Ninja Theory doing mental health-related thingstuff? What a concept. But that seems to be what it’s doing yet again per their latest new title in their lineup. Announced today via Xbox, Project: Mara is the latest title announced from the studio behind Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
The studio calls it “an in-development experimental title that explores new ways of storytelling.” Oh, and it’s about “mental terror.” “Project: Mara will be a real-world and grounded representation of mental terror,” the blog describes. “Based on real lived experience accounts and in-depth research, our aim is to recreate the horrors of the mind as accurately and realistically as possible.”
A trailer for the game depicts a woman pretty much having a breakdown in what seems to be a patient facility. Hints of text hint at horrific hallucinations and delusions. And then we get NT’s iconic close-up face shot, followed by a creature hiding behind her.
Gonna be honest, the premise sounds almost like Hellblade, but in a modern setting and with far more fanfare than last time. But at least Hellblade kind of had another story besides the psychosis alone? You beat up people trying to ruin your homeland?
Hellblade, by the way, did get sort of mixed reviews on the mental health front. For a significant number of fans, it accurately depicts the intrusive symptoms of psychosis: voices, hallucinations, intrusive thoughts. It was a rare piece of media that resonated in new ways.
But for a few, it borders on glorifying the presence of the terrors, as voices and hallucinations become part of the gameplay. Media doesn’t have to be perfect representations of everyone’s experiences, obviously. Many just advised against making bringing extremes of conditions, like intrusive voices or hallucination, into particularly positive lights.
While Hellblade 2 is in the works, this isn’t even the only other mental health initiative Ninja Theory is working on. Back in October, Ninja Theory director Dom Matthews announced The Insight Project, again via Xbox. It bears the tagline, “Gaming the Mind to Master Mental Health.” Matthews describes as “an ambitious combination of technology, game design and clinical neuroscience brought together with the aim of generating strategies to alleviate mental distress.” The project is in collaboration with Paul Fletcher of the University of Cambridge, who specializes in psychosis-related states.
“We plan a programme of gaming, technological and scientific development that will lead to self-contained, individualised and absorbing game experiences within which people can become an expert at recognising, responding to and, ultimately, controlling their own fear, anxiety and other negative subjective experience,” it continues. “The work will be underpinned by rigorous scientific principles to ensure its effectiveness and validity and it will adhere to strict standards of ethics and data management.”
And you know what? That sounds great! It sounds like a genuine attempt to lean into academic work to make tangible solutions for mental illness symptoms. I have my worries, as someone with (and having friends with) mental illness, because academia isn’t always kind. But it seems generally decent and well-intentioned.
To the point, the real frustration lies in the pigeonholing that’s happening with the mental health narrative. Ninja Theory’s capacity as an independent studio has been kind of repressed until lately. Hellblade showed NT’s capacity to make high-quality games in a fresh, innovative way.
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Ninja Theory has, in fact, made games that are not Hellblade which are good. Of course, there’s DmC: Devil May Cry, which is an alternate-reality reboot of the iconic series. NT worked on the last Disney Infinity game before that got shut down. There’s Bleeding Edge, a multiplayer game that’s already gotten praise
Personally, I’m a huge fan of Ninja Theory’s horror game Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment, which you have probably never heard of. That’s because it’s exclusively available at The Void, an immersive virtual reality experience center. They essentially hook you up to gaming PCs and haptic feedback vests, and the environment tracks you through an interactive “stage.”
I’ve done some of Void’s other stuff, and it’s all fantastic; Nicodemus in particular scared the ever-living shit out of me. It was real damn good. Funny story: Void planned to run it in the World Trade Center’s Oculus for one night. I was told, though, everyone screamed too much in the local test runs, and WTC’s security got worried.
Anyway, if Project: Mara and Hellblade 2 turn out fine — and meanwhile, Bleeding Edge ends up real damn good — then Ninja Theory has a bright future ahead. And I hope Project Insight doesn’t lean into harmful research and development practices! But maybe another horror game from NT would be cool, too. After all, even in Hollywood, good horror is making a resurgence. It just doesn’t have to be, like, a similar gimmick every time. Maybe hire Ari Aster?