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 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.