[“Trigger Warning” – is a piece dedicated to showcasing video games which focus on mental disorders as well as emotional and psychological trauma. It is my hope as a lifelong gamer and sufferer of various psychological disorders to combine my greatest passion with my greatest weakness to benefit the gaming community at large. These pieces are meant to applaud games that I have found to appropriately exemplify such issues in the human condition. Some of them are visceral and violent games that take a liberal approach and are not for the faint of heart. Others take a lighter approach to the whole affair and can apply to a much wider audience. Hopefully, those who do not suffer from such afflictions can look at these games as a chance to grasp at something otherwise intangible. While those who do suffer from psychological afflictions can look to these pieces of fiction for hope and catharsis. Without further ado, enjoy. 🙂 ]
[By the way, this is the trigger warning for the article: abuse, psychosis, hallucinations, delusions, psychotic breaks]
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, In Summation
If I may break from my usual convention and divulge the importance of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice to my work on “Trigger Warnings!” as a long standing part of my work. I’d like to impress the shear importance of this game to the demographic of mentally ill gamers in the world. Never has a piece of work in the gaming industry so beautifully captured the brutal reality of mental illness in an unabashed and telling way without sacrificing the “game” aspect of the player’s experience. I have realized how much I have to say about this game but, for the sake of brevity, I will distill it down into a four part series. The first of which will focus on understanding the condition of psychosis.
Hellblade follows a Celtic warrior named Senua on her journey into the Northern, Nordic lands to find the soul of her deceased lover Dillion. Senua’s journey is saturated with Norse mythology both in the tales of Senua’s Virgil-esque guide, Druth, and in chance encounters with some of the deities of the Northern peoples. The game bounces seamlessly between tense, rewarding combat with inventive puzzle segments while using the Norse underworld of Helheim as its backdrop. The various environments of verdant forests, storm-blasted beaches, and claustrophobic underground caverns all come together to paint a melancholic world that reflects Senua’s struggle but contrasts with her resolve to push through the darkness that afflicts her to find her lover’s soul.
Unlike the multitude of prophetic chosen ones and the veritable one-man-armies that sit at the forefront of gaming’s biggest titles, Senua is a heroine with a tragic and unfortunate flaw. She is the victim of a psychosis that alludes to the greater tragedies of her life leading up to the events of the game. This psychosis is at the forefront of Hellblade’s storytelling and design and helps to paint a brutally honest yet necessary depiction of an affliction that is stigmatized and unaddressed in our world today.
There are some grave misconceptions about psychosis, what it is and is not, that can cause a misinterpretation of those who suffer from it, and more immediately to this piece, the goal and execution of Hellblade.
Psychosis is first and foremost a symptom and not a disease in and of itself. That is to say, psychosis is tied to some greater aberration in one’s mental faculties. It’s usually indicative of factors such as other mental illnesses (ex: bipolar disorder or schizophrenia), a reaction to trauma or abuse, substance abuse, or can be genetic. Psychosis compounds upon these different factors and increases the difficulty of a person’s ability to combat what might be causing the psychosis itself. This is due to the two factors that categorize psychosis.
The first of these factors has to deal with hallucinations. These can be auditory such as seeing or hearing things that are not there, visual or auditory distortions of reality, or even having psychosomatic sensations. Those with psychosis often report hearing voices either in groups or a single voice talking to them. Others have hallucinated sounds in their environment such as footsteps or knocking on walls. These hallucinations can in fact be malicious or even sympathetic, granted still unnerving to experience.
The second factor has to deal with delusions which are represented by the afflicted’s complete egotistical break from the world around them. The psychotic brain essentially creates a false reality the person comes to wholly believe in. In this state, they have retreated from any sense of what is real. A known example of this is paranoia, the overwhelming certainty that someone or some force “is out to get them.” Although one example, it does illustrate that a delusion is where the victim is certain that there is something that is not there. What’s important to note is that a fully delusional person has, in fact, separated themselves from reality. They may be walking through the world and existing here but they are in another plane of reality that is separate from ours.
These two factors are brought forth in Hellblade, not only in gameplay but in the numerous visual and auditory effects throughout the game.
Hallucinations and delusions are not only part of Senua’s experiences but are also gameplay and visual design elements as well. This creates a multilayered experience in which the player sees how Senua suffers and then must traverse a world where the game mechanics are reflective of these elements as well.
Within seconds of joining Senua on her journey, the player is greeted by one of the many voices that surround Senua at all times. This particular voice becomes the narrator for the player as it divulges Senua’s backstory through the game. These whispers never stop throughout the course of the game and are always speaking to Senua yet are never intrusive or annoying to the player. At times they can be helpful and uplifting by guiding Senua during combat to warn her of unseen attacks, commenting on possible solutions to a puzzle, or expressing joy upon overcoming an obstacle. However, during dire moments these voices can be fatalistic and will encourage Senua to give up or blame her for anything that goes wrong. This stark contrast directly reflects the emotional burden that hallucinations can have.
On a gameplay level, hallucinations come in the form of visual puzzles throughout the game. A consistently used mechanic comes in the form of illusory gates that, depending on where the player is looking, can make or unmake obstacles and traversal points throughout the world. Looking through one of these gates might make a previously impassable wall disappear or make a ladder appear where there was none before. This element of design works to show the player that these illusions (which are indicative of hallucinations) are working against the player and the fevered mind of Senua.
Lastly, are some visual elements that are subtle and presumably stylistic but actually relevant to hallucinations as well. During stressful in game moments, the player’s screen is often vignetted with brilliant lighting and flashes of color. One instance of the game has you running through a darkened cavern being chased by a beast. While in these pursuits, images of the monster and of Senua’s past flash in shades of red across the screen. These sorts of visual assaults are not uncommon in victims of psychosis.
The delusion aspect is represented first and foremost in a storytelling and metaphorical front. Senua is constantly being plagued by what is referred to in game as “the darkness” an ever encroaching spiritual sickness that is metaphorical of mental illness. Her father and her village see her as a menace and a sign of bad omens whenever anything goes wrong. She internalizes this and it distorts her reality. This comes forward as a player experience in the drab nightmarescape of the game world. One that seems dreamlike and distant from reality.
The very setting itself is a metaphor as Senua and Senua alone confronts its denizens and challenges. Just as a psychotic person is psychologically removed from our reality, Senua is physically removed from hers as she ventures to a far off land set away from all that she once knew. Those who go into psychotic breaks can be left to fend for themselves within the confines of their minds. Only when the afflicted can grasp a solid train of thought again will they snap back to reality. In Senua’s case, this is her focus on Dillion, one of two people in her life to have given her a glimpse of hope.
The manifold manifestations of delusions are dependent from person to person. While some people experience paranoia, others may see themselves as a completely different person or even believe that there is some cosmic conspiracy against them. Various gameplay elements are representative of this as well. “Pattern seeking” is a trend amongst psychotic breaks in which a person will “see” patterns of symbols, shapes, or occurrences that really aren’t there.
Pattern Seeking is represented by in game puzzles that require searching for glyphs throughout the game world that will help open doors. Certain doors have sigils emblazoned on the them and the player is tasked with finding environmental elements that create this shape. For example, two fallen I-beams from a collapsed house might have fallen into an X-shape that resembles a glyph on a door. Discovering this allows Senua to break the seal and pass through.
What One Can Gain From Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
The fact of the matter is that psychosis is a complex and surprisingly largely unknown area in mental health. With all the different factors and manifestations I’ve listed above, I still have hardly scratched the surface of psychosis as each person’s experience with it differs. And while Hellblade is a great composite of the tales of many different people, it is still only a partial truth of a much greater epidemic.
In this story are the stories of so many people that need to be heard. After playing through the game, I watched the developer’s commentary that delved into the making of Hellblade. It detailed the sheer amount of research that went into the game that involved consulting some of the foremost scientific experts on the matter and even had people who had suffered from psychosis give their input on the game. It was from all of that input and data that many of the game’s design elements were drawn. In a sense, this game tells the story of those people who detailed their experiences so that others can come to understand them as well. All of those unique viewpoints come together to tell one, singular tale of a woman in anguish. And while this may be a single person’s tale (Senua’s) it is indicative of the multitudinous stories that go largely unheard.
Hellblade is a dark game. It holds little back in terms of how depressing and discouraging mental illness can be. Yet, it still paints a picture of hope. One that also needs to be discussed in order to break the stigma around mental illness. Despite the advancements we have made as a society on a cultural and scientific level, mental illness still has a stigma around it. One that leaves people feeling unwanted and unloved. Yet, they deserve to be loved.
Your Dear Writer’s Thoughts on Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
I will be reserving my final thoughts on Hellblade for the end of this article series. For now, keep an eye out for part two of this series “Suffering as our Greatest Strength”