Minor spoilers! All images captured by the author on PS4.
Throughout Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice the titular heroine is taunted, abetted and only occasionally assisted by the voices in her head. In one particularly tenebrous dungeon, they clamour over whether the torch in her hand will extinguish. Whether true or not is irrelevant, a profound sense of malaise dogs all further progress through the labyrinthian halls.
Accomplished as this is without a text prompt or a “light” meter only serves to strengthen the player’s immersion and connection to Senua. We feel the same creeping disquiet she must; imagine the same hyperdontic monster waiting around the next corner. Naturally, nothing actually is lurking in the shadows but as the line goes, “the hardest battles are fought in the mind.”
The same measured approach is what defines all of Hellblade. There’s no loot to be had, mini-map to follow, HUD to muddy the screen, collectibles to scavenge, side quests to begrudge, tutorials to endure, customization to nitpick, or levelling system to grind through.
Yet despite all of that, in its opening hours, Hellblade presents a very safe and familiar progression arc: enter a stage, solve a few puzzles, fight some bad guys, finish with a boss. The idea that psychosis sufferers recognize hidden patterns and meanings in the world around them is the foundation for the game’s environmental puzzles, and here we see it form the basis for the level design also.
The structured linearity of these early stages allows the player to establish a sense of security and belies the notion that, despite her horrific psychosis, Senua is still in relative control of her actions. As a result, when the pattern is inevitably broken, when Senua steps out onto the bridge that leads into the Norse underworld, the loss of control felt by both her and the player is all the more palpable.
It is then that Senua is confronted with bloodstained visions from her past. These flashbacks, designed by the malevolent voice in her head (a manifestation of her guilt?) to torment, are incoherent and as uncontrollable as the fire that rages through them. This lack of a clear narrative is represented in the game world, where the weather and geography change erratically, and enemies walk out of thin air.
Indeed, enemies seem to appear when Senua’s psyche is at its most strained and grow increasingly amorphous as the game progresses, reinforcing the incorporeal nature of her reality. Combat isn’t a particularly regular occurrence, however, and large swathes of the game forgo it entirely, so much so that it’s easy to wonder whether it was necessary at all.
When it does happen, the encounters can often feel like a drawn-out slog, especially towards the game’s conclusion. The boss battles, meanwhile, few as they are, last so long you can’t help but wonder whether you’re actually doing any damage. Perhaps this balance of few but lengthy battles was intended to reflect the periodic nature of Senua’s illness: her psychosis is a battle of attrition, one that is manifest most violently at irregular intervals.
Later, Senua is challenged by Odin to complete four trials, the second and last time the player can decide the order of events. To continue the idea that Senua’s mental state is reflected in the game’s level design is to see how fractured her mind has become. That there should be four paths forward, each a trial more hellish than the last, only speaks to the extent of her guilt.
At the center of all of this is Senua’s beloved Dillian. Psychosis sufferers often describe how the world appears to them as one great question they are helpless to answer. If the illusory runes Senua sees inscribed on doors are part of that puzzle, Dillian is surely the key; the quintessential piece to the one puzzle Senua can never solve. Without him she is lost, another soul trapped in Hel, a place of darkness for the old and the sickly, and a harrowing metaphor for the debilitating, all encompassing loss Senua feels.
And so Hellblade is Senua’s search for meaning not just in the world around her, but in herself. It’s a quest that takes her to the depths of the underworld, to confront the goddess of Hel, to make the ultimate sacrifice if only it could save Dillian. This bleak, dreadful nightmare is reality as Senua sees it. What we see is something similar: a psychosis sufferer struggling to come terms with their grief.
What happens next doesn’t bear spoiling but in some ways it represents the complete and absolute collapse of Senua’s psyche. Borne on the fancies of her mind, she is made to fight hordes of towering monsters in a place more traumatizing, more otherworldly than any that have come before. All the while, the voices of dead loved ones cry out from beyond.
The only time Hellblade breaks its illusion is to describe its permadeath mechanic. Die enough times and the black rot creeping up Senua’s arm will reach her head, signifying that her sanity has been lost and taken the player’s save file with it. It’s a novel idea and one that gives meaning to otherwise weightless encounters, but given the auto-scaling difficulty, and how the rot seems to spread whether you die or not, it can feel a bit like an empty threat.
Overall, for a game about fleeting sanity, Hellblade's design is remarkably judicious. By striping away a lot of the extraneous trappings of modern game design, it is able to focus on its subject matter in a way few can. Be it combat or puzzle solving, each and every aspect of its design has been carefully considered for its thematic significance.
At its worst it feels like a tech demo, at its best Hellblade is a bold, confident, brutally honest exploration of a tortured psyche. When executed as masterfully as it is here, no other medium can plant you so firmly in the protagonist's shoes. If you care about videogames as more than ephemeral vacuums to plug your downtime, or just like incredible value, Hellblade is an essential experience.
Was your interpretation of Senua’s journey into Hel different from mine? Let me know in the comments below!