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Hellblade's simple twist of fate

Why I Love: Caledonia's Nels Anderson sees Senua reflected in the doomed gods of her Viking enemies

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This edition was contributed by Nels Anderson, designer on Mark of the Ninja and Firewatch and founder of Caledonia.

I come from a family of Minnesota Swedes. As a child, I remember my grandparents speaking Swedish to each other whenever they didn't want the rest of us to understand what they were saying. And I was also a tremendous dork of a child, spending many an afternoon at the public library reading mythology tomes. I always had a fondness for the Norse myths, perhaps because - admittedly, at rather lengthy remove - the people who told those stories were my ancestors. The stories themselves are often visceral and gruesome, but rarely in the "great heroes slaying foul beasts" sense. It's more Odin impaling himself on a spear, hanging himself and then gouging out his own eye all in exchange for knowledge, and that's just, yeah, really hardcore.

There is a kind of tragic resoluteness to Norse stories. The existence of the gods will end. Surtr, a giant of fire will leave his blazing realm of Muspelheim and burn the world. Countless other jötnar and things darker still will come to the gods' home of Asgard. Many of the gods will be killed. Ragnarok will come; nothing can prevent this. But the gods fight, drink, lust and live anyway. Odin keeps trading away body parts in search of something, anything that he can use to win, stop or a least forstall the war against the giants. The gods of Valhalla know they cannot change their fate, but they refuse to submit to it.

Hellblade takes place in the world of Norse mythology, albeit from an outsider's perspective. Senua is a Pict whose dark age Scottish island is raided by "Northmen" in longboats that arrive like a furious tempest. The Vikings take much and kill all; Senua is spared only because of a self-imposed exile, and it is only upon returning from this exile that she discovers all she has lost.

Senua's psychosis is neither blessing nor curse, but simply a fact of who she is, no more and no less

Senua banished herself because she suffers from a lifelong mental illness - psychosis - but her struggle is akin to those gods in the Northmen's stories, doomed by Ragnarok. She cannot rid herself of the voices she hears, of the things she sees which are not truly there. But her psychosis is not presented like a Cassandra-esque tragic gift marking her as a chosen one. The depiction here is far more honest: it is neither blessing nor curse, but simply a fact of who she is, no more and no less. And her struggle to save her lover's soul from Hel, the goddess who presides over the land of the dead, is as much about her coming to terms with his death as it is accepting who she herself is.

Much has been said about Hellblade seeking to depict psychosis with the gravity it deserves. Ninja Theory's collaboration with neuroscientists and with those personally afflicted with the condition make Senua's illness not something to be gawked at or to mark her as "other," but rather a thoughtful presentation of a real condition amid fantastic circumstances. This presents in the game in several ways, but the most impactful by far is through its audio. The voices Senua hears were recorded with a binaural mic, and if you play with a good set of headphones you will feel the voices moving around you. (Seriously, play it with a good set of headphones.)

The performances in the game are all exemplary, especially that of Melina Juergens as Senua. Hers is particularly notable because she had no prior acting experience: she was Ninja Theory's video editor who was basically doing placeholder mo-cap recording early in production. But her scratch track work was so compelling the team decided to cast her for the full performance.

Visually, Hellblade is stunning. It's at times menacing, bleak, cold, alien, overwhelming, solitary, distressing. But it is always tangible. Solid and striking. And that feeling of solitude is fundamental to what the game is about. It's not a lonely game. Loneliness implies a longing for absent others; in Hellblade, Senua is meant to be alone. And even with the heard voices, both those in Senua's mind and those of family and friends now gone, the game manages to capture a profound sense of an individual's deeply personal journey.

Even in its relatively simple combat system, Hellblade is transportative. There are only a handful of enemies, and with the exception of raven trickster spirit Valravn, they are all slow, lumbering and powerful. But Senua herself feels unmoored and outmatched. Even small details, like the choir of voices Senua hears reacting to actions in combat combined with the camera whipping violently when changing targets, feel frantic in a way that embodies Senua's desperate struggle.

If Hellblade is anything, it is focused. The environments, characters and animation stand up with most other AAA games, but Ninja Theory made it on a far smaller budget, and managed to do so by being economical and lean. It has no more than it needs to; no side-quests, no collectable trinkets, just the story it wants to tell and the place it wants to tell it in. This focus also allows Hellblade to ask the audience to pay half of what they would for a standard AAA game. It's turbulent mixing business with creativity; it's undeniable that there are expectations of scope an audience has when a game costs $60. The lower price-point lifts those expectations and lets Hellblade be as tight as it is. On a meta-level this accomplishment is also significant, and I hope it lights a beacon other developers choose to follow.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice understands Norse stories in a way maybe no other game does, and in this, it is able to tell a profound and unique personal story. I love what everyone at Ninja Theory accomplished with it, and I love it as an experience that has and will continue to sit with me long after the curtain fell on Senua's story.

Upcoming Why I Love columns:

  • Tuesday, March 13 - Auroch Digital's Tomas Rawlings on Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty/Battle for Arrakis

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.

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Latest comments (1)

Tameem Antoniades Creative Director & Co-founder, Ninja Theory LtdA year ago
Thank you, Nels Anderson for this article and GamesIndustry.biz for this series.

It's particularly nice to hear such appreciation from a fellow developer. With regards to the Norse stories, I was initially overwhelmed with the depth and breadth of the research material required and so we brought on a historical advisor, Dr Elizabeth Ashman-Rowe of University of Cambridge to assist.

She saw us play through a very early build of the whole game giving notes on art, history, myths and meaning. We reshaped much of the game around her insights. Impressed by her greatly, I asked that she write all of the Norse stories featured on the lorestones, narrated by Druth (Nicholas Boulton), for which she now shares a Writer's Guild of Great Britain award with myself.

There has been so much focus on the mental health aspects of the game that it is nice to see that the mythical and historical aspect are also appreciated by many.
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