Month: August 2017

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review — Against Self-Hatred

by Jed Pressgrove

In the so-called canon of great games, the sensitive Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice should replace the fear-mongering Silent Hill 2. Through the trials, tribulations, and redemption of its protagonist Senua, Hellblade flips the video-game script on psychosis with a tale that puts players into the shoes of someone who fights voices and visions in her head as she goes about life. Games like Silent Hill 2 make Hellblade’s statement necessary, as the former propagates the lie that high-quality horror is about scaring people. Silent Hill 2 and its ilk want us to be consumers who are frightened of mental illness (or, more directly, the human mind itself), but Hellblade’s horror asks audiences to embrace the challenge of overcoming self-hatred brought about by psychological struggle.

Developer Ninja Theory opens Hellblade with Senua in a canoe crossing a river to arrive at a hellish place, where the impediments to Senua’s happiness are quickly established for players. As a narrator whispers exposition, you also hear additional competing voices while Senua travels. Representing the internal dialogue of Senua, these voices are unnerving in their inconsistent messaging: lines like “Go back,” “You don’t know where you’re going,” and “That’s it, that’s it, that’s the way” are only a few examples of how Senua’s conflicting selves attempt to influence her mood and actions. And while this audio chaos is disturbing, the player, through pushing Senua to the next challenge, immediately grasps the strength of this character in how she can function despite the madness within her.

Soon, Hellblade becomes a game of puzzles and fights, with the former illustrating how someone with Senua’s condition sees the world differently (nature) and the latter representing the self-destructive fear and hatred that Senua developed because of her father’s abuse (nurture). The gradual reveal of Senua’s upbringing is especially illuminating: her father treats her inherited psychology as a curse that will destroy everyone around her, much like the events and notes in Silent Hill 2 speciously connect mental illness to automatic murder and tragedy.

Through Senua’s battles with male foes (undoubtedly visions connected to her brutal dad), Hellblade is the first game I’ve played since Golden Axe: Beast Rider that elicits gender-based intimidation in the heat of physical combat, though the nonverbal preening of Hellblade’s musclebound men is more subtle than the screams of “Bitch!” in Golden Axe: Beast Rider. This element begs for another comparison to Silent Hill 2, as that overrated game’s protagonist James can deal damage to ostensibly feminine foes, a supposed representation of James’ frustration with his dying wife. Whereas Silent Hill 2 revels in its depiction of misogyny without a clear lesson (multiple endings can kill thematic purpose), Hellblade’s climax, where players must literally stop killing the bad guys if they want to see the conclusion, leads to universal philosophical implications in a single, unforgettable coda.

The violent men that Senua dispatches throughout Hellblade emanate from Hela, a goddess that Senua sees as her ultimate opposition. But when you finally give up against the neverending male horde at the end, something incredible happens: Hela becomes Senua. This transformation rejects the intolerant feelings Senua has about parts of herself: at one point, she tells the voices in her head, “I didn’t ask you to be part of me.” But they are part of her, just as all humans have parts of themselves that cause guilt and fear. After Senua realizes she has ultimately been trying to destroy herself, she can start to appreciate the beauty of life again. In this way, Hellblade triumphs over the monotony of its combat and, hopefully, takes its rightful place above pop horror games that rarely edify us.

How Much Basic Knowledge and Dignity Does the Gaming Press Have?

by Jed Pressgrove

I am still stunned by the stupidity I witnessed yesterday when numerous readers and gaming press members suggested that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was remarkably different for including the possibility of one having to start the entire game over if one died a certain amount of times.

Turns out, the game didn’t include that possibility, as reported here. This revelation in and of itself points to an embarrassment shared by both readers who had never played Hellblade and gaming press members who didn’t know what they were talking about despite having early access to Hellblade.

Amazing. (Let me say that once more before I go to the next point: Amazing!) But here’s the thing: even if Hellblade had actually included the possibility of one having to start the entire game over after dying a certain amount of times, there would be no compelling reason for surprise in the “online gaming community.” This situation raises significant questions about the basic video-game knowledge of many, particularly some members of a condescending gaming press that needs to set a higher standard for dialogue.

An obvious point is that, for decades, some games have featured the idea of lost progress after a Game Over (trendily called “permadeath”). Look at classic arcade games like Donkey Kong, look at old console games like Super Mario Bros., look at handheld games like Contra 4 (released only a decade ago), look at recent independent games like Downwell. There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon, yet if you visited, say, Twitter yesterday morning, it was as if all of these examples didn’t exist. Many gamers wanted something to be outraged about, for whatever reason.

But surely any member of the gaming press would know that to play into such outrage is immature and misleading, not to mention flatout stupid. When it came out that Hellblade doesn’t have “permadeath,” you could almost see the egg on the faces of the people who said otherwise.

Yet today, it’s back to business as usual. I don’t see many writers or editors talking about standards, whether related to basic gaming knowledge or journalism, the latter of which should be philosophically opposed to hearsay, rumor, and treating your readers like cattle.

And to think, some people act surprised when they hear of gaming press outlets closing down.