To say mental health representation in games has been rocky is to describe WW2 as “a minor kerfuffle that ended when America gave Japan a little bit of a slap”. Even if you only stick to representations of schizophrenia, games will usually take the Hollywood “homicidal schizophrenic” approach despite research suggesting schizophrenics are more a danger to themselves than others. I can take a bit of pop-culture representation, but when that’s all there is then it becomes frustrating, like a pub selling only one brand of beer. Hellblade takes the bold route to try to represent schizophrenia as realistically as possible. While it does a good job on focusing in on a realistic depiction of schizophrenia, its tunnel vision and quest for “independent AAA” leaves it unfortunately vulnerable to other tripping points.
Hellblade is a third-person action-adventure title (yes, that genre name makes me cringe too) with a historical psychological bent set during the age of Vikings plundering England. You play as Senua, a young Celtic woman who upon losing her loved one decides to quest straight into Hel to recapture his soul. Except, well, it is all in Senua’s head as she hallucinates voices whispering cruel things into her ear; they are violent warriors trying to cave her skull in and people from her past reminding her of what once was before she was left alone.
To preface this section, I am not a psychology professional. While I have some psychological academic learning (A-Level and a BSc minor in it) and did some research of first-hand accounts and professional diagnosing and symptoms (partially in the form of ICD and DSM classification guides) on schizophrenia, I could still be very wrong.
I’ll get my criticism of Hellblade‘s approach to schizophrenia straight out of the way: We are still, mildly, trapped in the archetypal schizophrenia definition. It seems there is an over-emphasis on delusions/hallucinations (the symptoms pop culture knows and loves) and much less nods to the other symptoms. In accordance to the other symptoms, while they do still appear, there is very little appearance of disorganized speech, grossly disorganized behavior (well, except maybe the head-in-the-sack thing) or negative symptoms. It is a nit-picking point, especially as naturally each person experiences their mental disorder differently, but I personally would have liked to see more attention drawn to lesser known symptoms for raising awareness sake.
That said, the representation of schizophrenia in Hellblade is simultaneously enjoyable while thoughtful and subtle. It isn’t just Senua stabbing the demons of her mind (although that is actually a part of it), but also seeing faces and patterns in the environment, seeing the walls crawl with a strange foreboding texture and experiencing environmental changes both severe and minor. Ninja Theory even goes as far as to represent the more subtle problems that come with the condition (e.g. the hereditary nature, the noticeably higher-than-average suicide rate and the effect schizophrenia has on others besides the schizophrenic). All the research done is on display, sometimes blaring like a desperate banshee scream and sometimes as subtle as a misplaced fallen leaf on a landscape. It is sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, but always feels true.
This is especially as the schizophrenia representation isn’t simply layered upon our cultural views of what frightens and shakes us, but rather the views Senua would hold and experience. While some of it is influenced by Celtic beliefs, the hallucinations and delusions are extensively influenced by Nordic religion as fed by her friend Dreuth and by the invaders from the north. This includes claiming Gram from a living tree, fighting Surtr the fire giant and trying to reclaim a soul from Hel. My only confusion lies in having to slay Valravn who is depicted as an illusion-heavy god, which in the original text…Eehh…Not really? However what is there does serve to reinvent a lore source considered decrepit, worn and undead at this point, by making it more personal to Senua.
Then we get to the fightin’. Every so often we get thrown into small arena sections to fight off the rising spirits of northern invaders. While simple in nature (auto-lock, change target, light/heavy attack, block ‘n dodge, slow-mo Matrix mode), there is a wonderful fluidity to it. The fluidity even extends to flitting between enemies, felling them before they can put you down. If you fall, you’ll be thrown to the floor and given a chance to back off and lick your wounds before being potentially killed.
That said, it feels, well, too easy. Maybe all my hours mastering Mount & Blade: Warband, Bushido Blade and For Honor combat has paid off, now rendering me an unstoppable warrior against AI monstrosities, but even on hard, I found the fights surprisingly forgiving and easy. Even the bosses are laughable, as I darted around easily telegraphed hits and retreated when things went wrong like a dancer, as well as triggering counters reliably. It honestly made me hunger for a last-stand mode that got increasingly crushingly harder really, as the combat system here is superb.
Earlier I did mumble about “independent AAA”, and you may wonder what this would mean. The idea is the production of AAA on a fraction of the budget with the game being sold at a fraction of the price (£25 instead of £40-£50 in case you’re curious). Using a kit bag of tricks, it seems they’ve tried to gun for a similar graphical and animation quality to AAA titles.
This has honestly left major figures like Senua, the hallucinations and creatures as having a high quality graphical appearance. Considering they also worked with high quality audio to achieve the auditory hallucinations (which includes an 3D audio effect so bring headphones!), it’s honestly impressive what they bring to the table on such a small budget. So much so that the motion-capture of Senua does accidentally creep into uncanny-valley territory occasionally, and the visual hallucinations of Dreuth/father creep under the skin a little.
That said, like a businessperson who has never known bad times or ever lost anything will inform you with a smug expression on their face, “You can’t achieve anything without sacrifice”. In Hellblade, to achieve the noticeable graphical/audio prowess, sacrifices were very much made. More subtle textures like rocks do tend to have a lower resolution, and the game has a very linear approach to adventuring as you wander from one somewhat small closed section to the next solving puzzles (which includes using Senua’s sword with hallucinatory abominations).
Then we arrive at the ending, and well, this is where the Hellblade crumbles before my eyes. Let’s take it one-step-at-a-time.
Narratively, the ending is filled with more problems than a Uwe Boll production. For a start, it may make no sense to you. To me it flirts with sense. Then I found out a crucial piece of information is locked unless you get all the collectibles. Even with said information which does clear up an important part, well, it doesn’t make much sense. Something about over-coming your schizophrenia by fighting the demon who made your struggles with reality worse? Jesus Ninja Theory, I hope I’m misunderstanding this. That said, considering the auditory hallucinations persist, it seems not the case, but you still “fight your own demons” to quell your psychosis. It is a style of ending that honestly felt wrong for the subject matter.
Then again, this narrative isn’t helped by a sequel bait: the type of bait absolutely unnecessary for the subject matter, but none-the-less carried out with the type of none-too-subtle-hint that a writer crafts with glee to the weary sighs of the audience.
The gameplay isn’t much better. Remember how I lamented on how much I’d love a last-stand mode to really push me to my limits. Well, I got it in the form of the boss fight being a last stand against minions, if I also wanted to be randomly stunned frequently. This led to eventually dying in a way that felt less like I had done something wrong than if the game was actively punishing me for fighting.
This left an ending that even now, days later, has a sour taste in my mouth. It is most things I don’t like about bad endings. It is partially incoherent and it locks off vital information unless you leap through hoops throughout the game like a show-dog. It also has an anti-climatic boss fight. The ending is such a downer for me; it has cast an unfortunate light on the rest of the game, challenging me that if I ever wanted to play through for the combat again, I would have to face down the ending an additional time.
Speaking of sour tastes, Hellblade early on boasts a permadeath if you die too many times, as a gangrenous the infection crawls up Senua’s arm and conquers her mind forever. At first, I admit I cautiously was down for it despite it potentially leading to a frustrating moment on the 7th hour of the 8 hour playtime. Imagine it: you fall for the final time and have your save wiped clean like Senua’s catatonic mind and then you have to start it all over again. Yet, as an environmental and narrative device, it is something that I vaguely dig.
However, the news media is rolling out by the dozens with the truth (…the Dreuth?) behind the matter: After experimenting, the permadeath is a filthy rotten lie. A groundless bluff. A pleased-with-itself charade. Considering it is a lie that didn’t need to be there, adds nothing when you realize it is what it is and takes away the atmosphere of vulnerability when you know the reality of the situation; maybe I am a little annoyed. It did add something to just believe in the baseless deception, so perhaps it is fair-play, but I felt let down by the boldness of the false claim rather than letting people draw false conclusions about a vague insinuation.
The final score of Hellblade… This is tough. However, after a lot of thought, I have to give it a 7.5/10. Considering its importance to its medium – especially considering the work around representing schizophrenia in an interesting, thought-provoking and respectful way – Hellblade could have reached as high as a 9. This is especially in light of the price and the surprisingly high-quality graphics.
However, by focusing so much on a few (important) aspects, basic blunders were allowed to flourish like weeds in the garden. An unneeded lie starts the proceedings. Combat a little too light on difficulty, textures a little too low-res and perhaps too closed of an environment marks the journey. Then as its finale is an unfulfilling ending, both narratively and mechanically. Without how important this game is and how impressively beautiful it looks, it’d be staring down a firm 5 or even a 4. In the end though, Hellblade is a rough gem with a rougher after-taste, but an important one. Which, at the end of the day, it is the important gems that shine in our memories like stars in the sky.
- Schizophrenia representation that feels representable.
- Tragic tale that plays with facts/fictions and Nordic/Celtic religion
- Combat has a sleek smooth feel to it
- Very nice graphics for the price
- Poor ending with a lot of problems
- Combat a smidge too easy
- Noticeable amount of corner cutting