If you’ve been a little too absorbed in your gaming to the point that you haven’t had time to look up and watch the news – try not to hyperventilate – Ninja Theory is finally making a new game, and it looks bloody breath-taking! They’ve even been so kind as to allow us to peek into every step of the game’s production through a blog chronicling Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s development.
I’ve pined away for this ever since I completed DmC, and a hack ‘n slash-sized void was left in my heart. Finally, we will soon be treated to yet another visually stunning offering from the sovereign overlord of all action games.
“So, what is it about?” Funny you should ask, ambient voice in my head. Hellblade will be based on Celtic and Nordic mythology and promises to offer an unrestrained, candid experience of mental illness. “That’s a pretty weird plot”, I hear you exclaim. Well, ambient voice, I have to agree with you, but also wonder how Ninja Theory will bring this story to life: if there ever was a developer to portray a raw story with riveting intensity and pacing, then Hellblade has the right guys for the job behind it.
The plot revolves around Senua, and her journey to hell. It seems Ninja Theory is taking a leaf out of their own book, as DmC is loosely based on Alighieri’s Divine Comedy a.k.a. Dante’s Inferno, which narrates Dante’s journey through the nine circles of hell. One screenshot from the trailer, in particular, strongly suggests that Dante’s Inferno will play some role or another in the game: Senua is seen looking up at a tree from which multiple bodies are hanged. This resembles Dante’s Wood of the Suicides, in the Seventh Circle of Hell. Whether this ‘hell’ will be a literal traversal through the underworld, or a metaphorical journey through a troubled mind (as is the case in Dante’s Inferno), is still uncertain. It is likely that the latter is true, as Development Diary 24: Hearing Voices, confirms that the plot relies heavily on Senua’s auditory hallucinations and fears.
The PlayStation Access interview yielded tiny codes of information, and every vlog unveils yet another tidbit. We know that Senua is traversing through some form of hell, and that she must fight “undead Vikings” throughout her journey. However, as of January 2nd, 2017, this is all we know about the plot so far, but speculation is fun and so here I go: Dominic Matthews (Project Development at Ninja Theory) was fairly tight-lipped throughout the interview, but he did say something that could be nothing, and that little ambient voice demands that I explore it. Matthews said Senua was “going” to hell, and was not in it already, which would suggest that getting to hell is what Senua’s journey is about. This would in turn give credibility to the idea of using Dante’s Circles of Hell as an inspiration for level design. He also refused to comment on what this “hell” was – physical or psychological – which suggests that, at least part of the game, will take the form of being trapped in a Purgatory inside of Senua’s mind.
The trailer also hints strongly at certain plot points. Senua’s auditory hallucinations continually torment her, and there is one that clearly enunciates, “you killed him”, suggesting that Senua’s hell is a prison of psychological guilt over the death of a loved one named Dillion – whom she calls out to and vows to find in the trailer. If she does blame herself for his death, then her trudge through the underworld makes sense: not only is she living out her guilt through a psychological hell, but she is also looking for the man she loved in hell itself. The name of the game also makes perfect sense if this is the case: in order to save Dillion, Senua would have had to commit suicide (a sacrifice) in order to find him.
Thus, the trailer suggests that there may be two versions of hell: the one that Senua infiltrates in order to find Dillion, and the one within her mind, in which voices are trapped and she cannot escape. To reconcile the two, one could assume that due to her mental instability, she would ‘sacrifice’ herself (leading to damnation), in order to save someone she loves. Matthews stated that the world would be “dynamic”, which suggests that moving through Senua’s ‘mental hell’ is similar in design to DmC’s Limbo becoming visible to Dante.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice looks like it will be just as beautifully written and engaging as any of Ninja Theory’s other titles. In fact, Hellblade is made up of a team of only thirteen people, and still it looks twice as extraordinary as anything they have done before. “Wait a second, that can’t be coincidence, can it?” Are you referring to the names of two of Ninja Theory’s games, Heavenly Sword and Hellblade being very similar and at opposite ends of the divine spectrum? Good point, ambient voice. Is there a possibility that the sword that sent Nariko to heaven and the sword Senua will use to slaughter her way through hell are, in some way, linked? Too little information has been released to definitively conclude that the two games may have something in common, but if Hellblade can pull off an engaging story with amazing combat, there would be no need for the game to lean on one of Ninja Theory’s early successes. But holy hell, that would be an epic crossover.
What truly excites me about this game is the promise of an in-depth look into the life of someone that is not understood by society. If you have never had auditory or visual hallucinations, you would never know what the experience would be like, nor would you know how it feels to be different. A game that literally thrusts you into the clutches of psychosis is not only intriguing, it is revolutionary in terms of what gaming can accomplish. Experiencing the life of a quasi-schizophrenic character forces empathy from the player, because we have to experience every fear, doubt, and psychosis that Senua is subjected to: we are literally walking in someone else’s shoes. I’m not saying that this will change the world, but it is certainly a fascinating angle for gaming, and it couldn’t hurt to try. Ninja Theory may be creating a generation of more tolerant gamers, one game at a time.
Someone, somewhere once said, “Hell is not a place, it is a state of mind”. Ninja Theory is clearly determined to test that hypothesis to its limits.