There’s no doubt about it – computer games have now the same power as a book or a film to absorb us, change the way we think, live our lives through another characters eyes, and tangibly walk through a beautifully crafted fictional world where we can be heroes (just for one day).
It could be argued that they invite us in more than these other mediums by enticing our senses with the promise of escape for an hour (or sometimes more, if it’s a weekend) and truly living out and journeying in our absorption. I’m sure Joseph Campbell would be impressed.
With the new release of Hellblade, developed by Ninja Theory, we drawn into the mythological realm of the Nordes. The game opens by following the main hero, Senua, floating toward the lands of the Northmen after experiencing the death of her loved one and finding the ravaging of her community all too difficult to bare. This leads her on a journey of redemption that will take her down into the hell of Nordic mythos. Plagued by self-doubt, tormenting voices, and a fear of becoming her mother, Senua takes a trip into the underworld to battle the gods in hope she may find a lost part of herself.
This story sounds fairly straight forward so far, but what is truly unique is its mechanics and dynamic we as players have with the main protagonist: Senua. This story has done something rarely seen in modern day gaming, and that’s to give the main hero a mental health difficulty – something we are also bound to as we follow Senua through her tale, and something that many people in our community live with in a modern context. Now the immersive medium of video games can give us a form of lived experience that 99% of us will not inhabit, but sometimes share in fleeting moments when life throws us a curve ball.
The main character in this story, Senua, experiences psychosis. Psychosis is classed as a description of perceived reality which often involves hallucinations, such as hearing voices, and experiencing fixed beliefs called delusions. Often this experience has been wrongly stigmatised by the media as something that produces violence and aggression in those who suffer with it, but in reality most likely involves someone vulnerable in need of support.
While originally experiences of psychosis like auditory verbal hallucinations alone could warrant you a diagnosis like schizophrenia, we’re finding out more and more that it’s the only the malign, paranoid, and tormenting nature of experiences which can be debilitating – infact often voice hearers would prefer not to get rid of the useful ones. Evidence is being accumulated to suggest that the general population will experience a momentary hallucination at some point, and even pretty scary ones, but not have it lead to requiring clinical care. If you’ve experienced a night terror or the loss of someone close to you, you might know what I’m on about.
The relationship between hallucinations, their content, and experiencers are unique – however those in the throes of psychosis tend to describe a particular tone to these hallucinations which is something the developers of Hellblade wanted to make sure they were accurate in their portrayal. Ninja Theory closely worked together with service users, mental health experts, and the Wellcome Trust to help guide and accurately depict Senua’s experience of psychosis – including some excellent sound design using binaural recording to stay true to the sensation of voice hearing.
Top image: binaural recording – used in the development of Hellblade – tries to more accurately capture the true experience of auditory perception.
Senua invites us to walk with her every step of the way – from heart-breaking loss to battling demons we can’t ever be sure really exist – while all the while we are constantly interrupted, helped, chastised, berated, and comforted by the voices in her head.
Not only do we experience the rich environment Senua moves through, but also the rich environment of Senua herself. This is as much an epic mythological quest into the Nordic unknown as it is plumbing into the painful depths of the protagonist.
What is interesting is that this game takes a much more personable and intimate stance to our main hero by having to experience our surround through her eyes – creating a dynamic between the hero and the environment not often seen in gaming tropes – a risky move that has in this case paid off (in my humble bias opinion) for Ninja Theory.
In a lot of games, our predefined and personable hero is part of an artificially rendered world which we can rely upon to stay within the boundaries of its fiction. For example, in Assassins Creed we operate with the physics of being able to scale walls and jump from high buildings in historical scenes while being fairly confident that we won’t suddenly be swallowed up by the ground, and in The Witcher we buy into the magic and supernatural pretence of the world where we operate – and even in the most mystical cases we learn to expect ghouls, demons, and distorted monstrosities. In these cases, we stand outside of the hero and ‘see’ the world within a paradigm, extraneous to how the hero necessarily sees it themselves. This means all the biases, hangups, and embarrassing memories that suddenly pop up on aren’t shown to us explicitly – we’re sort of playing the role of scientist by having to infer their internal world from their interactions. If only we too could see the look on the characters’ face when their social media feed shows them a photo of what they looked like 6 years ago (thanks Facebook).
Sometimes our hero is faceless – for example in Dark Souls we are not told anything about our hero – even as far not having a voice in the interactions with non-playable characters that inhabit the decaying and bleak universe. This sometimes allows the player to assume the identity of the hero much more convincingly – putting our interpretations and feelings about the game’s universe onto our avatar. This is even reflected obviously in the way in which the game is played, customising the look and attributes of the player to personal choice. While this is effective and obviously fun, it’s a mechanic which doesn’t create an intimacy with another point of view – and we’re rarely aware of the fact that we’re doing this (which is part of the beauty of it).
However in Hellblade, Senua forces us to live her experience and face her reality in an active, intimate, and obvious way. In this dynamic, both she and the external world in which she inhabits is completely unreliable – and we share this oscillation along with her. One minute we’re walking through a glade which is quickly transformed into a fiery and bleak scene. Senua distorts the ability to stand outside of the hero and accept the environment for what it is, and instead makes everything we see potentially misleading – completely knocking us off guard and forcing us to question what is true. We’re tethered to the interpretations, fears, doubts, and perceptions of Senua as we progress in the game, and this creates a shared experience we’re not often used to in media.
So what does this really say about the human experience of reality more generally? How can we learn something about ourselves from this experience?
A recent talk put forward a popular theory of consciousness suggesting that all we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is a form of hallucination – a way of our brains trying to predict the environment to be able to operate in it. Learning these associations with our environment creates familiar concepts that we can interact with: that person is my friend Dan, that object is a ball, that’s my cat, that’s another pile of catsick I have to clean up again. All of these concepts are highly interwoven with aspects such as emotion and memory to form a continuous and seemingly concrete sense of ‘I’ within a space, but in actuality, we’re a bundle of cogs working together to form a whole.
When we introduce social relationships instead of just objects to our sense of ‘I’ we begin to form mental concepts of those relationships too. Recent evidence has suggested that the social relationships we hold throughout life can form internal conceptual identities – inner frameworks of how we would imagine people to act or think. You can probably do this right now by imaging what your best friend or partner might say if when you saw them next you suddenly started swearing at them for no reason. Our finely tuned and complex brain is able to integrate these representations so that we can think about them in this sort of third-person and rehearsed perspective. As we get to know others for longer and form closer social and emotional bonds with them, these internal ideas of who they are become more of a part of who we are. They can form our inner monologues and influence how we might think about something or our ‘selves’ in the future.
If someone we are close to or rely upon emotionally causes us a great harm or we go through a powerful trauma, especially at a young age, this can hugely impact the way we interact with others in the future and possibly give us a more threatening outlook on how we might view people we don’t even know yet. This traumatic experience can disrupt the finely tuned integration of our conscious sense of ‘I’. In some cases, this can lead to our internal social concepts or personality attributes of people we known or have known to appear to exist outside of us – this is what we may called auditory verbal hallucinations, but might not always be expressed verbally. They become disembodied voices of the strict authoritarian, the benevolent carer, or the critical sibling. Understanding how this might happen isn’t so tricky when you consider that the interpretation of who you are and who you are not requires a finely tuned and complex system working to create this seamless – but illusory – unitary experience, and even then it only really works properly sometimes.
Now that we have some theories about what’s actually going on, can’t we just explain away these experiences as meaningless?
Just because we can form theories about the way in which an experience is created is not to explain away the deep feeling of realness when we come into contact with an experience like Senua’s. In fact, the beauty of Hellblade is the simultaneous knowledge that most of what we see is illusory and yet being helpless to form genuine reactions to it. We know that the voices are part of Senua’s personal reality that others don’t necessarily share, and we know that the meaning she finds in things are possibly false, yet we find ourselves developing feelings toward the characters that speak to her and we’re driven to find out more of the supernatural world she inhabits. This experience brings us closer to the balanced understanding that while the mechanics of something can be known, that knowledge should never rob us or anyone of understanding the real and genuine human experience it can produce.
There is no secret that we can get easily absorbed into a fiction realm every time we pick up a book, a controller, or sit down in the cinema to enjoy a movie. This mechanism of immersion helps bridge the divide between Senua and many other people that live every day with psychosis as we’re given 8 hours of a simulated experience. The journey and struggle is created honestly, and gives us the realisation that psychosis is not an alien trait but completely understandable by virtue of being a human having lived through difficult conditions.
We all have our own unique interpretations of the world whether consciously or not, and Hellblade therapeutically and somewhat ironically brings us closer to that reality- and while we can debate this reality as a relative illusion long after the game has ended, the one thing that this game gives us clarity over is the feeling of Senua’s despair, anguish, vulnerability, and loss. That much we can sure of.
In essence, Hellblade is a prime example of excellent storytelling, immersive, bleak, and beautiful environments, stark self-reflections, and active intimate engagement with Senua’s struggle. This is a story about love, loss, and the relationship with aspects of ourselves – as beautiful and or as distressing as you can fathom. Through Senua’s struggle, we can get a taste of what it is like to live everyday with voices or to see reality being constantly pregnant with meaning. This game is something that I think should be a staple for all those interested not only in mental health, but for all who are truly interested in bridging the divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’ so frequently portrayed in the media with mental illness. It is exhilarating and exhausting, but highly worth the effort.