I know video game reviews haven’t traditionally been a feature of Max’s Shop of Horrors, but in this case I thought I’d make an exception for a couple of key reasons. Firstly, gaming is one of my Autistic “special interests”, as it is for a great many people on the spectrum. Secondly, the game’s subject matter really resonated with me in a way that is quite relevant to the themes and issues I often discuss here.
I should preface this however with a warning; Hellblade is intended for mature audiences, containing not just violence, but vivid depictions of mental illness that some may find upsetting. Please bear this in mind should you decide to play it.
Hellblade 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 challenging combat and clever puzzles, and how I 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 cliché within the sphere of video game journalism 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 its premise, 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 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. Many other games reduce mental illness to just a tool for cheap scares; in Hellblade, however, nothing is just there for shock value alone, it all has meaning.
The game was actually developed in collaboration with people who have experienced psychological disorders, as well as neuroscientists, and the developers went to great lengths to consult those with a lived experience of mental illness so as to ensure that the end result was authentic and not exploitative.
As a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Senua’s journey spoke to me on a deeply personal level. 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.
For me, video games are primarily a way of taking a break from reality, of seeking temporary refuge in a digital space where things feel so much safer and less stressful than real life. Hellblade, by contrast, was like someone held up a mirror to my own darkness, but then empowered me to challenge it within a realm where I feel in my element; the realm of video games.
[Hellblade is the property of Ninja Theory, and is available on Nintendo Switch, PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One]