"Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice" is one of the best video games ever made

Last night I finished my playthrough of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, a journey which took me about eight hours. As I watched the epilogue, I was so captivated that when I snapped back into self-awareness, I realized I was sitting with my jaw wide open, hand covering my mouth, and eyes dry from being so fixed on the screen yet watering from the heart-wrenching sadness unfolding before me. I've never played a game that engrossed me in such a tragic and powerful story. Hellblade is a rare kind of video game, one that elevates the entire medium to true art. Its authentic performances, created with stunning motion-capture, moved me as much as any great Oscar-winning film I've ever seen. I spent hours afterwards contemplating what I had experienced and was eager to discuss it with others who've finished the game. It's also centered on a topic that has long been considered taboo in many artistic mediums: mental illness.

Major spoilers for Hellblade follow

Hellblade tells the story of Senua, a Pict barbarian journeying through the Norse underworld to rescue the soul of her lover, Dillion, from Norse realm of Hellheim after the Northmen invaded Celtic lands and offered Dillion as a sacrifice to their gods. At least, that's the setup. How she got there (and where "there" really is), who she is, what she's experienced... all of these things unfold slowly over the course of the game, and nothing is quite as it first appears.

As in the case with many films and games that muddle the protagonist's perception with objective reality (think films like American Psycho or Inception), players might be compelled to try and decipher what is real and what is simply in Senua's mind. But the game never offers any such clarity, nor even alludes to it. The entire game is viewed from Senua's perspective as she struggles with her own psychosis. Everything is real, because it's her reality.

Senua never meets other characters in the world—at least, not in the conventional sense to which we're accustomed in video games. She'll hear the voices of her stern Druid father, or her frightened mother. She's comforted by her friend, Druth, as he tells her tales of the Northmen and their gods. She sees her lover, Dillion, as an apparition of light; but, in darkness, she may perceive him there with her, touching her, talking to her softly. She's frightened of the 'darkness' consuming her—her own psychosis—which has made her a pariah in her village and sent her mother to the stake when a plague swept the village.

Developer Ninja Theory worked with psychology staff from Cambridge, as well as patients who suffer from psychosis, to make Senua's psychosis as authentic as possible. She hears voices and hallucinates, but—as the developers remarked in a short documentary about the game—that's kind of low-hanging fruit. There are more complex illusions, like when Senua starts to connect shapes and patterns she sees in the world or when the world takes on vivid color or oppressive darkness. Walls might melt or move; she might be pursued in near-total darkness by unseen creatures; she might create new pathways through her perception alone, while believing that nefarious beings and forces are trying to deceive her. Most fascinatingly, when the game was test-played by people suffering from psychosis, they were unable to perceive any signs of mental illness in Senua's world.

Hellblade is, of course, still a video game. Finding a balance between the narrative elements and the interactive components can be a difficult juggling act for developers who want to explore more complex themes, but Hellbade's integration is exemplary. The game is largely a puzzle game, in which Senua deciphers patterns in her world to reveal new paths forward; but it's also a classic hack 'n slash in the vein of God of War, since Senua is a great Pict warrior. Some of her foes are very human while others are monstrous, but the combat is precisely as it should be—simple to learn and difficult to master. Senua has a fast strike, a heavy strike, a parry, and a dodge. As she encounters more advanced foes (in ever-increasing numbers), careful timing of combat maneuvers and crowd control become essential to victory. The combat never feels shoehorned in, either, but rather woven seamlessly into the game and reflective of Senua's fragile mental state.

Hellblade never provides the kind of resolution we might be looking for. In the final battle, Senua is overwhelmed. She never defeats her psychosis—only comes to terms with it. She cannot save Dillion, and instead must come to accept his death. In the final scenes, as the darkness is revealed as Senua herself and she bids Dillion a bittersweet farewell, I was as overcome with sadness, hope, and release as powerful I've experienced in any artistic medium.

This ambitious game represents a milestone not just for the medium itself, but for indie developers like Ninja Theory. Five or ten years ago, a game with such high production values would have been well out of reach of a small developer; but with the powerful Unreal Engine 4 at its core, Ninja Theory were able to focus on executing a small number of features very well, and were able to match the relatively brief experience with a fair price of $30. Working under a conventional publisher would have forced them to adopt a conventional $60 pricing model, and feature-stack the game with unnecessary additions like multiplayer or online play.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a provocative exploration of mental illness and a deeply human experience that video games are uniquely suited to create. It's beautiful, haunting, tragic, and bittersweet—a game that deserves to be recognized as a watershed moment for the medium, and one that shows video games to be as capable of deeply evocative experiences as literature, film, and art.

Note: All screenshots were captured on my PC, running the game on 'very high' settings


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