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People of the Year 2017: Ninja Theory

Ninja Theory is to be commended for its handling of mental illness and for showing how indies can still approach AAA development

Over the course of December, GamesIndustry.biz will reveal, in no particular order of importance, our People of the Year - individuals and teams who have excelled over the last 12 months. We will reveal a new honouree every day until December 15th. Check back tomorrow to see who else makes the list.

The tail end of 2017 has frequently felt like what can be politely described as a "hot mess." From the closure of Visceral Games, which sparked debate around the death of linear single-player experiences, through to the debate surrounding loot boxes which is currently circling the drain of absurdity, it's been a particularly colourful few months.

But nestling quietly outside the maelstrom of controversy that has engulfed the industry is the sleeper hit Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, from Cambridge-based developer Ninja Theory.

While Electronic Arts' CFO Blake Jorgensen was saying that consumers don't like linear games as much as they did ten years ago, and Warner Bros. was defending its decision to include loot boxes in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Hellblade was shifting hundreds of thousands of units, turning a profit six months before the studio expected to break even.

We've entered a new era of games-as-a-service, a shift which has reportedly tripled the value of the industry, according to monetisation service company Digital River. In the wider context of the industry, Hellblade is an anomaly, and one not only worth celebrating, but worth learning from.

Hellblade is an important game in the current climate for two distinct reasons. Perhaps most importantly, looking at its position within the overall cultural landscape, it's a game which tackles stigma against mental health head-on. The team at Ninja Theory approached this subject with a level of consideration that is so very rare in the world of AAA games, which all too often use mental illness as a shorthand for "crazy."

Exploration of mental health in video games is not necessarily a new thing. From Spec Ops: The Line, which portrayed the horrors of war through the lens of post traumatic stress disorder, through to the creeping, painful insights into grief with Unfinished Swan, we know that video games can bring these experiences to the foreground in a way that challenges our preconceptions.

What's instantly refreshing about Hellblade is that it's an exploration of psychosis which Tameem Antoniades, chief creative at Ninja Theory, said has been "rarely acknowledged in a century of cinema, never mind the new medium of games."

He added that where it does feature, "it often conflates psychosis, and psychopathy which is associated with a lack of empathy. It is unfortunate that these words sound so familiar and are used interchangeably in media. I must admit that I didn't have to look very far to discover my own ignorance of the subject."

Determined to handle the topic with care and consideration, Ninja Theory succeeded in painting an honest depiction of what it's like for people suffering from psychosis. What is so worthy of respect is the lengths to which Ninja Theory went ensuring it was representative, rather than a hollow pastiche.

The Hellblade team consulted extensively with professional psychiatrists and, most importantly of all, people with lived experience of psychosis, meeting regularly and listening carefully to their input.

"There are some tough subjects in there that are being tackled with honesty"

Jenny Esson, service user at Recovery College East

Working closely with Recovery College East, an organisation that works with and cares for people recovering from severe mental health issues, Ninja Theory was able to properly understand what the realities of psychosis, depicting the condition with sensitivity and unprecedented authenticity.

"For me being involved, especially developing Senua's character, has been really important, and being able to bring in my perspective of what I see and what I hear, has been a real privilege," said Jenny Esson. "There are some tough subjects in there that are being tackled with honesty."

Fellow service user Kathy Jones added: "It's fantastic to get the opportunity to use our lived experience in a very creative way. There's nothing tokenistic about the work we've put in. It feels like we've been listened to and things have been taken on board and I think there is a lot of realism in the game itself and it feels very authentic."

To accurately recreate something that is so difficult to understand, so frightening and so real, is an achievement in and of itself.

Paul Fletcher, psychiatrist and professor of health neuroscience at University of Cambridge was just one of the many professionals who Ninja Theory consulted with during development.

"For me it was really exciting to see something that I explore scientifically being represented so beautifully in a character that's trying to penetrate the mysteries of the environment in which they've been placed with all of this strange uncertainty, and noise, and conflicting information they that they are getting," he said.

"I'm very excited about this way of trying to represent mental illness because I think it actually might be offering us insights that we wouldn't get from pure scientific explorations and actually giving us quite an empathetic view of what it might be like."

"It's safe to say that we started out Hellblade as a genuine experiment"

Dominic Matthews, commercial director at Ninja Theory

Of course, the team at Ninja Theory deserve recognition for more than just the portrayal of psychosis found in Hellblade. Creative scope is narrowing to account for the increasingly staggering cost of games development, but Hellblade is also important for proving that independent AAA presents a viable alternative for future games development.

Not only is it the exact sort of linear single-player experience that Jorgensen said consumers are losing interest in, but Ninja Theory has potentially laid out the framework for other studios to follow its model, opening the floodgates for a host of new, exciting, creatively daring games.

In a notable departure from convention, Hellblade was developed by a team of only 20 at its peak, and operated on a fraction of the budget afforded to AAA blockbusters. As a result it's a shorter but highly-focused and well-refined experience. Ninja Theory has demonstrated how creatively restrictive the $60 price structure is for developers who are often forced to dilute their games to offer the broadest possible appeal and justify the $60 price tag with hours of superfluous content.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Ninja Theory commercial director Dominic Matthews said: "It's safe to say that we started out Hellblade as a genuine experiment. Can we make this model work? We really didn't know that it would work right up until the day of launch. That is the nature of the video games business. But now that is has, we have a model there that we can build on in the future, to make games in a similar way, where we have the very high production values, not make them for a ten million plus audience and the creative sacrifices that come with that."

The freedom to move away from the homogeneity of AAA development allowed Ninja Theory to develop something truly unique, broadening the potential for what games can achieve. Ninja Theory has always been a studio of great talent, with games like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and DmC remaining some of the finest under appreciated gems of the last console generation. But with Hellblade, Ninja Theory is now an industry leader, a trailblazer that took a risk to prove a point, and succeeded.

"Since the game launched, and we broke that 500,000 unit sale mark, I've had a number of conversations with other developers who have said 'thank you for what you've done with Hellblade' because now when they're having conversations with people they can look at what we've achieved and do the same," said Matthews.

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