As video games have progressed, writers have tackled more complex and in-depth subjects. While we've still got a long ways to go, developers like Ninja Theory are looking to progress in the realm of artistic expression and interactive innovation. Mental illness might be a common theme in gaming – lunatic villains aren't rare – but rarely do we see a true exploration of the human psyche. Moral conflicts and other tough decisions are becoming more frequent but we still don't have a game that puts a protagonist's mental ailment(s) in the spotlight. This takes guts; not only because it's tricky and unsettling, but also because the character's plight must work within a mainstream adventure that appeals to a large audience.
In Hellblade , an upcoming PlayStation 4 title from the developer that brought us gems like Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West , players assume the role of a female Celtic warrior named Senua. Senua has serious issues, ranging from depression and anxiety to vividly terrifying hallucinations. This isn't just about shoving shocking imagery down the viewer's throat, either. The team really wants to present Senua as a complicated and embattled character, one who players care about. To accomplish this, they have to produce a believable, sympathetic patient and for that, they turned to Paul Fletcher, a professor of Health Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. The game is also supported by the worldwide mental health foundation Wellcome Trust.
As you can see, Ninja Theory is very serious about doing this properly. And Fletcher believes interactive entertainment can really open our eyes:
"Working with Ninja Theory has shown me the potential that gaming has for sharing in a character's experiences and engendering empathy in ways that go well beyond those offered by simple academic descriptions. Maybe this approach will contribute powerful new ways of challenging stigma."
Ninja Theory's chief creative officer, Tameem Antoniades, added that they wish to embrace "creative independence in order to explore a compelling subject matter" and he compared Hellblade to a top-quality independent film, as opposed to your standard Hollywood blockbuster. Bear in mind that Ninja Theory has opted to self-publish this game, so they're operating with a small team (only 14 members strong) and they won't have the benefit of a publisher's deep pockets to help promote the title. Therefore, this project is risky on a number of levels and we sincerely hope it succeeds. Ninja Theory is approaching this with the right mindset and the appropriate level of respect; now we just have to see if it works out, and if it resonates with today's gaming audience.
As for gameplay, the combat will revolve around intense one-on-one encounters that should prove challenging. Each enemy has the potential to eliminate Senua, so instead of the protagonist cutting down hordes of faceless enemies without much effort, each battle will be steeped in urgency. Survival is paramount and as this character is also battling the demons in her head, this is going to be one difficult – and decidedly freaky – quest. Senua believes she's possessed by a dark spirit and she keeps hearing creepy voices that compel her to make certain decisions. And these voices even battle each other; for example, an older male voice keeps trying to manipulate Senua's emotions, while a younger female voice continues to advise caution.
The male voice spawns the horrific visions Senua must face, at which point she'll have to rely on her significant skill as a warrior. Dodging and parrying will be vital, as will waiting for just the right opportunity to strike. This does not sound like a button-mashing action game so if you're thinking God of War or something like that, you'll probably be out of luck. The one-on-one system not only amps up the intensity, but it also reflects the very personal and emotional conflict going on in the protagonist's head. It just makes sense. You will also find that Senua seems to be looking for her mother, who may or may not be alive, and the story will unfold with this search as a central goal.
Hellblade is one of those wildly ambitious and intriguing projects we should definitely support. Provided Ninja Theory gets the mechanics just right and the story and mental battle are captivating, this should be a very important title. By the way, the studio has confirmed that this game has no connection to Heavenly Sword and that Senua has no relation to Nariko. Don't make that mistake. This is a brand new IP and one that deserves applause for, at the very least, trying something new.