[“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: psychosis, depression, anxiety, abuse, violence]
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in Summation
This article builds off of my first one in this series “On Psychosis.” To be completely caught up, make sure you give that one a read!
The primary conflict of Hellblade involves our heroine Senua’s fight against “the darkness,” an ever encroaching spiritual sickness that keeps Senua in a constant fight against her own mind. During her journey through the desolate landscape of the Norse underworld, Helheim, this darkness comes and goes like the very tides of Hel’s wind blasted shores. Wherever Senua goes she cannot rid herself of this curse.
We find out through flashbacks, Senua’s exposition, and some of the voices within her own psychotic mind that this darkness has been with her for quite some time. It started from a young age when she exhibited similar behaviors to her mother who was considered a blight upon the town because of the horrific visions she had. Senua watched as her mother was burned at the stake under the orders of her father, Zynbel. Zynbel then took it upon himself to keep Senua cloistered at home to try and rid her of the same darkness he saw afflicting his wife.
In time, Senua fell in love with a man named Dillion who became the replacement for the light her mother gave her in combating their affliction. Yet, the darkness persisted and so Senua set out on a self-imposed exile where she would enter the wilderness to fight the darkness on her own. As we take the controller for the first time and a murmur of hallucinated voices spring forth, it is apparent that Senua’s exile did not work.
However, Senua’s journey through Helheim paints an interesting picture. One that most people do not consider when confronted with mental illness, that the trials and ordeals of mental illness can be the very thing that makes a person strong.
Despite it being a blunt metaphor, it bears going over the parallels between Senua’s “darkness” and real life mental illness.
As expounded upon in part one of this series, Senua suffers from psychosis which is a psychological symptom of greater mental trauma. She has auditory and visual hallucinations that manifest in a myriad of voices. These voices often comment on Senua’s progress and will both encourage and denounce her. One particular voice that acts as the narrator will even comment on Senua’s emotions, stating that Senua is experiencing fear or sadness even when she does not project this outwardly. These voices give us a glimpse into Senua herself as they often comment on the depressive and anxious feelings she experiences.
Whenever a trying moment comes up in game, which is quite often, the darkness manifests and paints Senua’s world in a literal blackness. Shadows spring forth and the voices in Senua’s head start to whisper doubtful notions. In some cases, Senua is lifted entirely out of the game world into a cutscene where she has flashbacks to traumatic moments or she confronts a demonic voice in an otherworldly fog that attacks her very person. These moments are not unlike the breaks from reality caused by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and psychosis itself.
When taking into account the nature of Senua’s psychotic breaks with her self-destructive nature, it’s easy to see the correlation between real life mental illness and the game’s mechanics and allegorical storytelling.
Mental Illness as a Symbol
While mental illness permeates every inch of Hellblade, there is one specific instance that speaks profoundly to the resolve of someone suffering from mental illness.
One of the early game challenges involves confronting the flame giant, Surt. On the way to confronting Surt, Senua is tasked with finding small icons that act as triggers for progression. When examining an icon the world is suddenly engulfed in flames. Charred bodies litter the way and screams fill the air as Senua races through the burning world to crash through the exit. These horrific dashes through an inferno could be entirely real or a manifestation of Senua’s fevered mind. Their importance however is revealed by another voice in Senua’s head, Druth.
Druth was captured by the Northmen, the Norse invaders referenced in Hellblade, and kept as a slave amongst their ranks. He watched as his world was literally burned down around him by these invaders and was forced into a servitude where he committed grisly acts to stay alive. His mind broke in the process but eventually, Druth reached a clarity in his madness that he shares with Senua. “You musn’t look away from the horrors it does offer,” he says “because you cannot overcome suffering if you refuse to look at it.” He mentions to Senua that it wasn’t until after he had lost everything in a cleansing fire could he see that his madness is what gives him strength.
It wasn’t until he started to act in spite of adversity that Druth began to emerge from his darkness into a light that would never be disturbed again.
The Spiteful Reign of the Determined
There is a particular voice that manifests part way through the game that is reminiscent of Zynbel. This one stands out from all the other ones and actively tries to tear down her psyche. It’s booming presence is unrelenting as it constantly reminds Senua of her failures and even echoes the sentiments of people from her past that blamed tragedy on her. But, Senua fights through this voice’s batterings and refuses to accept its prognostications. Eventually, it relents and confesses, “Forgive me Senua. My mission was to make you hate the darkness with a passion so great it would focus your mind on this quest.”
At this point, Senua is disillusioned to the darkness’ effects. You can see a change in Senua’s resolve as she no longer is frightened by the dark nor does she fall victim to its machinations. Even the tone of the game changes as it no longer deals with overcoming the illusions and trials of the world and becomes a straight shot to foraging a path to confront the goddess Hela. This culminates in a moment where Senua is presented with a reflection of herself in a transparent mirror that laments the effects of the darkness. In a moment of clarity Senua responds, “They made monsters out of the dark. That doesn’t make them real.”
And so, Senua is no longer shackled by her affliction but makes the conscience choice to live beside it.
What one can gain from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Many people who are often lost within their cycle mental illness. Figuratively speaking, mental illness preys upon its victim by creating a false reality of self-deprecation, anxiety, and destructive trains of thought that is self-sustaining. Even when the victim is entirely cognizant of this fact. However, when a person takes the appropriate steps to combat this, in spite of their mental illness, it can lead to a change in their overall experience and outlook towards mental illness.
Psychiatry, psychotherapy, medication, healthy life habits, and other proactive efforts can help a person combat their mental illness til it can be come entirely manageable or even go away completely. Reaching this point, where mental illness is no longer a person’s whole life but merely a manageable factor can be unequivocally rewarding. It presents a reality where yes, a person may still experience symptoms of their illness, but they are no longer a slave to it day in and day out.
And standing at said point in one’s life means that they have overcome a trial that was all their own and they are stronger for it. Any obstacles that come up in the future pale in comparison to what someone may have had to fight when they were in their deepest pit of suffering. Adversity can be amazing for self-development and this goes for combating mental illness as well.
As the final battle winds down and Senua regains her footing. The voices swarm and rise in a deafening cacophony. Senua recoils for a moment but turns to face the player and says, “Follow us. We have another story to tell.” One final admission. A complete acceptance that the voices are here to stay. But after everything she has been through, they no longer hold dominion over her.
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, check out the third part on the importance of love while combating mental illness, “You Deserve to be Loved.“