Experiencing Psychosis through the Eyes of Senua

"Senuas Sacrifice lighting study" | Art by Iwun. Used with permission.

“But the darkness, it just builds onto itself, growing stronger, towering over her. You might try and ignore it, turn away, but it’s always there just out of sight, where you are most vulnerable. It’s like it knows that just enough light is all you need to see it’s suffocating power.”

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a video game about Senua, a Nordic warrior who lost her lover and journeys to the gates of Hel to retrieve his lost soul. Immediately the game makes it clear that all is not well with Senua. From the moment you hit play, there are voices in your head, and they haunt you throughout the game. They question your purpose and self-worth, fading in and out throughout your journey. Almost as soon as the voices appear, you try to tune them out. The voices’ consistent and persistent nagging form a backdrop of cacophony that saturates the very air you breathe.

“SENUA” by RUIZBURGOS.

Throughout the game, enemies fade into reality or appear behind you. It’s unclear whether they are real or not. In fact, everything from the gods and spirits you fight to the feverish narratives explaining Senua’s story seem questionable. Yet, in the midst of this chaos, the game delivers heart-breaking moments of clarity, where the voices stop and Senua can remember clearly the beauty of her relationship, and the horror she went through watching her lover die.

Senua set out on her quest after meeting Druth, a strange, shaman-like character who was a slave to the northmen; he told her the stories of the Nordic gods, the gates of Hel, and a chance to retrieve her lover’s soul. It’s unclear whether Druth’s narratives are actually helpful, or whether he is sending her on an impossible errand, giving false hope to someone who has lost everything.

The game is a well consulted treaty of a particular mental illness: psychosis. The creators at Ninja Theory sat down with various support groups for people struggling with psychosis and had them describe their experiences in order to create as accurate a depiction as possible. These groups were involved for the entire production. Each time the developers finished a scene or puzzle, they’d show it to the support groups to get a perspective on how realistic it was.

I don’t suffer from a diagnosed mental illness, but many people I care about do. I’ve struggled to empathize because it is a blind spot in my life. I don’t spend enough time considering or filtering my everyday experiences from the perspective of someone who is struggling with emotions or thoughts beyond their control.

A friend helped me understand that symbols and patterns are important to people who suffer from psychosis, and the game’s puzzle solving demonstrates this element of the illness; throughout Senua’s Sacrifice, you have to locate Nordic runes in seemingly random places—like a bundle of twigs, a certain angle of a tree limb, or a shadow cast on the ground—to move on. The support group was consulted on how to record and portray the voices Senua hears. One of them comments, “This is the most realistic reproduction of voice-hearing I’ve ever seen.” Even as depression and other mental illnesses are being raised in public profile, I had never considered that psychosis and voice hearing belonged in the same category as depression—in fact, I’d never considered these people much at all.

I may never truly understand what it is like to live with psychosis, but I can love those people better now.

Finishing Senua’s Sacrifice left me with both questions and answers. It is revealed that Senua spent time alone, drifting through the wilds wanting to die, or perhaps even explicitly suicidal. Her chance encounter with Druth not only saved her but gave her purpose. The powerful narratives and spirituality Druth shared encouraged her in her darkest moments.

The game is beautiful but disturbing (it’s also incredibly violent, so keep that in mind if you’re interested in playing it). I don’t think I could have imagined being compelled by psychosis to look for patterns and symbols in the world if Senua’s Sacrifice hadn’t forced me to do so to progress. I don’t think I would have the level of sympathy for those who hear voices without hearing Senua’s come at me through my headset for hours of playtime. The game gave me the chance not just to hear stories of others’ experiences, but to experience a small part of them myself. I may never truly understand what it is like to live with psychosis or voice hearing, but I know I can love those people better now.

I’m also left wanting to be Druth for someone. I want to share stories that matter—stories that can give hope and purpose. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is that story. Whereas Senua went on a quest down a path of violence to kill a god and rescue her lover’s soul, Christ offers a path of peace, into relationship with God and others. Both are quests, and both are long and arduous journeys. Druth didn’t claim to fix Senua, but instead offered her a way toward some kind of healing. It’s important if I want to be an ally, that I don’t seek to fix or overwrite someone’s struggle or illness, but that I offer myself as co-wanderer and friend. Druth shares his stories and disappears from the narrative, perhaps another mark of loss on Senua’s already tormented soul. I can’t help but imagine how different Senua’s Sacrifice would be if Senua wasn’t journeying alone, and if I could be a consistent companion on a long and winding road.

Justin Koop

Justin Koop

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Justin is a writer, audio engineer, songwriter, drummer, and biblical scholar. Most of all, he loves young nerds and geeks, and wants to see them mentored into healthy, Christ-centered lives. Justin has loving support from his wife, Annie, and their daughter, Freya.
Justin Koop

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