I don’t get to review video games very often– in fact, this is my first one ever. But I recently got the chance to play the absolute hellscape that is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and I knew that AleHorn devotees needed to hear about it.
I spent eight or nine hours absolutely terrified while I was playing this game, and not for cheap scares and jumps that modern horror games inflict on players.
Senua is a Celtic warrior from the Orkney Islands of Scotland, who has lost her beloved Dillion to Norse raiders and is determined to get him back– or at least, to put his soul to rest. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill Skyrim knock-off though. It’s not an open world, and it doesn’t need to be. You aren’t chasing down bear pelts and crafting weapons to level Senua up. You’re living the madness of her existence, and trying to complete her pigheaded goal: to save Dillion’s soul from Hela, Norse goddess of the Underworld. The Northmen took him away, and the Northmen keep him.
And what truly is the madness of Senua’s existence? She is dealing with some severe psychosis, paranoid schizophrenia, anxiety, and even depression. You see, there is no HUD (or heads-up-display), no map to tell you where to go, no health bar to let you know that you’re injured, no items to use to save your hide. You just have the voices in Senua’s head. Sometimes they scream, “Watch out!” to let you know an enemy’s about to strike. Sometimes they whisper to each other, “She’s dying, she’s hurt…” to warn you not to soak another hit.
Sometimes, they lie about where you need to go and what you need to do. That takes getting used to.
Ninja Theory, the company that created Hellblade, consulted an actual mental health expert, Professor Paul Fletcher of Cambridge University, to ensure that her trauma is accurate. In an interview with ScienceFocus.com, Fletcher said:
Senua is the hero of her own story, trying to make sense of her experiences and work her way through them – that’s incredibly de-stigmatising. In representations of mental illness onscreen, you usually have the illness first, and then a two-dimensional character attached to that. In this case, the character is fully-formed, and they are not defined by their condition.
Most exciting to me, of course, was the underlying Norse mythology. Senua’s Irish mentor, Druth, has died. But when she sees certain Norse runestones, he comes to her and tells her Norse myths that help her along her journeys. If you found Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology intriguing but aren’t a big reader, this is the game for you, because Druth tells many of these same tales to you. You have to find them, of course, and some are pretty hidden. But if you find them all, you’ll unlock a secret extra layer to Senua and Druth’s relationship which makes the game even more rewarding.
Of course, these stories come into play for Senua, too. She meets actual characters from these myths, and she embodies others in her quest, giving this game a feeling of cultural transcendence.
Is it all in Senua’s head? Does she really go to Hel and meet Hela? No spoilers, but I finished this game feeling both empowered and empty, and I know anyone who loves Norse mythology will find this game compelling.
Not convinced? Check out the trailer here.