Yesterday, I popped on my noise-cancelling headphones to play a few minutes of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I could only play it for a moment before Polygon’s editor-in-chief, Chris Grant, and I needed to leave our hotel room. He was quietly playing his Switch on the couch behind me as I booted up the game. After making my way through the game’s intro, I hesitantly removed my headphones, turned around and asked him, “Uh… you weren’t talking to me while I was playing that, right?” He gazed up from his Switch, looked me in the eye and shook his head. I shivered in my seat and replied, “Okay, you need to play this and listen to what this game does with audio. It’s wild.”
I’ve played dozens of games that have promised me they were “best played with headphones on.” I usually take these games up on that advice, but I’m rarely blown away by the experience. Hellblade, on the other hand, earns its request. It uses a unique audio recording technique to tell a difficult story with equally difficult subject matter.
When we saw the game in motion a year ago, we were impressed with its incredible motion-capture technology — but I wager as folks actually play the game, they’ll be shocked by its use of binaural audio, a recording technique that uses two microphones to simulate a three-dimensional space. In short, the two microphones capture sound and their positions in 3D-space the same way your ears hear sound in the world. Some games may use this to help players better identify enemies and their position, but the game’s developer, Ninja Theory, use this technique to heighten the experience while tying it into the game’s plot. The results are fantastic and spine-chilling.
Hellblade’s story centers around Senua, a Celtic warrior who has experienced a great trauma and not only has to battle fierce enemies, but her own mental illness. The developers thankfully have consulted with mental health experts to both approach this subject matter with respect and accuracy. Prior to the start of the game, Senua developed psychosis, a condition that alters her perception of reality. It manifests in several ways throughout the game, but most notably through the realization that Senua is hearing multiple voices. From the beginning, you are introduced to the some of the voices — from the ones who doubt her, the ones who are fearful for her and the ones who understand Senua, guiding her along the way. The game’s use of binaural audio really shines in game’s opening sequence.
As Senua travels down a river alone in a small boat, her voices begin talking to her. They doubt the reason for her journey, scared she’s making a mistake; they’re whispering, urging her to turn back before it’s too late. Another, much louder voice is also present and acts as a guide for both Senua and the player. While the other voices do seem to dance around your auditory perception, the voice that speaks the clearest sounds as if it’s literally speaking in your left ear. I shivered as she spoke for the first time, almost like when someone gets extremely close to you and whispers in your ear. It sounds like she’s upon you, guiding you down the river. The feeling is uncanny — and frightening.
Fans of ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, will either love or hate this physical sensation brought on by mere audio. If you’re not familiar with ASMR, it’s a physical sensation triggered by sound, which is often pleasurable. There are more YouTube channels than I can count that will offer up audio experiences that should trigger the low level sense of euphoria that ASMR brings, but Hellblade offers the exact opposite. Playing the game made me fearful. I felt like I was being watched and I was surrounded. I felt every horrifying emotion Senua felt. I literally shook in my chair as voices were whispering in my ear.
I’m far from an expert in this area and I’m relieved that Ninja Theory consulted with experts to attempt to accurately depict the thoughts and feelings of those who suffer from this condition. If the developers were looking to instill fear and doubt in their players, their game succeeds. As the voices in the game talk about you, casting their own fears and doubts towards you, I couldn’t help but feel awful. As the “main voice” whispered in my ear, I felt a little disturbed by it. The feeling of having someone whisper in your ear but not be there is jarring. After about an hour of gameplay, I still couldn’t shake these uneasy feelings. Even thinking about it and writing it down now gives me small physical sensations of nervousness.
I’m certainly excited to dive deeper into the game. As far as I can tell, Ninja Theory has done a great job of using technology and medical expertise to tackle a difficult subject matter to tell an equally challenging story. I’ll be approaching my next playthrough with equal parts nervousness and curiosity.
And if I had to make a suggestion, I would disable any additional audio processing your computer, soundcard or headphones offer, outside of noise cancelling. There is a night and day difference when those additional features are disabled. To fully get the effect of the game’s audio, I recommend playing it as attended with simple stereo headphones, ideally with noise cancelling. Trust me.