Video Game 'Hellblade' Praised For Empathetic Portrayal of Psychosis

By David Konow 08/15/17

The new action-adventure game chronicles the journey of a Celtic warrior who is battling psychosis. 

Senua, Hellblade's main character
Senua, Hellblade's main character Photo via YouTube

Last week, independent game developer Ninja Theory released an action-adventure game called Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, which has been earning rave reviews from critics for its compassionate representation of the main character's mental health issues.

Tameem Antoniades directed the critically-acclaimed video game which follows Senua, a Celtic warrior, as she embarks on a journey through the underworld as she battles psychosis. During Senua's travels, players get a firsthand experience of one of the symptoms of psychosis—hallucinations. The game is narrated by Senua's auditory hallucinations which offer players some backstory, some admonishment, and some encouragement.  

At times, it can be difficult for players to distinguish whether aspects of Senua's journey are being hallucinated or are real, due to the way the developers weaved in Senua's auditory hallucinations throughout the game.

Antoniades wanted the game to realistically show the effects of psychosis, but once he started researching the symptoms he quickly realized that this wouldn’t be an easy game to put together.

“Psychosis was very interesting to me, because although it seems like it happens only to other people, it’s a mechanism in the brain that drives it and it’s the same mechanism that makes us dream and it’s where imagination and creativity come from,” Antoniades told PC Gamer. “I think that fantasy, psychosis, and mental suffering are all intricately linked. That’s what got me into the subject.”

During development, Antoniades brought in Paul Fletcher, a Cambridge neuroscience professor, several other mental health experts, as well as people who’ve struggled with mental health issues so that he could gain a better understanding of psychosis.

Hellblade trailer

Antoniades felt a big responsibility to get this right when creating the game. “The more I reached out for help from people, the more it felt like I can’t let my team down. I can’t let the people we’ve been speaking to with mental health difficulties down, I can’t let these researchers and professors down who put their name to this game and trust that we’d do a good job."

He spoke to one teenage girl who heard voices in her head. “We asked her if she could ever see the voice, and she said, 'Yeah, sometimes I can see him,'" he said. "It’s completely real, as real as anything…It was a much more literal experience than we imagined...This is a person she lives with, that she’s lived with for years. It can appear day or night, wherever she is. I don’t think I could cope with that.”

Early reviews for Hellblade have been very positive about its portrayal of mental health issues. AV Club calls Hellblade "an empathetic tour de force, a game that takes advantage of all the powerful modes of sensory and emotional manipulation the medium affords to create a gut-wrenching personal journey of acceptance and empowerment."

The Verge wrote that "[Hellblade] tackles an important, and often under-discussed topic—in this case, mental illness—but it does so with both care and intelligence. That theme is then married with some incredible production values, including gorgeous, lifelike visuals and unsettling sound design."

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.