Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the most honest video game representation of mental illness I’ve encountered: it never separates its protagonist’s dark religious beliefs (about ancient gods and sacrifice) from what the heroine is processing internally. The game’s opening wastes no time introducing psychosis. Senua has a chorus of voices commentating on her every move. This would be disorienting enough, but Senua’s quest takes her through harsh Norse and Celtic beliefs about murderous gods. These beliefs include literal sacrifices of the flesh—all in an effort to save the soul of someone she lost. She needs to navigate rituals, challenge gods, and fight evil spirits. All while struggling with her own (mental) darkness.
Unlike other games set in Norse mythology, it’s not at all clear whether the gods are real at all—or just a part of the heroine’s delusion.
Combat also blurs the lines of spiritual reality and psychosis. At one point, a hulking Viking shade materializes in front of you as if from nothing. You must decide whether this is a reflection of Norse myth or of Senua’s imagined world.
Let enough blows land from one of these dark presences, and you’ll face very real consequences. You succumb, not unlike most videogame deaths, but in Hellblade your growing tally is counted, represented on Senua arms by dark tendrils that overwrite her pale skin, reaching towards her neck. Should this darkness reach her head, you lose all progress. Start from scratch. No joke. This grave threat brings the reality of Senua’s aggressors to light: whether or not the enemies are real is not the point. The point is that she must overcome whatever it is to survive.
I’ve been in church long enough to know that religion attracts people struggling with mental illness. Folks with mental illness want help; many of us church folk genuinely want to help. While it seems like a great combination, we are often poorly-equipped to deal with serious psychological impairment.
This struck me hard when my buddy Neil showed up at my door one day, threatening to attack me one moment and asking for a ride to the store the next. The day prior he punched a pastor in a church service. Neil had been coming over to my house for years, his mental illness struggles a known factor. But his recent violence was new. Before that, he came to our church looking for some kind of sign, spiritual healing or reality. After discussing Jesus’ message of redemption, he’d often agree with the idea, but still found an expansive sense of dissatisfaction. I found his search fascinating, but his pursuit didn’t make our relationship any safer.
This kind of search shows up in Hellblade’s puzzles. Seuna finds a door leading to her objective that she cannot pass until she literally sees the precise rune shape in the world around her. She looks at trees, burnt grass, and half-destroyed houses. And until she finds the precisely-angled “R” shape (or whatever shape the current rune requires), she cannot walk through that door.
Again, I have no idea if this is all in her head, or if the game is expressing her spiritual reality. But she believes it to be true, so I have to walk with her through each of these disorienting puzzles.
To me, it’s like my obsessive compulsive brother, who won’t sit at the dinner table until we remove the salt shaker and put it elsewhere. I can’t convince him it’s not an obstacle; I just have to accept that this is the way he works.
This is the thing about Hellblade that’s the most clear: Seuna’s distinction between religious reality and mental illness isn’t something she’s equipped to handle by herself. Maybe that’s why she needs the player? It also reflects a reality of religious expression at large: you can’t make it alone. You need others to help you parse what is real, what is healthy, and what is illness. I know I’ve personally needed a lot of help to get out of my own head, and just be reminded of what is true. It’s when we walk through illusion and reality with others who have made it to the other side that we can start to see.