Hellblade's Approach to Mental Health is Brave and Unsettling

By Ian Dransfield on at

Developer Ninja Theory is taking a distinctive approach to its new game, Hellblade. Not because it's 'indie triple-A' or whatever we're supposed to call it, and actually, the game itself isn't too dissimilar from things we've seen before. What's distinctive is that Ninja Theory says it would rather make a bad game that manages to represent mental health issues in a meaningful, effective way than a good game that takes on mental health issues... well, how they tend to be tackled in other games.

You may have seen it already, but if not, Hellblade has both the mental health charity Wellcome Trust on board as well as the help of Doctor Paul Fletcher, an expert in the field of mental  health and University of Cambridge professor of health and neuroscience. Ninja Theory also intends to bring on board a selection of people who have been through different forms of psychosis in order to help better represent the illness in the game.

It all sounds a bit heavy and, frankly, it is. Hellblade is a dark game. The voices in lead character Senua's head are aggressive, distressing and encouraging in equal measure, but always disconcerting. The sudden changes in time and weather, which both reflect Senua's mood (how afraid or confident she is) and act as a manifestation of psychosis, are jarring. Jarring in the way it's meant to jar.

Hellblade's curveball is entirely centred around the mental state of Senua. Can you trust what she sees - what you see? The voices - do they offer unreliable narration? The game aims to keep you on your toes from an entertainment standpoint.

I'm hopeful for Hellblade. It's a positive thing for games to represent mental health issues in a way that (at least right now) seems respectful and is being handled in a careful manner. If this were another big studio, I might have reservations, but Ninja Theory has shown an innate talent for writing in its games.

But, even though I really wanted to like it... well, playing it wasn't a huge amount of fun. It's gorgeous, especially for a game made by just 15 or so people, and the way that it represents Senua's psychosis is genuinely captivating at times. But the other bits? The exploration and combat? I wasn't feeling it.

Hellblade__01 (2)

It was a very early version of the game and there's a lot to be added and tweaked - that's the caveat - but the experience felt cramped and rather repetitive, which isn't good, even when it's just a half hour demo.

Combat is a simple matter of stringing strong and normal attacks together with a dodge and block. It felt more like Infinity Blade than Devil May Cry, and unless there's something I missed - or something more that the finished game will have - it's unlikely to be enough to carry the whole thing.

Those are mechanics, though. They can change. I hope they do, and both Enslaved and Devil May Cry show that Ninja Theory can do combat extremely well. But for me it was the psychosis and the state of mind of Senua that drew me in. That's why I'll be keeping a close eye on this.

Ninja Theory could indeed end up with a poor game that's nonetheless a great representation of mental health issues, handled in a way never before seen in gaming. I do sincerely hope that it ends up better than what I played of it - but actually, if it's this interesting, I'd probably put up with a bit of boredom.