[“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 second one in this series analyzing Hellblade, “Suffering as our Greatest Strength.” To be completely caught up, make sure you give that one a read!
Hellblade’s bleak story is a psychologically taxing endeavor. It deals with a myriad of psychological issues in a serious and unabashed tone as we delve into the world of our protagonist Senua. Her psychosis is not only a world building element but one that functions on a technical and gameplay level. The player is never given a moment’s rest from its effects which permeates the game as a whole. Then there are the story elements that create a psychological profile of Senua.
Senua’s upbringing was one of societal delusions, isolation, and a fear of her own mind. Her mother was burned at the stake by the order of her father, Zynbel. A man who then corrupted Senua into believing that she too was a source of evil. As her father and other members of society impressed upon her that she was to be hated and feared, these notions became her reality in time. She came to believe that the darkness that she shared with her mother meant that she was a burden and a blight. Combining these societal pressures with her father’s tight rein on her, Senua is certainly a candidate for her psychosis and mental illness. It became a prison in which she felt unloved and unwanted.
However, there was one factor that kept her pushing through all of this, the love of a man named Dillion.
Eyes as the Scout for the Heart
Zynbel saw Senua’s darkness as something to be reviled. In his hubris, he kept Senua sequestered away from the world and attempted to “cure” or abate whatever the darkness was. Senua simply existed as an extension of her father’s fears and wrath. Til one day, while wandering through the woods she encountered Dillion practicing his combat techniques beneath a tree. Enthralled by him, Senua would return time and time again and practiced mimicking his techniques while in hiding. On one occasion, Dillion discovers Senua and the two are entranced. It was then when Senua resolved to confront her father and leave home with Dillion. And so, the two were in love.
Dillion was a boon to Senua as he could see past the darkness itself and recognize Senua for the skilled warrior and courageous individual she was. In moments where the darkness seemed to encroach, he was the light that brought her back to reality and reason. Yet, the roots of the darkness’ grasp ran deep and despite the amount of good Dillion did for Senua, its clutches were as strong as the ties of love.
A Crisis of Conscience
While we are given glimpses of the life the Dillion gave Senua, one of constant reassurance and a boundless love, the darkness which feeds Senua doubt in spite of her good fortunes is still there. She has escaped from a society that saw her as an ill omen. A father who kept her hidden like a mark of shame. The same father who had Senua’s mother executed. Her entire life led her to believe that she was unwanted. So, when met with Dillion’s love, she was so indoctrinated with this notion that it was still a reality to her. In a desperate attempt to purge herself of the darkness, Senua leaves Dillion and goes into a self-imposed exile in the woods to confront her demons. This act paralleling to the real life emotional and social shut off those affected by mental illness have when they feel like they don’t deserve love or affection.
This is not uncommon of people who have been abused at different stages in their life; especially during adolescence. Being under the constant strain of abuse or neglect can have lasting effects on a person’s development while the victim may internalize these sentiments as the truth of their own person. When so many people tell someone they are unloved, it becomes impossible not to believe it. On another front, you have the stigma of mental health on a societal level. People do not understand Senua. They do not take the time to understand the person behind the darkness. And so, she is left feeling like an outcast despite the person that sees her for who she really is, Dillion.
Hellblade, Society, and Mental Illness
On the notion of acceptance, Hellblade discusses two distinct topics. One is of the social stigma associated with mental illness. Despite the rising cultural acceptance and increased scientific progress our greater society has made at understanding mental illness, there still exists a stigma around it. People who have mental illness can often feel alienated and misunderstood. In some cases it’s due to a lack of sensitivity. Others might not know how to support or approach someone about their mental illness. In other cases, it’s a lack of understanding that comes from misconceptions of the nature of mental illness. There is a good deal of misinformation that people think they may know about a particular psychological disorder but only have a nuanced understanding of a topic. Then there are the people that flat out are cruel towards those with mental illnesses. The sorts of people that see mental illness as something deserving of hatred or indifference which is a large part of Hellblade.
The other side of acceptance has to do with self-acceptance. Senua is a capable warrior and someone who knows very well what she wants in life. She exhibits this in her combat prowess by not only competing in the warrior trials with Dillion but by the combat in game. She stands up to Zynbel and acts in spite of the pressures of those around her. These moments, where Senua asserts herself as a capable person, are the the real Senua. The one that her psychosis is covering up and keeping her true person from being realized.
Feeling unloved and feeling unlovable because of mental illness can trap someone into thinking that they are undeserving of love. But that is simply not true.
What One Can Gain From Playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
While the rest of the world sees Senua as something to be abhorred, Dillion sees the beauty in Senua. The things that make her who she really is. He is able to look past the words of others, even Senua’s, to see the truth of her person. Meanwhile, Senua can only hear the words of those who abused her as they echo on in the psychotic ravings of the voices in her own head, and she believes them. But, how can those voices be true? How can Senua’s own self-perception be trusted? The simple answer, is that she cannot because she has a skewed perception brought on by her own psychosis. But Dillion is not shackled by these downfalls. And so, he chooses to love Senua unconditionally because, as aforementioned, she is a strong individual who is not her illness but the person it so often clouds.
The cycle of doubt and self-deprecation that often comes with mental illness can be absolutely maddening when one feels like they do not deserve any sort of affection. Which is a sad reality of far too many people who suffer from psychological disorders. But here’s the fact of the matter:
Every human life in and of itself has intrinsic worth simply by being human.
Which is nigh impossible for some people with mental illness to internalize. We as human beings are capable of reason and rational thought, of feeling love and joy. And because we are capable of these things, it means that we can recognize their inherent goodness to the human spirit. No one deserves to go unloved. We are all truly unique and irreplaceable as people on this earth.
Dillion saw this in Senua. He saw the beauty she was capable of and from his outside perspective was able to love her and show her the lies others told her and the truth of the person she really was. Dillion’s love is something that others can take a note from, that the outward signs of mental illness should not prevent us from looking at the true person beneath. And for those who feel unloved, he stands as an example that you can find love and affection from others no matter what your thoughts may be.
Your Dear Writer’s Thoughts on Hellblade:Senua’s Sacrifice
As I said in the last two pieces, I have far too much to say here for just a few paragraphs. Look out for the final part of this series coming soon!