When Hellblade came out last year, my PS4 owning brethren wouldn’t stop talking about it. I had seen YouTube videos of the game and was convinced that being an Xbox owner was finally turning into a not-so-great decision. As luck would have it, Ninja Theory released the game for Xbox One with the Xbox One X enhanced just before I committed to replacing my console with Sony’s machine. The game took around 8 hours to download over a 40mbps internet line, offering me a rare chance to get as many hours of sleep. Upon waking up, it had been decided that the only thing I would do for the rest of the day was play the game. I wasn’t able to play longer than four hours at a stretch because of how overwhelmingly good the game was. The game is a masterclass in what it means to make a game “true to life” or “immersive,” a word thrown around by anyone and everyone who makes something that has to do with visuals.
“She’s insane and will make you go crazy too…”
The premise of the game rests on the fact that Senua suffers from psychosis. She hears voices in her head that make her life difficult by warping her reality. Thing is, we’ve seen characters go insane in video games before, but none like this. My PS4 owning friend kept insisting that I use headphones while playing this game, and I scoffed in his face, saying I had a pretty damn good home theater system that would do audio far more justice than any pair of headphones could. I was wrong. Sorry PS4 owning friend, I’ll buy you your favourite hot chocolate fudge. The sound design of the game revolves around the “voices in Senua’s head” and if you’re playing this game with audio on speakers, you’re missing the experience. With headphones on, you’re suddenly transplanted into Senua’s head, where the voices in her head, are now voices in your head. All her thoughts. The angry ones, the scared ones and the ones that egg her on to do foolish things. Sometimes they speak one at a time and sometimes, its like an unrehearsed choir of opinions you’d rather not have. The voices aren’t in the game, they’re in your head. They are your companion and foe on your journey.
“Her delusions are your truth”
The voices in Senua’s head aren’t just unwanted guests, constantly clawing at her mind. They can sometimes overpower her, showing her what isn’t. During the game, Senua suffers from hallucinations, visions of demons and dangers that aren’t there. Her delusions become your reality, affecting the gameplay. Sometimes, the delusions are easy to overcome, sometimes, they’re crippling, sending your fellow cerebral companions into a state of panic. This adds a level of surrealism to the game that is unparalleled, throwing off the concept of what’s real and what’s not into a whole different level of…crazy.
“Putting in you the fear of death…”
Over the last few years, one of my biggest complaints about video games has been how “consequence-free” the gameplay has become. If you die, you just respawn at a convenient point in the game, making death irrelevant. Think back to the 8-bit video game days where if you died, at any point in the level, you had to start all over again. That’s what happens here too. Senua gets “tainted” and thus, rot starts to set into her hand. Every time you die, the rot reaches a little higher. At the very beginning, the game tells you that if the rot reaches her head, all save data will be deleted and you will have to start all over again. The game play is at times repetitive, and at times the battles are demanding. The thought of having to do everything all over again gives rise to a kind of anxiety I haven’t experienced in years. Every bit of the game will instill in you dread and anxiety, an experience that in many ways defines Senua’s every waking moment.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – Closing Thoughts
In the first four hours I played Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the brilliant visuals faded into the background when putting Senua’s condition into the mix. There are no instructions at the beginning of the game, no tutorials, nothing. You have to figure everything out for yourself, just like Senua does. The initial confusion I experienced with controls and navigating the immense world Senua sets out in is only paralleled by the character’s own lack of clarity. I couldn’t play longer than four hours in my initial sitting because the psychosis overwhelms you. The anxiety, the confusion, the paranoia…they all give you a glimpse of what people who suffer from these conditions go through every waking moment of their lives. This is by far the most beautifully written and executed game in modern history. This is a game from which every single other game maker can learn a lesson in how to shape their protagonist, how to make them more real. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a masterpiece of the human experience.