When the game’s very first credits before gameplay list University of Cambridge professor Paul Fletcher as Mental Health Advisor it’s made evident that Hellblade: Sensua’s Sacrifice is more than just a videogame. We are then asked by one of many disembodied voices and unreliable narrators, “What if we can only see what our inner eye shows us?” The small independent production team, Ninja Theory, has created a respectful exploration into the world of psychosis and an authentic and empathic experience of mental health disorders via videogame play. What we may have here is the most important videogame title of 2017.
Before you wonder what would compel you to play a videogame dealing with such heavy subject matter, I'll tell you - it’s the way you’ll experience the title character’s journey. The graphics are nothing short of breath-taking. Lighting tricks, multiple color palettes and textures, and various post-production effects make Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice more like a movie going experience thanks to the adept directorial hands of Tameem Antoniades. And pro-tip, it is imperative you play this title with headphones. The sound direction and voice acting only further amplifies the experience - falling just short of VR immersion.
With the popularity of Hidetaka Miyazaki's action role-playing game Dark Souls, it's easy to assume this title would fall into a similar genre. Ninja Theory’s Devil May Cry reboot led me to believe the game mechanics would be of a similar nature. That was quickly thrown out the window after realizing that the combat in Hellblade was grossly simplified. It doesn’t take long to understand that this game relies on a strong narrative, instead. I found myself immersed in a walking simulator set in a world of Norse mythology mixed with the eeriness of Silent Hill.
You spend the entire gaming experience figuring out the logic and meaning of Senua’s world as the development team further challenges you with a meta-game adding the fear of a potential game save erasure should you perform poorly. Trying to make sense of all these unknown horrors end up being no different than what a poor soul likely affected from severe psychosis might experience. When you as the player accept these moments as just normal game play, I’d argue that those who suffer from mental disorders would point out their experience seems normal to them as well.
If you want to see the importance of the videogame medium, the untapped potential of what was once seen as simply entertainment, becoming more than just an art form but an educational tool, and the ability to serve as a movement that deconstructs taboo and ignorance, then play Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice available now on PS4 and PC. With a price tag of only $29.99 for a solid 6-8 hour experience, it's vital for games produced by independent videogame production teams like Ninja Theory to succeed. Otherwise, we'll watch the medium suffer through annual re-iterations of Triple-A titles fearful of taking risks and pursuing the artform that videogames are so capable of.