Two steps forward, three steps back: how Hellblade reinforces myths about mental illness
Note: This article discusses major plot details from Hellblade, including the ending.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is about mental illness. That's not subtext or anything, like Lord of the Flies being about society or The Shining being about the moon landing or whatever. It's the sort of thing that would, if the game were not a strictly digital affair, be a bullet point on the back of the box. An early trailer proclaims in big trailer font that Hellblade is a story told "through the lens of mental illness." The very first credit at the start of the game is not to the director or to development studio Ninja Theory but to its mental health advisor; you'll see a further seven consultants listed when the ending credits roll. The main menu even includes a "Making Of" featurette that details the studio's interviews with experts and sufferers of psychosis, which in this context feels more like a works cited page.
Mental illness is a thorny topic often misrepresented by popular media, and Ninja Theory wants to make it clear that it's done its homework; that Hellblade will be different. There are no psych wards housing dark secrets; no serial killers from the horror movies or police procedurals of your choice. You can tell they're serious about this and obviously mean well, which is why it's a shame that Hellblade reinforces the stigma it seeks to disassemble.
The game opens on a river, empty at first and silent, too, except for the voice. A woman's voice. It addresses you, the player, as a narrator in any other game might, alluding to the story that's about to unfold while the camera pushes in to find the Celtic warrior Senua rowing a makeshift boat. The view lingers on a bag attached to her belt, containing what appears to be a human head, before the other voices begin to speak. They whisper, an indeterminate number of them conflicting with one another, asking each other questions, commenting on the scene before them even. They're close, which is impossible since there's nowhere for them to come from – Senua is alone on the river. The camera circles as she looks up, wide-eyed yet determined, in clear recognition of what she hears swirling in her head before it comes to rest on the perspective it'll occupy for the most of the game: close behind Senua to the point of claustrophobia. She's headed for the Nordic realm of Helheim to resurrect her lost love, and you're close enough to be right beside her.
Because it's a videogame, you interact directly with the outgrowth of Senua's illness.
That closeness is Hellblade's selling point. Because it's a videogame, you interact directly with the outgrowth of Senua's illness, psychosis. She sees things that aren't there; things you have to navigate and speak to and fight because to her, they seem quite real. And the voices don't just speak to her: they speak to you, the player in charge of her actions. They'll provide vital observations, undermine your decisions, question your competence. As a videogame, Hellblade can (so the pitch goes) deliver that "you are there" feeling better than any other medium because of the interactivity that places you right behind Senua, as if you're the one nudging her ever forward.
Also because Hellblade is a videogame, it tackles these issues through that age-old videogame approach: armed combat. Senua's personal demons are, in fact, actual demons that come in five enemy types which must all be parried/dodged/gutted before she can proceed. Mental illness is a constant struggle and an endless fight. I get that. Though I don't hear voices in my head, I've dealt with more than enough depression and anxiety to know that this is a pretty accurate (albeit well-worn) metaphor. But in Hellblade, that fight is a straight corridor. Despite the initial two bosses and the later five shards you may pursue in any order (though in both situations you're clearly supposed to start on the left), the destination remains the same. If she falls in battle or fails an action sequence, the game loads your last save and you get another try. You can never stray or get lost; the only way for Senua is forward.
Take, for example, the environmental puzzles. Senua will find some runes on a locked door, and to open the lock, you'll need to wander her surroundings to find whatever resembles those runes – stand at just the right angle, and maybe those sticks will cast a shadow on the wall you can use. The game's "Making Of" film remarks that these represent how some sufferers of psychosis can find patterns no one else sees, but they also mean Senua spends a great deal of the game quite literally looking at things from other points of view. And that's not all – she must adopt these new perspectives. Otherwise, she can't get anywhere. She'll be stuck. There is a way forward; she just doesn't see it yet.
This is how a lot of videogames work – to progress, you do what's asked of you. You pull the switch, you get the key, you find the rune, you beat the monsters. But how a lot of videogames work is not how mental illness works. With mental illness, there isn't always a way forward. Although recovery is occasionally possible, people for the most part can only learn to manage what they deal with. You might take your pills on time and record your thoughts in a journal like you've been asked to and look at things from different points of view and still things will go wrong. Still you'll have an anxiety attack, still you'll want to stay in bed all day, still you'll be powerless to lock the bad thoughts out.
Hellblade reinforces one of the most prevalent stigmas about mental illness: that its sufferers can just snap out of it if they really want to.
In Hellblade, that just means you're stuck because you haven't found the correct perspective. In Hellblade, that means you're not good enough at the combat system to move forward. So you get good. You try harder, because if you can't move forward in a videogame, you're not trying hard enough. By sticking to the traditional progression of a narrative game, Hellblade reinforces one of the most prevalent stigmas about mental illness: that its sufferers can just snap out of it if they really want to. It paves a road to recovery that can only be traversed by those who truly commit, the exact fantasy by which so many people misunderstand mental illness. It asserts that the ones who can't make it yet just have to work at it some more. It misses that the illness is always there, beyond the reach of a fair fight.
The ending of the game almost gets this because you lose Hellblade's final battle. You're supposed to. The enemy hordes keep pouring in and your recovery starts to lag more and more until you're completely overwhelmed, because here, Senua learns that mindlessly hacking at things is not how to deal with her illness. Instead, she drops her lover Dillion's head -- the head required for his resurrection -- into the abyss to show that she's learned to let these things go; to accept that this is the way she is and will probably always be. She still hears the voices, but now the sun shines. An inspirational pop song even kicks in before the game cuts to credits.
And yet to even reach this point, where she recognizes the futility of her quest, Senua still has to be good enough and try hard enough to make it there in the first place. Only after she's fought the battles required of her, seen things from the necessary points of view, and finally listened to the monologue from Dillion that directly precedes this scene can she find peace. Senua doesn't learn to let go so much as accept Ninja Theory's prescribed solution for pulling herself together. The studio comes across like a friend that means well but wants you to understand that if only you'd listen to what they're telling you and see things from their perspective, you'd get better.
Senua doesn't learn to let go so much as accept Ninja Theory's prescribed solution for pulling herself together.
There's merit to Hellblade. It places you at the center of Senua's psychosis with startling effectiveness – you get to feel what she feels, and I think that kind of empathy is valuable. But through its structure, it teaches that the only ones who can make it to a good place are the ones who try hard enough to snap out of it. Ninja Theory takes the nebulous struggle with mental illness and hammers it into a straight line, because in Hellblade, recovery can be the only outcome for those who truly take up the sword.