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It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, So Here Are Some Thoughts on Hellblade

One of the most inspired games of the generation also tackles the subject of mental illness like no other pop culture object has before.

In my life I’ve ended up in the nuthouse twice. The most recent I was being treated at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. It was mostly uneventful, and the details aren’t worth getting into, at least not here, because this is about a video game and not specifically about me and my inane issues. But the thing that stuck with me the most during the course of that uneventful day was overhearing a conversation while I was watching ESPN on one of the televisions. A man with five o’clock shadow (I’ll never forget his voice, or his scruffy face) was talking to a doctor about why he was brought in. He was incredibly clear, concise, eloquent, calm, collected, and articulate. The problem for him was in just trying to explain — plainly and rationally explain — what was going on in his head, in a way that made sense to other people. He kept having to deal with everyone around him assuming he was schizophrenic, he told the doctors, and it affected his life in ways that he thought were worse than the voices. He couldn’t find or retain decent work, he couldn’t live a normal enough life, and everyone kept assuming he was psychotic. He wasn’t.

The man suffered from Paracusis (you can Google it, since I won’t do it justice explaining it here), and for him he kept hearing faint chatter far away, but in only his left ear. He could never make out the conversations, as the voices simply weren’t audible enough. He didn’t know who was speaking, or where the discussion was being pointed, and he obviously knew it wasn’t real and that he would have to just go on ignoring it, these whispers and murmurs. But the doctors wanted to suss out more about his case before going down the rabbit hole of medication, and family history, and whatever else they needed to know (I wasn’t intentionally trying to eavesdrop the entire time.)

His husband showed up soon after, and explained the history of his condition and how they couldn’t afford certain medications because he couldn’t work, and on and on it went, back and forth with the rugged-chinned man and the staff and the voices to his far left, until I was allowed to leave later that night. I never learned his name. I will never see him again, nor speak to him or get to ask him how he’s doing. He was very nice to me, and thanked me for turning the TV to something he could watch, sports. He said it helped him focus and drown out all the talking and commotion and disruption. The open area we were in was silent, but I simply nodded and we just went back to watching ESPN that afternoon.

That story doesn’t really have an ending, or a point to it, and it’s been years since I’ve thought about any of it. Despite whatever nonsense was going on in my life back then, that small respite was a wholly unique situation I had to be in to be able to see a different perspective, from another person I would have never otherwise meet. On paper these things sound scary and crazy, and in some ways they are, but you totally miss the humanity behind things like psychosis and paracusis and all the other disorders we suffer from. And the moment I started playing Hellblade , that entire day from the emergency room to check out immediately rushed back to me, and hit me like a wave. The weight of an ocean of memories flooded from my television and swept me out to sea, and I was beached in a new world. It was foreign and gorgeous and frightening and new, and yet I knew it so well. There’s a familiarity that unsettled and intrigued me when the game begins and Senua rows her boat down a lazy river, and the only other time I’ve felt so understood and vulnerable while playing a game was Gone Home away back in 2013. So it’s been five years of playing video games, and not once has anything come close to being personal and touching in such a way as to compel me to write about it.

And now, apropos of nothing, I present to you a completely apt, fractured day by day breakdown of my thoughts on the game. The first few are me playing and writing notes, and then the last few are just processing everything while watching the 30 part documentary series on the making of the game, which I highly recommend if you’re still reading this far in and really want to know more about game development because it’s fascinating.

Day #1

I’m fashionably late to the party on this game (what else is new); Hellblade finally came out for the Xbox One though, and that allowed me to get completely sucked into its madness, months after it received most of its awards and dissection and acclaim and analysis. I haven’t been as obsessed with a game in quite some time, and it’s hard for me to remove the background on how it was made from the game itself, when evaluating and talking about Ninja Theory’s masterwork.

Call it what you will, bias, research, clouding judgement, I don’t care, but this game is making me reconsider so much about game design and life and creating narratives about yourself that after going through their YouTube series of ‘Making Of’ docs, I became infatuated with Hellblade in a way I’ve rarely felt for a piece of pop culture. First it was Steve Gaynor and The Fullbright Company, and now it’s Ninja Theory and everyone who worked to make such a risky vision into a success. Ironically enough, both Hellblade and Gone Home are games that got under my skin in the best way, by never actively trying to scare you. Traditional horror games use all sorts of spooky tactics against you, but the ones that stick with me long after I played them just instill the possibility of fear, and instead just makes it seem like death is around every corner. But the most devastating effect outside of the Gothic / Celtic art style and design, and the frightening (and gorgeous) heavy metal Scandinavian atmosphere, is finally getting characters scarred by mental illness.

One of the things smart people (most especially writers) love to do is long-form personal essays and think pieces about mental illness, because it seems to afflict every one of us. Why intellectuals are cursed with degenerative brain diseases that slowly decay brilliant minds into oblivion is a question for the ages, and one that I can’t answer. My dad jokes that we use our heads so much they run hot, and burn out onto the side of the road, and if I’m going to use that analogy then I guess there really isn’t a great system in place for roadside assistance. Hellblade comes the closest I’ve ever seen a game become an emotional support tool, masked as an action horror game, and as hyperbolic as that comes off I truly mean it.

No other interactive title (a commercially available and widely marketed video game, mind you) has attempted something on this scale, in this way before, and I find that astounding. Just the fact that they went for it, even if the game didn’t come out so well, is something I respect, and unless you use medical research technology or virtual reality to get over other illnesses, this is one hell of a journey into psychosis…and hell. You also go to hell in this game. That’s fucking cool…as hell.

Day #2

Immediately this game presents you with a few harsh truths you’ll have to learn to live with, playing as Senua rowing your little boat down a stream. You hear voices talking to Senua, talking about Senua, and also talking to you, the player. It’s the most compelling mixture of core mechanics and storytelling I’ve seen in quite some time. Incorporating her illness into your gameplay so starkly slowly sinks you into the same illness. You can’t remove the voices from the game, and you can’t cleanse it from your character, no matter how hard either of you try to run away from it or ignore it. They weave nasty rumors and insults into the story, and comment on events like a Greek chorus, but also aid you in combat and make you question traps in the environment. It’s a double-edged sword, and holy shit is that analogy a good alternate title for this video game, now that I think about it.

The unreliable narrators, these angels and devils that sit upon your TV’s speakers, constantly spew this shit at you, but in hushed tones, which is more unnerving and annoying and ultimately effective in getting under Senua’s (and your) skin. They question Senua’s backstory, her motives, her past, and at the same time question the person holding the controller and what the hell they think they’re doing playing this game, trying to control and influence her. It’s bizarre, a constant breaking down of Senua and the fourth wall to try and drag you down as well. It oftentimes doesn’t feel like you’re truly playing as Senua, and I can’t remember a game relying on that level of removal from the player before. There’s a sense you aren’t wanted, tampering or meddling with her affairs, finding out more about her or aiding her journey, and all that makes me want to do is get closer and feel more connected. But there’s always something in the way, either by deception of the narrative or through the obstacles placed in front of you as the player. It’s wild, but speaks to how fucking with you constantly puts you in the right state of mind to go along with Senua.

And once you go deeper into the chaos, and become more familiar with the world around you, you get hit with this creeping notion that something is watching you. Literally, not figuratively. And before you know it you see faces in fucking everything and it’s so messed up — hell, at first glance, I had to get up and walk away on my initial playthrough. Senua’s mother Galena is hidden in a waterfall, and then some rocks, and later all sorts of places, as the single most creepy collectible you can imagine. The brain automatically looks for people in non-human objects, as I later found out while looking up research for this. It’s called Pareidolia, and it’s coupled with FMV of actors calling out from beyond the grave to Senua. The best way I can describe seeing people talk to you in mountains and clouds is like when you get harassed by mosquitoes, and one lands on you and it’s irritating, so you get paranoid about being bitten the whole day. It’s like that, but irritating for your soul and not necessarily your skin; you just want to smack it away. but it buzzes around every corner of the map regardless.

And speaking of Full Motion Video, I simply cannot fathom how anyone made this game a reality, because it’s the most photo-realistic video game my eyes and ears have been privy to in close to thirty years (Jesus I’m getting old, I can say that now…three decades, Christ). Senua skips over the uncanny valley, just jumps over and clears it, and it’s drop-dead gorgeous. Since she’s the only character model in the game worth rendering or looking at without a dead animal carcass as a mask, she gets the most natural animation and lifelike facial features and skin and hair. Watching the behind the scenes documentary series on the making of this game, you can gain great insight into how such groundbreaking tech Ninja Theory created without a publisher behind them. It’s DIY creation on a microscopic scale; it’s incredible how many times they bring up ordering items off of Amazon or Ikea in order to form the world of the game.

But Ninja Theory didn’t just stop at Senua and actress Melina Juergens’ star-making mo-cap performance: they fill every inch of space and time they have into voices and faces and water (and faces talking to you inside of water, for that matter), and it’s a perfect case of getting more by using less. They had to sacrifice so much that their previous projects relied on, and wisely chipped away at things they knew they couldn’t and shouldn’t work on to craft Hellblade into what it is. There’s not much AI going on, not many characters on screen, no collectibles, no other fluff, it’s just what needs to be there and all that fat cutting pays off, because it’s wonderfully paced and extremely thought out from all facets of design. They blend fantasy into horror, and fiction into reality, and lies into truth, objectivity into subjectivity, and by the end you get a twisted horrifying masterwork that blends gameplay into story and environment into character.

Day #3

From the moment this game starts to the very end gameplay twist (I won’t ruin it but it’s fitting in how sad it is when you realize what you have to do), Hellblade presents what I consider to be the most unsettling and haunting experience I’ve ever gone through. There isn’t a single jump scare throughout, and all it relies on is a singular unbroken camera shot, forced perspective, and a disturbing atmosphere that hangs over every tree and house and person to have walked through the world. It goes from a forest of illusion to a depressing shipwrecked pier all the way to the dungeons of hell and everywhere between, but it all feels like a prison of Senua’s mind that you’re locked in with her for hours. It can straight up make you distraught like it did with me, which really pushed me and Senua to finish our quests despite how rough it gets at times. And I’m fully aware this is so personal and individual to each person who plays it, and most gamers won’t be phased by a single thing. I think Hellblade works if you have thick enough skin, and can be pretty cool if you look at it from the right angle.

But there was a moment involving a fire that breaks out, and you instinctively run away through the flames to safety that the game has you repeat in one section. And to start the environmental puzzles, you have to knowingly and willingly start the hallucinations (or flashbacks, I guess) and one in particular was the most galling thing I’ve ever heard in a game or movie. The screams of people being burned alive was so piercing at one point I thought I was in an interactive snuff film, it was completely jarring and set me off. I thought “holy shit, people recorded and programmed that to happen?”, as if the developers at Ninja Theory had legitimately set a family on fire in the studio to get the realistic sound effect just right for the game. It really fucked me up — I was stunned at how much it fucked me up, and I even ended up turning down the audio for that entire level.

It made me feel complicit in her suffering, in my own, and that made an emotional investment in a fictional character all the more significant. Because it really wasn’t Senua who I was rooting for: it was who she represents. Everyone who has ever lived with their brain working against them, everyone I’ve ever known or met, and myself; Senua is all of us. And that can definitely come off as cheesy, or hokey, or eye roll inducing, but I would rather a game swing for the fences and end up being any of those things than the alternative: boring, lazy, trite, or downright offensive. Gaming has covered most of those poor qualities already to a tee, and there aren’t as many examples of out of the box design like Hellblade to hold up and cherish, from both an artistic standpoint but also a development one. How a studio of less than 20 people, on a strict budget, can pull off something that outclasses contemporaries all across the board is a fever dream.

Ironically enough, most of the heavy lifting doesn’t come from the writing, which is odd when I look back on the entire experience. There’s a lot of deep dives into the lore of Norse mythology in the form of hidden runes you zoom in on to get the equivalent of an audio log. All of the performances are incredible, but not every conversation strikes a chord, especially when you endure repetitive lines about “darkness” over and over. But the strengths outweigh whatever I can nitpick, or the few moments near the end that felt long in the tooth. And I’ve seen some derision around about this entire game not working for them, and I get it. Anyone can mock something that comes off as poignant to one as ridiculous to another, and I can’t really argue with how one should feel about art or how they interpret it. I just sat and played and reacted, and then started writing when I was finished with it the next day, instead of firing off tweets. I made sure to not read a single word so I wouldn’t get my reaction spoiled, and then I ran into a tweet storm and got soured, and thus I feel like an idiot. Oh well.

No amount of opposing viewpoints, however valid, and no amount of BAFTA awards and GOTY discussion podcasts has swayed me about that first impression, and that’s all that matters to me. I might feel differently about it down the road, that’s usually the case with most things, not everything can stick forever. And having God of War come out right after certainly doesn’t do the combat any favors, let alone the various other things it does better because it had more development time and money behind it. But I don’t want to compare third-person action games that use Helheim as a setting and feature melee combat about abused warriors. I really just wanted to try my very best to praise something that uniquely handles and challenges an issue that hits home for me, and for that, Hellblade firmly rests as an all-time memorable gaming experience, and as something I’ll bug my friends about for years until they play it because I couldn’t stop shouting “holy shit man, you gotta buy this thing cold and blind! Trust me!” until my jaw falls off. Maybe that’s why so many writers write what they write: they just don’t have any other way to convince friends to believe them about stuff they should try.

Day #4

On reflection, there’s a ton to talk about as it pertains to Hellblade and its gameplay. And I’m not even talking about the whole permadeath mechanic, which I believe is actually a fake-out to induce paranoia about dying with a ticking clock and a cloud of the unknown surrounding your actions (get it?). The darkness spreads up your arm, your disease gets worse the worse you do in the game, her curse is a metaphor, all that stuff (do you get it yet). But there are lots of little clever things the game does that only smacks you once you step away from it (and devote a whole week to writing about it, I guess.) Demons coming out of nowhere and with no warning in my life definitely made me think of how effective it was in the game, and the longer I think about it the more I appreciate its depiction of mental illness. The constant lying and harassing and exaggerated thoughts, they’re unrelenting and so painfully accurate. Every line that swirls around you are dripping with self-loathing and a pervasive sense of dread, it pervades and permeates and corrodes and smothers everything in its path until you’re miserable. There is a scarcity of hope, and by the end it doesn’t matter, and the entire time you’re fighting and being chased by legitimately scary shit. Hela is a big, naked baby doll looking thing and I wanted no part of that motherfucker and its cracked, bald face with its dead eyes. Yeesh: shivers when I think about that monster.

And I keep coming back to the central mechanic of the voices; I think I’ve written about them in every single entry every day this week so far, but I can’t stress enough how realistic it is, even if it’s not one to one with my experiences or yours. Just the paranoid double checking, people laughing at your mistakes, commenting on you, debating in your head, an angel and devil on your shoulders that whisper into your ears. They call out in combat to avoid attacks you don’t see because they don’t want Senua to die because then they do. And in puzzles they only want you to suffer because they don’t care about your well being. They never do. It screws with you and helps you and you cannot ignore the voices, and it’s the perfect foil, not the villains or antagonists or enemies, because it really is the biggest obstacle to Senua and people like her. It’s one of the strongest ways to connect to a playable protagonist, through that use of 3D audio, and another way to show and not tell about the overall story and world. It just builds all of it in an organic way, because you might not be getting the facts, but you definitely understand the truths by the end.

Day #5

As I finish up rehashing over and over my admiration of this game, there are some loose threads I had written down that don’t fit into a paragraph or larger point very well. I’ll rattle them off because there’s so much that impressed me I had to dump my brain onto the sheet. Like how breathtaking the ending level in Hell was, and how it’s my favorite depiction of Hell maybe ever. It’s just the most heavy metal shit going on, and somehow I’m reeling from the story, and drudging through the lakes of blood to avenge Senua’s lost love. The history of mental illness that surrounds Senua’s family was touching to me, despite how harrowing the details are if you read about all the details you miss during the game. There’s stuff you miss for sure — it’s worth looking up if you’re even mildly invested.

I am in love with the forest of illusions, and the visual puzzles that use color and light and perspective to get through. And later there’s a trial near a big tree with a sword in it that uses perception, and robs you of sight, that is scarier than almost all other games. The blind trial makes you use sound, and barely anything else, and it’s the most anxiety-inducing section of that entire game. Holy fucking shit did it get me good.

And I’ll end on a weird note: this game could be played in another language, or without any dialogue at all, and it would be almost as effective. Just some vague mumbling surrounding your every action and thought, the constant visual trickery and deception, and it instills a constant state of uneasiness that infects all the gameplay. It gets under your skin and burrows deeper into your psyche. This is to games what Koyaanisqatsi is to film; strikingly pure in its form and content, and without anything that overly makes it too gimmicky. There is no HUD, no obvious loading screens or hard cuts, no text overlays or other nonsense, its all diagetic and in the world and explainable to some degree, which is a wonder to behold in the same way the new God of War is a wonder to behold. But I don’t recall such a terrific example of using audio as a primary replacement for parts of a traditional HUD: that is truly outrageous and ingenious.

I don’t have an end to any of this, in the same way I never got an ending to the story at the top about the man who heard voices. I guess that’s fitting, since the ending of Hellblade can be just as head-scratching and alienating and deflating. But I’m going to give it a pass, since it perfectly balanced on a high-wire act for eight hours and only stumbles in the last two minute cut-scene. It’s a small nitpick in an otherwise memorable experience filled with the raw potential that only games can give through interactivity and creativity. I feel so pretentious typing that, but I don’t care at this point.

I wrote 4,000 words already. I have nothing else to say.

Also published on Medium.

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