Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has sparked a lot of debate since its release in August. Even before its release, its marketing and advertising focused on Ninja Theory’s desire to create an experience demonstrating the possible effects of psychosis. It’s certainly a bold stance to take, and, although their intentions may be admirable – in that Senua, the main protagonist, is presented in a sympathetic light – there are still issues of representation that the game raises.
In an article published on Polygon’s website Dia Lacina, writes about the effects of games in relation to her own experiences as a mentally ill individual; specifically the paraedolia (seeing patterns or shapes in the environment where none exist) that the game attempts to simulate through its puzzle mechanics. She asserts that her own experiences with severe mental illness were invalidated by Senua’s:
Having to embrace Senua’s reality, as Ninja Theory’s puzzles demanded, meant having to give up my lived experiences as a mentally ill person to occupy a perspective that felt inauthentic.
I certainly agree with Dia in that the game does force you into accepting Senua’s reality. The voices in her head, the vividness of her hallucinations, the intensity of her reactions, all reinforced by the use of binaural audio, were overwhelming when I played. There was little room for my own identity, and very little space for my own experiences to filter through and inform my understanding of what was going on.
It’s hard to escape the fact that the game is designed to get us, the players, to respond in a certain way. The runes you discover in the environment are not found accidentally, they’re discovered because the developers put them there for you to find. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that when Dia was finding patterns that were not put there by the developers, the illusion of realism began to crumble away.
The problem, at least it seems to me, is that psychosis is a term covering a broad range of symptoms. It’s unlikely that any two victims will experience identical symptoms, or that the relationship between their symptoms and their social world will ever be the same. Dia herself mentions this, how mental illness does not exist ‘in a vacuum’, and is ‘inextricable from its social context’.
Dia raises the question of whether the game gives proper treatment to this social context. When playing the game, we’re not given too much detail about Senua’s past, only fragments of it through certain visions or hallucinations. But does this, as Dia states, perpetuate ‘the harmful idea that mental illness “is all in her head.”’? On some level, the game’s structure does certainly seem to do this (by the end, it becomes clear that she hasn’t really travelled anywhere), but I’m inclined to give the developers more credit.
Although Senua suffers from psychosis, and this cannot exist apart from her social context, she has also just experienced a severe psychological trauma. She is described as a victim of psychosis, but it would also be fair to say that she is suffering from PTSD. This would explain why she struggles to re-engage with her past. Her history is fraught with trauma: the abuse at the hands of her father, the destruction of her village, the loss of Dillion, her lover, as well as her mother, Galena.
When I finished playing, I read her visions, her hallucinations, her whole journey as a means of engaging and processing her traumas. It’s the Norse stories, and her construction of an hallucinatory world with them, that gives her a way to approach, and (literally) explore, her traumatic past.
Therefore, I’m inclined to disagree with the Dia’s implication that Senua isn’t a ‘real and valid’ person, or that her perspective is ‘inauthentic’. Especially because I’ve read plenty of examples where people suffering from mental illness have found themselves validated, and to some degree, understood, by the way psychosis has been represented; there others are still, close relatives or friends of psychosis victims, who have found the game eye-opening, leading to dialogue and a greater understanding between them.
By stating the inauthenticity of the game, isn’t Dia invalidating the experiences of those who have found relevance playing the game? My argument here isn’t that the game is authentic in its representation, but that authenticity – particularly with regards to mental illness, which often manifests itself ambiguously or paradoxically – is a matter of perspective, and cannot be thought of in relation to a sort of objective reality, or model of authenticity.
As for me, I think Hellblade can be a positive force in the gaming industry, if not society in general. I have never felt as much empathy for a fictional character as I have with Senua, and for that to have happened, she has to have seemed authentic and fully-formed as an individual. Senua is not a two-dimensional representation, but a multi-faceted individual with a prolonged history of abuse and mental illness. Senua, at least to me, is real.