Hellblade or: How I Learned to Keep Worrying and Appreciate Horror

As in life, many people go head first into video games cocksure and confident of their actions, be it with calculated puzzle solving skills or swift reactions and perfect aim.  I am not one of these people.

Save for Tetris – I am okay at Tetris – I doubt every action, question every decision and tentatively hover over every trigger.  I’m a gaming mess.  A gibbering, bumbling, anxious mess.

And this is why I hate Hellblade, or at least hate playing Hellblade.  You see, the protagonist, Senua, suffers from psychosis, which Ninja Theory considerately represents with distinct audio and visual cues.  Of particular interest is the use of binaural audio, a process in which a system of two microphones is used to represent a human head and creates a realistic sense of depth in the audio.  This was used for the voices in Senua’s head that bombard you with doubt and encouragement.  Mostly doubt.

These voices of doubt are relentless.  It’s an admirable commitment.  Mental illness is relentless and doesn’t let up for comfort’s sake.  As such, the voices never let up for the player’s comfort.  If anything, the opposite is true.  But this makes it very difficult for those with their own doubting voices to play for a sustained period of time.  It’s about mental illness, not for those who suffer with it.

This relentless layering of anxiety forced me to take breaks frequently.  In fact, it’s taken me nearly a month to play this seven hour game, as playing for longer than half an hour made me feel physically ill.  Never has a game been so purposefully uncomfortable to play with such good intentions.

Despite this, Hellblade is great.  It really is.  In fact, it’s my favourite horror game – I’m thinking more Frankenstein than Paranormal here.  Senua’s mental illness is embodied in ‘the darkness’, her own monster that affects the outside world through her.  It embodies itself as a literal monster that inhabits Senua’s hallucinations.  Her personal battle is understanding whether or not her darkness is the cause of the horrific events in the real world.  She needs to avoid or defeat this monster but unfortunately – and truly horrifically – it is a part of her.  Visually, it creeps like black tendrils up her arm or chases her as a hulking beast.  More unsettlingly, it is already inside her.  It is of no help that even the voices use pronouns to address Senua.  She is fighting ‘others’ and not just the ‘other’, as is often the case in horror.

That Hellblade looks more like a perfect interpretation of Dante’s Inferno than EA’s adaptation back in 2010 proves this is a horror game through and through.  With colossal beasts, clawing corpses and rivers of blood, this isn’t a pleasant place to journey.  There’s nothing more horrific than cerebral horror, which is the entire purpose here.  Ninja Theory has excelled in showing Senua’s discomfort, from bluffing about permadeath to the onslaught of Senua’s own doubt.

The only reason I finished the damned game – damned being the operative word here – is that it’s so evidently crafted with care.  It’s too intense for me to enjoy but it’s a joy to behold.

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