With this generation wrapping up, we’re looking back at the games that have defined the last seven years. Up next on the list: a fateful trip to the Underworld.
Ninja Theory’s 2017 release Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is, in a word, visceral. Every aspect of the game seems to ooze out of the screen and leave a tangible impression — the rough-hewn and shattered wooden structures, the sharp, jagged and rusting metal of weapons, the rivers of sticky, copper-smelling blood. Why did I mention smell, in describing a video game? The game doesn’t have any kind of smell-o-vision technology, but every single aspect of Hellblade is so tangible that it creeps into your head from every available opening — your ears, your eyes, and even your nose.
If that sounds gross or harrowing, then you’re in the right place. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a heavy, nerve-jangling game. It tells the story of Celtic Pict warrior Senua as she journeys to the underworld to resurrect her dead lover, whose head she wears on her belt. On the way she has to fight her way through scores of undead viking souls and battle Norse gods, all while battling her own inner demons — Senua’s family history of mental illness, and the trauma she’s seen manifest in her hearing voices and hallucinating. This is a violent, messy game about losing your grip on reality, and it is one of the most moving gaming experiences of the generation.
What I love about Hellblade is how it thrusts the player into Senua’s shoes. The camera sticks you right behind her shoulder, and combat zooms in to tightly frame you against the hordes of enemies swinging a sword at your/Senua’s head. You feel every near-miss, hear the wind coming off every swing, and see every detail from every blow you and your enemies land on each other.
Hellblade’s sound design is on another level. The soundtrack is equal parts atmospheric synths and chest-thumping Norse metal that burrows into your chest through your ears and commands your heart beat to its tempo. This is especially prevalent in the game’s boss fights, like the showdown with fire god Surtr that could serve as any other game’s final battle.
At the start, the game asks you to play using headphones to get the best experience. Doing so really puts you into Senua’s head, as you can hear the voices inside calling out from different directions, whispering and yelling from different distances — a masterpiece of immersive sound design. There’s even a section that takes place in near-complete darkness, where you have to navigate your surroundings only through hearing — a gutsy design move justified by the game’s brilliant sound design.
Hellblade puts you in Senua’s head, but you’re never alone in there. Along with the voices warning you, Senua sometimes turns to face the camera to speak directly at her inner thoughts, while directly looking at you. Are you controlling Senua, or are you another voice in her head? Is there a difference?
Senua herself is just an incredible character that I wanted to do right by more than 90% of any other game protagonist I’ve ever played. Her performer, Melina Juergens, is actually an editor/photographer for Ninja Theory, and had never acted before this game. Her anxiety and insecurity in her own abilities, by her own admission, give every moment of Senua’s fear and terror a sense of truth — you really are watching someone grapple with her own fear of failure — the name, and context, are just different.
There’s also the way the game depicts Senua’s Psychosis. Working with researcher and professor Paul Fletcher to make sure they got the details right, the game depicts Senua’s symptoms of voice-hearing and hallucinations with gravity and seriousness. Her situation, her desires, and her mental illness are all presented with nuance and visceral detail. You experience every terrifying moment of Senua’s journey and every time her perception, and yours, is shifted, you feel the shock and confusion while still pushing forward with the journey.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a confident, challenging, terrifying experience. Every aspect of it is perfectly sculpted to be as effective to its core story and goals as possible. It is a diamond of immersive horror and a complicated, difficult story well-told. It lives in my head, rent-free, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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