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Psychological states in ‘Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’

By John Bailey
The dire title belies this game’s thoughtful exploration of mental illness

What does your inner voice sound like, the one that’s reading these words? Play with it. Give it a deep, guttural growl. A chirpy chipmunk trill. Lay on an accent for fun, a Scottish brogue or a Texan drawl. Who is this inner voice? Is it you?

Here are some more words to play with during this exercise: I once attempted to cycle the length of Denmark with neither the stamina nor the appropriate bike to do so. Midway through the ordeal I saw a demon figure as plain as day, a hundred metres down a hedge-lined country road. I slowed, checked twice, made sure it wasn’t a shadow or a heat-shimmer. I didn’t and don’t believe in demons. The line between the physical world and our inner landscape is porous, though, and sometimes things can seem to leak out.

More than once I’ve been woken by an audible voice only to find myself alone. Perhaps you’ve heard an infant crying in your empty house, or seen the face of a dead loved one in a passing train carriage. These experiences aren’t uncommon – up to 13% of adults will hear voices in their life – but if a projected reality reaches a certain level of extremity, we call it psychosis.

Psychosis is given rough treatment by popular culture. When it’s not being confused with psychopathy – an unrelated disorder associated with antisocial behaviour and a lack of empathy – it’s at best the domain of raving villains and violent maniacs. The past half-century has seen media portrayals of mental illness growing more nuanced, but the psychotic state is one that has barely been touched upon.

A new video game, of all things, doesn’t just dip its toes into these troubled waters. It takes a running jump from the 10-metre diving board. Rather than depicting a psychotic episode, as other media may, it attempts to place the viewer within a state of psychosis. It’s an unforgettable experience lasting about seven to eight hours, and one that I look forward to never enduring again.

The first hurdle is the title. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice sounds more like some god-awful Game of Thrones fan fiction, and is dire enough that I won’t mention it again. Senua is a young Celt who journeys to the underworld to save the soul of her dead lover. So far so Orpheus. Her path is beset by obstacles: demonic Vikings, trickster demigods, the Queen of Hel herself. The reality of these phantoms is never assured, however, since Senua’s psychosis is forever re-threading her environment according to her psychological state.

Senua hears voices. From the opening moments of the game, a swirl of words halo her, and a 3D recording technique means that the player, too, will experience these voices flitting like butterflies between their ears. It’s immediately unsettling, although the voices are relatively kind murmurs at this point.

Once Senua begins to face her trials, however, the chorus grows less sympathetic. The overlapping whispers grow alarmed – “she’s scared, she can’t do this, get up! she’s weak” – and other more menacing voices enter the fray. A death-metal-style growl foreshadows the torments that await Senua, a banshee shriek warns of some horror behind her.

This isn’t a fun game, by the way.

How’s your inner voice going, while we’re here? Are you still in control of it, still playing around with accents and things? It’s hard when you’re reading, I know. The words aren’t yours. But the voice is yours, surely. It’s obviously not mine.

Back to Senua. Hearing voices isn’t the only symptom of psychosis that players will be subjected to on the way to Hel. A keen-tipped paranoia bristles early on as the voices speak of forces watching from the shadows. Senua sees faces in rock formations and waterfalls, and recurring patterns in the world take on ominous, elusive meanings.

Soon these relatively benign distortions of Senua’s environment give way to sequences that harrow the psyche. A frighteningly accurate re-creation of a panic attack arises when Senua’s blind flight from a pursuer occasions the disintegration of the game itself, the screeching soundtrack matched by subliminal overlays of visual terror. Elsewhere, the numbing crush of depression gives rise to an almost unbearable sequence set in near-total darkness, the squelching exhalations of invisible horrors closing in.

All of this blather about monsters and warriors doesn’t sound that far from Game of Thrones fan fiction, of course, and Senua’s suffering could be reduced to another manic pixie dream girl whose demons just make her seem damaged in a cute way.

I have a sense that this game began life as something closer to that, but a developer documentary that accompanies the game describes how its initial premise was complicated when its makers met with a neuroscientist specialising in psychotic disorders. Upon realising that their cool-arse idea for a fighting game hardly did justice to the reality of mental illness, credit goes to game company Ninja Theory for rising to the challenge. I don’t know if this is the first video game to open its credits with the name of its chief mental health adviser. I do know that it’s the first to have enlisted seven such mental health professionals, as well as a range of people with lived experience of psychosis, to help shape the work over several years.

Sometimes Senua screams with a rawness that I haven’t heard in other media. The set of her eyes is unnerving – too rarely blinking, the whites too visible. She scratches obsessively at her arm as if the darkness inside her body can be dug out.

Actorly nuance aside, the depth of research evident in the final product is where this work shines. Senua’s suffering is as much about the stigma that accompanies mental health – we learn of her abusive upbringing, the community that shunned her and the way she has internalised her own guilt and worthlessness. Senua’s hell is one built of the memories from which there’s no escape.

There are points at which the voices in her head address the player directly, and several moments when Senua breaks the fourth wall to stare directly at her viewer. I’m not the first critic to have felt at times as if I was playing as Senua’s psychosis, and that her real journey was one of trying to come to terms with me. This sounds like a fancy, since as the player I’m the one in control. But something uncanny occurs while accompanying Senua on her journey. At some point I began to hear my own inner voice echoed by the voices Senua hears in her head – they’d be urging her to get out of the way just as I was doing the same, or letting out a weary sigh after another moment of panic had passed.

And then the voices began to precede mine. As if the game knew my thoughts before I did. 

John Bailey

John Bailey is a Melbourne-based arts journalist.

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