Hellblade is Other People

Nobody has provided me with a good reason that I should be playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice when it is significantly more satisfying to COMPLAIN about it.

So here goes this shitshow, that apparently, there is a common course of events where an otherwise-reputable company with reasonably-talented individuals, people who can program the ones and the zeroes at a high level, decide that they are no longer interested in catering to the smelly degenerates and disgusting neckbeards that identify as “hardcore” videogame players. We will note that there is nothing wrong with this, because videogame players are some of the worst individuals who have ever lived.

And it seems that back in the early 2010s, our heroes at the Ninja Theory development studio found out what I already knew for a very long time, they poured their time and spirit and soul into DmC: Devil May Cry — their hard work and willingness to create a game as contracted and laid out by their publisher, to meet deadlines and work in a complex bureaucratic environment that demands certain outcomes — and they are rewarded with the sort of online abuse that I would perhaps only wish upon the percentage of people who played thousands of matches of Warcraft III and somehow never managed a winning record.

So in this moment, I’m reminded of how a couple of years ago, Dontnod Entertainment departed the “proper” “gamer” space and decided they would swindle the socialized and sheltered middle-class types who would rather attend a political rally to ban videogames than actually play one, where a company could take their obvious level of technical skill and use it to reframe their mediocrity, pawning it off on an audience that ranks games based on how convincing they are as a metaphor for late-stage capitalism.

Note that I went to one of those rallies and I explained that Dontnod’s rise to stardom, manifest under a game by the name of Life is Strange, was just an attempt to salvage the throwaway forensic sequences in the unforgettable Remember Me, taking a tiny and inane portion of their forgettable brawler and turning it into an even dumber game about teenage angst. It did not work, neither the game nor my arguments. The protesters screamed “HATE CRIME!” and then infringed my personal space with non-violent resistance techniques pioneered by the scariest academics in the creative arts wing.

But it seems this course of imagined and fictitious events is closer to reality than anyone would like to admit, because when I launch Hellblade, there is this message on the screen, explaining how the developers consulted with actual health professionals in order to depict the mental illness that has befallen the animated 3D sculpture inside of this particular digital simulacra, kind of like those Hollywood action movies where the creators bring in real martial artists so they can show the actors how to correctly perform the Hogan leg drop.  It is in this moment that I realize I am no longer playing a childish videogame, but rather, I am playing the latest and greatest attempt by videogame makers to Oscar bait the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Oh, and does Hellblade ever hinge its laurels on this, in which the voices chatter in the character’s head — and by extension, your own head. They laugh at you, the mock you, they are the vicious female bullies who mocked and belittled me in high school. These strong, dominant female voices are the cornerstone of this fictitious reality, and they strongly imply the events happening on my electronic windowpane, which I control with a complex piece of ergonomically-shaped plastic, are not as real as they seem.

But in explaining this, let us note that there are two kinds of games, and only two kinds of games: The first is a kind of game which fucks with you by presenting images on the screen that provide the illusion of movement through rapid animation, an illusion made even more visceral by the fact that these audiovisual images are interactive.  From there, there is a second class of games where the individuals inside the illusion TREAT the illusion as an uncertain occurrence, that treat the fictitious happenings AS a fiction.

And in explaining this, I think of how Metal Gear Solid 2 really wanted me to be-LIE-eve that I was going to once again take the role of Solid Snake, or how my commanding officer was breaking the fourth wall by insisting that I shut off the game console. But the most appropriate comparison seems to be Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, a game systematically designed around gaslighting the player. It would even allege that it was deleting all of your save files, and you only realize it was an illusion as your mom runs into the room wondering why you are “attacking the television”.  (Her words, not mine.)

But then there was also a game by the name of F.E.A.R., it would also allege the creepy distortions of reality involving the paranormal, the blood running down the walls, and it wasn’t nearly quite as good, because these sequences were merely the lines on the Disney ride that would get you to the next depiction of American office life and its insane shootouts. So when the player got to the next moment where the walls were melting and the creepy paranormal stuff was happening, you could be comfortably certain that nothing of consequence was going to come with it.

Which takes us back to Hellblade, where we learn that Senua’s alleged psychosis, as played out through the rules and systems inside of a videogame, are merely the sound and fury that signifies nothing. The voices in Senua’s head chatter back and forth. “Why is Mikey bored with this game?” “Make fun of him for being a bitch in high school!” But at this point, I can’t give a fuck, because the game isn’t doing anything that would require me to take the chattering voices seriously, so I guess the result is that I am conquering the voices inside of my head. In the battle against mental illness, I am winning.

In the midst of my total indifference, I now realize that I am playing a much stupider version of a prior Ninja Theory project by the name of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, which itself was not a particularly genius-tier game that will be studied in universities, but at least tried to fake the better parts of Uncharted, which is a cool series that combines platforming and shooting and Hollywood explosions into singular awesome moments. But Enslaved was a game where you run from one genre to the next, where you play a platformer, then a brawler, then a puzzle game disguised as an escort mission, then a racing game, all genres operating one-after-the-other and never becoming the sum of all parts.

Hellblade is much the same thing, but instead opts for the walking genre, the “stupidest brawler ever” genre, and most notably, its attempt to be the loudest, most expensive, and prettiest game in the entire history of the “hidden object” genre. And for those of you who do not know this to be a thing, well, if you look through the catalogue of games on Steam — the ones that are not pornographic, made by children, or both — you will notice there is an entire business of videogaming which takes the unbridled joy of those Disney coloring books where you need to help Mickey clean up his room by coloring in every item on the included checklist.

The use of symbols in order to communicate ideas? What does this even REPRESENT?

I always like to imagine that these books were invented by schoolteachers so they could trick the children smart enough to realize school is for losers into keeping their mouth shut, young minds engrossed in whether Mickey is going to use that toothbrush after finding it behind the television. Then consider that Mickey was at least looking for a toothbrush, which is a useful tool with some level of utility, while in the course of “playing” Hellblade, I am not even looking for objects, I am looking for chance occurrences in the environment that kind of look like the runes and the symbols on a wooden gate.

This is apparently because mentally-ill people “see” things in the environment.  I see things in my environment as well, and some of those things are even clean.  But perhaps this is all part of the game’s clever commentaries on psychology and behavior, a commentary on conspiracy theories, the individuals who piece together unconnected outcomes on the path to learning how the Lizard People and the United Nations are working together, but then I realize that if those parties were actually working in tandem, they would have doubtlessly put a stop to the production and development of this game.

So yes, I’m sure the supporters of this game will say how the pictures on the screen were pretty, and how this game captures the breadth and spirit of mental illness, but I do not give a shit whether the pictures were pretty on the path to completing the hidden object game. One of the dirty secrets of modern videogames is that the pretty pictures are pretty easy to build, the skill is in making them interactive and WORTH interacting with, a digital world where one encounters resistance and develops skills on the path to achieving interesting goals.

But this has been a lesson lost on the sheltered middle-class nerds who have never lived a challenging day in their lives: The thrill in life is not merely the pretty pictures, it is the energy and effort and sense of agency and skill that comes with getting to those pretty pictures and then overcoming the challenges that are inside of them. And it is in this moment that I realize Hellblade is just the very worst moments of a Call of Duty singleplayer campaign, but designed for the sensibilities of hipsters who live their lives in a simpering sneer and live vicariously through protagonists with serious emotional issues.

And imagine that there were ALMOST things in this game worth discussing and praising — Hellblade even tells the player that permadeath is a thing! But the game merely TELLS you permadeath is a thing, and then you read interviews claiming it is not. The auteur and lead designer of Ninja Theory says this particular lie was there to put the player on edge, to plant the seed that the player THINKS they could lose all of the progress, but the more likely story is that they removed permadeath when they realized nobody would want to restart or replay any part of this game. I do not care if that is actually true or not. What matters is that the voices in my head have TOLD me this explanation is the truth.

So I guess this is all beginning to remind me of how Celeste would come out a year after Hellblade and gained fame for what it also alleges to be a depiction of mental illness, although I believe that game was a commentary on the mental state of an individual who would play a two-button platformer built around fifteen-second levels and think it “difficult” and “challenging”.

And with that in mind, I will simply add that there is a much more stunning depiction of Nordic culture and mental illness, and it is called 2018’s God of War, because for all of its serious problems as a piece of cutting-edge interactive media, the pretty pictures in that particular game at least require me to hit the buttons in a very particular and reasonably clever order, as Kratos takes his deep-seated anger and resentment and unwillingness to get his shit in order, and has apparently decided to take those things out on every god from every major religion spanning a cutting-edge media franchise.

I totally recommend putting your time and energy in that direction, or perhaps more mature and interesting depictions of hallucinatory behavior, like perhaps those games where the Italian plumber destroys the environment on the path to saving his girlfriend from an imagined leader of the turtles.  Or you can just pick a videogame at random and it will probably be better than Hellblade. Do whatever you want. It’s a free country.