[“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: depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide, psychosis, PTSD]
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in Summation
If you haven’t read the first segments of my series on Hellblade, I recommend you start back at my first part to get a grasp on everything I’ll be referencing from here on out. This portion encompasses my personal thoughts I’ve been saving for this article while the previous pieces focus on how the game references different factors of psychosis and mental illness.
Hellblade was a game that flew completely under my radar. I heard about it quite a while back in some random, offhand announcement and thought it sounded promising. Granted, I sift through innumerable video games to find pieces for my “Trigger Warning!” series before deciding to write a piece on one. I’m always skeptical as to whether or not a game that boasts mental illness as a centerpiece is blowing smoke. More often than not, I have come to find games that focus on mental illness to be trite in their execution while sacrificing game play for the sake of a half-baked story in hamfisted attempts to make a statement about mental illness. So I had hope for Hellblade but was cautious when I heard it focused on psychosis and its many trappings.
Time went on and I had forgotten about Hellblade’s development until a friend of mine over at GameSpot alerted me to its release date. I quickly looked into the game’s development and found quite a bit of interesting news. Most of what I had found was that the small team from Ninja Theory had spent years of painstaking research into psychosis by consulting experts and victims of psychosis alike. I took this as a sign of promise for the kind of message they were going to deliver. News articles boasted a punishing yet rewarding combat system led me to believe that there was some hope for that sweet spot of game play and exposition I had been looking for. Its trailer featuring a demonic voice whispering prophetic ululations played over contrasting images of a smiling Senua surrounded by brilliant light with her beaten and bloodied and facing the otherworldly denizens was an undeniably compelling marketing ploy.
Upon playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I found not only a game that was the culmination of the last three years of my endeavor to cross-examine video games and mental illness, but I found a game that unabashedly captured every feeling I have ever had as a gamer who suffers from mental illness.
Fear and Isolation
The hushed tones of discussions on mental illness are often devoid of what happens behind closed doors to someone who suffers from psychological disorders. Hellblade takes this into account as Senua is alienated by her society and the darkness that exists within her is seen as a blight. We come to find out that Senua shut herself away from the world in an effort to contain her affliction. And in that suffering, she is constantly broken down by the darkness in a manner not unlike the self-destructive nature of the mentally ill. When we take control of Senua, she is in a foreign land of wind blasted shoals, pitch black caverns, and remote forests. It’s as though the landscape itself is symbolic of Senua’s isolation.
This was one of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the game for me. The fact that Senua is in a land completely foreign to her. She is beset by deities, beasts, and the barbaric Northmen whose ghostly visages appear to confront her. The tide of combat serves as a way to feel more alien as every living thing is hostile towards Senua and only serves to make her feel less wanted. Mental illness can make one feel horribly isolated. Some people with psychological disorders will intentionally isolate themselves from the world around them. It is not uncommon for those with depression to sleep the day away or sufferers of anxiety to flee from situations that are too stressful.
I personally suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder that manifests in symptoms of Social Anxiety and Agoraphobia, known as the “fear of the marketplace” is a fear involving the association of panic attacks in a public setting. I often find myself shut off from the world around me. These disorders make it so I have a constantly present level of fear and panic when in public. Leaving my home to do something as simple as shopping for groceries or getting gas can only be described as arduous. I am often at a loss for words when describing to people why it is so hard. The fear that I have when going out into public is palpable and as fully realized as the fear of death itself. As someone who has come close to death and has had the sudden rush and realization of one’s own mortality, that same feeling is what I get when my anxiety and phobia trigger in a public setting. It is all too real.
On the rare occasion I do make it out to a social affair, surrounded by loved ones, friends, and like minded people, I can find some sense of peace where my anxiety stays at bay. Going to the home of a close friend or attending a convention have the same effect of feeling like nothing is a threat. However, I still feel empirically alone. While I spend a good deal of my efforts reaching out to others who are like me, I’m making connections and understanding that I am in fact not alone at all. There are so many people who feel exactly like me.
This is not to mention my disorders’ effects on my relationships, friendships, intimacy, and family alike. I find it hard to accept that others care for me or about me. I have come to develop coping mechanisms and healthy lifestyle practices of self-affirmation and so on. While I can certainly take a step back and make note of the good things I have done, there is still a disconnect between these factors and my ability to actually internalize them. I can sit down and make a list of what others have said and done to help me and make me feel loved. But, it never really registers with me other than said arbitrary list.
My depression and anxiety are at constant play making the machinations of my mind a conflict between my ability to reason and the rising tide of doubt that will eventually overcome my faculties. As I watched Senua’s tale of her village’s rejection, her self-imposed exile from her lover, and the constant struggle against the trials of Helheim, I found this struggle of isolation from society and self to be immensely relatable.
The Brutal Reality of Mental Illness
One of the facets often missing from everyday mental health discussion is how horrific it can be. In most cases, notions of self-harm, substance abuse, suicide, and so on are self-assumed when discussing mental illness and its myriad of drastic effects. However, I find more often than not that discussion on mental health usually boils down to topics like statistics and studies or self-care and healthy lifestyle practices. Although not inappropriate, I find these conversations lack the true nuances that you do not see when someone is dealing with mental illness.
That’s where Hellblade comes in with its message. I read reaction after reaction on Hellblade and so many people were put off by how dark it gets. Some shortsighted individuals even dismissed Hellblade altogether because it did not reflect their interpretation of mental illness. Senua going into full on fits of hysterical rage screaming at the voices in her head. The palpable pain of her character as her mind and body are torn asunder by her inner-demons and the denizens of Helheim respectively. Flashbacks and psychotic delusions are frequent throughout the game. The very game mechanics themselves are meant to simulate psychosis which made people uneasy. There’s even a scene where the voices encourage Senua to slit her wrists with her shattered sword. Instead, she cuts her face lengthwise in a moment of desperation to hang on to her grounded reality. This is the reality of mental illness. All the intimate moments of self-destruction that go quietly unnoticed.
I loved how unabashed Hellblade is. I love how it doesn’t shy away from the moments people don’t see. When Senua is alone and no one is around but the voices in her own head. Watching her fall to hear knees and scream in futility as they incessantly murmur about how hopeless it all is and how she can do nothing right. I can recall nights spent alone in my home where I felt so small and helpless to fight my own self-loathing. With weak-kneed resolve I would crumple under the weight of my own self-degrading thoughts and cry in supplication for any sense of stability. Seeing this same experience rendered, and reflected, in a game gave me a point of connection to something I had experienced my whole life but had never seen brought to light.
Senua’s various visions and hallucinations are both psychotic in nature, in that they are a fantasy of her fevered mind, and related to past traumas. The sensory overload that happens during her visions of booming, cacophonous noises and the visual effects are not unlike the same feelings one can have during a panic attack or a PTSD induced episode. Combined with the grim art direction the game often features, these moments tap into the frightening nature of some of the visions I have personally experienced.
Having PTSD related flashbacks can be a debilitating experience where one loses any perception of the world around them as they re-live painful moments from one’s past. I have had nightmares and flashbacks to abuse in my past that have stopped my day in its tracks. And the visions I have had from night terrors, nightmares than happen in the moments immediately before or after complete unconsciousness, have left me shaking and unable to find my balance again. These are all moments that I have only shared with a hand full of trusted people because of their dark and sensitive nature. And despite my outspoken demeanor about my disorders, I’m even nervous to share them because of how outlandish they really are.
Yet, to see a video game make these moments I have lived into a playable experience that didn’t pull punches was something I have longed for in gaming for years.
Your Dear Writer’s Thoughts on Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Over the years I’ve developed what I call my “pantheon of gaming heritage,” games that have not only defined me as a gamer but have helped me develop as a person. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the first game in quite some time to have been added to that list. It encompasses everything I have come to love as a gamer. Its tense combat system rewards patience by appropriately reading the situation and deciding whether to dodge, parry, or strike. The game design is emblematic of near perfect internal consistency in that every gameplay mechanic is tied to either a lore based reason or a symbolic design principle. Nothing feels out of place and should any part be removed the overall experience would feel rightfully incomplete. And the amount of care that was put into Hellblade is apparent by the shear amount of research that went into building a tale around Nordic myth that synergized with a personal story on psychosis. It is, in my own opinion, a perfect game.
But what’s more is that it gave me an experience that reached the deepest parts of my battered soul. For me to play a video game that took everything that has been holding me back was a point of catharsis that I am always searching for as a mentally ill gamer. I connected with the self-doubt and fear present in Senua’s journey. I loved that the developers were not afraid to make an experience that could possibly turn people off because it was too real. I read so many reports of people who could not play through the game because it triggered their disorders which is tragic that some people who might have benefited from its message couldn’t finish. But it’s an understandable move for the sake of self-care.
However, I think this sort of artistic representation needs to not be watered down, because the result is a beautiful experience that depicts the strength of the human spirit. The ability to hit the bottom of our deepest, darkest depression where no light exists, only to climb out of it because of the unending love of another and our own resolve is a beautiful message.
As Hellblade came to an end, Senua lies clinging to life as Dillion speaks to her one last time and reassures Senua that life will go on without him. That loss is a part of life for “A life without loss is a life without love.” To feel pain when we lose someone dies is only affirmation that we were loved and the greater the pain, the greater that love was. And Senua’s pain is enough to drive her through both literal and psychological hells. It was a love so great that she contradicted not only herself but the very gods that walked the earth.
As the scene plays out, the camera spins to reveal that Senua’s death was an illusion. She stands to face the warm rising sun and looks into the camera to deliver a message of simple reassurance, “Follow us. We have another story to tell.” Her journey is not over and the trials that came before did not serve to tear her down. Rather, they only made her stronger.
Hellblade will forever stand as a testament to how I live my life with mental illness. That we can live in spite of our downfalls. That when something stands up to confront us, even if it is within the confines of our own mind, that we have it within ourselves to rise as bigger stronger than those obstacles.
And so I leave you with my final reaction of Hellblade. A moment where I felt vindicated as a mentally ill gamer.