Doubt and uncertainty are, I think, very difficult things to accurately portray in video games. We’re used to the idea that an encounter, a mission or a shot may not go our way but, in a medium that by design requires us to succeed, the idea that we may not be capable – that we may be innately destined for failure – is a difficult thing to convey. With Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, developer Ninja Theory has managed it beautifully.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice follows warrior Senua as she embarks on a quest plucked straight out of legend; she’s on a journey to hell in order to save not just herself, but Dylian, her lover who died at the hands of the brutal Northmen while she was away. Though her quest sees her cross swords with gods and monsters, she’s far from the typical heroine – Senua is touched by ‘the darkness’, a crude yet effective label for psychosis. Senua is beset by persistent visual and auditory hallucinations, twisting her world into an unpredictable, dangerous and very cruel place.
As you journey through Hellblade, you almost always have a handful of voices (known as The Furies) whispering in your ear. These voices are Senua’s constant, critical observers, reflecting on her actions as well as her physical and mental state at any given time. Speaking to Senua, the Furies prompt and cajole; they question and doubt and needle and – just every so often – they encourage her. Sometimes they’re overbearing and unfair and to be perfectly honest they can be quite irritating, but such tension is welcome – the voices are there and you have no say in the matter, just like her psychosis itself. The Furies ensure that you’re constantly thinking about Senua’s emotional state and general wellbeing, making Hellblade a potent exercise in empathy. Backed up by some excellent environmental audio, it’s also a treat for the ears – if you can play Hellblade in surround sound, I urge you to do so.