It used to be that video games were about guns and aliens and rescuing princesses. In the earliest days, that was fine — or, if not fine, then it was accepted because what else was there to play? A game was meant to be fun, and the stories that grew up around video games were there as pretense for moving the action along. Sorry Mario, the princess is in another castle, so on to Level 2.
In just thirty years, the video game medium has grown leaps and bounds beyond its simplistic (and socially problematic) beginnings. Games with deep, involved plots have become the norm, not the exception, and recently, games have begun to tackle heavy subject matter. Games like That Dragon, Cancer explore grief, family, and loss in a way that no other form of media can. It’s a stretch to call a game like that “fun,” but that’s okay. Games have grown beyond their need to always be fun, and instead they’ve become a form of expression.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the sharpest examples of a game tackling a taboo topic yet. Developed by a relatively small team, with a relatively modest budget, it nonetheless presents itself as a AAA title, with all the visual flair and intense combat that any AAA title might bring. But the core of this game is not about solving environmental puzzles or defeating demonic soldiers. It’s about getting to know and sympathizing with its main character, Senua, a young Celtic warrior from ancient Scotland suffering from what we now know to be some form of psychosis.
The story of Senua is heartbreaking (and a quick spoiler warning before we proceed — I’m going to be discussing the game’s plot in depth, so play the game before you read on). As a child, the visions she saw and the voices she heard led her people to believe she had a darkness inside her. She was kept isolated by her father, and her mother, similarly afflicted, was killed for her illness. Suffering years of physical and emotional abuse, she eventually meets a young man named Dillion, who sees in her not a curse, just a misunderstood woman. The two fall in love. However, soon after, a plague sweeps through the village, and Senua, believing this to be because of her curse, exiles herself for a year into the wilderness. She returns to find everyone dead at the hands of the Norse, and she embarks on a quest to bargain with the gods for Dillion’s soul.
The story would be affecting enough on its own, but the game’s portrayal of Senua’s mental illness makes it truly transformative. Part of psychosis is hearing voices, and so you, the player, spend most of the game hearing voices (the game strongly recommends you use headphones to get a more authentic experience; heed that recommendation). Some of the voices are critical, some are helpful, but there is nothing Senua can do to shut them up. The team worked with real-life voice-hearers to try and portray this as accurately as possible. Similarly, her illness causes her to see patterns in the world. This leads her to believe she is unable to progress unless she makes some sort of sense of them. She’ll see a shape on a door and believe the door to be magically sealed until she can locate a similar shape in the environment. It’s actually an extreme version of something we all experience, called pareidolia — our tendency to scan for meaning in even the most mundane objects and environments. This provides the fuel for much of the puzzle solving in the game, as you lead Senua around in an attempt to create a path forward for her, even though you, as the player, know that she could simply move forward unobstructed.
This works because Senua is such an engaging character. Portrayed by first-time actress Melina Juergens (who won Best Performance at this year’s Game Awards), Senua is a believable human being. She is more than her illness, and you catch glimpses of that as the story progresses. Juergens’s performance plays an enormous role in the game’s effective de-stigmatization of psychosis.
Not to say that Hellblade gets everything right. There is criticism about some of the game’s choices, both in terms of gameplay and in its portrayal of psychosis. But it gets enough right, and the company poured enough effort into working with doctors and actual patients suffering from psychosis, that I’m willing to allow it the ability to fail on occasion without faulting it too much.
I walked away from Hellblade with a deepened sense of respect for people who suffer from ailments like this. It’s difficult to imagine living with a condition so disruptive, but many people do, and that’s an indication of their strength. Getting to see and hear the world as Senua sees and hears it allows that empathy to develop, and only video games could deliver that sort of experience. You’re not a passive observer, you’re an active participant. You are Senua, and her experiences become your own for the length of the game.
As the gaming medium continues to develop, I’m sure we’ll see more games like Hellblade; games that confront taboos head on and give voice to people who have been shunted aside in society. It’s encouraging to see my favorite pastime engaged with the world like this, and I’ll continue to reward them with my time and money so long as they continue to push themselves in this direction.