‘Hellblade’ tries to show the real experience of psychosis — but ends up using it as a plot device

Ninja Theory
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My father passed away when I was 9 years old, leaving me with my mother as my only caretaker. I had noticed even as a young child that mom seemed to be a “little off” sometimes, but it wasn’t until shortly after my dad died that she began showing symptoms of schizophrenia in earnest. I had to become a grown-up a lot faster than I should have — and when she had a particularly severe psychotic episode, it became my responsibility to keep her safe.

So I was excited to see that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a new game from indie developer Ninja Theory, planned to tell a story through the eyes of Senua, the protagonist who’s living with psychosis. The team even consulted mental health professionals to avoid portraying Senua as stereotypically “crazy,” instead trying to help players understand what it’s really like to live with a mental illness.

I ended up disappointed.

Senua is a great character, and Ninja Theory did an admirable job attempting to portray the complexities of psychosis, but the game fails to help people truly understand its nature.

The spectacle of ‘Hellblade’ intends to be allegorical, but ends up distracting from the mental health aspect.
The spectacle of ‘Hellblade’ intends to be allegorical, but ends up distracting from the mental health aspect. Ninja Theory

I have a lot of experience caring for individuals with mental illness. Besides my mother, I also monitored and mentored individuals in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and later worked as a Kentucky Department of Corrections contractor monitoring halfway houses. Looking at the myriad ways in which mental illness in general and psychosis in particular can manifest, I would be the first to say that either is a hard thing to capture in a meaningful way in video games. The reason we rarely see a game that deals with mental illness is because there’s no easy way to show someone what living with an ailment like schizophrenia is really like.

The reason we rarely see a game that deals with mental illness is because there’s no easy way to show someone what living with an ailment like schizophrenia is really like.

In the game, players are left knowing that Senua lives with “psychosis,” but that term typically refers to a symptom of an illness — not an illness itself — or a reaction to an environmental factor. Knowing the truth of her world — of her diagnosis — would have helped us to tangentially experience what those affected by schizophrenic behavior suffer through each day.

(Editor’s Note: Massive spoilers for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice below.)

I don’t doubt that Ninja Theory did its best to make Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice as kind and accurate in its portrayal of psychosis as it could. However, in attempting to make the concept accessible, the narrative fell short of focusing on the topic. Instead, it becomes a plot device to propel Senua through Helheim. If you took away the conceit that Senua lives with psychosis and replaced it with real demons, ghosts or dark magic, how different would the game be?

If you took away the conceit that Senua lives with psychosis and replaced it with real demons, ghosts or dark magic, how different would the game be?

Senua’s mental illness should be focal and explicit

One of Hellblade’s biggest issues is that, if you go into the game without any background information, you might assume that Senua is living with delusions and Norse mythology-inspired hallucinations — or you might think that she’s being haunted by demons and ghosts.

It’s only later on in the game that you learn about her “curse” — her disease — and how her abusive father tried to keep her locked away to protect her from her mother’s suicidal fate (and how even her beloved boyfriend, Dillion, turned on her because of his misconceptions about her illness).

Those revelations should come as bombshells, but they lose their punch in the context of the game. The spectacle of battling fire giants and skull-faced killers tends to overshadow the real story of Senua’s self-blame and redemption.

The portrayal of Senua’s mental illness would be better served by showing both sides of her story: what’s in her head and what’s actually happening.

This video breaks down schizophrenia in an easy-to-understand way. Osmosis/YouTube

The problem with Hellblade is that, while it may give players some idea of what it’s like to experience auditory hallucinations or struggle with perceiving what’s real or not in the game, they don’t get any standard by which to measure Senua’s journey into mental illness.

What was Senua like when she was young? What were her hobbies? Her likes and dislikes? My mother was a brilliant woman, and I watched her struggle with her illness and degrade until she was basically a husk. Seeing her slowly lose interest in everything she loved struck me with a profound sadness. I knew she was losing the final strands that kept her connected to our world.

We don’t see that in Hellblade. We don’t share that sort of sorrow with Senua, and the narrative suffers because of it.

Since we have no baseline of Hellblade’s universe other than our time with her, we don’t know how plausible any of the supernatural events in the game are. Instead, we’re left not knowing what actually happened and wondering what was in Senua’s mind.

Making Senua’s father an antagonist was in poor taste

In Hellblade, you learn that Senua’s father abused his wife and daughter to “drive out the darkness” that had “cursed” them, and attempted to lock her away. This narrative choice leaves completely untouched the effect that mental ailments have on our society — on caretakers in particular. It stifles the opportunity to inject commentary about the broader picture of mental health care.

There are plenty of instances in which families and communities have harmed or taken advantage of those with mental illnesses, or treated them as pariahs. But there are also plenty of people that have sacrificed their safety and own mental health to help those with severe mental illnesses when they couldn’t help themselves.

Source: Ninja Theory/YouTube

For instance, during her bad periods — including when I was just a child — my mother would inevitably descend into the basement and commune with the voices she heard. Sometimes she would be down there hiding; other times, she would be laughing like she was with old friends. No matter what, it was a frightening experience for me as her caretaker.

That’s why I was somewhat disgusted with the choice to turn Senua’s father into one of her antagonists. I understand how disruptive mental illness is for someone who is experiencing it, but this game completely glosses over how frightening and emotionally exhausting it can be the for people around them.

I understand how disruptive mental illness is for someone who is experiencing it, but this game completely glosses over how frightening and emotionally exhausting it can be the for people around them.

While I don’t blame my mother (or anyone else) for having a mental illness, it’s tough to know what to do when you can’t break through to someone you love because their delusions and hallucinations are so strong. By casting the effects of mental illness on caregivers in such a broad and unflattering light, Ninja Theory missed an opportunity to spotlight those who make sacrifices in an attempt to make sure those who have the same issues as Senua are loved and cared for.

There isn’t a cure for schizophrenia, so why does the ending make it seem like there is?

At the end of the game, Senua makes it through to Helheim and faces Hela — seemingly the personification of Senua’s mental illness. She sacrifices herself (which appears to symbolize her acceptance of her illness) and then throws Dillion’s head off a cliff (which shows her willingness to let go of her past). We’re then left to believe that things will be relatively peachy.

That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s far from reality.

Most people with schizophrenia can only hope to manage it at best. Even if Senua’s adventure is strictly allegorical, it casts those who have been consumed by their condition in a bad light, as if they simply didn’t have the willpower to overcome their illness.

Even if Senua’s adventure is strictly allegorical, it casts those who have been consumed by their condition in a bad light, as if they simply didn’t have the willpower to overcome their illness.

Many who live with psychosis end up having to be hospitalized for extended periods of time because they just can’t function outside of a supervised environment. Sometimes this period might be a week or two. Sometimes it can be a lifetime.

Senua carries her boyfriend Dillion’s skull around in a burlap sack. Maybe in the world of ‘Hellblade’ that’s not a big deal, but it’s getting a little too close to stereotypical “crazy” for me.
Senua carries her boyfriend Dillion’s skull around in a burlap sack. Maybe in the world of ‘Hellblade’ that’s not a big deal, but it’s getting a little too close to stereotypical “crazy” for me. Ninja Theory

When I was younger, for instance, my mother’s delusions were mostly benign; she wasn’t well, but she wasn’t angry or violent either. However, as time went on, she began to develop paranoia, and the more paranoid she became, the more she began to strike out at the world.

Medication helped alleviate these symptoms for a time, but with mental illness, there’s no such thing as a perfect cocktail of drugs to keep you permanently balanced. She would be OK for a while, and then build up a tolerance to the medication. We played the never-ending ballet of medication and dosage changes until finally the doctors just ran out of effective treatments for her.

Those with schizophrenia are at higher risk for dementia; that’s what eventually happened to my mother. She became increasingly violent as dementia fed into her schizophrenia and vice-versa, and, finally, after bouncing in and out of mental health facilities, she deteriorated to the point where she had to move into assisted living.

I guess that’s why Hellblade’s narrative seems so vacuous to me. Dealing with mental illness isn’t throwing your ex-boyfriend’s skull over a cliff or fighting imaginary monsters against a Norse Mythology background and then being all better. It’s a lifelong war, and it’s one you have to fight knowing you’re going to eventually lose.

My mother fought as hard as she could, but eventually, the illness won. It wasn’t because of any moral turpitude or deficiency on her part, but because no matter how hard you push against schizophrenia, you only get a reprieve.

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