We all worry about whether we can do things. There's always that tiny bit of fear somewhere, flitting around in your mind, that wants to stop you attempting anything. Sometimes it has a voice, and the whispers wrap their way around your thoughts. You can't do it. They're too strong. You're finished.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a game about many things. It's first of all a beautiful and polished action-adventure, following the young Orkney warrior Senua as she explores a landscape wrought from Norse myth and filled with shades. Senua suffers from psychosis, which manifests in puzzles built around visual perception, the VFX, and most notably the 'Furies' – a babbling brook of voices in her head, sometimes almost like sisters, more often like bullies. As the game progresses the world twists and turns into different shapes, as do the stories being told, until at the end you wonder what to trust – and who.
Senua's journey is marked not just by the character's own bravery and determination, but by her past. She is haunted by memories, chased by the ghosts of the dead, tormented by her own culpability and mistreatment. The game's wonderful combat system focuses on small-scale fights against a handful of vikings, rather than the armies traditionally faced in hack-and-slash style games, drawing the camera right in behind Senua's shoulder and communicating the awful heft of every blow.
A couple of brilliant touches here deserve highlighting. The game's cutscenes focus inordinately on Senua's face, a technical marvel in its own right, and her range of unusual and often ambiguous expressions – part of which is the way her eyes dart around so convincingly. In combat you focus the camera on enemies and, unusually for this super-polished game, it makes a point of switching from foe to foe in a speedy jerk of the camera, flitting the player's view between multiple antagonists as if the darting eyes were ours.
Senua doesn't have a health bar – there's no UI here to speak of, beyond some introductory tutorial messages. The game doesn't give you a combo list, or even highlight some of its more advanced techniques. Instead it clues the player in on the basics then lets things play out, relying on the incredible audiovisual feedback and flow of the character's moveset. When Senua gets badly hurt, the blow turns her head towards the camera and you, her pilot, wince in empathy. When she stumbles to the ground, again facing towards the screen, we make her rise while face-to-face. One of the strongest impressions this game left on me was the indomitable will of its lead character, a determination that felt authentic and a spirit that couldn't be crushed.
Hellblade is a journey. It reminded me of those old Anglo-Saxon poems, particularly the Seafarer, not in its elements but in way both works contextualise a lone human being going out to face their fate. My interpretation of the game's events and themes is all over the place and not really reflective of the story Ninja Theory tells, but that's kind of why I love the game. What happens poses a lot of questions and, while there are some answers, plenty of gaps remain for your imagination to fill in.
The beauty of Hellblade is that it makes different people think different things. This was exemplified around launch when an early bait-and-switch was misconceived by players and press alike – a mischievous touch by Ninja Theory that, one suspects, played out exactly as planned. Writers have looked at the game's treatment of psychosis and how that tallies with personal experience, and examined how the integration of mechanics and theme communicate the trauma of loss. Others have focused on the great combat and excellent boss encounters. You can see some of the incredible art that went into the game's final look here. And not too long after release, Ninja Theory released an 'accolades' trailer composed solely of player quotes and images from photo mode.
That video encapsulates something about Ninja Theory's achievement with Hellblade. Here is a studio that had developed great AAA titles for many years, winning critical success time and again but rarely the sales to match. The quality of its work always deserved better but, after DmC in particular, I worried Ninja Theory would never recover – or worse, limp on doing work-for-hire (it helped out on a couple of Disney Infinity games) and get trapped in that hand-to-mouth cycle giant publishers love so much.
Hellblade was the answer to this problem, and it was an original answer. Rather than trying to make games on the scale it was used to, beholden to a budget that would require outside investment, Ninja Theory self-funded as much as possible while seeking backing from previously-untapped sources (for games) like the Wellcome Trust. This meant that the studio was using its own talents as much as possible, whereas its previous titles made great hay out of the involvement of star names.
Studio co-founder Tameem Antoniades both directed and wrote Hellblade. The game's producer, Dominic Matthews, doubles up that job with being the main press contact. Melina Juergens, Ninja Theory's video editor, began standing in for Senua during mocap recording, before the studio decided to build the character's appearance and voice around her.
Resources are resources. But when you've got real talent, and Ninja Theory has that, it must be empowering to have everything back in your own hands. It was over four years between the release of DmC, the studio's last 'big' standalone project, and the release of Hellblade – and there were false starts and restarts that the studio has been open about, in its 30-part development diary. Release dates came and went. Sometimes you're reminded of why that old Miyamoto quote gets bandied about so much: a delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.
2017 has seen many great video games. Hellblade didn't launch with the fanfare of some but, in the weeks after release, word-of-mouth quickly spread that here was something out of the ordinary: something special.
Who knows what it was like in that hothouse before Hellblade was released to the world. Those years must have been, at times, lonely and frustrating. Perhaps that's at the heart of why Hellblade, of all Ninja Theory's games, has struck a chord with the gaming public. This really is a Ninja Theory game, the product of a small group of people relying on themselves, for what must have felt like a last throw of the die. The developer deserves every bit of praise going. There must have been times each one of them heard the voices. You're finished. They'll laugh. You can't do it.
Senua hears the voices constantly. Time after time she shakes them off and, once again, rises to face whatever this world might bring. Yes, she can. And yes, she did.