I’m sure you’ve realized but in film there’s a tendency to depict mental illness as somehow romantic or poetic. Sometimes, these depictions are inaccurate and can be used to justify almost any behavior that the plot may require. At worst, they stigmatize mental illness in a way that leads people to believe those who suffer have violent tendencies. The draw isn’t totally illogical, though. If a viewer isn’t mentally ill themselves, these movies have an intrinsic draw because of the foreign experience of someone with bipolar or schizophrenia. It takes a very good film for me to suppress my cynical assumption that mental illness is being used as a hook or a marketing tool. Sometimes, though, art gets things right and can offer some solidarity for someone who is dealing with mental illness.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice trends closer to the good side of the spectrum, although it doesn’t paint a perfect picture of psychosis. There are reasons, however, that I am more than willing to forgive this shortcoming.
For one, a lot of care and effort seemingly went into the development of the game. The folks at Ninja Theory consulted with a team of neuroscientists as well as individuals who were personally suffering from mental illness. A proclivity towards accuracy is noble enough to dispel some of my cynicism. Tameem Antoniades, one of the game’s directors, even admitted to realizing his own ignorance of the subject in early development which is what ultimately led him to consult others. This admission and realization are heartening and, ultimately, lead me to believe that overcoming ignorance was one of the developer’s goals.
Then there is the fact that their goal was exceedingly ambitious. In film, viewers often see characters entirely in the third person. As a result, the behavior they witness can be accurate. There isn’t a need to portray the internal experiences of a mentally ill character because the behavior manifests in an external, observable way. Because these behaviors are observed, it is easier to have a degree of accuracy. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice doesn’t have this luxury.
In video games, players occupy the mind of the protagonist. They share autonomy, to a degree, because of the controller’s influence. In games, the audience is closer to the experience and, as is the case with Hellblade, the character’s struggles effect the playing experience.
There are two primary ways in which Senua’s symptoms manifest in Hellblade. As players traverse the game’s world, they are fed consistent, sometimes overwhelming voiceovers that represent, well, voices. These voices panic, portray delusions, and advise. In the case of advice, there is an ambiguity that can be confusing. This confusion helps develop empathy for Senua. Then, there are puzzles that utilize Senua’s unique perspective on the world. Again, it isn’t always clear what the player is supposed to do. For me, this communicates that there is no perfect way of understanding someone else’s struggle with a mental illness. It also helps work around a possible issue with the game.
Every person forced to endure the symptoms of a mental illness will have to navigate the world in their own way. And the experiences vary widely from one person to another as a result of culture, society, treatment, exposure to stigmatization, and the relationships they have in their life. In Hellblade, Senua’s symptoms may seem heightened to some or inconsistent but it may not be possible to perfectly portray a diagnosis that will resonate with everyone. Perhaps this is why Senua’s abusive father is included in the game; it shows the influence a life has on mental illness.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice doesn’t capture the exact details of my personal experiences of mental illness nor does it relate perfectly to those of a close friend of mine. It doesn’t have to, though. The game is, undeniably, art and manages to express the difficulty of mental illness by utilizing the unique aspects of video games. In this way, it raises awareness and tries to instill empathy in the players. If stigma is a contributing factor in someone’s symptoms, games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice have the potential to help make life easier for the mentally ill. The game’s commercial success has me optimistic that other developers may see the value in this, as well. I only ask that they treat the subject with as much respect as Ninja Theory did.