Is There No Escape From the Mind? Hellblade and Mental Health

I’ve been eagerly following the development of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice for many months, and the more I hear about it, the more excited I am for this title. Not only is the game technically innovative (their use of live motion capture is incredible), but their approach to mental health is similarly forward thinking.

Hellblade follows the journey of young warrior Senua in what, on paper, appears to be a standard revenge journey: having survived a Viking attack on her village, she leaves to seek vengeance and bring her dead lover back to life. However Senua’s travels are plagued by enemies both physical and mental. Hellblade explores the mental toll faced by Senua, and from what has been shown of the game so far, does so sensitively and truthfully.

Senua appears to suffer from depression and PTSD as a result of the Viking attack she survived, however it’s the inclusion and depiction of her psychosis that is most striking. Mental health is becoming less of a taboo subject, but this is only the case in certain circumstances and for certain symptoms. Depression and anxiety have become the ‘friendly’ mental illnesses – and in saying that I by no means intend to take away the suffering they can cause. These kinds of mental illnesses, or at least certain depictions of them, are more palatable and understandable to a mainstream audience than something like psychosis, which for many is still a frightening unknown.

The negativity towards manic symptoms is influenced by how media has represented these illnesses. For years crime shows and horror films have told us that psychosis equals violent, almost inhuman evil. Video games, especially those in the horror genre have continued this legacy and many titles still lazily cast people suffering from mental illness as villains. It’s genuinely refreshing to see a title like Hellblade, which is described by the devs as an “independent AAA”, depicting psychosis in a more nuanced light.

Hellblade is still in development, so it’s impossible at the moment to truly know how good its treatment of mental illness will be. However the developers, Ninja Theory, post regular dev diaries (two of which are linked in this post) that give insight into the process of creating the game. What is evident is several of these videos is their willingness to seek advice and knowledge outside themselves, in order to better the game. From what these dev diaries show Ninja Theory have sought consultation not only with doctors and academics, but with those who live with mental illness every day. Writing it down, it seems like such a obvious idea: in order to depict another’s reality honestly, ask those who share it. Sadly this is an idea so simple all forms of media often overlook it.

Games have the potential to teach us about the realities of other people, and while this can be done through its narrative, the most effective way is through game mechanics. Hellblade looks to incorporate Senua’s perception of the world into the game play. From what the studio has demonstrated so far this will involve finding hidden patterns in the environment, something that many people with psychosis experience. The commitment of Ninja Studio to this aspect of Senua as not only a vehicle to push forward the narrative, but as a integral part of how Senua views and experiences the world around her is exciting. It shouldn’t be such a novelty to see this kind of thoughtful representation in games, but hopefully more studios will take note and be more sensitive, and creative, in their approach to mental health.


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