Games as Commentaries

 

There are very few games that I would describe as ‘important’, but Hellblade is one of them. Just like film and books, gaming is primarily an entertainment medium, and serves to grant us escapism and fun either with friends or alone. However, there are times when the media can transcend its’ conventional character dramas or plain stupid fun, in order make extremely relevant, and real commentaries on real world issues at the same time. And gaming can do it too, albeit rarely.

Gaming seems like it would be the last place such a message, due to it’s often disjointed and unique ways of storytelling that can be hard to design in a way that flows and makes sense. We’ve seen games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls attempt to hit hard, but unfortunately these games took such heavy control of their narratives that actual game play and player input was extremely limited.

The problem, is that it can be seemingly impossible for a game to deliver social commentary without taking the player away, and feeling like an observer to a story that they have to occasionally perform a QTE in. So that leaves the question, is it possible for a game to make an emotional, well crafted. but also fun experience that also brings attention to a real world issue whilst using action adventure game play? Yes. And Ninja Theory’s ‘Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’ does it in a terrifying, beautiful, and brilliantly inventive way.

A Beautiful Journey Into Hel

 

Hellblade tells the story of a Celtic woman named Senua, who has traveled to the Viking land of the dead (Helheim) to save the lost soul of her lover, Dillion. That appears to be a pretty cool, but ultimately shallow premise on paper, until you realize that the world of Helheim, those within it, and the beasts Senua encounters, are all a manifestation of her innermost fears, insecurities, and guilt.

This isn’t a story of overcoming a villain, or some overwhelming evil cooperation or supernatural power. This is a story of Senua fighting her own mind. Although it is never actually mentioned in the game, Senua suffers from ‘Psychosis’, a mental health problem that ‘causes people to perceive or interpret things differently away from those around them, which may manifest in hallucinations or delusions’.

Due to this, it isn’t really known how much we see in Hellblade is even real. Is it just a delusion of Senua’s mind? Or is it a very real threat that she is projecting her fears onto. To make the experience even more uncomfortable, Senua has voices in her head that will mock, insult, and scare Senua, but also occasionally encourage her as she fights back against them. The game uses ‘Binaural Audio’ through headphones to fully display the feeling of this, with them whispering and talking right into your ear like a terrifying form of ASMR.

However, this may appear to some to just be an experience that just seems to be horrifying and uncomfortable. Devoid of any fun or enjoyment, focusing on making the player afraid or even upset. That is NOT the case. Hellblade has a lot to say, some of it really hard to swallow, but the game is built around it’s highs and lows. The thing I respect most about this game is how it takes a difficult subject matter, but doesn’t use shock value and clearly disturbing imagery to cheaply scare you (*cough* Outlast 2 *cough*). It concentrates on breaking the player down, letting them feel Senua’s fear, and then you fight it and work through it together.

The game is not for the faint of heart, but for those who stick with it, it has absurdly beautiful, hair raising, and emotional moments of empowerment and inner strength. This combined with a beautifully epic soundtrack that thumps along as you slice down your foes can create moments of legitimate euphoria.

Speaking of slicing down foes, the gameplay of Hellblade perfectly contributes its themes. While it can be a little obtuse in terms of some of its puzzles and traversal of the world, it’s swordplay and particular puzzle segments really stand out to me. As mentioned earlier, Psychosis causes those who suffer with it to see the world differently, and in Senua’s case, that can actually help her interpret the environment differently and see things no one else can.

The real meat of the game play is Senua’s fight against ‘The Darkness’, an unexplained force that to pursues her across Helheim, even taking the form of Viking Gods. The game play is standard swordplay fare, heavy swings, light swings, a dodge, and a parry. The thing I really love about it though, is how close the camera stays to Senua during these battles. You can only target one enemy at once, and can sometimes be fighting 5 or 10 of them at once, and it evokes very scary, adrenaline filled claustrophobic battles. The voices in your head can also help as well as hinder you, indicating incoming attacks or encouraging Senua on.

Why Should You Play Hellblade?

 

Well the most obvious answer is the price, only coming in at £25 or $30. Ninja Theory explained in a recent development video that this concept of a game with AAA production value but built with a smaller scope and smaller price. They explained how it’s allowing them to make more personalized, unique experiences for certain groups of gamers rather than a full $60 AAA that has to be for everyone in some sort of way. The game still comes in at 7-9 hours, depending on how much you stop to smell the roses. And you might want to do that, as this is an extremely graphically impressive experience.

I love this because it allows them to really make the games they want to make, without being restricted by publishers (Ninja Theory now publish under their own name). The game has already been a huge success, with brilliant reviews basically across the board (and another one here). I only hope that it’s surprise success with make other developers consider this concept of the ‘middle price game’, as it could really breathe some new life into the industry.

But at the end of the day, the real reason you ought to play Hellblade Senua’s sacrifice is because you owe it to yourself to. This isn’t a game that will beat you down and leave you disturbed to raise awareness for an issue, this is a game about fighting, empowerment and understanding yourself. It’s tough at times, don’t get me wrong. But it’s worth it just to see where Senua’s journey takes her.

 

‘I have a sword here, that can kill a God’. – Senua