It’s been roughly an hour or so since I deleted what was my fourth attempt at a review for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Despite beating the game almost exactly a month ago, I’ve taken my time, far more than usual, to gather my thoughts. It never really came together in a way I would have liked, yet I kept trying due to this… obligation I felt to say something about it.
When the game was first announced a few years back, it didn’t leave the best first impression, putting its mission statement of “dealing with mental illness” front and center in a way that gave me zero confidence in the final product, not least of which because such a thing feels kind of gross to use as a bullet point for your character action game. Games have “dealt with” mental illness before, and by that, I mean they have sometimes made the minimum effort to acknowledge that such a thing exists. Results have been anywhere from heartwarming to misguided to flat-out insulting, usually lying somewhere between those last two. Even the best efforts have often left those that feel like the games should be about them and speak to them in a particular way isolated, as if the games themselves were more like an advertisement of symptoms for those looking in from the outside, ironically operating on the assumption that anyone cares to look at all.
To give you an idea of where I’m coming from here – I’ve suffered from depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD for most of my life and I know first hand how interested the general public is in learning about mental illness. For the most part, they’re not. Don’t get me wrong, things are certainly better than they were when I was a kid; when family and teachers were convinced I was simply making it all up because I was lazy, but we still have a long way to go. Rockstars with seemingly everything still commit suicide and people still wonder why. Twitter trolls with insecurity pretend depression isn’t real to make themselves feel better. “Crazy” is still a generic accepted character descriptor, primarily associated with disposable villains.
Which brings us back to Hellblade, a game that is seemingly far more about psychosis than depression. As it turns out, it’s actually about a lot of things. You see, Hellblade isn’t about me, but at the same time, it kinda is. I can’t relate to Senua’s symptoms, specifically, but I can relate to this shroud that hangs over her, the weighed down feeling of simply existing. She’s broken, and any time she tries to convince herself otherwise, there are half a dozen voices ready to shout her down. It doesn’t matter that she’s an absolute badass, that she’s competent or skilled or even beautiful. She doesn’t remember the twelve times she stared down a god with a sword in her hand. She remembers the one time she cowered in fear, and relives it over and over and over.
It’s why I found it difficult to review. It seemed to me like a game that didn’t really work in the scope of simply offering purchasing advice one way or the other. As it stands, it may end up my favorite game of 2017, and at the same time, I find it a difficult game to recommend. The world of Hellblade, Senua’s world, is overwhelming, a psychological maze leading to doors that will constantly shut back in your face, sapping the world of just a little more light with each moment. That shroud never lifts, never offering a moment of joy, not even for a second.
It can be draining. To spend time with Hellblade, even if you love it, is to spend time with something that will likely bring you down with it. In that way it emulates the exact reason why discussions about our mental illness are still difficult to have, in a lot of ways. No one wants to be uncomfortable. To our brains, that translates to “no one wants to be around me”.
The analog to Senua’s illness as a “darkness” and a “curse” are pretty transparent, but there’s a question that Hellblade asks, one that is extremely important to the subject matter, one I’ve often wondered myself. At one point in the narrative, about halfway, love interest Dillion asks Senua if losing her nightmare will be worth it to lose a piece of herself as well, to lose part of her that he has chosen to accept and love. At that point, the curse stops being simply a nondescript antagonist to overcome and instead becomes something more. The voices, the hallucinations, the suffering; it all sucks obviously, but at the same time, it’s a part of Senua’s identity and something that she’s had to live with for as long as she can remember.
In that same way, I think of what kind of person I’d be if “cured”, that if the depression were to magically disappear, what would emerge in its place. We like to assume that it will be replaced with normalcy, even happiness, not considering that it may actually end up being replaced with nothing at all; the numbness that you’ll often hear as a side-effect to medication. My illness is part of how I see the world, for better or worse, and that’s why it’s so difficult to overcome. It’s not something you can simply shut down. High anxiety and depression are very closely linked to creativity and I’ve had to ask myself it it would be worth losing the latter to be rid of all three. It’s a question that has kept me up more nights than I can count.
There’s a quote at the very end of Hellblade’s making of documentary, narrated by the chief designer of the game himself, Tameem Antoniades, that really spoke to me in regards to this exact topic, so much so that I feel the need to put it here.
“Mental illness has been with us for as long as we have been on this planet, but why? Why hasn’t evolution stamped out this weakness from within our gene pool? I often pondered this question until I realized that the question had an in-built flaw. It assumes that being and thinking different is a weakness.”
At risk of spoiling the game’s conclusion, I’ll simply say this – it doesn’t provide an easy answer because it understands that it can’t, and that’s worth commending, because an answer implies that we are something to be “solved”. Great things have been created because people have been forced to see the world differently and Hellblade understands that. And as a result, I now ,obviously, see it coming from a place of sincerity. It’s why the game ultimately isn’t so much about that constantly oppressive struggle as it is coming out of it on the other side with your whole self still intact.
That’s the contradiction – the feeling of being broken and whole at the same time, somehow. It’s a feeling that I’ve never actually experienced after 33 whole years of living, but one that I have the utmost faith exists. Playing Hellblade reinforces that feeling.
I can’t think of a higher compliment that I could possibly give it.