Play it. Just play it.
It’s a rare game that defies so many conventions and leaves its audience both moved and somewhat unable to really grasp what makes it just so good.
And so it is with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
There is one detail about Senua’s character that defines the game, but certainly does not define her, and that is the presence of visual and auditory hallucinations. But, like all people with mental illness, there is more to this game than its symptoms.
The Basic Premise
The titular Senua is a Celtic warrior on a quest to find and liberate Dillion, her love, from the grasp of the Norse goddess Hela, after his death in order to reunite with him and live our their lives together. What follows is an adventure that poses questions about the validity of not only Senua’s reality, but of what objective reality truly is and if, at the end of the day, the only reality that matters is the one we experience.
If that doesn’t get you playing, I’m not sure what will. The story is beautifully revealed through the events of the game, as well as through Senua’s flashbacks and as filtered through the lens of her hallucinations, and early on it is clear that some of Senua’s hallucinations are meant to be helpful, and others are not, yet they are all ever-present during the game and throughout Senua’s journey, shaping it into an unforgettable, unique, and intimately moving experience that I’m truly not sure I’ve ever had with another game before.
Just when it seems like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice must be too story-intensive for its own good, being introduced through a narrative by an unidentified female voice who seems to know more than first appearances suggest, the player takes control of Senua and experiences the beauty of the world for themselves and is gently introduced to the fluid combat controls. From the first time Senua draws her sword, every movement she makes looks as if she’s dancing as she responds quickly and efficiently to the simply, yet effective, controls to fight, block, and dodge enemy attacks.
Like in Shadow of Mordor, I loved how responsive Senua is, responding to interrupted combat moves quickly, so much so that the game plays out as if a person truly were fighting and responding dynamically to the situation, instead of merely fulfilling a pre-programmed move before moving on to the next command.
There is more to the game than combat. It’s been discussed in other articles (and in the game’s short documentary) that people who actually have been diagnosed with mental illnesses and experience hallucinations were consulted and actively involved with the development of the hallucinations present in the game, and so those elements were worked seamlessly into the gameplay, as well. While some of these elements are best left experienced without spoilers in order to help the player truly experience what someone like Senua might experience in their everyday, one element that was a recurring theme and incredibly important to gameplay was how Senua solved puzzles in the different areas.
One portion of the game I particularly liked (spoiler free, don’t worry) was a section that involved using not only the skills that had been cultivated during the game, but also involved using your senses to attempt to make it through the various dark and disconcerting areas. Because these areas relied so heavily on the senses of the player, when the game began to manipulate the type of sensory information that you, the player, experienced, it added a level of realism – and a level of challenge – that I haven’t seen in a game in a long time (or perhaps ever).
To summarize the experience without talking about the specifics that make this game so special, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice offers a unique gameplay experience that handles mental health issues sensitively, and manages to draw the player in to Senua’s world in a much more visceral way than other modern games have been able to boast. Its gameplay mechanics are responsive and intuitive, and retains its replay value simply by its nature: the complex world and deep symbolism keeps drawing the player back into Senua’s complex, somewhat unnerving, and very real world.
We’re Always Here
Senua’s mental health concerns will be revisited in a future post, but the bottom line is that between its story, its gameplay and mechanics, the fantastic symbolism (which will be discussed below), and the beautifully sensitive way that it handles mental health issues, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that is definitely a wonderful experience from start to finish. If you play nothing else in 2017 (or any year, really), play this game.
If you have played the game, I invite you to continue as we talk about some of the themes and symbolism that comes up during Senua’s story.
Beware, there are massive plot spoilers below, and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is best experienced spoiler-free.
Story Analysis and Symbolism
Hellblade is full of many beautiful scenes and lovingly-crafted symbols and themes that I found it difficult to decide how to best organize this section into coherent chunks. There is a lot in this game that can be analyzed and discussed, but I will be focusing on the following questions*:
- Is Senua affected by more than one “darkness?” Where did it (or they) come from?
- Where did the voices come from, and where do they go?
- What is the rot?
- What is the purpose of the final, unwinnable, battle?
- Who is Hela?
- What is the significance of Senua’s father in the story? Of her mother? Of Dillion?
- Of what significance is the player in Senua’s journey?
These are, of course, my interpretations of the game, but I hope you’ll join me as I explore what might be hidden beneath the surface and giving Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrfice its moving story.
“The darkness” is a term that is often used in Hellblade, and the way it’s used suggests that it is a reference to Senua’s voices and hallucinations. However, there is a subtler meaning behind this term: the darkness of her grief. These two concepts aren’t as separate as one might think, and actually shifts the assumed meaning behind many of the events and the proclamations from the voices that Senua encounters.
In the very beginning of the story, we encounter a voice that welcomes us, saying that we are “new.” Likewise, this same narrator introduces us to Senua’s other voices, saying that some are older, and some are newer. So which voices are these?
The “older” voice is one that we hear taunting Senua, a deep, rich voice that tells Senua exactly how worthless she is: the voice of her father. This is not a hallucination, but rather the voice that Senua has assigned to her own self-doubt. We all experience moments of “talking to ourselves,” and it’s not uncommon for someone to comment that, when in a particular situation, they “heard” their mother or father’s voice, repeating something that they heard a lot when they were children. Senua’s father, the hypercritical, overbearing Druid priest, is the nagging voice that plays in Senua’s head whenever she begins to doubt, most likely echoing real conversations that she now – quite possibly – believes.
This is reinforced when we hear Senua’s father’s voice, and yet see Senua speaking to herself in the iron mirror. This isn’t a hallucination, this is simply one of Senua’s darknesses: the low sense of worth she was given by her father, personified by his voice, ever-present in her mind.
The second set of voices – including the narrator – didn’t arrive until later, after Dillion was killed and Senua found his sacrificed body. During this particular cutscene, we witness as Senua finds Dillion’s remains, falls to her knees, and is assaulted by a chorus of voices screaming at her – the very same voices that talk to Senua throughout her journey.
After the stress of living with her father, that was perhaps only beginning to be mediated by Dillion, Senua has the one good thing in her life taken away from her. Adding this layer of stress/guilt/anger/other psychological stressers to an already taxed mind results in Senua experiencing a psychotic break, bringing on both auditory and visual hallucinations.
This is indeed something that can happen. Sometimes people will hear stories of very bright individuals, perhaps in a university program, who suddenly have a “mental breakdown” and become schizophrenic. There is obviously many, many factors that go into this, including genetic predisposition and other environmental factors, but the gist of the actual break is that a person’s mind becomes so stressed that is “breaks” and starts functioning in what might be described as a fractured way.
A Brief Psych Moment
I’m about to horrifically over-simplify one aspect of schizophrenia, but one point to keep in mind about this diagnosis is that the brain doesn’t talk to itself the same way that a non-schizophrenic brain does. For instance, if I were to ask you to imagine talking to your best friend, the speech parts of your brain would light up. But even though speech areas were active, you might hear your friend’s voice, and imitate their manner of speaking in your mind. It might “sound” like your friend, but you would be able to clearly know that your friend wasn’t actually in your head speaking directly into your brain.
But the difference between your brain and a brain with schizophrenia is that the latter will not be able to identify that the “other” voice is, in fact, originating from itself. When a person “hears” voices, it is because their brain doesn’t recognize that it is their own brain talking to itself (for want of a better term).
Back On the Farm…
Senua is portrayed as being somewhat bright, insofar as she doesn’t “see the world” like other people do. It’s possible that her mother was schizophrenic, and so Senua has that genetic predisposition, but I don’t think she exhibited symptoms until her break. She does have heightened senses – smelling the foul plague smell before Dillion and his friends – but this is a real ability that she has.
Hallucinations are not usually shadows of things to come, after all. So, Senua is an incredibly intelligent individual, shunned by her society, isolated and ridiculed by her father, and, for want of a better term, in a somewhat fragile mental state, before seeing the one person who loved her and believed in her murdered. In her intense grief, and in the face of such an extremely stressful situation, Senua experiences a break from reality and gains a few voices, an altered experience of the world, and – perhaps worse – “the rot.”
The Rot is given to Senua by Hela, the Norse goddess of the underworld. This is a reference, of course, to the death of Dilion; it is something she “acquires” following finding his body. Considering this, the “rot” could also represent her grief/depression, which – for those people who have never been affected by major depressive disorder – can most definitely take root in a person’s body and totally consume, or even destroy, a person once it takes a firm hold of the person’s mind (aka their head). If this is the case, it can certainly feel like a “game over.”
Defeat and Enemies
Interestingly, the game tells the player that with each “defeat,” the rot will spread, with it eventually reaching Senua’s head and destroying her/the player’s save file. However, this is not true in the traditional sense, neither in the game nor in real life. The rot doesn’t “automatically” destroy Senua in the same way that depression is not a one-way road to darkness.
Eventually, the rot does consume her, and, in a way, she is destroyed. She becomes Hela, the cause of her suffering, and is only able to return to her true self by accepting the death of Dillion and letting go of her grief and stop being angry and fighting. There is significance for the final fight being so desperate and absolutely unwinnable, after all. As Druth comments, sometimes we are indeed our own worst enemies.
This is not to say Senua is at fault for her grief. One’s feelings are one’s feelings, and everyone is entitled to feel exactly how they feel. No one should ever be told they are feeling something “wrong.” However, it is one’s behavior after the feeling occurs that determine whether we will become our own villain.
Do we hold on to our grief, and anger, and refuse to accept reality, as Senua does, until is destroys us? Or do we accept things for how they are, make peace as much as we can and as often as we need to, and move on? If you pick the latter, then you, like Senua, might find that the “rot” is no longer a threat to your survival or mental well-being.
When taken together, Senua experiences a psychotic break, resulting (possibly) in schizophrenia, coupled with depression and severe feelings of low self-worth. But in the face of all this, Senua stays a “real” character from the start of the game to the end. She does not suddenly “get better,” as story characters tend to. She falls, she fails, she accepts love and – eventually – pain into her life, and she is never destroyed. Even when the rot reaches her head, even when she loses her lover and her sanity, even when she is forced to survive the demons in her own mind, Senua always stands up again, unbent despite her past, and continues on. Her own hero.
And sometimes, that’s the only kind that matters.
Have you played Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice? What did you think of it? Did you enjoy the symbolism? Do you think Senua is an example of an “everyday” hero, and what do you think that might mean for us in our own stories? Or have I overthought this whole game? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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