Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice ‘not a psychosis simulator – but the story of a person’

By Viola Nicolucci 


Hellblade is an adventure game set in Scotland in 800 AD, during the Viking invasion. The main character, Senua, is a Celtic warrior belonging to the Picts, a tribal people that lived in Northern Scotland during the Iron Age and the early middle ages. However, what sets her apart is that she suffers with psychosis, which manifests itself through symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions.

The game was developed by Ninja Theory, an indie game development studio from Cambridge (UK).

From the start, the developers’ objectives was to illustrate how the mind works and how reality is the final result of an active and creative process of assembling information. The studio thought a videogame could be a useful tool to illustrate mental illness and immediately realised that mental illness impacts everyone, not only sufferers but also those around them.

‘Research is underrated’ Ninja Theory tackles mental illness both with sensitivity and realism: this being grounded in considerable research from the outset. The team found mental health experts from the University of Cambridge and got in touch with Professor Paul Fletcher – a psychiatrist and a Professor of Health Neuroscience. Fletcher introduced Ninja Theory to the Wellcome Trust, one of the most important research charities involved in awareness programs aimed at improving mental health. The Wellcome Trust awarded Ninja Theory two grants.

The representation of mental health in the media is not always accurate or helpful, and engaging people with this subject can be a challenge. The Wellcome Trust believed a videogame could give a fresh perspective on the condition.

Committed to depicting mental illness in an informed and credible way, and encouraged by the support from the Wellcome Trust, Ninja Theory involved several external individuals as consultants. Of course, mental health professionals provided valuable advice, but the developers also spent time with service users and ‘voice hearers’, in what turned out to be an enriching experience for Ninja Theory and a validating experience for those who experience some form of different mental state, which may cause distress when it becomes the target of prejudice. In fact, the involvement of the service users in the project revealed that the pain often doesn’t derive from the symptoms but from the stigma, isolation and mistreatment of society.

The goal of Ninja Theory with this project was to avoid a stereotyped portrayal of mental illness, as psychiatric madness or ‘folly’, to describe it instead as a different representation of reality. Senua feels rational in an irrational world that she does not understand, and this triggers her disorientation, confusion and fear. Senua is not presented as a victim of mental illness but as an experienced warrior, vulnerable but not weak. When Senua returns home from exile, she finds her partner brutally sacrificed to the Norse gods and she is dragged even deeper into her symptoms.

Symbols and Metaphors are common ground both in the videogame industry and in psychology, which makes the game a useful projection tool for the latter. Symbols may be interpreted and experienced in subjective ways. Symbols and stories are a tool, not only to experience personal emotions from other people’s perspective, but with a final understanding as an outcome.

Symptoms are also a game element for immersing gamers deep into Senua’s experience of psychosis. Gamers will feel as confused, frightened and anxious as Senua, and this facilitates empathy.

Fun vs Engagement. Can a game tackling psychosis be considered fun? Ninja Theory prefers defining the game as engaging and compelling. There’s still confusion and taboo around what is fun. Learning and experience are a core element in fun and they are a primary goal in the game. According to Nicole Lazzaro’s 4 Keys to Fun, Hellblade could be an example of what’s called Serious Fun, where gamers are driven by meaningful content and purpose with meaning as a core motivational drive force.

Gamers Motivation and beyond. Nick Yee, co-founder of the Quantic Foundry, developed a Gamer Motivational Profile, detecting six core motivational profiles. Hellblade players may supposedly be driven by ‘Immersion’ and ‘Creativity’. In his research, Yee also found correlations between motivations and personality traits. Immersion and Creativity do correlate with Openness to Experience as a personality trait. This profile could therefore be drawn to a game like Hellblade, but the focus of attention, when it comes to personality profile, is always on the gamers. For a change, it would be interesting to investigate motivational and personality profiles in the development teams, to see if and how they impact the creative part of the process.

Present Feedback. Hellblade players overwhelmed Ninja Theory with feedback. Some of the gamers were suffering with mental illness, and the game was a chance to realise that they were not alone in dealing with emotional pain. Some other players were able to show their loved ones what they go through in their everyday life. The studio collected the feedback and published it in an ‘Accolades’ video on the studio’s YouTube channel.

Future Potential. Hellblade is certainly a project worth the attention for the way it was curated, so that it’s worth wondering what its potential is, beyond being a great game. Could it be a tool to engage the audience in mental health awareness programs (e.g. events, schools)? Could it be used for mental health purposes (e.g. psychotherapy settings)? Could it be used as a tool for empowerment (as it is the story of a cathartic experience)? The success of this game also relies on the fact that it is now worth asking all these questions.