Bear with me here because while this is technically a post about a video game, this isn’t actually a post about a video game. I would say it's more like a mental health awareness PSA poorly disguised as an unconventional review. I finally had a chance to sit down (I didn't actually sit at all for the duration) with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and I think the first and most important thing to say was that it wasn't just a great gaming experience but that it was the single most important gaming experience of my life. While, yes, it was challenging in its gameplay, it was also challenging on a very fundamental human level.
I'm going to try to avoid spoilers as much as possible but because I believe one of the purposes of this game is to open a dialogue, I would be remiss if I did not engage in that dialogue. So I will try to avoid spoilers but probably not very hard as there is a lot I want to talk about. Apologies in advance. With that being said...
Senua is a Pict warrior returning home, after being exiled for hearing voices, only to find her loved ones slaughter by the Northern Viking invaders. The game depicts her during the progressing throes of her psychosis. The developers, Ninja Theory, worked closely with mental health professionals, historians, as well as patients of specific disorders to depict the sights and sounds in a realistic way. One of the ways they did this was by using a binaural audio recorder to simulate actual internal sound. You hear everything as Senua hears it.
As the player, while it's not specifically stated, I feel like we are introduced more to Senua as a new voice in her head rather than just a controller. Some of the opening whispers do seem to suggest this as well as her subtle but direct interaction with you. Anyway, it’s from this perspective that we travel with her as she tries to find meaning in her quest. The puzzles, sights and sounds are all based on realistic symptoms. The combat can only be described as ethereal. Not only did I constantly question if she was even fighting anything real, but I questioned a great deal of everything else as well. How much of what she's seeing is real?
One of the things I loved was how sometimes, at points in her journey, she acknowledges you with a nod or an angry growl. She passes her gaze across you as she's look around in the directions of the whispers. Some of them would be helping her, other would be debilitatingly hindering. I would react to the game and she would look at me. Well timed game design folks.
Sometimes I had to stop playing because of how intense things were getting. But then I would remind myself that there are people living like this everyday. People who’s perspective on the world is so fractured, so broken, and yet they still find beauty in it. They don’t get to stop. Not ever. So I would press on.
I’ve never been so emotionally entangled in a game before. I was hurt, scared, & enraged along with Senua. I cried for her. I screamed at her to keep moving. I begged her to turn back. Even while my hands were propelling her. Not only because of the atmosphere or the darkness but because of the empathy the game creates for her. I argued with the Furies as the whispered condescension to her, as they gave her wrong or ill advice. One time, after shit got really crazy and Kat was working next to me, I remarked how badly, "she needs a fucking hug". I just needed to help her. To let her know she wasn't alone. That I wasn't just a voice in her head but a real, empathizing individual. I know. It's just a videogame. I don't totally understand either.
There was a moment during the last leg of her journey, where she was just overwhelmed with enemies that just kept on coming, where her fear and pain gave way to raw defiance. It was the single most beautiful thing I’ve ever felt while playing a video game. She’d had enough, I’d had enough. Her defiance became mine and I roared as we drove forward. The whole experience was a war cry to live, breathe and be.
It is a beautiful, life affirming experience that everyone who plays games at all should try at least once. And always keep in mind that we don’t all see the world as it is. Love each other and be as understanding as you can to those who may not. Their every moment is a nightmare, and yet, they persist.
Be prepared. It’s difficult. It's not Souls or Bloodborne difficult. It’s not relentless to the point of almost being demoralizing. It’s challengingly hopeful and between the combat, the puzzles, and the mind games, it did require most of my lifetime of gaming experience. There is no HUD at all, no map, no guide. The only help you get is from the Furies that whisper to Senua and they can be unreliable if not detrimental at times. The only health visual is the darkness on her arm. Every time you make a mistake, it spreads upward a little, growing each time. If it reaches her head, she has given in and she dies. The journey must be started again. I made it through the first time on easy and I finished as it was just reaching past her shoulder toward her neck.
Other than the thumbnail from Ninja Theory, all screenshot are from my playthrough on my XB1X.