Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or among rocks, or generally enjoy the company of rocks, you’ve probably noticed that video games are a massively popular and unavoidably prominent form of entertainment in today’s world. But what you might not know is that they’re capable of telling extremely powerful and meaningful stories in ways that are unique to the medium.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, in 2018 more than 150 million Americans played video games regularly, and 60% of Americans played video games daily. That’s a ton of people of varying ages engaging in a medium that not too long ago was thought of as a passing fringe fad or a danger to budding youths. The Call of Dutys and Fortnites of the world are numerous, touting high-action and intense competitive experiences, but the variation among games dwarfs the often one-sided presentation the public is given in the most visible ads. Some of these experiences are more introspective, expressive, and emotionally charged.
There’s something special about a game that tells a great story, and with the maturation of the industry over the years, serious and personal themes abound in many games. It’s not hard to see why these stories would feel different in a game than in a film or book; a game demands we participate, that we inhabit its world. These stories feel more immersive, at the best times their themes are expressed through the game’s mechanics themselves.
While there are many examples of video game stories that move or inspire, what happens when a game takes on themes as serious as mental illness and emotional trauma?
Developer Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one such example that explores psychosis and psychological and emotional trauma. The small 20-person development team worked with psychology professors, neuroscientists, and psychosis victims to craft a journey that represents many common experiences of psychosis. In Hellblade, players guide Senua to the Norse Hel to save her murdered husband. We join her as she confronts the trauma of an abusive father, of being ostracized by her people due to her condition, and losing a loved one that helped keep her world together. No, it’s not an odyssey for the faint of heart.
All the symptoms of psychosis are present, hounding Senua and the player every step through Hel. Auditory and visual hallucinations abound. Disembodied copies of Senuas voice, “Furies,” surround Senua with criticisms, doubts, questions, and even warnings or comments on puzzles and combat. Another voice, “The Darkness,” personifies her psychosis itself, chastising and challenging her in a belting, low growl. Perception-based puzzles task players with finding symbols or runes, by positioning unrelated objects in the environment, a metaphor for the connections that psychosis sufferers often see between unrelated things that we typically would not.
It doesn’t take long before we can call into question whether anything happening in the game is even really happening; disconnection with external reality is another symptom of psychosis, after all, and the disjointed feeling of each space, flashback, and event Senua experiences emphasizes this.
The end result is a colorful, gritty, powerful expression of a condition, but not a tool for navigating it. It’s not a soapbox suggesting solutions or strategies, either for those suffering or for those that want to understand or help, but it presents a perspective that is nonetheless thought-provoking and illuminating. Furthermore, it’s a perspective that demands participation, a fact that immerses us in the gameworld. Senua isn’t just a figure on the screen, she’s our agency and investment.
Reception was overwhelmingly positive, with fans that recovered or suffer from psychosis themselves praising the developer’s careful and sensitive approach on message boards and user reviews. However, it’s not without its detractors who see its representation as one that invalidates true experiences by forcing us to experience only Senua’s reality, and therefore only her version of the illness.
Hellblade certainly doesn’t express what it means to live with psychosis on a daily basis: how it feels to pick up your kids, go to the mall, or hang out with friends, but it’s one of the few games in recent memory that puts as much effort and research into something that at least results in a meaningful discourse.
I know it leaves me with a better understanding of what psychosis is, and I find it difficult to shake the dread and confusion the strange imagery and constant voices instilled in me as I solved puzzles.
As we look forward, the medium has reached a prevalence and popularity that informs us it’s not going anywhere. (Colleges have even begun to offer scholarships to competitive gamers.) If anything, video games and similar interactive media are only going to become bigger parts of everyday life, in entertainment, education, and possibly even preventative and therapeutic medicine. Advances in technology that surround users with the gameworld — such as virtual reality and augmented reality — have the capability to make these experiences even more immersive and effective. Streaming services, like Apple’s newly announced Arcade, are slowly releasing, offering an entire library of games for a monthly price, hinting at the ease of access we can expect in the future.
If experiences like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice continue to release, refinement games can become empathic tools that increase understanding, and they’ll be widely available. If creators keep up with their homework as Ninja Theory did, games will not only be regular sources of entertainment, but of insight and perspective through meaningful storytelling.
Jeremiah French spends most of his time dissecting and consuming human-built worlds in multimedia, from written fiction to simulated spaces. When he isn’t doing that, he’s making his own in podcast and print. Occasionally he remembers that he’s a musician, so he’ll do that too. Check out his musings on interactive entertainment at drunkenmarmoset.com, and his primary action-fantasy podcast Gafgarn: The Eternally Unfurnished, anywhere podcasts are available.