As I near the bridge, the shadows draw closer around me. This, or so I’ve been told, is the way to to hell, to the realm of Hela herself. The Norse queen of the underworld has captured my faithful husband, his soul enthralled to her realm—and I’m going to get him back.
If Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is notable, it’s notable in spite of itself. There’s that name, redolent of black-metal album titles and a Simpsons game parody. (Bonestorm, anyone?) And even that Mad Libs nomenclature gets out-derivatived by the aesthetic: a moody, stone-and-fire dark fantasy affair, all dark clouds and bloodthirsty norsemen. It’s the sort of game most people would be inclined to look past, if they bother to look at all.
Which is a pity. Because the latest by British studio Ninja Theory (DmC: Devil May Cry, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West) is an unexpected treasure of a game, an intense meditation on trauma and violence at the edge of a mythic reality. It may look generic, but it feels vital.
The simple story of Hellblade, part revenge narrative and part Orpheus myth, is couched in psychological complexity. Voices attack you nearly from the game’s outset, binaural audio placing them all around you: whispers of despair, anger, fear, even deceit. These are the voices inside Senua’s own head. An onscreen content warning describes it as psychosis, but whatever the cause, the invasive auditory hallucinations render the environment around Senua unstable, constantly shifting as pockets of remembered trauma burst out into the world around her. It’s unclear if these are magic, trials crafted by cruel gods, or simply in Senua’s mind.
Senua has lived a hard life. Her father told her she was cursed by a supernatural darkness; hers is a mystical affliction. Her village blames her for a terrible plague, and for invasions from the wicked and dangerous Northmen. Dillion, her husband, is dead. She’s an action hero, but one who reacts to the violence in her world realistically—with pain.
So many games try to separate the violence at their center from trauma, but Hellblade doesn’t. It insists that violence begets trauma, and if we want to create and consume violent media, we have to confront that trauma. Senua does, certainly. She faces it, wrestles with it, draws her sword against phantoms—all in the hopes of defeating her trauma where it lives.
In that, Hellblade‘s dark fantasy becomes not a cop-out but a canvas, showing us a story about Senua’s struggle to make sense of herself after tragedy—and its aftermath, trauma—has left her nearly incapacitated. The puzzle-solving and hack-and-slash action Ninja Theory leans on to tell their story adopts a hard psychological edge. Puzzles are all about perception, about seeing the environment clearly: Looking through illusions, parse your own externalized trauma. Senua’s journey is a path to learning to see what’s real and what’s not.
Puzzles are all about perception, about seeing the environment clearly: Looking through illusions to parse your own externalized trauma.
The fighting, relatively infrequent for a title that looks so much like an action game, is brutish and harried. Senua is fast, but not ever quite as fast as it feels like she should be, and enemies come at you from all sides, forcing you to roll and twist and jerk your camera around wildly to keep up. Some, inevitably, will point to this as bad design, but it feels purposeful, like it took the ideas undergirding a traditional third-person action game and ran them through a horror lens. Some fights late in the game feel impossible, and you will be knocked down and get up more times than you think should be possible—yet throughout, Senua’s struggle and willpower remain absolutely central.
Hellblade doesn’t apply these ideas perfectly. Any depiction of mental illness, especially one as intense and unflinching as this, deserves critique. But good representation doesn’t have to be perfect. Just honest. And Senua’s story has that honesty, an intimate attention to its heroine’s struggle that comes through in every aspect of the game’s lush, frustrating, horrific, design. At one moment, somewhere around the game’s midpoint, the warrior widow just sits and screams, long and loud. She lets her pain and frustration hang in the air. Lets it hang free. Then she gets up and she marches into the darkness—a darkness she believes she can conquer.