Gaming and Mental Illness: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Recently, I went on my semi-annual vacation to visit my BFF in San Antonio. Our time together usually consists of being homebodies in yoga pants, binge-watching Netflix, me writing all the words, and video games. Because like me, she is also terrible at peopleing.

My BFF’s place is like my magical writer’s retreat. Somehow, all the words appear when I’m here, away from the noise of my house. My parents, while I love them very much, and somehow my Mom decided it would be bad form to eat her young, are very noisy people. And some days, it can get to be nails on a chalkboard. All. Day. My BFF’s place is quiet as the grave.

Also, my parents read this blog.


But I digress.

One of the things my BFF wanted to show me was a PS4 game called Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. She kept insisting “Dude. This is totes your jam. You need this. You will either nope out in three seconds, or you’ll love it.”

You see, she had to play it for me, which is totally my preference because I’m butterfingers with game controllers, and I don’t have the attention span to actually play a video game. That’s just my thing. I grew up with a gamer brother, where I’d watch him sail through game after game, and I was the peanut gallery watching the story unfold.

So, a bit about Hellblade, beyond the…well…let’s be honest, kinda hokey title, is waaaay more than that. The premise is you play Senua, a Pict warrior on a vision quest into the underworld to rescue her dead lover from Hela.

Cool, right?

Or the other premise underneath the premise, is you play Senua, a Pict warrior with severe mental illness and her descent into psychosis.

Got your damn attention now, right?

The game is interesting in a way of mental illness is framed with Norse mythology to kind of give it a “fantasy” feel, yet the imagery portrayed is from Senua’s point of view. So, the visuals are her reality. Things like refractions of bright colors, scenery with kaleidoscopic tunnel vision, patterns, shifting shadows, visions of night terrors represented as playable levels (there’s a sea of screaming, charred corpses for instance. And they move. Yeah. That’s a thing.)

And even more interesting and a bit nopey to those uninitiated is she has a constant whispering of voices everywhere she goes. Credited as the Furies, they converse with each other, they also belittle Senua when she fails, they also encourage her when she’s struggling, they even argue among themselves over who’s right or wrong, they even fear when they themselves think they’re in danger.

Ninja Theory, the game developers, did their damn homework. And they did a lot of it. Not only did the developers think they knew exactly what they were doing initially, they actually were going about it all the wrong way at first. First, the Norse mythology and historical context is damn right spot on. But that kind of research if you know where to look or who to ask, is easy to come by. Now… the mental health side? That’s different.

Not only did they consult with a team of professors, they also consulted with those living with mental illness and researching their experiences so they could accurately portray them.

This? This for me is a fucking revelation. This is exactly what my therapist had said was as a professional, he can understand mental illness from an academic perspective. He can’t understand it from the point of view of someone who actually lives with it.

Ninja Theory has a behind the scenes featurette with the game explaining how they went about it. And one of their core points going into the game which is crucial was Senua’s experience was shown with empathy and compassion. Because they too had learned, without even realizing it, that they were using the concept of “psychopathy” and “psychosis” interchangeably, and these are absolutely not the same thing. Psychopathy is what we see in Hollywood, in say, The Shining and things like the Saw franchise. Psychosis, is an illness that causes one to break with reality among other things, for the extreme cliff’s notes version.

Ninja Theory learned that the mental illness experience is not defined by those who live with it, but the cultural stigma attached to it.

Holy fuck, I wish I came up with that. But it’s true.

I want to give the guys at Ninja Theory a goddamn hug and a high-five.

It was important to them to show mental illness from a place of compassion, from the point of view of someone who lives it. For a player who doesn’t understand what mental illness is like, or for a player desperately searching for someone like them. As everyone says, representation matters.

And that’s the issue that makes me furious with the media, film and journalism alike, things that make me go on rants at my parents or tirades at my BFF. Like not mad at them but mad about how film and journalism get it all wrong and I get cranky as fuck.

I even wrote a post about it called “Dear Media, I Am Not A Murderer.” Which go read that damn thing. Read it. Read it again. Let it all sink in and marinate into your bones.

Like my therapist, while open-minded, he knows he’s on the outside looking in. Where as the general public who are also on the outside looking in, pass negative judgments.

I repeatedly call myself a monster. And I use it as a word of power. It’s a word I’m reclaiming for myself. Much like the LGBT community has reclaimed the word “queer.”

Monsters can be gentle, but monsters can be scary. And sometimes to fight my monsters, I have to be the bigger monster.

My monster has a name, it’s called Stigma, and I will not let it silence me. My roar is louder than it, and my sword is sharper.

So many, too many, far, far too many people I see on social media, and people I even interact with, have let Stigma beat them. They confess their illness from a place of shame. A place of failure. They preface their social media status updates or blog posts with “Trigger Warning” or “Content Warning” before discussing their feelings.

I have a complicated relationship with such warnings. Sometimes they’re necessary, and sometimes they’re just…overkill. For lack of a better word.

Like “Trigger Warning: I’m going to talk about my feelings.”

Talking about your feelings shouldn’t come with a warning.

It shouldn’t come from a place of shame.

I expose myself, willingly I may add, to a lot of upsetting material. And Hellblade can be a pretty big bucket of nope. But also, my personal feelings on the topic is I come out of it learning something and able to make an educated opinion.

Hell. I watched The Revenant. Twice. And actually liked it.

Here is the thing, the thing that really burns my biscuits, we as a society insist there’s no shame in a lot of things.

Have a short list!

  • We’re encouraging of new mothers breastfeeding in public.
  • We’re encouraging of loving our bodies no matter the shape or blemishes.
  • We’re encouraging of cancer patients and call them heroes.
  • We’re encouraging of those who keep our country safe.
  • We’re encouraging of those who are coming out and live with pride.
  • We’re encouraging of charitable causes.
  • We’re encouraging of stamping out hatred.
Yet… And yet…

Just because I see the world in a different way, that’s bad. Just because I openly talk about “oh, hey, I hear voices, it’s really not a big deal.” That’s wrong.

Just because I have a bad day and want to vent, I have to preface it with a trigger warning because oh gnoes I’m going to say something kinda sad.

And that’s the thing. That is the damn thing Ninja Theory got right. And it mattered. Showing Senua’s mindscape with not only honesty, but unashamed. They knew going in it was controversial, but do you realize how silly it sounds that it is?

Think about it.

Consider this, without that “spark of madness,” we wouldn’t have creativity. We wouldn’t have art, music, film, stories, anything that really makes sense of the world and explains it back to us in a digestible format. It takes someone who sees the world differently, someone who can see the patterns, someone who sees how the colors go together, someone who can visualize a being who doesn’t exist, someone who listens to that small voice inside.

That small voice? Is that intuition? A gut instinct? Or something else?

Ninja Theory, with their beautiful, and deeply personal game, was my voice.

And my voice was heard.

My roar was louder than the roar of Stigma. My sword was sharper than its claws. My Furies were my guides and didn’t lead me astray.

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