Games can transport us to imaginary worlds, but even within fantastical settings, we rely on certain information to help us play and process the experience. Games tell us who our enemies are, which doors are locked, and when we’re going in the wrong direction. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice also gives you these details, but whether you believe them is a different matter. Developer Ninja Theory surrounds players with uncertainty by making them see the world through
the eyes of Senua, an ancient warrior afflicted with psychosis. Senua’s perceived reality is ever-changing, and her perspective casts objectivity aside to create a narrative-focused journey unlike anything else I’ve played.
Senua travels to the underworld and battles deities to restore the soul of
her murdered lover – or at least she believes she does. Whether those events happen as presented isn’t relevant, because Senua’s reality is what you experience. Senua wages a war in her mind, combating a mental illness she refers to as “the darkness,” and that shapes how players view the obstacles in front of them. She hears constant voices that tell her stories and give her advice. She sees patterns in mundane objects that magically unlock doors. She can’t trust her senses, and faces persistent hallucinations. Though I don’t personally have experience with these symptoms, Hellblade is remarkably successful at using them to create anxiety for the player.
The shifting state of reality fills your quest with a variety of compelling dream-like episodes. You escape
from a forest that suddenly bursts into flames, avoid shuffling horrors in the darkness, and fight demonic beasts. You can never take your surroundings for granted, and Senua’s doubts become your own as the voices tell you you’re going the wrong way, or when you catch a glimpse of a seemingly undefeatable foe. Calling these scenarios “fun” might be a stretch since they are often colored by Senua’s fear…
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