A closer look at the paradox of Tragedy in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

by Abdelrahman Mohamed

CONTENT WARNING
This game contains representations of psychosis. People with experience of psychosis as well as professionals in psychiatry have assisted in these depictions.

Hello, who are you? …It doesn’t matter. Welcome. You are safe with me. I’ll be right here, nice and close so I can speak without alerting the others. Let me tell you about Senua. Her story has already come to an end but now, it begins anew. This is a journey deep into darkness. There will be no more stories after this one.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice opening scene

In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Senua embarks on a journey through Hel (the land of the dead in Norse mythology) to save her beloved Dillion. On her quest, Senua fights monsters and gods from Norse mythology. Now, unlike every classic hero story, Senua also suffers from psychotic mental illness that makes her journey of suffering happen in the real world as well as the world constructed in her mind. Joined by her inner voices and haunted by the insulting and demoralizing Shadow, Senua powers through immense combat challenges, traumatic flashbacks, and vivid hallucinations. 

Physical Battles vs. Mental Battle (Courtesy Ninja Theory)

While Senua does indeed fight Surtr, Valravn, and Gram on her quest, Senua’s story situates itself as a journey of emotional and mental change rather than a physical one. In the end, Senua is unable to save Dillion even though she confronts Hela about it. However, Senua manages to identify the Shadow as none other than the inner manifestation of the treatment she received from her abusive father growing up. She accepted the voices in her head not as a curse but as a part of who she is. 

As one might imagine, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an intensely tragic game. One hears when Senua screams, sees her go through an emotional breakdown multiple times, and gets a courtside ticket to witness her suffering. One goes through the game and is forced to “weep for the misfortune of a hero, to whom we are attached” (Hume 260). Nonetheless, as the credits roll, one is left with “agreeable sorrow, and tears that delight us” (Hume 260).  Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is another entry on the list of tragic games that highlight the paradox of tragedy.

The tragic story of Senua (Courtesy Ninja Theory)

In Of Tragedy, David Hume addresses this essential paradox as he attempts to reason about how one can be delighted with a spectacle that tells a tragic story filled with sorrow, terror, anxiety, and grief. While Hume starts his essay referring to catharsis when he says “employ tears, sobs, and cries to give vent to their sorrow, and relieve their heart” (258), he addresses the paradox by analyzing the role of fiction, the impact of stylistic means, as well as the relationship between competing emotions. Hume’s essay presents us with tools to analyze some of the key details presented in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Through this analysis, we look at the historic background of the game, the process that went into producing it, as well as some of the critical emotions in the story being told.

Nothing but a Fiction 

Hume argues that while the spectacle might capture all one’s attention, the spectator’s awareness that they are viewing a fictitious performance diminishes the pain and affliction. In other words, one can digest this agreeable sorrow and comfort themselves as it is “nothing but a fiction” (Hume 258). If one is to look at Senua’s story, Hume’s argument gets complicated. The game tells a story of a Pict warrior living in a village in the 8th century near Orkney, Scotland. This game setting is emphasized in the narrative and is used to construct the environment and characters to reflect the Pictish history from blue body painting and hairstyle to costume design (Adcock 0:50 – 1:30). Moreover, the game is set in a historic period full of stories of the brutal Vikings raiding the isles where Orkney now stands. This poses a question as to whether Senua’s story might have occurred at one point or another. Given the setup, the line between the fictitious and the real parts of Senua’s story becomes blurry. Hume’s point on the role of fiction in tragic stories can account for a large sum of stories like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice where Orpheus (Senua) decides to descend to Hades (Hel) to see his (her) wife (boyfriend). However, it does not explain the full paradox displayed in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.

Details Inspired by the history of the Pict tribe (Courtesy Ninja Theory)

Eloquence, Genius, Art, Expression

Another way to understand the paradox presented in the game is to consider the “very eloquence” with which the game is delivered. Hume pays attention to the poetic and rhetorical elements of delivering tragic spectacle. He talks about “the genius required to paint objects”,   “the art employed in collecting all the pathetic circumstances”, and “the judgment displayed in disposing them” as talents that allow the orator to provide the most delightful movements. If one is to map these talents to modern-day game development, then Ninja Theory (the development studio) has managed to exercise them in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. This can be seen in the process of perfecting Senua’s movement and emotions through using professional actors and employing cutting-edge motion capture techniques and. It can also be seen in the authentic audio design in the game. As detailed by Ninja Theory in their developer diaries (Antoniades 0:20 – 1:53; Fletcher 0:47 – 2:12; Antoniades & Matthews 0:24 – 0:50), the game audio was built using binaural voice recording methods so players would feel the voices whispering in their ears and circling them. What’s more, Ninja theory developed the game under the supervision of professional psychiatrists to provide a detailed and immersive adaptation of psychotic mental illness. This attention to detail plays a key role in taking the emotions of uneasiness and sorrow presented in Senua’s story and converting them into a delightful strong movement as one is “rouzed by passion and charmed by eloquence” (Hume 261).

A Shift of Emotions

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice takes the player on an intense emotional journey as the player must face various setbacks during the whole gameplay. For example, a few hours into the game, Senua is defeated by Hela while crossing the bridge to Hel and is forced to recollect herself, obtain a new sword through the Odin trials, and attempt to go back to Hel. The tough moments for Senua do not stop here as she ends up losing Dillion’s skull five minutes after entering Hel during a chase, and the player is forced to descend into Hel to obtain the skull again. The game is full of these recurring moments where things go wrong, and the player is forced to find their way around it. Nonetheless, all the grief and sorrow from these recurring misfortunes is transformed once the player hears the upbeat notes in the ending scene and sees Senua accepting the voices in her head. 

This is exactly what Hume talks about when he acknowledges that just the mere suffering of a hero does not fill us with delight (265). Thus, a tragic story ought to end in noble courageous despair or have the vice receive proper punishment to have this transformation of grief and sorrow to delight and pleasure occur. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice utilizes this concept to its benefit extremely well. When Senua confronts Hela in the final scene, she realizes that saving Dillion is not possible and asks Hela to kill her as there is nothing left to live for. At this point, the player had gone through an exhausting journey emotionally and mentally only to be left disappointed. However, to turn this climactic grief into delight, the player gets to see Senua waking up and throwing Dillion’s head into the abyss to show that Senua is now ready to move on. The scene continues with Senua accepting the voices in her head and getting ready to tell a new story as a sequence of upbeat notes play in the background.

Senua’s story comes to an end / is just beginning (Courtesy Ninja Theory)

Concluding Thoughts

As you might imagine, Hume was not the only philosopher to discuss the paradox of tragedy. However, in Hume’s framework of tragedy, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice checks a lot of the boxes on how uneasy emotions can be transformed into delightful ones. Now, it would be difficult to attribute the paradox of tragedy effect in the game to any single element discussed above. The effect takes place as a result of the interactions between the game background, the behind-the-scenes development work, as well as the story writing itself. What’s more, the game is filled with details from the environment building to the very few voice gasps. This means that another replay of the game ought to allow for an even more in-depth analysis of the tragedy element of Senua’s story. 

Having considered all the elements, one can understand the different aspects of the tragic story told in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Senua’s story is filled with gloomy and traumatic moments that convey uneasiness, sorrow, and grief. At moments, the player is only left with unaccountable anxiety as they are one hit away from dying in a boss fight. The player witnesses Senua’s pain as she navigates her way through Hel. However, through genuine acting and formidable directing, these uneasy emotions are delivered meticulously as a part-fictional, noble, courageous story from which the player can derive satisfaction and delight. With Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Ninja Theory delivered an intense, emotional game filled with sorrow, terror, and anxiety that leaves its players with unaccountable pleasure, completing the paradox of tragedy as it has always been addressed.

Resources

Adcock, Stuart. “Hellblade Development Diary 2: Art Inspiration” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 1 September 2014, https://youtu.be/1ysfmiN-aSs.

Antoniades, Tameem. “Hellblade Development Diary 18: The Shoot Set Up” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 4 December 2015, https://youtu.be/FACTByOjqyQ.

Fletcher, Paul. “Hellblade Development Diary 12: The Mind of Senua” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 10 June 2015, https://youtu.be/zS6wHzwUDI4.

Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Vol. 1, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1875. Edited, with preliminary dissertations and notes, by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose

Matthews, Dominic. “Hellblade Development Diary 15: Binaural Audio Tests” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 12 October 2015, https://youtu.be/gFdPXCzxMg8.

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