Hellblade is a Watershed Moment for Games and Storytelling | Fanatical Take

About a year ago a friend and I seized the opportunity to attend an advanced screening of The Eyes of My Mother, a harrowing and disturbing indie horror film. In the film, a little girl in a secluded farmhouse bears witness to a violent, traumatic disturbance that completely destroys her idyllic family life. What follows is a dark tale of a young, friendless girl who is clearly mentally-unstable and develops a troubled view of humans and what it means to connect with others. Her name was Francesca, and she reminded me quite a bit of Senua, our terribly unreliable narrator in Hellblade.

Like The Eyes of My Mother, I find it quite difficult conjuring up the will to experience Hellblade again, not because it’s a bad game but because of its relentless darkness. In fact, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the best games I’ve played all year, and we’ve seen such quality releases like LoZ: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Nioh. Hellblade feels like a watershed moment for video games as a narrative medium. 

Voices in Her Head

There was a moment in the game that literally made me hit pause and reflect on the very notion of videogame mechanics and story telling. At this point, the player has to scale a wall and jump off the ledge into a new area.

One of Senua’s voices in her head asks, “Why did she jump off?”

Then the voice, notably amused, adds, “How will she get back?”

It was at this moment that I started to think about videogames in general and how they expect you to traverse and embark on your perilous adventures without much logic to them or considered risks. Many times in games, especially ones like the Uncharted series, have you carelessly jumping over ledges with no feasible way of going back. Uncharted is a swashbuckling, fun adventure game, but Hellblade made me think about those choices, “Why did I jump over that? How on earth am I ever going to get back?” It was such a shock to the senses to see a video game challenge that idea and even tease me for doing so.

Senua’s motivations often toil in delusion, sometimes by her own mind and other times by dark forces tormenting her every turn. Senua is alone and not alone at the same time. She carries the head of her lover and the multiple voices in her head, but she’s truly alone in the sense that she’s in a dangerous, unforgiving world where only the dead can enter. It’s this cold loneliness combined with her psychosis that makes Hellblade such an enduring and remarkable experience. One that I probably won’t play again but will enjoy seeing others play through it for the first time.

What little hope there is in Hellblade is never truly hope; it’s usually a cruel fakeout orchestrated deviously by her overwhelming foes. It’s really a one-of-a-kind game and a very important one. Hellblade is the kind of game that impacted me on an emotional level not unlike how The Last of Us, Journey, Red Dead Redemption, and Final Fantasy 7 did, only here it was in a new, unexpected way.

I felt darkness, emptiness, and really sympathized with Senua by the very end of the game. Ninja Theory has crafted their masterpiece, a work of art that nearly broke me but also opened my eyes to what video games can really do. Do yourself a favor, in a year full of great games and more to come, make time for Hellblade. Senua deserves your attention.