Most video games require an active player, an agent within the plot and mechanical framework of the simulated world. For horror, a genre built around instilling physical sensations of vulnerability and fear in its audience, this poses a significant inherent challenge. How do you drive a narrative with inability? Games like Frogware’s The Sinking City court ideas of helplessness with sanity meters and scarce resources, but their stories still live in the tangible world and proceed via fact-finding and victory in combat. The frantic reloading of the last decade’s Resident Evil games, the gross-out spectacles of Dark Souls and Bloodborne; these gestures toward horror can’t erase the fact that these games still fundamentally require the player to master them by displaying a facility for violence.
Ninja Theory’s Hellblade has a combat system, to be sure, and to reach the end you’ll have to master it, but you’ll spend half the game weaponless and terrified, and when you do fight it’s framed far differently than in other horror games. Senua faces only a tiny handful of enemies over the course of the game, a choice which at first feels like lazy design. Only as her foes repeat, dewing from mist and ash to cut at her before fading back into it under her blade, does the game’s intent become apparent.
Hellblade’s mechanics and story are built around Senua’s “darkness”, the name she gives a condition we might call schizophrenia or active psychosis. Her enemies are precisely the sort of faceless, indeterminate menace paranoid delusions conjures, dogging her repeatedly not because there are legions of them but because they represent her own inescapable suffering. Combat is deferred failure, not victory.
The Abject in Motion
Body language is another important part of Hellblade’s success as a horror game. Motion capture actress Melina Juergens gives a nakedly vulnerable performance as Senua, an 8th-century Pictish warrior on a quest to rescue her beloved Dillion’s soul from the Norse underworld. Her frequent breakdowns and the brutal, relentlessly realistic nature of the violence directed against her give combat a nastily claustrophobic edge and make the game’s cinematic sequences that much easier to remain invest in emotionally. The implication that the figures Senua faces are recreations of something which befell her during a self-imposed exile in the wilderness sharpens this sense significantly. When she confronts the crow-masked Valravn, god of illusion, he knocks her to the ground and pins her, pecking at her body from the out-of-focus background of the shot as she stares numbly into the camera.
It’s hard to imagine the scene’s director hadn’t at least considered its close resemblance to rape. Senua’s dissociative expression, Valravn’s position and thrusting motions; in keeping with the vague, scattered way she recollects her near-death experience in the wilderness and her conflicting stories about what, precisely, happened to her it’s plausible that she fell prey to a man or group of men. The atmosphere scenes like Valravn’s attack generate is far from titillating. Senua’s limp body and bulging eyes make her look almost corpse-like, and when she does struggle it’s so feeble as to be upsetting, like watching a half-drowned animal try to escape from a swimming pool. Showing a character in pain, showing them as helpless, is a core part of horror’s emotional potency, and Senua’s brittle, broken physicality reinforces this repeatedly.
Senua’s antagonist, the Norse giantess and goddess of the underworld, Hela, is silent throughout the game. She appears only twice, first crawling out of the darkness like a grotesque infant to smash Senua and break her sword with a single swing of her fist, then later to crouch unspeaking as Senua toils through the game’s final battle. The battle itself is unwinnable. Only giving up and allowing your enemies to hack you to pieces can end it. The statement there is clear. You can fight grief and trauma all you want, but only through accepting them as parts of yourself can you create a new, functioning persona to move forward through life. There’s no cool kill animation, no victory through bloodshed. Just death, and accepting it.
Even Senua’s memories of Dillion eventually prove a burden she must sacrifice, not a guiding light magically able to keep her sane and grounded. She found peace and love with him, but not recovery, and not the unconditional acceptance she ascribes to him while recollecting. A disjointed flashback reveals that he blamed her for a plague that claimed his father’s life, suggesting this rejection was her reason for her sojourn in the wilderness. The demythologization of love as a cure for illness and suffering enriches both the game’s portrayal of Senua’s illness and the cold, bitter sense of isolation it conjures. Contrast this with the cold, shopworn cynicism of the Amnesia games or the jerkoff action movie antics of Resident Evil and it quickly becomes clear how much firm, complex emotional stakes add to horror.
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Fear and the Senses
Hellblade’s immersive soundscape, best experienced through noise-canceling headphones, is perhaps its most talked-about feature. The voices Senua hears speak from unexpected directions and at frighteningly different volumes, creating the impression that the player is surrounded by phantoms whispering contradictory advice and threats. The game’s sound design is meticulous and immersive. It’s easy to lose track of the world around you when there are skin drums thundering softly in your ears and a voice somewhere behind you telling you that you’re responsible for all the rotten, putrid things life has dealt out to you. Senua is an accomplished warrior, but not a confident one, and if she takes damage during combat the voices become more frantic, her movements slow, pained, and jerky.
Visually, the game dodges the ultra-realistic greasiness of most AAA horror, its extensive use of motion capture and rough texturing giving it a lived-in feel. It most closely resembles the Silent Hill franchise, with which it shares the understanding that in order to get under a player’s skin a monster must be pitiable as well as frightening.
During one of the game’s puzzle sequences Senua, struck blind and only able to feel her way around, must avoid amorphous shapes which groan and wriggle through the dark around her. They inspire instant revulsion not just because of the obvious danger they represent but because they appear weak. Wounded. Grotesque in their vulnerability. Hela’s eyeless black sockets and hideously burned skin suggest so much that the game never reveals, just as her crawling, lurching movements alludes to a history of physical suffering. Immersive, unromantic, and raw, Hellblade is a virtual guidebook to how to make horror work in a medium so often at odds with the genre.