The promise has been made.
Ever since its release in 2017, I’ve been put off by Ninja Theory’s acclaimed take on psychosis, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Whether it’s because of my own problems with stigmatized mental illness, or just my historical dislike for Ninja Theory’s games, I never found myself willing to take the plunge and play it. Frankly, I’m now glad I never did.
At The Game Awards 2019, Xbox head Phil Spencer unveiled the new Xbox console alongside its first revealed launch title, a sequel to Hellblade. Titled, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, The trailer itself was uncomfortable, almost definitely intentionally so, with the titular Senua shouting along to a heavy metal track accompanied by macabre and gruesome imagery. While there was an uproar of cheers from the audience, and a general vibe of “oh cool” from social media, I found myself actively angry and upset.
The original Hellblade was generally well-received, but it was divisive among those who live with mental illness. For some it was a comforting and almost validating game, while for others it felt voyeuristic or just plain wrong. While I leaned more towards the latter group, I knew plenty of people who had legitimately enjoyed and appreciated the game for what it was trying to do. Now though, it seems prior concerns have been well placed.
When it comes to media exploring mental illness, you’d be hard pressed to find works that aren’t actively fetishizing or vilifying them. From games full of crazed asylum patients, to endless stories glamourising things like dissociative identity disorder, there’s a whole set of tropes that we’ve come to unfortunately expect from the content we engage with. While a lot of it is a sort of ouroboros situation, where the existence of stereotyping in popular works feeds into the works that follow them, there are plenty of artists and creators out there who genuinely look at the victims of mental illness and go, “Woah! This is so wild!”.
When Ninja Theory was working on Hellblade, they talked about their discussions with leading neuroscientists and sufferers of psychosis. While Ninja Theory readily admits they initially started development off of a fascination with the nature of psychosis, they talked plenty about how their perspectives and sympathies changed as they talked to more and more people. While they still could never fully understand or properly represent everyone’s perspective with their work, it was reasonably informed and they put both work and time into supporting the fight against mental illness.
A couple years out from the release of Hellblade, Ninja Theory has continued to champion this cause, going so far as to establish an initiative to create further games that support mental health. However, Ninja Theory is now owned by Microsoft, and Microsoft is always in dire need of first party games to bolster their release lineup, a need so dire that it might, say, cause one of their studios to renege on their past beliefs with regards to their projects and proffer it up for poaching.
Now I don’t fundamentally believe that the intentions of Ninja Theory are truly as grim as the reality of what they’re doing. I believe that the people who worked on Hellblade, and will probably work on Hellblade II, are sympathetic and thoughtful individuals. What I also believe, however, is that the existence of a sequel to Hellblade at all, let alone one marketed as a blockbuster launch title for the new Xbox with the same gravitas and hype as a Call of Duty, is nonetheless skeevy as fuck.
If something has the potential to be exploited for capital it will absolutely be exploited for capital, that is the nature of the economic system we unfortunately toil under. While games have always been one of the best examples of this notion, it hasn’t been until recently that topics with nuance or some degree of societal weight have fallen under its clutches. Overwatch tries to halfheartedly shout out “Gay Rights!” but only where the other half of its audience might not see it. Mass Effect will have a transgender character, but only as an incidental NPC who runs through their identity like the side effects label on a prescription drug. If there’s a way for a company to try and get accolades and enough respect to hoodwink any possible customers then they will absolutely take advantage of whatever they can—and Hellblade II is only the most recent of these.
As someone who suffers from a rare mental illness that has largely been commodified and over exaggerated in the entertainment industry, I was always put off of the original Hellblade. The feeling of seeing someone who doesn’t experience the same things as you try to tell others how you live your life is a frustrating one, regardless of intent. Now with Hellblade II however, I’m actively upset specifically because it confirms all my worst fears. This is a game being made to make a disease like mine seem epic and engaging, just another fetishistic tool to make money.
Hellblade II could be just as well considered as the original game. It could feature all the same well thought out sequences to try and convey the experience of a mentally ill person through an interactive medium. Even if it did though, it would be ultimately tarnished by the notion that it is now doing so to make Microsoft look good and make a lot of cash. What once felt like a sympathetic and measured look at an underconsidered subset of the world’s population has now become a media franchise that’s trying to sell a console.
Ultimately the problem with Hellblade in general, especially with it having a sequel, is that it is being made by people who have no personal engagement with the subject matter outside of a morbid fascination. I’ve had this problem with games before, games like Red Dead Redemption 2 that steep themselves in this time and place and ideas that the people making the game have no fundamental connection to. These are the games that I find myself disengaged with because there’s no metaphor at play. There’s no representation of the creator’s ideals or experiences because there can’t be. Big budget gaming at its core is a fascination with producing things that seem “cool”, and unfortunately despite their growth and understanding, Ninja Theory has sunk back to this.
If there’s one thing to take away from a game like Hellblade II being exploited as such, it’s that if anything deserves praise and critical attention, it’s creators who make games about subjects personally important to them. While no single work can match the universal experience of all people, they can paint a picture of how its creator deals with things in their lives and bring an intimate and engaging sense of validation to fellow sufferers. The original Hellblade was absolutely released with the best of intentions, but now with its sequel’s bombast and role in marketing and production, those ambitions feel all but gone.