Subtitle: How a game can fuck me up so much.
CW: This piece contains spoilers and discussions on mental health, self harm and grief.
It’s been three days now and I’m still recovering from the shock. At what point does a thing leave you so questioning your own mental state to the point where you lose sleep, question who you are, and shake you to your core that you need to put it down in print to give yourself breathing room.
Hi, my name is Jamie, streaming as Big_Bad_Kaiju, I’ve been fucked up by a video game and I’m thankful for it.
Let me start this by saying that the game in question, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, is an incredible game and has deserved every award and accolade it has earned, at least in my opinion. Everything from the art style to the combat to the music and voice acting is so right it hurts. I couldn’t point out anything wrong with it if I tried, and as someone who can get overly critical sometimes that’s impressive.
But this isn’t about what the game is. It’s about how the game gets under my skin and chokes me up.
Being someone who deals with various mental health issues I heeded the warnings and went into Hellblade with every possible defence up I could. This was a game I intensely wanted to play, but I was under no allusions as to the content. This was going to be hard, but without fighting it’s hard to overcome our demons.
When you’re going into a fight it’s best to make sure you’re prepared.
- Live stream, so I’m not alone: check
- Cats nearby, a familiar comfort: check
- Tea & water: check
- Read the Checkpoint guides on the specific mental health content I might encounter: check
- TakeThis Hope Shields in view, because it’s dangerous to go alone: check
Thus equipped I sat down over two sessions and shared my experience with a tiny part of the world.
The first half, which I had to repeat because my PC fried and I lost my save game, was tough.
The second half left me in a crying fit for 5 minutes and shock for the next 24 hours.
And this is where it’s important for me to talk about why. Not for you, your experiences will differ entirely, but for me. Because putting a name to our struggle gives us a foothold to overcome it.
The Game Mechanics
Let’s start with game mechanics. The technical aspects of the game designed to push the narrative, keep the player moving, and ensure the atmosphere is constant. Are these things done well? Definitely. Did they have an affect on me? Abso-fucking-lutely.
The voices that Seuna, the game’s protagonist – voiced by Melina Juergens who does an incredible job – hears as part of her psychosis (if you want to learn more about psychosis I recommend checking out CheckPoint’s article https://checkpoint.org.au/psychosis/) are used not only as a narrative point to describe Senua’s struggles, but also as a tool for directing the player along the story-line, in combat, and points them to notable elements along the journey.
But for some of us those voices aren’t heard, they are felt.
As someone with severe anxiety disorder many of the worst parts of my life have been dictated or encouraged by not a voice, but an urge, to do the worst. To say the wrong thing. To keep walking when I know it’s not safe. The self destructive part of me. They have ended relationships and almost ended my life on multiple occasions.
Hearing these urges given a voice was difficult to process. I found myself constantly telling them to shut up because they were echoing my own inner voices. And when you’ve spent your life trying to silence the urges, the last thing you need is to hear their voice telling you that you’re a failure.
We push forward though….right into Pareidolia.
If you haven’t heard the name before I won’t be surprised. Very simply it’s the psychological condition of seeing faces in things that obviously aren’t faces. Most people get it to some level; craters on the moon, knotholes of a tree, architectural features, and that’s all good and normal, for a given value of normal.
I get it a LOT though. And it has at one point or another been linked with various elements of psychosis; if that’s true or not I don’t know, evidence is inconclusive as far as I’m aware. Either way it concerns me about the state of my own mental health.
Hellblade uses this as a mechanic to allows Senua to hear the voice of her late mother, who died under circumstances that Senua has repressed due to the trauma it caused. It hits me hard, not just because of what it might say about my own mental health, but also about the strong feelings I have regarding my own mother, who passed on when I was a child.
The last mechanic, and one which is crucial to the premise of the game itself, involves a progressive tainting of the protagonist every time they fail, be it in combat or during specific instances. Senua has traveled to Helheim to recover the soul of her lover; taken from her violently in an attack that Senua, as with all things, blames herself for, and falling to the blackness would cause her life to end.
During the game you are infected with a darkness, a toxicity that begins at the fingertips and grows with every failure, until it eventually encompasses your head – the seat of the soul – and your journey is over.
As a failure mechanic this is a great idea: it keeps the player motivated to be careful and doesn’t break immersion by using something as blatant as a life counter – Hellblade itself has no heads-up-display at all. Using visual or audio queues to denote Senua’s status.
For someone who lives with catastrophic thinking – always seeing the worst possible outcome – as well as anxiety this was so difficult to handle I almost quit. Seeing that blackness spread up the character’s, my, arm at every loss was a harsh reality of how I see the world personally. Every failure becomes something you live with and will never shake off, every defeat one step closer to an unknown oblivion.
I didn’t lose much thankfully; I’m not a great gamer, but once I got the hang of things I learned how to fight better and learn to avoid the worst things got a little easier. This in itself is telling of how right they got it. We bear the scars, but through experience we learn to avoid the same mistakes.
All these things I learned in my first session. And with the repetition that came from experiencing it a second time due to technical issues (You’ll be missed, old computer) I could face it with a bit more confidence.
Then I sat down and played the second half of the game.
This is where the blade cuts deep and the tone goes truly dark.
The final act of Hellblade gets harsh, fast. And that’s saying something considering the first half.
It deals with the things that haunt us in our own personal darkness, with losing the thing that we carry through all our struggles and trying to reclaim it, with the guilt laid upon us by others when things go bad, with trying to keep the last semblance of self together when everything else is gone.
Each of these a powerful topic, and worthy of discussion in media of its own. In fact I could probably list a half dozen that each try and tackle only one of these issues.
Hellblade does it all in the space of a couple of hours, and each one of them hits hard.
And then we get to the ending.
Here we deal with the ultimate finality. The game has orchestrated it so that all the effort you put into keeping free from the darkness is quickly swallowed up; leaving you in no doubt that this is it. One last try. Get this right or everything you’ve done, everything you’ve endured and screamed in the dark to overcome, will be for nothing.
And you’re going to lose. You have no hope. The music is pounding, the combat ramps up into something that will never end no matter how long or hard you fight. At some point you’re going to hit the ground and never get up again.
You want an apt metaphor for depression. There you have it. Perfectly constructed around a fight you will never win.
And I lost. Because I had to. The sacrifice. Senua’s sacrifice, your sacrifice, that you came all this way to make, has been made.
Now you’re free. There is no fight left. Learn to let go; learn that love is powerful but fragile. Learn that life ends. That the journey goes on for some and ends for others. Learn that the hate you feel for yourself and the world around you is a blackness that consumes us, but you have a chance to overcome it.
And this is where I started to cry.
I broke down on stream. Live to the handful of people who watch me play and inhabit the little safe space I try to keep from the worst of the world and of whom I wouldn’t give up for anything.
I cried, couldn’t breath, and kept crying until everything inside was out.
I haven’t cried so hard in decades. Not since my mother died. Because this game had torn into me; not by intent, but of how I saw it and what the journey did to me.
Days later and I’m still dealing with it. I couldn’t sleep for the first day. Still get teary every now and then for no reason despite the hugs and reassurance from the people I love most in the world.
I’ll get over it. This too shall pass and I’ll get back to the level of stability I try to maintain.
I just wanted to talk about my experiences; even to a void. Shouting into the wind without any expectation to hear anything back.
But I needed to say it. Because I still have love. I still have hope and I still have a journey, despite all the blackness that lives within me.
And if you are reading this. Know that I love you, whatever that means.
Go play Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice if you can handle it. It might not be the same thing to you as it is to me, but it’s an important story. And I thank Ninja Theory for telling it.
Thank you all.