“Madness” is a term that is as ubiquitous as it is nebulous. Choose any cross-section of human history, and that culture's fiction is likely to have some reference to insanity or atypical behavior. The characters stricken with this generally fall into two categories: Either they are comical, absurd reflections akin to fun house mirrors held up to society, or they are fearful and piteous wretches that instill a fear of the uncertain in the consumer. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a game that spits in the face of the common tropes of madness, and is all the better for it.
Warning: This article is going to contain spoilers for Hellblade, entries in the Silent Hill series, Spec-Ops: The Line, and probably a bunch of other stuff. If you haven't played Hellblade, Silent Hill 2, or Spec-Ops: The Line yet, go do that now.
We are creatures of paradox. The human brain is stunningly powerful, and our capabilities for imagination and invention are in a constant race to push our species further up tree of ascendancy. We dream new technologies almost as quickly as we invent them. The mind is flexible enough for introspection and philosophy. At the same time, it is fragile enough to be broken, either by influence or by design.
Since the dawn of human recollection we have recognized how we behave. With more people comes a larger sample size, and over the course of human history we have created a loose definition of expected human behavior. This is categorized by concepts like the Social Contract and the generalizations of moral behavior. There exist people who lie at the edge or beyond this threshold due to mental or emotional instability. As medical sciences has improved over the centuries, we have stopped discounting these people as “mad” and started categorizing the various diseases of the mind.
Video games in the past twenty years have been doing a stellar job, for the most part, of giving shape to ideas that are often left abstract. This is not new of course, but the unique medium and accessibility of video games allows more people to interact with and interpret them. More people are going to play Mario than D&D, and more people are going to recognize the story beats of the Metamyth than would recognize the name of the book that coined the phrase. This is not an inherently bad thing, it's just a fact of media in the modern day.
One of these ideas is the concept of mental instability. “Insane cultist” and “mad oracle” are character archetypes that have been used innumerable times in interactive media. Many player characters begin their journey from places of grief or loss. But true, diagnoseable mental distress is rare in video game characters. It is even more rare that these characters are sympathetic, presented in such a way that the player emphasizes and understands their discomfort, in part if not in totality.
James Sunderland is the gold standard of this concept. Many games that have a protagonist with mental distress use it as a means to facilitate an unreliable narrator for a third act twist. Cloud Strife and Raiden are clearly men who are disturbed in some fashion, and since the player sees the world through their context, our perception of their reality is altered. But James combines the best of the unreliable narrator and the insane protagonist. Over the course of the game we see James change from a normal guy to a man burdened with grief, to a man that either comes to terms with his actions or rejects reality entirely. It's a journey both profoundly morose and steeped in emotional turmoil. At the end of the game you feel like your emotions have gone through an industrial laundry press, and at no point does the game ever flinch in its presentation of Sunderland as a broken, sorrowful, deeply regretful man.
Spec-Ops: The Line delivers the same brutal presentation of madness, this time focusing on PTSD and other wartime disorders. The actions of Captain Walker, his deference of responsibility, and the spiral of misery he causes for himself and others because of his inability to seek out and lack of access to help during the course of his trek through Dubai is deeply symbolic and extremely painful. You the player experience the periods of disconnect and uncertainty, the consequences and guilt of the actions Walker has to (or wants to) take. Outlast II meets in the middle of the two, presenting the player with grief and constant danger in a high-stress environment. Blake Langermann is assaulted on two sides, with the enemies of the game hunting him incessantly while his past guilt (made manifest by The Stalker) seeks to drag him into his memories. Being a first person game, the player is being assailed as well, forced to watch through Blake's eyes as he is molested, tortured, and tormented over the course of the last hours of Temple Gate.
This brings us to Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, and I tell you all of the above to give you context so that you may see how masterfully this game represents insanity in storytelling, gameplay, and characterization. The story of the game is extremely basic at its core. The protagonist, a young Celtic warrior named Senua, travels to the Nordic afterlife to reclaim the soul of her dead lover Dillion after he is killed in a Viking raid on her village. Senua believes that Hela, the goddess of Hel, can bring Dillion back to life by merging his soul with his disembodied head.
Loss leading to a quest of reclamation is nothing new in storytelling, but the framework of Senua's character is what makes Hellblade so special. Senua is suffering from “the Darkness”, which causes her to see and hear things that do not exist. Her mother similarly suffered from this curse, and both women were ostracized from the community. With modern context and an objective evaluation of her behavior and symptoms, it is clear that Senua and her mother Galena suffer from schizophrenia. This is in line with what we know today, namely that one of the risk factors for schizophrenia is to have a parent who is schizophrenic.
This is where the game really begins to shine. With the context that Senua's “Darkness” being schizophrenia, the game is able to play with tropes of narrative and gameplay in ways that make the work as a whole more profound and impactful. At the start of the game, we are introduced to Senua sailing to the shores of Hel, narrated by a disembodied voice. The narrator, a character unto herself, greets the player and informs them that Senua has recently finished her story, and that a new one about her is going to unfold soon. From the very start, the fourth wall is hazy and indistinct, a strength the game utilizes throughout to masterful effect. There are technically three protagonists. Senua the physical woman who is our avatar in Hel. The narrator, one of the many voices in Senua's head that constantly whisper to her. The player, who exists between the space the other two occupy, and who shares seating space in this metaphorical theater with Senua's mental voices. As mentioned, we hear Senua's voices in a constant background chorus that narrates her self-doubt, her victories, and her uncertainties. The narrator is generally “behind” us, discussing in disassociated terms the circumstances and events unfolding around Senua.
The three narrative positions shift and fluctuate throughout the story, disquieting the player as we walk with Senua. Several times during the narrative, the camera will focus on Senua's face during a cutscene, and she will speak to it directly. At times, it seems like she is speaking to another character that we inhabit the perspective of. At other times, she seems to be voicing her thoughts to us directly, giving a different context to the inner monologue that is constantly running in the background of the audio. The constantly shifting distance that the player is from Senua is enhanced by the use of flashbacks to her time with Dillion. These are prefaced by nothing, and it is up to the player to recognize the visual clues to denote when these flashbacks are happening.
This leads into Senua's constant hallucinations. After a time, the voices in the background become a part of the experience, rising and falling in emotional intensity along with Senua and the player. Like a chattering crowd, you eventually learn to integrate them into the ebb and flow of the narrative, and ultimately they enhance the experience. Senua's hallucinations are a different matter altogether. Unlike her flashbacks, her hallucinations are always disturbing, following consistent themes of assault and fear. She is always being chased or attacked by indistinct figures, surreal representations of creatures and people she has no way of properly contextualizing.
All of this points to the two most important questions in the game. One, what is really happening? There are two potential answers to this, both equally valid and with their own ramifications for Senua. Perhaps she did find the shores of Hel. Perhaps she is being assaulted by gods and their minions, undead warriors of Northman mythology presented to her in a context she would understand just enough of to be terrified. Perhaps she is infected with two supernatural diseases, the Darkness and the Rot, one that threatens her mind and one that threatens her body. She does display abilities that are superhuman and supernatural, such as the power to slow time and the ability of precognition. Alternatively, maybe she is a woman suffering from a disease that we do not fully understand now, much less understood in the time the game takes place in. Maybe Senua is totally or nearly catatonic, and this journey is a mental expedition that she undertakes to deal with the profound grief of losing someone close to her. It is mentioned during the game that Senua enters hallucinations so powerful that she totally loses her grasp on reality. Furthermore, we learn that Senua has never actually interacted with the Vikings. Her village was raided while she was in exile, and all of the lore pertaining to the Northmen she knows was passed to her secondhand by one of their slaves. Evidence for this is very strong. The shadowy warriors that make up the majority of enemies in the game never have faces, and wear grotesque costumes that come off as nightmarish parodies of Nordic garb. An important boss fight has Senua facing off against Garmr, guardian of Hela's domain. The monster is never explicitly named by any of the characters, being referred to only as The Beast. When we finally get to see it, the creature takes the shape of a massive, twisted boar, not a wolf as in the original mythology. The Beast could easily be the most dangerous animal Senua's mind could conjure up that would fit the legend, or it could be that Garmr took the form of something Senua would be more likely to recognize for their encounter.
The second question, and the more important one, is this: Why is Senua on this quest to begin with? Ostensibly the whole journey is a quest to reclaim Dillion's soul. As we find out over the course of the game, however, there's more to Senua than just a dead fiance. She is driven by this constant, unfocused frustration at the world. She is a woman who channels this frustration into her blade, becoming a terrifyingly effective fighter. This only serves to relieve the pressure of her constant anger slightly, though. Senua often rallies against forces, up to and including gods, that should be out of her control. But she is also a woman consumed by powerful guilt. The suicide of her mother, and the deaths in her village, weigh on her. She is burdened by these constant emotions of fear, guilt, anxiety, and fury. The player emphasizes with her on her quest, seeing how Senua became the woman she is now. Ultimately, she is an extremely positive character, because she never gives up. At the end of the game, we learn that Senua's mother was murdered by her father, and that her father tortured her throughout her childhood, leading to repressed memories that laid the groundwork for her feelings of inadequacy and fears of abandonment. During the final battle, Hela uses the voice of Senua's father to try and weaken her. But at Senua's darkest hour, when all seems lost, she stands up and keeps fighting.
It is at the end that Senua and the player see the truth. She is not cursed, she is not weak, and she is not powerless. The entire game was a conversation between Senua and herself as she comes to terms with her illness and pain. We see at the end that the sacrifice in the title is not Senua's quest or her offer to fight alongside Hela's forces during Ragnarok. Rather, she sacrifices Dillian's head to the abyss, using it as a talisman to cast away her self-doubt and fears, contextualizing herself as who she wants to be, not as others see her as. The rot that has been creeping across her body from the very start of the game fades away, the voices become supportive instead of accusatory. Senua and the narrator both address the player, inviting them along to her next story. Life goes on, and we are made stronger for it.
Hellblade is a beautiful, compelling game. It is a story of introspection, growth, and melancholia that serves as a perfect representation of life. Play it because it's fun. Play it because it's an effective story. Play it to gain context into the feelings and experiences of others who may be suffering from mental disorders or diseases. Play it because, through all the blood and horror, it is an ultimately bittersweet story of rising above anything that would hold you back.
Just play this game.
The author would like to take a moment in this post script to applaud Ninja Theory for their extensive research into both mental illness of the main character, as well as Nordic and Celtic cultures depicted in the game. Cultural and psychiatric experts were used as staff members for this title. If you or someone you know suffers from mental or emotional distress, or if you would like to help, please contact your local or national mental health resource for more information.