Hellblade, Psychosis, and Me

By Jim Hargreaves on at

Heavenly Sword, Enslaved, DmC: Devil May Cry. For the past decade UK developer Ninja Theory has been behind some of the best action-adventure games around, coupled with intriguing, character-driven stories. At a glance their latest project, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, looks like more of the same. For some time, fans were led to believe this would be a sequel or some kind of spiritual successor to their PlayStation 3 launch title Heavenly Sword. That certainly isn’t the case. There’s some of that DNA here — the gorgeous backdrops, the fluid combat — but Hellblade is markedly different from Ninja Theory’s previous work. And pretty much everything else out there.

It all comes down to Hellblade's story or, to be more precise, its characters. Instead of being some famed warrior or scrappy underdog, protagonist Senua is defined by her battle with mental illness. As studio head Tameem Atoniades points out in the game’s accompanying making-of film, it’s a taboo topic and one that games haven’t dealt with particularly well in the past. We could look back at the likes of Manhunt, Outlast, and Shellshock as examples of the many times psychological conditions have been used as throwaway plot devices or cheap characterisation.

As a society, raising awareness of mental health has become one of the UK's few positive themes in 2017. Across various media, we’ve come to understand more about the mosaic of hidden, non-physical illnesses people live with every day. With that understanding comes acceptance and relief for those affected and, while there’s no way to dispel these conditions with a magic wand, every piece of knowledge shared is a step forward, and a source of hope.

With Hellblade Ninja Theory has shown unusual care and diligence in handling this subject matter. Instead of swotting-up on a few token research papers the team consulted with academics, particularly on how psychosis manifests and could be represented in a video game format. They’ve also worked alongside those who have experienced psychosis themselves, combining these first-hand accounts with their own creativity.

It’s something I’ve never talked about publicly, something I rarely discuss even with close friends, but I know exactly what it feels like. For the past few years I’ve been prone to minor anxiety 'attacks' (I’ve never liked that word to describe them), the worst of which exploded into a full-blown psychotic episode. It was terrifying, it shook me, and although I’ve come to terms with what happened, there are still splinters lodged in my psyche.

After learning about Hellblade’s exploration of psychosis, I knew I had to play it for myself, no matter how hard it might hit home. I didn’t expect the game to heal me or speak to me or help towards some kind of epiphany. Nothing like that. I just wanted to see how a game developer would try to capture the engulfing abyss of psychosis, and how their concept compared and contrasted with my own experience.

Like most mental illnesses, psychosis doesn’t adhere to a prescribed, universal form — it affects everyone differently and is influenced by a myriad of factors. That said, there are some discernible constants. One of these is the inability to define what is real and what isn’t. The other is a state of delusion in which the victim embeds themselves in a purely fictitious narrative, often born from their own inner fears and vulnerabilities.

The way Ninja Theory has imbued its portrayal of psychosis with Norse mythology makes Hellblade all that more compelling. As a young Pict warrior Senua witnesses the sheer brutality of a viking invasion first-hand: a visceral bloodstain on the tapestry of early medieval history that sees unspeakable acts of abuse and savagery.

I won’t go into any specific spoilers here though Senua’s journey, from origin to conclusion, is harrowing to say the very least. Watching her descent into madness is nasty and unsettling. And while the imagery is grim, depicting bloody, body-littered hellscapes, it’s Senua’s dehumanisation that is the most terrifying.

The way it’s all portrayed is deeply sincere, neither glorifying nor making light of mental illness. But Hellblade doesn't tiptoe or skirt around the subject matter either, striking each painful set piece head-on. The most obvious way Senua’s psychosis manifests in-game is through the use of ambient sound and visuals. Playing with headphones is essential to experiencing Hellblade at its best, due to the disorienting way voice and audio effects are used.

While not exclusive to psychosis, voice-hearing is perhaps the condition’s most common symptom. From my experience, these voices came from all directions and at various volumes and pitches: some belonging to me, though most of them completely foreign. This constant, swirling miasma of sound is portrayed perfectly in Hellblade. Senua is frequently bombarded with insult and threats that only intensify the more vulnerable she becomes.

While unnerving in itself, hearing voices takes on an even more sinister dynamic when coupled with hallucinations. It’s the ultimate shattering of reality, being able to see objects and people that don’t actually exist within your physical surroundings. Before my own psychotic episode I thought of these as nightmarish caricatures — the kinds of which we’re used to seeing in popular culture as either monsters or boogeymen.

This is a complete misconception and one of the reasons why people find psychosis so hard to understand. Instead of conjuring up complete nonsense, these hallucinations play on your own personal fears, creating images that feel entirely plausible within the warped reality victims find themselves trapped in. Even when the voices and hallucinations subside, the knowledge that your mind is capable of spawning such potent sound and imagery is scarring.

For Senua, alive during a brutal period of human history, the atrocities she witnesses inspire hellish projections that align with the viking notion of Ragnarok — the end times. While her visions are more grandiose than those someone may normally encounter there are smaller, less noticeable distortions that victims can relate to, fragments and flickers that appear around the periphery.

[Spoiler in the following paragraph]

What’s particularly great about Hellblade is how Ninja Theory present Senua as a person. Instead of using her character purely as a gateway to explore psychosis and mental health, she still has an arc — experiences and relationships that define her as a human being and not just a victim. For centuries, whether through fear, superstition, or simple misunderstanding, we’ve dehumanised those who suffer with mental health issues. Hellblade portrays this willingness to ignore victims at its most base, with Senua exiled from her tribe when they learn of her condition (or as they call it, “curse”). No-one alive now can relate to Pict culture during the early medieval period, but removing the mentally ill from society and placing them in asylums is
something we’re all-too-familiar with.

Hard-hitting and deeply personal, Hellblade’s portrayal of psychosis, its lasting effects, and how it is misunderstood is a magnificent achievement. I find it painfully flawless because, in the way Ninja Theory has approached this taboo subject and crafted an experience around it, the studio has created one of the few games I’ve felt a human connection with. Certainly one of the very few games that has caused me to reflect on my own experiences. The fact that Hellblade is also terrific to play is almost a bonus, but it makes the developer's achievement complete. This is a courageous game, a sublime balancing act, and shows why Ninja Theory is one of our industry's most original, relevant, and best developers.