My father passed away when I was 9 years old, leaving me with my mother as my only caretaker. I had noticed even as a young child that mom seemed to be a “little off” sometimes, but it wasn’t until shortly after my dad died that she began showing symptoms of schizophrenia in earnest. I had to become a grown-up a lot faster than I should have — and when she had a particularly severe psychotic episode, it became my responsibility to keep her safe.
So I was excited to see that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a new game from indie developer Ninja Theory, planned to tell a story through the eyes of Senua, the protagonist who’s living with psychosis. The team even consulted mental health professionals to avoid portraying Senua as stereotypically “crazy,” instead trying to help players understand what it’s really like to live with a mental illness.
Senua is a great character, and Ninja Theory did an admirable job attempting to portray the complexities of psychosis, but the game fails to help people truly understand its nature.
I have a lot of experience caring for individuals with mental illness. Besides my mother, I also monitored and mentored individuals in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and later worked as a Kentucky Department of Corrections contractor monitoring halfway houses. Looking at the myriad ways in which mental illness in general and psychosis in particular can manifest, I would be the first to say that either is a hard thing to capture in a meaningful way in video games. The reason we rarely see a game that deals with mental illness is because there’s no easy way to show someone what living with an ailment like schizophrenia is really like.
The reason we rarely see a game that deals with mental illness is because there’s no easy way to show someone what living with an ailment like schizophrenia is really like.
In the game, players are left knowing that Senua lives with “psychosis,” but that term typically refers to a symptom of an illness — not an illness itself — or a reaction to an environmental factor. Knowing the truth of her world — of her diagnosis — would have helped us to tangentially experience what those affected by schizophrenic behavior suffer through each day.
(Editor’s Note: Massive spoilers for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice below.)
I don’t doubt that Ninja Theory did its best to make Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice as kind and accurate in its portrayal of psychosis as it could. However, in attempting to make the concept accessible, the narrative fell short of focusing on the topic. Instead, it becomes a plot device to propel Senua through Helheim. If you took away the conceit that Senua lives with psychosis and replaced it with real demons, ghosts or dark magic, how different would the game be?
If you took away the conceit that Senua lives with psychosis and replaced it with real demons, ghosts or dark magic, how different would the game be?
One of Hellblade’s biggest issues is that, if you go into the game without any background information, you might assume that Senua is living with delusions and Norse mythology-inspired hallucinations — or you might think that she’s being haunted by demons and ghosts.
It’s only later on in the game that you learn about her “curse” — her disease — and how her abusive father tried to keep her locked away to protect her from her mother’s suicidal fate (and how even her beloved boyfriend, Dillion, turned on her because of his misconceptions about her illness).
Those revelations should come as bombshells, but they lose their punch in the context of the game. The spectacle of battling fire giants and skull-faced killers tends to overshadow the real story of Senua’s self-blame and redemption.
The portrayal of Senua’s mental illness would be better served by showing both sides of her story: what’s in her head and what’s actually happening.
The problem with Hellblade is that, while it may give players some idea of what it’s like to experience auditory hallucinations or struggle with perceiving what’s real or not in the game, they don’t get any standard by which to measure Senua’s journey into mental illness.
What was Senua like when she was young? What were her hobbies? Her likes and dislikes? My mother was a brilliant woman, and I watched her struggle with her illness and degrade until she was basically a husk. Seeing her slowly lose interest in everything she loved struck me with a profound sadness. I knew she was losing the final strands that kept her connected to our world.
We don’t see that in Hellblade. We don’t share that sort of sorrow with Senua, and the narrative suffers because of it.
Since we have no baseline of Hellblade’s universe other than our time with her, we don’t know how plausible any of the supernatural events in the game are. Instead, we’re left not knowing what actually happened and wondering what was in Senua’s mind.