they have an illness at all. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that one in five adults have some form of mental illness, and, even more distressing, that at least one in five prisoners have a recent history of mental illness which our legal system is entirely unable to support.

This is to say that media which recognizes and openly discusses mental illness has never been more needed. The fifth season of Bojack Horseman was remarkable in its uncompromising yet sympathetic exploration of depression within a character who frequently vacillates between narcissistic and cruel. It approached the subject with a recognition that mental illness is personal and both medically and emotionally complex, managing to portray depression not as periods of deep sadness but a tangible reality distinct from that of neurotypical people.

Bojack Horseman is distinct in its contemporary setting—anxiety and schizophrenia is not isolated within an asylum or hallucination—as well as for mapping its depiction of mental illness in many forms to real-life factors which influence them: the impact of fame, imposter syndrome, familiar abuse, toxic relationships. Yes, there is an above-average quantity of equestrian puns, but at its core Bojack Horseman is about messy human problems and the ways in which these issues extend far beyond idealistic happy endings.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice…is not this.

Screenshot courtesy of Ninja Theory.

Though most of the critical conversation around Hellblade has been in response to its depiction of psychothis (likely due, at least in part, to the game opening with a clear statement as to the its themes), this focus seems largely superficial. That is to say, Hellblade is a rich thematic text but it is not equipped to support a nuanced discussion of mental illness without extensive external support and preexisting knowledge. Readings of Hellblade as entirely allegorical to anxiety, depressions, schizophrenia, and other illnesses exist and I am happy that people were able to find value in these issues being portrayed in some way within the game.

But Hellblade is attempting more than achieving a psychological bingo, and taking the opening disclaimer as a statement of intent rather than a warning for those sensitive to these issues misses the point. A more accurate title card would say that Hellblade discusses trauma, and its auxiliary impact on all aspects of a person’s life. Senua is psychologically broken, but she’s also survivor of intense trauma which has all but destroyed the life she knew—literally and emotionally.

Her village has been slaughtered, following a plague that Senua has been made to believe was her fault. She was abused by her father, witnessed the murder of her mother (by her father, no less), all while being gaslighted by everyone but her lover, Dillion, that this is the result of a supernatural curse—a darkness within her. This darkness is the crux of Hellblade’s approach to mental illness, and the extent to which it is an internal affliction versus a manifestation of the game’s Nordic mythology depends how far you wish to read in to the developer’s intentions to depict psychosis responsibly.

Developer Ninja Theory has been transparent in offering resources to those affected by the game, as well as releasing a documentary detailing the research that went in to ensuring the game treated mental illness responsibly. They have done the work, which is uncomfortably uncommon within the games industry. Most often mental illness is treated as an aesthetic wrapper in horror games (insane asylums in Outlast and The Evil Within), a mechanical gimmick (the sanity meter of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, status effects in Darkest Dungeon), or a narrative convenience (the entirety of 2017’s Prey’s meta-narrative conceit). These games do not approach psychosis as a lived experience but something to be mined for scares and plot twists. They are not also irresponsible, but ignorant.

Screenshot courtesy of Ninja Theory.

Hellblade goes to great lengths to never trivialize Senua’s struggles, which even if not plainly analogous to modern psychology goes a long way towards humanizing her journey. It also achieves this while being something close to a platonic ideal of an action-adventure game. The presentation is awe inspiring, with the facial capture in particular unparalleled outside of studios like Naughty Dog (operating with vastly more resources at that). The combat is tense and weighty, but not complex to the point it separates from the larger experience. There’s puzzles and exploration, sequenced so tightly that I could forgive the hub world structure and audio-log runes.

Hellblade is distinctly, unapologetically a video game, and I want to appreciate that. It is not easy telling an emotionally complex story within a traditional game structure, with traditional mechanics and tight resource constraints. Ninja Theory has been refining the cinematic action adventure game since Heavenly Sword, but Hellblade is the first to actually achieve this delicate balance while also being its first—and now, post-Microsoft acquisition, only—self published game. Whether this is just timing, learning from past game, or indicative of publisher demands, it is worth recognizing where Hellblade exists within the larger games industry as it does play a part in our interpretations of it.

The interpretation of Hellblade as wholly imagined by Senua seems difficult to support outside of meta-textual readings that map gods and supernatural events to particular psychological phenomena. I am more interested in the game as myth, wherein Senua is not merely an avatar by which the player experiences different forms of mental disability, but a character marked by trauma and seeking recovery the only way that she knows: through the gods.

Like all myths, Hellblade is part reality part editorializing, but it is less important how much is “real” than what these encounters mean to Senua. As Matt Gerardi writes for The AV Club, “it doesn’t matter [what was real] because it was real to her.” Senua’s world is one in which the distinction between dream and reality is dissolved. The only reality that matters is the one marked by Senua’s experience of trauma, and how this has shaped her faith in her gods. What once was a grounding constant has transformed into the source of her anguish, so who is she to trust? Not her family, not the gods, and not herself.

Screenshot courtesy of Ninja Theory.

Hellblade cannot speak plainly to the challenges of mental health in the 21st century, and to expect it to map cleanly onto contemporary issues misplaces the value of a game this challenging. Where most game characters exist within an emotional reality defined by shallow extremes and jarring contradictions, Senua is defined both through and in opposition to her own experiences. She carries her actions and is fully acknowledging that what she is doing is either suicidal, heretical, or possibly nothing but her own delusions. Hellblade enters not at the point of trauma but everything that comes after. The anguish, the self doubt, the violent attempts to feel anything at all, and finally, the recognition that this trauma is permanent.

Though many reviews have interpreted the ending as Senua curing her psychosis, or even learning to see it as some kind of gift, neither version is satisfying or entirely internally consistent. Considering Hellblade as a whole to be a journey to find peace within trauma, Senua finding the means to let go and move forward is not a cure, but an anti-cure. It is Senua no longer attempting to cut out the part of her that has been scarred and roll back time to when things were easier. It is the recognition that she will carry this pain forever, but that it does not have to define her.

Dillion telling Senua that her psychosis is beautiful is a misstep only if we take him to understand what Senua has experienced. But we have seen her reality and know that it is not a depression romanticized by artists and writers, but simply life as she knows it. It was created through pain, but Senua is strong enough to move beyond it, and letting go of Dillion is a major step in doing so. She is not simply her trauma, anymore than Hellblade is just a game about psychosis.

Hellblade’s triumph is not merely its prescience (though, it should be said, many do seem to have connected with it through their own struggles with mental health and I do not want to deny them that). It is the lengths it goes to humanize Senua, to see her as more than a series of events or the pawn which pushes the plot forward. Senua is allowed to exist seperate from us, the player, and that feels more than a little remarkable.

Thoughts between flights in Subdivision Infinity DX