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Senua standing in front of a burning tree in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Image: Ninja Theory

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Hellblade took big swings for a AAA game, and there’s never been a better time to play it

It might be almost 7 years old, but its complicated depiction of mental illness is worth experiencing, especially with a steep discount on Steam

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At The Game Awards 2019, Microsoft surprised everybody not only with the announcement of the Xbox Series X and S, but also with an in-engine tech demo that showed off the graphics that would be possible with the next generation of consoles. The goal was to show off the photorealism potential, and the game it chose was Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2. The trailer is terrifying and moody, with Senua belting out a Scandinavian folk tune and glaring intensely as flames and light surround her. If Microsoft wanted to make a memorable splash, it definitely succeeded.

Hellblade 2 was an interesting choice to announce the upcoming consoles. The first game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, came out in 2017, and while it made a strong impact on release with both critics and players, it sort of faded from public consciousness after a while. Anecdotally, I know a lot of people who had heard of it but didn’t play it, for one reason or another. But since Senua’s Saga has been delayed multiple times, with a release expected in May this year, it’s a good time to hop in. The game is short — around six hours long — but it took a big risk by putting a story about mental illness at the center of a AAA-level action game. Plus, it’s only $3 on Steam until Jan. 25, so you almost have no excuse.

In Hellblade, you play as Senua, a Pictish warrior who has traveled to Helheim (Norse mythology’s underworld) to save the soul of her dead lover and best friend, Dillon. While she’ll come across many of the creatures and beings you’d expect in such a setting, two elements make the journey more dire. The first is a rot that starts on her hand and spreads across her body the more you die in the game, with a promise (and threat) to erase all of your progress if it reaches her head. It not only raises the pressure of completing an already challenging experience, but it also drills into your head just how dangerous Senua’s quest really is.

The second are the hallucinations. Sometimes they’ll show up in the form of environmental puzzles and collectibles, like highlighting runes, but they also show up as voices, known as Furies. The Furies will inundate Senua (and the player) with commentary, most of it degrading. There’s also a narrator who’ll address the player in a deep baritone that overpowers any other Fury, and who tries to convince Senua of her weaknesses. The sound mixing allows the voices to come in from all around you (the game is definitely best experienced with headphones), telling you that you’re “pathetic” and “cursed,” and even suggesting self-harm.

Senua staring right into the camera in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Image: Ninja Theory

Much of the conversation around Hellblade concerns its depiction of mental illness, specifically psychosis. Senua has a physical goal to free Dillon, who was her only comfort, but she also seeks to find peace from her “curse,” which takes the form of auditory and visual hallucinations. Throughout the game, you’ll see flashbacks and gather clues from her reality, and how trauma and violence have affected her. While a lot of what she experiences is mythological in nature, the line is constantly being blurred between what is real and what Senua believes is real. That isn’t to say the game wants to completely cut her off from reality. In a way, it works to validate her point of view and create an understanding with the player about the nature of what she sees. Her psychosis isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if it can be harmful.

Developers at Ninja Theory worked with mental health professionals and people who’ve dealt with the condition to portray Senua’s journey in a sensitive manner. While the results didn’t always resonate with players across the board, and there are definitely criticisms to relay about using a serious condition as core narrative and game mechanic, the fact it brought up these conversations at all was novel in 2017. Of course, the indie scene and other smaller titles had been telling these stories long before Hellblade came along, and 2017 was actually an amazing year for thoughtful stories around mental illness and trauma (What Remains of Edith Finch and Night in the Woods came out that year, for example). However, among larger releases, it wasn’t quite as common.

I haven’t experienced psychosis, but I know how overwhelming mental illness can feel. I deal with intrusive voices that have convinced me numerous times that I’m worthless and cause me to go inside myself. Senua’s intrusive thoughts take a form that can actually shape her reality. But it’s not all dark. Senua’s psychosis offers her a reprieve in the form of Dillon, who she is traveling into the underworld to save. While Senua had been “cursed” from birth with these hallucinations, Dillon saw her as a person. She carries his head with her, but in her mind, he is very much present, speaking to her from a cloud of blue light. While psychosis is seen both in the game by others and in real life as something to be cured, here it provides her a sense of comfort. It provides a more multidimensional view that doesn’t force Senua to rid herself of it, which feels refreshing.

Even without all that, the game itself is stunning. Ninja Theory’s marketing ran with the idea that Hellblade was an independent game with AAA-level visuals, and the game still looks incredible even by today’s standards. It makes total sense why Microsoft would highlight Senua’s Saga for its announcement. If a 2017 game looks that great, imagine what the 2024 version would look like.