Where Hellblade Succeeds and Fails in its Representation of Mental Health Issues

Content notice: Spoilers for Hellblade.

On its release last month, Ninja Theory’s Hellblade distinguished itself on the merits of being a high budget game steeped in themes of mental illness and for having consulted with people affected by the issues it sought to portray. Now that the novelty of that has hand a chance to settle, people are taking a closer look at what it’s achieved in the process.

In the video above, Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra takes a deep dive into the game, examining how its design serves those themes.

Here’s an excerpt from the video’s transcript:

Narratively, this can seem reductive. Boiling down mental illness to a Campbellian Hero’s Journey fails to provide the nuance required to say anything conclusive. Is the rot on Senua’s arm a representation of her growing self-doubt? Is it a bruise left by her abusive father? It is a literal mark of shame from the gods?

It ends up being all of these things, because Hellblade shies away from anything too definitive. In some ways, that’s disappointing; Hellblade doesn’t necessarily have much to say about mental health. But the mechanics often succeed emulating emotional states. Hellblade is a mood piece. Confusion, panic, depression. Players will experience all of these things and more.

A recent critique on Polygon shows that smart design and consultation don’t ensure the game is a good fit for every player. As Alexandra points out, where Hellblade succeeds most is in its mechanical emulation of the symptoms of the issues it tries to portray. Dia Lacina suggests that this mechanical approach cuts away most of the context that might actually encourage empathy, giving players the false expectation that they understand what living with issues like psychosis is like.

“Mental illness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A person’s mental illness is inextricable from their social context. While the developers understand that mental illness is interpreted differently based on social context, they fail to illustrate those experiences within society. The closest we get to seeing Senua exist with other people is in flashbacks to conversations with Dillion or the trauma of her father’s extensive abuse. She never has to go to the store for milk. She’s not struggling with losing her job because she had a flashback in a meeting. Paramedics and cops never break down her door because she didn’t answer phone calls from her friends and family for a week. We never go with Senua to the Social Security administration offices as she’s denied support because they’ve deemed her not disabled enough. Senua’s village is wiped out before our quest begins. The ending reveals she never goes anywhere.

It’s because of this lack of social context that Hellblade communicates (perhaps unintentionally) the harmful idea that mental illness ‘is all in her head.'”

Lacina’s impressions of the game are largely negative as a result, but that’s not universally the case. Players have also talked about how deeply Senua’s journey resonated with them, or how her experiences gave them a better understanding of how challenging the symptoms of psychosis can be. For some, it’s validating, and for others, it’s humanizing.

Hellblade faces particularly scrutiny because it’s one of very few well-known games that attempt to tackle mental health issues with any nuance or care at all. In a larger field, it wouldn’t need to be compared against a hypothetical perfect example of representation, or defended as the only piece of representation some of us have. Hopefully, its high profile will encourage other developers to consider exploring similar themes — or, even better, their own mental health stories.