I thought I would post this since I haven’t seen anybody mention it but it seems like a big deal?
Good for them. It’s a fine game.
It’s nice that it seems like you can respect the Baftas. It feels like they are trying to do it the right way.
It’s suddenly a real good time for 3rd person emotional action adventure games with a story revolving around Norse mythology and overcoming personal demons and trauma isn’t it
Dang! Maybe I should stick this on my Steam wishlist to check out when it goes on sale.
IIRC it currently is in the BAFTA Awards sale, on Steam itself or Humble. 10% off, though, so maybe stick it on one of the million steam price monitors like isthereanydeal.com…
Couldn’t the award have gone to a game that actually explores mental illness without being gross about it?
I like that Hellblade proves there’s a market for larger projects without the need for a publisher. That is the only thing I like about it.
What was gross about it?
The entire game.
Gross as in like dark and dirty and gory?
I’m glad for them. I personally enjoyed the story of Hellblade and its exploration of mental illness. Also beautiful art direction. Gameplay wise I did not have the best time but I’m glad I played through it.
Gross as in things like how it handles elements of mental illnesses.
(CW for much of Hellblade’s content, incl discussion of mental illness and particularly psychosis)
One such criticism I’ve seen is a reading that the game treats psychosis as a power Senua has, tied to the “focus” verb - that she is able to see things other people can’t and use them to do things others aren’t able to. For instance, the fact the player “focuses” to solve puzzles by identifying the right runes in the environment in order to progress. Since mental illnesses don’t make people’s lives better, there’s pushback against the way those puzzles are implemented as being something Senua can uniquely solve.
Another perspective I’ve heard is that it represents a struggle to determine what is real, or, the often obsessive connection-forming or pattern-finding that people with psychosis often have to cope with, an involuntary need to solve what are essentially illusory problems. I’m not sure my phrasing is very good here, hopefully this makes sense? I can’t think of an appropriate example to ground it someone’s day to day experience.
In this reading, Senua isn’t empowered - she is constantly disempowered, with only limited ability to “focus” herself to attempt to overcome obstacles. She has to solve puzzles that for other people would be extremely simple - “find the rune in the environment”, but her mental state complicates it for her. This is reinforced by the allegorical reading of the game - that it all takes place in a representation of her mind as she tries to work through her trauma and grief and struggles with psychosis in the process. The implication is that in a mind not suffering from psychosis, those puzzles would be more straightforward or not present.
But, that itself has received criticism because it can be read as implicitly feeding into an “it’s all in her head” narrative, which is obviously one that’s been used to delegitimise mental illnesses and the people who suffer from them for a long time.
In contrast, if you read it as a literal journey into hell the “Senua is solving physical puzzles in a way other people cannot” reading becomes more pronounced, and that is amplified by the flashbacks to encouragement she’s given by being told she’s “special” or “unique” because of her psychosis (paraphrasing).
Despite that being a thing people with mental illnesses are actually told by well-meaning friends and relatives (and perhaps particularly in a case such as Senua’s where she is abused in part because of her illness, if I remember correctly), and also the way some cultures historically did associate some symptoms of mental illnesses such as hearing voices as being a gift granted by a deity, it can come across as dehumanising or be abusive, interpreted as something like, “your only value is in how your mental illness makes you different”, implying that person, if fully healthy, would not be a particularly valuable person.
There’s more besides, but basically Hellblade has a lot going on and because it fails to contextualise its story and characters properly within a real (fictional) time and place it can be difficult to know what the desired intent of some of its elements are or to give charitable readings to some of its less developed ideas.
Personally I’m able to overlook or forgive some of the more egregious elements because I’m able to take it from an uninvested point of view, but I suppose the thing is, and in a way this is extremely galaxy brain, they are only visible from some angles.
Perhaps I’m not understanding your points but some of these criticisms seem a bit disingenuous unless the mental health advisor for Hellblade is being misleading. The puzzles and delusions are accurate representations of manifestations of psychosis. Here is a recent short interview I found with the lead developer and mental health advisor: http://www.sciencefocus.com/article/mind/hellblade-senua’s-sacrifice-psychosis-interview
I don’t see how it undercuts her psychosis to show how it complicates her life (and causes strife from living with people who don’t understand mental illness). A main goal of Hellblade clearly is getting the player to view the symptoms of her psychosis as real and counteract the narrative of “it’s all in your head” == “not real”. Wouldn’t it be a dis-service to the reality of her mental health if it had no impact on her life, which would feed directly into the condescending “it’s all in your head” narrative?
I do agree with the couple of lines from her love interest of “your special” as being underdeveloped and sounding condescending. But, there is clearly more to Senua than her mental illness (she’s an elite Pictish warrior fighting against an invasion by the norsemen), and for most of the game, Senua has a lot of agency and struggles with her trauma (note that she doesn’t “overcome” her psychosis at any point or get cured).
I’ve been struggling with this for a while. I loved Hellblade and written positively about it but we can’t escape the fact that there are plenty of people out there, who, unlike me, experience mental disorders and have problems with the ways in which Hellblade treats this, such as Dia Lacina’s excellent opinion piece.
Conversely, there are plenty of people who are positive and glowing about the game, specifically in reference to their personal experience with these issues - such as this great review by Damien Wilkens.
Ultimately, I think it depends on personal experience and personal reading of the game. The question then becomes, for the hundreds of thousands of people who played it but who aren’t as introspective about these issues, will this game present a different image of mental illness or will it feed into tropes and damaging stereotypes, or even create new stereotypes (i.e. associating mental illness with power)? I really don’t have an answer to this though… it’s probably both at the same time.
My personal reading of the game (that should be considered only after those who experience mental disorders are heard) was that it feeds into a positive narrative that mental disorders can be interpreted as difference rather than illness. For me the power of this game is within this conceptualisation and Senua’s journey, rather than the somewhat tepid ending. I’ve written at length about it here if anyone’s interested. The one thing I regret is not including the criticisms of the game’s approach at the time, that is certainly on me.
There’s a lot of important discussion that needs to be had about Hellblade’s handling on mental illness (specifically schizophrenia) (and also the general industry fetishization of portrayals of mental illness) and I know that there are a lot of different takes on this, both from people with and without psychosis and/or psyschological backgrounds, and I honestly can’t add anything of use to that conversation that can’t be said better by others
I’d like to instead note the implications of this game’s success, specifically because it’s actually technically an independent game? They set out to make a “independent Triple-A Game” and in many ways succeeded. It’s exciting to see these kinds of games put out, because due to rising development costs and the rise of indie development, it’s rare to see these kinds of games come out: larger budget games that also aren’t “blockbuster” releases. I feel like, just looking at the library of PS2 era games and the like, there were a lot more games that felt willing to be ambitious but also weren’t on shoestring budgets.
I REALLY hope that this is a trend but something tells me that other studios will find it much harder to follow it. Looking at Hellblade’s development, not only was it sustained by the rest of the studio doing other work, but they also leveraged the studio’s prestige and connections to acquire loans and other types of financing.
The phenomenal facial animations, that surely drew a lot of people to the game, were also a result of collaborations with companies and research institutes doing pioneering work, collaborations that I think would not have been possible if these institutions were approached by smaller or more unknown studios.
That said, the model is definitely something that I am sure a lot of people in the space are looking at. Hopefully others will be able to repeat this indie-AAA success.
For me the game simply is a terrible allegory for mental illness. Mental illness is not about a magical force whispering into your head and saying negative things about you. Mental illness also doesn’t really help you in any way, and it isn’t a power that you can use to solve puzzles.
Hellblade was an interesting game to play through, but I do think that it maybe highlights that certain things or topics just aren’t going to lend themselves well to games. A game about mental illness that also structures itself in a traditional narrative or style of play is going to have one of two options available. The first option is to make mental illness a serious barrier to progression or enjoyment and take a more realistic approach to the subject matter, and the other is to gamify it and tie it in to what you’re doing. Neither choice is all that great.
It all seems like the problem discussed with empathy games, where giving people a goal or a way to “succeed” makes people less sympathetic because it implies that careful plotting and choices can lead you to a good ending. Creating a game where mental illness is a constant stress on the player might not make them see the actual struggles another human being goes through because if the player is focused or dedicated enough, they can find their way through so why can’t everyone else?
I agree, and I also think that’s not what this game does either?
You solve puzzles in Hellblade by “seeing patterns where there are none” because that’s one of the things on the checklist of common symptoms of psychosis, and because there is an end state you’re seeking to achieve that you can achieve, that means that puzzle solving mechanic was helpful and powerful.
Senua isn’t solving puzzles. She’s creating barriers for herself that don’t actually exist.