Three gore-streaked spectres trudge towards me, their faces shrouded behind inscrutable skulls and rotted feathers, the grimy accoutrements of the grave. I’m trying to get up, I must get up, it can’t end like this. But then, I doubt myself. And some of the others doubt me now too.
“She’s hurt, she’s hurt, she’s hurt…”
The murmurs stop for a moment, for once. Maybe death wouldn’t be so bad. It would definitely be much quieter.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an unconventional game. A Pict warrior from the Orkney Islands, protagonist Senua travels to the Norse realm of Helheim to reclaim the soul of her dead lover, Dillion. So much, so every mythological katabasisallegory, but discarding the otherwise routine tropes of dauntless, unflinching heroism and almost incidental redemption of other video game reinventions, propped up with XP, loot drops, and baroque kitsch, instead Hellblade is a sombre, intimate exposition of – and this isn’t a spoiler – mental illness and psychosis. And how the game does this is unprecedented.
Hellblade features binaural audio, a recording method that uses two microphones to simulate an immersive 3D stereo sound. It’s important to note here that, if you play the game without headphones, you’re going to miss out on this entirely, because binaural audio is designed for headphones and regular speakers can’t properly replicate it. In the context of the game, Senua hears voices in her head, and so do you.
The effect is uniquely, profoundly creepy, and elevates what might’ve been an interesting tech credit to perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the game. Besides providing narrative cues and occasional contempt for your clumsy ineptitude, those voices replace most of the other elements of the game too. Hellblade doesn’t have a HUD or an in-game map or a list of tasks to complete, for example, because the voices tell you what’s up, where to go, and what to do. Mostly. Those voices – hallucinations, delusions, or what? – can sometimes be unreliable, but what’s real and isn’t real is more often a matter of immediate necessity than some philosophical debate.
Which, I suppose, is kind of the point.
“There are many things that happen in the world of Hellblade that make perfect sense within the context of Senua’s mind,” writer and director Tameem Antoniades explains in a dev video. “To complete Senua’s quest, you have to internalise and accept the logic and meaning behind these things to progress.”
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