Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
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Game Reviewed: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Developer: Ninja Theory
Platform: PS4, PC
Category: Action/Adventure, Psychological Horror
ESRB Rating: M
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The most important thing to know about this game is that its creators made it with a specific purpose in mind: a risky but important goal that, if successful, could make for a wholly unique and very important experience. They set out to simulate severe psychotic mental illness.
Terms like that are usually used pretty loosely, and most media, from movies to video games, tend to equate them with violent insanity. It’s attached to serial killers, to power-hungry fantasy villains, and occasionally to well-meaning protagonists that didn’t realize everything they thought was real was actually a lie. But video games are capable of so much more than that; they can make you live in someone else’s shoes, give you a taste of what the experience of actually being another person is like. And that’s what Ninja Theory hoped to accomplish with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
The game follows a young pict warrior named Senua. Her home was destroyed by vikings, and her lover brutally murdered. So she carries his head with her as she journeys to Hell, inspired by the Norse mythology of the people who took him from her, in hopes of retrieving his soul.
To say any more would be to spoil some things best left unspoiled; and for that matter, so will talking about the rest of this. So just know that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has some graphic violence and disturbing thematic content that may be hard for children to handle, and for that matter will be a difficult (yet affirming) experience for people who suffer from similar effects of psychosis. But if you can handle those things, this is absolutely an experience worth having.
Now let’s look into the details.
What Parents Need to Know
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice consists primarily of exploring the environment as the voices in Senua’s head swirl around her, and fighting enemies that show up now and again to challenge her. Battles are fought with a sword, and enemies weild a variety of similar midieval melee weapons (i.e. sword, axe, throwing knives). When Senua or her enemies are hit with these weapons, there’s a splash of blood. The combat feels weighty and visceral, but isn’t particularly graphic.
The graphic violence in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice comes from the hellish landscapes and nightmarish environments that Senua journeys through. Bodies float in rivers, bloody forms hang from suspended cages, corpses are splayed and suspended with rope. One particularly hellish environment is made up almost entirely of bloody bodies flanking Senua as she wades through a river of blood. Senua’s world is a dark and hopeless one, and since she’s journeying to Hell, this is reflected in the game’s visual design.
Language is rare, but present. Senua uses the F-word at a particularly desperate moment, and lesser vulgarities make occasional appearances.
The bodies that litter the landscape of Senua’s journey to Hell are often unclothed, but also so bloody and battered that the player basically just sees the form of some butts. It is not sexualized in the slightest. In addition, the goddess Hella (the guardian of Hell) is seen at one point in a feminine form, with breasts that do not look like normal, fleshy female breasts, but are nonetheless there.
Senua’s journey to Hell is based largely on Norse mythology. Stones throughout the game tell stories from this tradition, ranging from the story of Sigurd to the tales of Ragnarok. These stories influence how Senua’s journey to Hell manifests, as her perception of Hell is based on these stories.
This isn’t a bad thing, but it is nonetheless worth mentioning that this game pulls no punches in its depiction of severe psychosis. Senua often panics, screaming in the face of great horrors. She harms herself with hot metal at one point in the game. The voices in her head are sometimes encouraging, sometimes questioning, and other times they berate and discourage her. This game can be difficult to experience sometimes, which is part of its brilliance, but is nonetheless something some people may not be able to handle well.
The primary goal of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is to accurately portray the struggles of a woman suffering from severe psychosis, and to this end the game succeeds splendidly. Not only does it use the unique interactive nature of video games to communicate this experience in a profoundly personal, experiential way, but it ultimately emphasizes the responsibility that we have, as a society and culture, to understand these conditions without demonizing or stigmatizing them. It’s a stark, heavy portrayal of its subject, and it does an excellent job.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice includes a documentary about its creation on the disc. This may be standard for DVDs, but it’s not very common in video games. However, the creators of this game felt it necessary to include an explanation of why they made this game, and the lengths to which they went to ensure that it would accurately represent the experiences of people who suffer from the same severe psychotic mental illness that Senua does. And it shows.
The people they worked with speak of how the game’s audio design, which simulates the voices in Senua’s head in full surround sound (play with headphones if at all possible, it’s an experience), is a stunningly realistic simulation of hearing voices. They speak of how the game contextualizes Senua’s psychosis in a society that fears and persecutes it, and how that relates to their own experience in a world in which mental illness is still woefully misunderstood and heavily stigmatized. This game, they hope, could change how people view them, and help others understand what they go through.
Their voices matter more than mine on that topic, of course, as I’ve never suffered these symptoms. What I can say is that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a harrowing simulation of a psychotic breakdown that I am absolutely better off for having experienced, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates a good story that can change their perspective on the world, and the people in it we may not relate to naturally.
That stark portrayal comes with some rather intense imagery and emotion, and it certainly earned the M rating. So I definitely would not be comfortable recommending this to a child. But if you or your teenager are mature enough to handle such intense subject matter portrayed so viscerally, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice comes highly recommended.