I never anticipated that the first review on my blog wouldn’t be for a book. But irrespective of the medium, it was the incredible power of the story that drew me to this game.
It’s not a book review, but bear with me on this one…
I’m not a massive gamer. I enjoy playing a few co-op games with my husband every now and again, but I don’t often chose to play computer games on my own. It’s just not me- I’d rather read a book or watch a movie.
But, as I was scrolling through the BBC news app the other day, as I do most days, I came across an article about the BAFTA Game awards. Thinking there might be something that would interest my husband, I opened the link and read through. What caught my eye in particular was the description of a game that had done really well: Hellblade.
The description of the game: a woman suffering with severe psychosis who travels into madness on a quest to save the soul of her dead lover- hooked me instantly. And after watching a trailer I knew instantly that I wanted to play it.
I am so glad that I did.
“Look around and you will see them. The drowned, the sick, the slain. Here they lie, rotting in the field and river of Hel. But the dead don’t always lie still here. This is not a place of rest.”
Hellblade is a unique experience that fully emerges the player in Senua’s quest. When you start the game you are told that it’s best played with headphones – and for good reason. The developers created the soundtrack for the game using 3D binaural sound. It mimics the sounds that we hear naturally. So when the voices are whispering in Senua’s ear, you feel like they’re inside your own head.
It’s an incredible experience, designed to give you an insight into the world that Senua – and real people with severe mental health disorders – face. The voices speak to Senua as you move around. They make comments and say things that put you on edge: “the torch is going to go out”, “she’s going the wrong way”, “she doesn’t know what she’s doing”. All of this leads to a feeling of anxiety in the player that really helps you to identify with the character.
“When darkness speaks, it changes everything, turning home into a foreign land and loved ones into strangers. Exile makes sense when you realise that you were never really home in the first place.”
As Senua you make your way across a landscape, littered with bodies, towards the gates of Helheim, where the Goddess Hela holds the soul of Dillion – Senua’s murdered lover. As Senua you face challenges along the way – you must find runes to open gates, align symbols and look past magic to see what is really there. Not to mention the multiple demons that she must overcome.
And all the way through you learn more and more about Senua and her background; what led her to this place.
The depiction of Senua as a Pictish warrior was fascinating. I loved the addition of all the Norse mythology – something that resonated with me at the moment as I’ve been researching a lot of it for my novel. The use of the runes and symbols was beautifully done and gave the game an interesting twist; as you collect runes you are told stories from Norse mythology by Senua’s friend Druth.
I loved the story. It’s harrowing, gritty and I became really emotionally invested. You want to continue playing; you want Senua to succeed in her quest and you want to know what will happen next.
Gradually the game becomes darker and darker as Senua heads further into the darkness of herself and into Hel. At times it got really terrifying. There is a section where you’re only ok if you stay out of the darkness; but you have to run through pitch black tunnels and crawl through water that puts out your torch. And all the time hideous voices scream and whisper at you. Add this to the endless scenery of bodies mutilated and decaying around you and it becomes a truly chilling experience.
“The darkness touched you. Everyone could see it in the hollows of your eyes, a gaze averted from life. You ran from it but brought it nearer. Led it to him. An endless suffering worse than death. And you wanted to surrender? Abandon him to find peace with the gods? No. The darkness won’t allow it. So you will walk into the lair of the beast, look it in the eye and you will go to war. This is your mission. This is your quest. There is nothing else left.”
As the game reaches the finale the pace really starts to ramp up and so, I felt, did the stakes. I was so invested in the story when I reached the final battle that I couldn’t have turned off even if I’d wanted to.
The addition of music – of which there isn’t much throughout the game – in the final fight scene was spectacular, adding to the emotional desire to see Senua succeed. I was so heavily invested that I felt like I was right there with the character.
“For every battle won, a greater battle takes its place and so it goes until we fall. And in the end we all fall. Even the gods have their time.”
I finished the game and sat there staring at the screen for ages. It has been such a long time since I got so heavily invested in a story. I nearly had to go back and start it all over again. I still might.
What I loved about it is how much thought the developers put into the creation of Senua’s character. Mental health is still a massive taboo – especially the ideas of hearing voices and psychosis. It could have gone a very different way if the developers had not spent as much time as they did researching and learning about psychosis. I loved that they brought in two professors on psychiatry and mental health – their names are the first names that come up at the start of the game which adds to the feeling that they wanted to do it right. Ninja Theory also spoke to a number of health groups that work with people with psychosis. They brought in real life suffers and used their own experiences to help bring credibility and realism to the character.
Senua not only hears voices, but her world is distorted in a multitude of different ways. You never know whether some of her visions are real or not. There are moments when the landscape blurs and fragments, and moments when all of the colours seem brighter and kaleidoscopic. All of these features come about as a direct response to Ninja Theory’s work with professionals and people who have lived with psychosis.
“The further she saw into the darkness, the more she struggled to see anything at all.”
I absolutely loved this game. It was the story that hooked me (I’m all about a great story) and drew me in. It is definitely worth a play for anyone who is really keen on a game with a great story.
And all the Norse mythology has definitely fuelled my inspiration for thinking about the next novel in my series!