I have been a fan of Ninja Theory for a long time. I fell in love with Heavenly Sword, back on the PS3, with it’s frequent fourth-wall breaking, deep and interesting characters, and lore. I also enjoyed their take on the 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West, entitled Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. I even liked what I played of DMC: Devil May Cry although admittedly I never beat it (I suck at combos). Therefore, I have been following the development of their first completely independent project, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, with anticipation.
I was not only looking forward to it because it was a spiritual successor to “Heavenly Sword”, but Ninja Theory’s team promised to tackle head on the topic of mental illness. Senua, the titular character, is a Celtic warrior that suffers from Psychosis. Ninja Theory even consulted with those that were experts in the field of Psychology, as well as with those suffering with mental illnesses themselves. As someone that has an anxiety disorder, as well as a dissociative disorder, I was curious and hopeful that they could put into Video Game form what it feels like to not be so sure of what’s real.
The game’s mechanics are all used to seamlessly tie in with the protagonist’s mental state. The creatures she battles represent the warrior she was trained to be, as well as the mythologies that she would have been exposed to given the time period. The puzzles in the game represent how those in her condition typically see patterns and connections in their environment that might not actually exist. The guides (or Furies) Senua hears demonstrate what it might feel like to hear voices in one’s head, both praising her and berating her on her quest.
While playing the game, I was astonished to find how much I related to Senua and her journey. How much of the symbolism seemed to relate to my own perceptions of reality and my own mental struggles. I found the game to be extremely cathartic, and came out of it feeling better about myself, inspired, and hopeful. I believe that “Hellblade” demonstrates the power of Video Games, to help us work through our own real-life issues.
Aside from the game itself, the development of the game also has an interesting and inspiring story. I highly recommend watching Ninja Theory’s Dev Diaries that they had made over the years. They chronicle what it is like to be going from dealing with publishers to becoming a completely independent company. Over the years they literally invented new motion capture technology as they did not have the budget to use technology already in place. Also, they discovered a star, as Video Editor Melina Juergens was initially hired to edit the Dev Diary videos and ended up becoming Senua herself (she had never acted before). The development of this game has literally changed the landscape of the video game industry, demonstrating what independent developers can accomplish. Finally, if you are still not impressed, they managed to accomplish all of this while able to make profit selling it at half the price of a AAA game at $30 on the PlayStation Store and Steam.