Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice is a game that defies the way I usually assess games. I tend to be systematic; I break a game down into its constituent parts and judge each one individually. In this case however, I find that doing so would do the game a disservice. I could talk about how I enjoyed its combat and puzzles, and was impressed by the technical and artistic proficiency of its graphics, but that wouldn't effectively illustrate just why I loved it so much.
It's become cliche to refer to a game as an "experience", but I can think of no game for which this is a more fitting description than for Hellblade. And for me, it was a very personal one. In over 24 years of gaming, I have never been so emotionally affected by a game.
For those unfamiliar with it, Hellblade follows the story of Senua, a Celtic warrior suffering from severe mental illness who is on a vision quest of sorts to retrieve her dead lover's soul from the Norse underworld. Senua's story is one of confronting inner demons, coping with unresolved trauma, and of how frightening the world can be when you are mentally ill. The game thrusts the player into her distorted reality, and does so to harrowing effect. Yet at the same time it approaches the subject matter with maturity, empathy, and respect, where so many other games reduce it to just a tool for cheap scares. Nothing is just there for shock value alone, it all has meaning.
Senua's journey spoke to me on a deeply personal level; I have a mental illness myself, and I know all too well the terror of having to navigate a world teeming with frightening stimuli, as well as the struggle of not being able to fully trust one's own perceptions. Like Senua, I too have darted between pockets of perceived safety, felt crushing guilt at the thought that my illness was harming others, felt darkness growing inside me like gangrene, and struggled to apply meaning and structure to the world around me.
Though my life has been quite different to hers, Senua felt like a kindred spirit to me. I connected with her like no other video game character I have ever played as, to the point where the game's ending felt like saying goodbye to a close friend. Like Senua, I have had to accept that my "darkness" will always be a part of who I am, but that it does not have to control me.
For me, video games are primarily a way of taking a break from reality, to seek temporary refuge in a digital space where things are so much safer and less stressful than real life. Hellblade, by contrast, was as if someone had held up a mirror to my own demons, but then allowed me to challenge them within a realm where I feel in my element; the realm of video games that is so dear to my heart.Last edited by curl-6 - on 25 April 2019