I had a discussion with my friends a while back about the game Papa y Yo. It’s an indie game where you play as a child who has to convince a monster around to solve puzzles, and he loves a certain kind of fruit. It is the world’s thinnest allegory for a child in a household with an abusive, alcoholic father, and was interesting in that regard, but my friends were confused: why would you play a game about that? Who would make it, and why would it be fun? To an extent, they are right, and this is a question that was difficult for me to answer. It isn’t something that is a fun and exciting romp through a new world, it isn’t something where a hero triumphs over evil...its a sad, yet colorful, look into a depressing story. Why did I want to play through that? Often we ask ourselves this question with all media - you could watch Ghostbusters or you could watch Forest Gump. You could read the Green Mile or you could read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For some reason with gaming it feels to me like the norm is to play for fun. Most days though, I try to figure out what emotion to go for when I fire up the game - do I want to feel happy, sad, empowered, or weak? Do I want a dreary soundtrack, or a thumping techno rhythm game? The strangest one, I think, is starting up a game to feel stressed.
Stressful games are plentiful, and aren’t always survival horror. I find playing with a team stressful because I want to carry my weight (and not get flamed). I never played Majora’s Mask because the time limit worried me, and I only played the first Dead Rising for the same reason. XCom has a fail state if you didn’t manage your resources or failed your missions. Of course, there are games like Amnesia where the stress comes from being powerless against some unspeakable horror. In Resident Evil the stress comes from managing your ammo and health against the time that it would take it to get to a safe spot. Or it could be a game like Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy where the stress isn't really from death, but more from the stress of finding the perfect execution against seemingly unfair odds. But against all these games, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice stands alone.
The story of Senua is one that has been told before: young Senua wants to save her dead lover’s soul from hell by battling her way to Hela and making her an offer. We learn about her zealot father, who had kept her sealed away from most people believing she was cursed, and her mother, who was also cursed and took her own life.
There is a crazy amount of things that are stressful in Hellblade (or, alternatively, a stressful amount of things that are crazy). First of all, the character suffers from a type of psychosis, manifested in the game as voices constantly berating, and occasionally congratulating the main character as she progresses. The team who put this together worked with mental health experts to try and nail this aspect as well as they could, and it is incredibly effective. The game begs you to play with headphones as the voices were recorded with binaural audio, so that they come at your ears from every angle. I have anxiety attacks, and the occasional lack of self esteem, but these pump things up well past that.
Beyond the sound design, the game also has some amazingly crafted visual horrors. You wander through hellscapes - one of which was my literal worst fear for a decade, fighting off invisible beasts that kill you if you spend too long in the shadows, and fight off hordes of Nordic themed enemies. But other games have had a wonderful atmosphere with much, much better combat, so what separates Hellblade?
The death mechanic.
You have been cursed. The curse starts at your hands, but every time you die, black tendrils crawl up your veins to your arms, across your chest, and into your neck. The game warns you: if it ever reaches your head, you will lose all your progress. Full. Stop. They break the 3rd wall to tell you that the stakes are immense. Now think about that. In Dark Souls, you only ever lose in game experience, while the real experience is the friends we made along the way err..the experience the player has on how to beat each area. In Super Meat Boy, every jump is a pixel perfect setup, and it plays you a montage of your deaths at the end of every level. In Resident Evil, you go back to your last manual save, the pace of which is determined by you, the player. Hellblade though, if you mess up, she dies, you go back to square one. This mechanic exists in rogue likes, but the runs in those are usually a fraction of Hellblade’s run time.
Earlier, I mentioned the combat. It isn’t great. It’s the standard ‘strong attack, weak attack, dodge, block’ affair, and the enemies tells for attacks are almost comically telegraphed. Outside of combat, there are some basic puzzles that are easy enough to solve. But remember - if you die, you are going down a road where your game is deleted. So when a new enemy shows up, the voices in your head and in your ears are shouting at you that you cannot afford to lose.
Now add in the ‘surprise’ encounters: bosses and puzzles. Picture in your mind the room before a boss fight in every video game you have ever played: some health, some resources, a save point, and a place for you to exhale before pounding your head against the wall. You have to learn their patterns, the tells, when they power up, and what they are weak against. In Sekiro, I fought against the last boss for upwards of 8 hours alone to try and beat just him. Now imagine making it to a boss with a lingering darkness spreading its way up to your neck. How many chances do you have? Every time they unveil a new attack, I was livid. This is straight up unfair. How dare they do this to me? Don’t they know the stakes?
If your save file doesn’t get deleted, the game is about 8 hours long. It’s a short trip, if you can make it all the way through.
If you have not played this game, and have any interest at all at this point, I implore you to play it. It has multiple difficulties, and most people have never seen a game over that has reset them to the start. It is horrifying, but it is well worth it! Go play it, come back, and read the rest of this blog. Please.
That being said, everyone else, welcome to…
The developers let you know, breaking the fourth wall, that if the curse reaches your head, you will have your progress reset. This is not a lie. Technically. See, the thing is, the infection is bound to certain parts of you as you play. It will never reach your head. Your game will never reset.
That is the Senua Gambit. It is never mentioned in game, and was not presented out of game until much later than the game’s release.
Every puzzle where you spent two seconds too long in the darkness and died? Meaningless.
Every boss that shoved in a cheap attack that forced you back to the start? Pointless.
Every new enemy with some hidden mechanic that killed you? Inconsequential.
But only if you knew the truth.
This is one of the most brilliant things pulled off in gaming. With 1 sentence directed at the player, the developer changed the entire feel of the game. I cannot think of any other time where something like that has been done.
From my perspective, I was fuming at some points: There were puzzles that I didn’t see the solution to, and I tried to brute force, causing multiple deaths. Each time was a middle finger pointed at the screen because I didn’t get it, and I swear I would quit off the game if it sent me back to square one because I didn’t see the stupid hallway where I could find a torch. Every boss changed from a study in what their exact moveset was to trying to create a perfect sight reading of their every move. If my controller desynced, if I didn’t see an enemy, if I messed up my dodge, it all had me on edge.
It doesn’t just end at ‘stressing the player out’, though, it ties beautifully into the narrative itself. Senua doesn’t know she has 1,000 lives to give away. If she did, she could easily dismiss those pessimistic voices, because hey, no sweat. But the reality is you as the player are in the same shoes as the hero, wondering if you actually have the skills to fight through a pantheon in order to make it to Hela, the God of Death, to bargain for your lover’s soul. Each failure means so much more to you that you feel her anger as the odds are raised against you. Finally it ties into the mental health aspect of the game, placing a true paranoia in the player’s mind with an illusory threat hanging over their head the entire time while playing the game. Instead of other tricks games have used (Hideo screens, fake save file corruptions, phantom enemies, and so on), it ties the narrative to the player.