This article contains plot spoilers for Hellblade.
Much of the post-release chatter about Ninja Theory's Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice focused on the game's mental health element. The studio itself emphasised this pre-release and understandably so, because the game was part-funded by a grant from the Wellcome Trust; a philanthropic British institution that funds both medical research and work that contributes to public understanding of science. Hellblade's main character Senua suffers from psychosis and, as the included documentary shows, this underpins much of how the game world has been constructed and many of its most striking effects.
This particular angle has come to dominate coverage of Hellblade. Psychosis is a major theme in Hellblade, to be sure, but for me, there's a question around how interwoven the game's narrative themes and mechanics actually are. Is Hellblade 'about' mental health or specifically psychosis? The sheer amount of combat involved is hard to square with that specific interpretation. (Particularly notable in this context is that several articles about the game have confused psychosis with being psychotic.) Is it a game that uses mental health as a way of framing a story? That is sturdier ground but, even then, not that solid.
The experience of playing something and the cutscenes that clump around it are almost never brought together into a coherent whole. Hellblade is no exception. Its language is combat and environmental puzzles, but its story aspires to be about loss and mental illness. These two will never marry, and so we have a narrative almost wholly distinct from the substance of the game itself. There were powerful moments; the Furies' cacophony of voices shouting away, the little barbs as Senua falls; the grim solitude of the set-piece where Senua is faced by her own darkness, hunted and hallucinating and knowing no-one else can help. But to draw an easy link between these moments and a specific mental illness seems to me wishful thinking. I learned more about psychosis as a condition from Hellblade's accompanying documentary than I did from the game, and that should be no surprise.
To me Hellblade is an heroic epic, and one that shares the mindst of its time — inasmuch as Celtic or Norse tales of heroism rarely end well. It is the story of a young woman named Senua whose home on Orkney was devastated by a viking raid. She wasn't present, everyone she loved was killed (some in particularly gruesome ways), and it seems possible that she's dead too. Especially important is her relationship with the now-dead Dillion, whom she somehow hopes to resurrect, and companion character Druth; this former scholar and former slave of the vikings serves up fascinating recantations of Norse myth, weaving the legends through Senua's own journey.
The game begins as Senua rows up a river filled with the wrecks of longboats, an echo of the river Gjöll which, in Norse myth, separates the living from the dead. From the start this is a quest for redemption where redemption never seems especially likely. To me Senua parallels the heroes of an earlier age more than our own — her epic deeds in combat are writ large, but her journey is destined to end in loss and failure. Perhaps she is a more humble figure, like the individual in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, who sets off into the unknown with no expectations of help from the elements, or others, or the gods. These stories are not tragedies, but tributes to the human spirit.
For me Senua felt like a woman on a revenge mission, a warrior setting out on some hopeless trek in the belief that, somewhere, there's an answer. Druth's mythmaking filled our ears and the Furies spoke constantly, but my Senua was a more straightforward figure than perhaps the author intended — she was insatiable in her pursuit of viking blood and believed that, if only she could kill enough, somehow everything would go back the way it was. Killing vikings is Senua's only real mode of expression in this game, so no surprise that's what she is to me. The butcher of Norsemen, and fated to fall to them.
Senua's journey may be informed throughout by Norse mythology, but the enemies she battles are more like terrifying caricatures than historical vikings. A key story beat comes when we learn Dillion had been executed by the vikings in an especially brutal manner: the blood eagle, whereby a person's ribs are broken off at the back and their lungs pulled out. Some still believe this happened, but other historians would argue the blood eagle is a later propaganda myth - so is Senua really remembering something that happened, or fantasising some rumoured, terrible extreme? Has she ever actually faced a viking in the real world, or is she so traumatised by their raid that she battles them endlessly, hopelessly, in her mind?
What always struck me about the game's authored story, rather than the focus on Dillion, was the idea of a village's inhabitants being killed by a raiding party. Orkney's an island that ended up with a viking settlement on it, and so at some point in history something like this must have happened — after all, there isn't really anywhere to run to. The idea of Senua being the sole survivor of a small community that was wiped out is powerful; the kind of thing that, 1000 years ago, you would never have revenge or 'justice' for. A degree of trauma so unimaginable, you would speculate someone could never get over such an experience. The game wanted me to care that Senua cared about Dillion, but this background was so much more interesting to imagine.
The character's backstory is one thing, but what fascinates about Senua is the world she is both travelling through and imagining. One of the game's big themes is the gap between visual perception and what's really there, and this comes across most powerfully in the unreal architecture and hellish environs you struggle through. The world is half-legend and half-real. Senua feels like an interloper and, in some curious way, like she's on a different plane to what we're seeing.
Playing on visual perception is one of the ways Hellblade attempts to recreate symptoms of psychosis. These manifestations range from effects, like the symbols that spark off weapons during battle, to the more involved nature of the regular perception puzzles (which depend on your 'seeing' a symbol by looking at the scenery from unusual angles). During combat, enemies materialise in front of your eyes, and when finally struck down they vanish.
The atmosphere of Hellblade's fights builds up to an overriding sense of relentlessness, which came to define the experience for me. Groups of vikings approach the Orkney brave and are slain one-by-one. But then comes another wave, and another, and as each breaks over the young warrior we are entwined enough to feel her exertions, the great heave every time she delivers a finishing blow. The game ends with a battle that has real poignance and power but, to understand why, a little context about the mythology involved will help.
Senua is an Orkney woman who has lost everything to the Norsemen, but finds herself enraptured by their world vision and mythology over her own Pictish legends. This is one aspect of the narrative that suits Hellblade's mechanics perfectly, because an unusual feature of Norse mythology is how you get to Valhalla and quaff mead with Odin — you die in battle. Perhaps this is something Senua can believe in. The catch, of course, is the inevitability of Ragnarok, where all of the gods and their warriors will fall for the final time.
Hellblade ends with a fight that I felt as Senua's own Ragnarok. In the final encounter, she faces what seems to be an endless assault. Fighting in Hela's domain, battering herself against more and more vikings who are replaced as soon as they fall, what eventually gives way is the game world's reality. By this point I was good enough at the combat that I felt I could last forever against the vikings. In my headcanon Senua had been endlessly re-imagining the fight she'd never had against them, and this endless army was the logical endpoint, the hero's final doomed struggle. I felt it in my bones, and steeled myself for a good death.
Fifteen minutes passed in the real world, but it felt like I had fought for hours. After a point, though, Hela begins to send out unavoidable shockwaves that stagger Senua. Combat becomes tougher, though still survivable. The blasts increase in frequency. Soon I was barely able to survive, parrying blows for all I was worth while knowing that here, soon, it would end in slaughter. It felt like the game was out for the blood of hubris, tempting Senua and I into an attritional war that, full of arrogance, we thought we could win. When the shockwaves started I knew there would be no glory here, after all. The booms kept staggering Senua, whose hand reflexively went to her head each time. We scored futile parries, swung and sliced at a forest of bodies. The crushing numbers prevailed soon enough and, unseen, the final blow was struck.
The game's ending shows Hela picking Senua up and running her through, in fairly explicit detail. Then Hela herself morphs into Senua. Having finally given up on the hope of resurrecting Dillion, one interpretation would say, Senua is revealed as the true owner of this landscape, and 'kills' that part of herself that was stuck there.
Ultimately my interpretation of Hellblade's story is optimistic; I choose to see it as focused on Senua's grief over Dillion, and in the end her ability to leave him behind. But there is material here where it feels like the game is implying some seriously dubious stuff about mental health, even if by accident.
Allegorically, Hellblade represents Senua 'triumphing' over her inner darkness by fighting lots of battles and solving some puzzles, then literally dying to set up a symbolic rebirth. On top of this, if you collect all 44 runes in the game, you get a 'bonus' cutscene and the 'true ending.' These gaming conventions — from the idea that the player's efforts should ultimately win the day, to the simplistic conflation of accumulation and truth — are hoary enough already, but in the context of ambiguous subjects they can be a disaster. Senua's story accumulates a level of detail that works against interpretation, constantly sandwiching powerful interactive segments between cutscenes that tell you what's happened. Its arc, and I may be wrong here, seems to suggest that getting over bereavement or mental illness is a matter of effort, and on top of this it explicitly frames confronting these issues as a battle.
The more important thing is that, for me, the story Hellblade tells was in the end distinct from my experience with the game. I don't feel Senua's story did say anything especially profound about the process of grief, or had much insight into psychosis beyond translating a few of its symptoms into visual effects, though in the latter case there are undoubtedly more informed and experienced perspectives than mine. The beauty of a game, though - and for all its problems I think Hellblade is a great game - is that creators often says it's one thing, and then you discover it's really another.
As I played through Hellblade, becoming more comfortable with the combat system and learning of Senua's past, all the fragments of Norse myth and my own knowledge coalesced into a personal idea of what's going on. In the end what mattered to me in Hellblade was not Ninja Theory's story, but Ninja Theory's game. I'm not saying the hotchpotch cooked up in my own mind around what Senua was actually doing is a good interpretation; simply that a game's real story is always what you do in it. The cutscenes would say one thing, but the reason I kept playing Hellblade, was never the cutscenes. It was what Senua and I fought through together.