[SPOILERS AHEAD, NATURALLY]
You can feel it. A stranger. An imposter in your own body.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice opens to our Celtic warrior protagonist Senua riding a canoe to the Norse mythology’s land of the dead, Hellheim. A chorus of voices echo through your headphones, warning you to return from where you came. “You’re moving towards your death,” one whispers. “Turn back, it’s too much,” says another. “You’re too weak, you’re going to die.”
Senua looks straight ahead towards what’s hidden beneath the fog and you continue to go further into the canal, only able to slightly move the camera left and right as if solely with your eyes. Opening credits and crucified corpses planted in the sand around you fade away as you arrive at Hellheim’s shores. Stepping onto the ground, you push the boat away, preparing for the journey ahead. “You don’t have to do this,” a voice says. “You can still turn back.”
Senua’s quest isn’t a heroic tale of valiantly fighting demons and saving the world with fame and glory, but a personal journey of self-acceptance, grief and guilt. She travels to Hellheim in search of a way to bring her loved one Dillion back to life. His dismembered head wrapped in a bag tied to her satchel serves as a narrative and metaphoric reminder of her guilt; her belief that she’s responsible for his death, and must persevere.
Senua suffers from psychosis, a mental disorder described as a disconnection from reality. The world around her is a manifestation of how she sees herself: a plague that’s cursed the people around her. Her father abused her, visions of her mother suggested she was abandoned by society and dangerous, and a secret ending to the game unlocked by finding all of the lorestones hints that her mentor lied about everything he told her.
Senua’s Sacrifice refuses to hold your hand, and in fact, its minimalistic and unfriendly mechanics are designed to make you struggle. This is built upon through the game’s audio, and the voices mimicking those inside Senua’s head that speak to you throughout your journey, adding commentary as you interact with the world to create self-doubt.
What’s that? A door. Where does it lead to? Should she push it? Push it! Don’t push it! What is she doing? She’s pushing it? Stop, don’t push it! Why is she pushing it? She pushed it. She did it.
It’s a powerful approach, immersing you in a mind clouded by deception and self-doubt, and for me – and many others, no doubt – proved to be hugely cathartic. Senua’s Sacrifice, you see, reflected my own experience dealing with social anxiety. Since I was a young teen, I struggled with anxiety. I felt lesser than my peers and always put others first; a selflessness born from a horrible sense of care and confidence in myself.
Years of bullying – the worst when friends commented on a YouTube video I made with a death threat using an anonymous account named after another student – developed my fear of being ridiculed into early signs of agoraphobia in my later teens. I listened to the voices inside my head warning me to stay at home and avoid parties and days out with friends, missing out on dates, birthday parties, and occasionally, school. “No one likes you,” one would say. “They only invited you out of pity,” another whispers.
During the few months in between high school and the start of university, my friend group dwindled as I drifted from my high school friends. I stopped making an effort to hang out with people, and stayed at home watching TV. I’d wake up late in the afternoon feeling tired and mentally drained and stay up until the early morning unable to fall asleep before eventually collapsing. I spiralled into a month of depression. It wasn’t until I played one of my favourite games for the first time – Persona 4 – and fell in love with its social time management mechanics and characters that I started to cope better with my problems; but the voices never left.
Senua’s journey takes her through trials by fire, illusions, a predatory beast that hunts at night and a hellish channel of blood painted with a red sky, but what scared me more were the voices inside her head. Their speech, tone and attitude were all too familiar. In this way, the final scenes are one of the most cathartic experiences I’ve had with a video game. After reuniting with Dillion’s soul, Senua accepts that she cannot bring him back from the dead and throws his head into the ocean. As she does so, the voices begin to fade away with but a single voice remaining, calmly telling her that the darkness is still there but different.
Much like the voices I deal with, these thoughts had only held Senua back from moving on from her lover’s death. As she symbolically lets go of what’s kept her so broken and unstable, the distorted reality she’s manifested begins to shatter. The final shot of her confidently walking with pride and determination towards a warm tunnel of light contrasted with the bleak and violent imagery found on the road to Hellheim teaches us that while mental health isn’t an issue you can just switch off, it’s one that with enough strength you can learn to control. I’m not at the point in my own experience with depression and social anxiety where I can let go and healthily drown out the voices but this reflection of a struggle so many of us deal with is still incredibly rewarding and insightful.
Senua’s Sacrifice serves a greater purpose than what’s on the surface. Senua acts as a mascot for gamers around the world suffering from mental health issues. Her journey boldly envisions a future where I and many other people can overcome our anxiety, depression, guilt, grief and self-doubt, and live a healthier, freer life.
What is he doing? He can do it. No, he can’t. He can’t do it. He did it.
Julian Rizzo-Smith is a freelance writer reporting on video games, anime and pop culture. You can hear more of the voices inside his head (and his dreadful puns and opinions) on Twitter.