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Hellblade and Why Mental Illness Needs the Mainstream Spotlight

August 9, 2017 Written by Michael Briers

Hellblade-Mental-Illness

Let it be known that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice isn’t your average mainstream title. It’s a “AAA indie,” according to developer Ninja Theory, one that’s largely set against a Nordic netherworld seething with myth and nightmarish monsters.

As the creative minds behind Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the somewhat contentious DmC reboot, players have come to expect a great deal from each new Ninja Theory release, and the studio has long been vocal about crafting its gaming experiences upon three crucial foundations: story, aesthetic, and combat.

That same DNA courses through the veins of its latest creative venture, but where Hellblade really sets itself apart is in its handling of mental health and, specifically, how it tells its fantastical, yet deeply intimate story through the wounded eyes of Senua. Shackled by a potent case of psychosis, in Hellblade, Ninja Theory’s Celtic warrior journeys through the fire and flames to rescue her wayward lover from the clutches of death itself, only in this instance the hell Senua experiences is actually a manifestation of her crippling mental illness. And therein lies Hellblade’s raison d’être.

Myth and Madness

Because make no mistake, as its first self-published and independently developed title, Senua’s Sacrifice is Ninja Theory’s passion project. In the three years since it was first conceived, the Cambridge-based studio has consulted world-leading neuroscientists and non-profit organizations like Wellcome Trust to properly capture the experience of psychosis and its devastating effects on the human mind. And given how prevalent mental illness can be, Hellblade is arguably one of the most important new releases of 2017.

Before we begin, it’s important to nail down the definition of psychosis, with Wikipedia describing the condition as so: An “abnormal condition of the mind that involves a ‘loss of contact with reality’. People experiencing psychosis may exhibit personality changes and thought disorder. Depending on its severity, this may be accompanied by unusual or bizarre behavior, as well as difficulty with social interaction and impairment in carrying out daily life activities.”

Hellblade-COVER

Feelings of isolation, confusion, and extreme fatigue often accompany this traumatic ailment, and Ninja Theory has called upon state-of-the-art tech and binaural sounds to evoke the voices and visceral visions that psychosis sufferers experience on a daily basis. In her journey upriver, Senua is plagued by fiery, nightmarish hallucinations that distort her world beyond recognition, and the whispering voices that snigger in the shadows, doubting your every move, only add fuel to the fire.

Sweeping, frenetic camerawork also amplifies the experience, as Senua turns to face the voices — turns to face you — in order to regain her tentative grip on reality. “The Hell in question is no ordinary Hell,” reads the game’s official description, “but is in fact a Hell that is the manifestation of Senua’s mental illness.”

Through the Fire and Flames

Because oftentimes our demons — our real demons — are invisible to the naked eye. So much attention is paid to our physical wellbeing in this day and age that mental health is often overlooked, brushed to the side or misrepresented as “crazy” or “insane.” Barring a radical change in eating and/or sleeping habits, there are no tangible symptoms, therefore making it difficult for others to sympathize and understand such an incredibly sensitive subject matter.

And for a studio that tends to straddle the line between indie and AAA, Hellblade represents an exercise in risk-taking for the team at Ninja Theory. That being said, regardless of how things pan out for the studio’s mystical new IP, Senua’s Sacrifice ought to be celebrated as an innovative platform — a platform on which players can gain some insight into psychosis and what it’s like to live with mental illness at its most extreme.

That mental health advisor Paul Fletcher gets top billing right off the bat is really a testimony to Ninja Theory’s delicate approach, and for her first time in the mo-cap suit, Melina Juergens is a revelation as the haunted Senua. By working closely with neuroscientists and those unfortunate few who have been diagnosed as psychotic, Hellblade carefully avoids those cheap, half-assed tropes that render a character insane and, therefore, woefully one-dimensional. Not only does it act as a disservice to those who suffer with mental illness, this practice of painting in broad strokes only minimizes the room for nuance, but Senua’s Sacrifice boldly cuts through the white noise.

“Although issues concerning mental health are beginning to be talked about more openly, the job of raising public awareness is far from complete,” said Leo Zullo, Managing Director, Wired Productions. “Our aim over the next year is to bring much needed funding to partners such as TakeThis, as well as other charities operating at local, national and international levels. The gaming community is such a caring collective, and we welcome its assistance in helping us bring these much needed support services to those that need it most.”

In short? It’s okay not to be okay. Whether it’s directly or indirectly, mental health is an issue we’ve all come into contact with in some shape or form. On a personal level, I’ve watched friends circle the jaws of depression and lost loved ones to suicide. I’ve succumbed to anorexia and unknowingly pushed friends away when I needed them most. That was four years ago, at a time when I was so incessant about the amount of calories going into my body that I put my own health at risk. It was tunnel vision, and I felt trapped — isolated, even. Diet was the only thing that I felt in control of, and anytime someone offered me advice — sound, reasonable advice at that — I waved away their pleas as hogwash. How foolish I was.

A Poignant Adventure

Some months later, and after a number of desperate pleas from close family and friends, I took the formative steps toward a healthier, happier life. My body was on the mend, and I could finally indulge in some chocolate without being racked with guilt. Anorexia is nasty and, in truth, difficult to channel into words. But back when I needed to expel my own entrenched demons, I decided to run a marathon — my first marathon at that — in order to jump-start my mental state, for lack of a better phrase.

In hindsight, dragging my slender frame across 26.2 miles of concrete probably wasn’t the greatest idea I’ve ever had, and my own personal struggle is not nearly on the same level as, say, those dealing with depression. But while playing through the early stages of Hellblade, those memories all came flooding back — the loneliness, the excessive worry, that nagging voice that tells you you’re not good enough. Point is, everyone has their demons, and ignorance only breeds contempt.

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Ninja Theory’s Dominic Matthews is of the belief that when it comes to mental health, “understanding is a route to destigmatisation.” To make the alien seem familiar and, ultimately, to foster conversation on a topic that is often banished to the shadows. And for that reason alone, Hellblade and the team at NT ought to be commended for their accomplished, deeply provocative Celtic thriller.

This is something that’s perhaps best captured in Paulmichael Contreras’ glowing review, in which he wrote that, “struggling through life as a psychosis sufferer is an alarming experience, and Hellblade provides an illuminating glimpse into the lives of those afflicted by such terror.”

Hellblade is now available across PS4 and PC. At only $29.99, Ninja Theory’s passion project has a very good chance of becoming one of summer’s only sleeper hits, and with its haunting storyline and tales of mental illness, it bloody well deserves to be.

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