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Playing at mental health

The Hawk Eye - 8/27/2017

Aug. 27--I long have been a proponent of "important" video games. Games that tackle real life issues with the tone and complexity of an award-winning film.

There aren't many, once you weed out the games that try too hard to be important. The 2013 indie classic "Gone Home" (my Game of the Year) touched my heart with an emotional tale of a gay teenager growing up in the intolerant 1990s. The autobiographical "That Dragon Cancer" (2016) tells the story of a couple who raise a child diagnosed with terminal cancer. I haven't had the guts to play it yet, but I plan to.

"Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice" doesn't sound like an important game, mainly because of its blunt, cliched title. At first glance, it looks like nothing more than a rip-off of the History Channel show "Vikings."

It's an action-adventure game, to be sure. A beautiful, meticulously crafted action game that reinvents the genre with intentionally sparse mechanics and bare bones swordplay.

But it's also a game about mental health, where the action and puzzle solving serve that overriding theme. If handled poorly, "Hellblade" could have been a PR disaster, and would have been accused of minimizing the daily struggle of mental health by turning it into entertainment.

Instead, it's one of the most inspirational games I've ever played. I haven't been this emotionally affected by a video game since "Gone Home" was released for the PC four years ago.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice available for download on the PlayStation 4 and PC for $29.99. Rated "M" for Mature.

The opening for Hellblade is deceptively straightforward, putting the player in the boots of a woman, Senua, who appears to be living in the Viking age. She's actually a Pict -- a tribal confederation of people who lived in eastern and northern Scotland during the late Iron Age and early Medieval periods.

Senua wants to restore the life of her lost love, and the only way she can do that is by journeying through the depths of hell with her partner's severed head hanging from her waist.

But this is the real world, and hell -- at least this iteration of it -- doesn't exist. For a medium populated by space aliens, magicians and ninja anime girls, it's a surprising development, and one I didn't grasp fully until the game was almost over.

It quickly becomes apparent Senua is suffering from at least two mental health issues -- post traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. Much like Joan of Arc, Senua has had visions since childhood, and is ostracized not only from her father, but from her tribe.

I had the pleasure of diagnosing Joan of Arc in a paper for an abnormal psychology class in college, based on the Luc Besson film "The Messenger." Milla Jovovich's fanatical, wild-eyed portrayal of Joan feels much like the motion-captured performance of Senua.

It's some of the best acting I've seen in a video game, and I was amazed to find the performance came from the game's video editor, Melina Juergens.

As Senua travels through "Hell," several distinct voices in head whisper through the speakers -- voices that have been with her all her life. Sometimes, they make observations. Occasionally, they say something funny. Far too often, they put Senua down, telling her she's worthless, that she can't do it, that she will always fail.

That's when the game really clicked for me. I've struggled with anxiety and depression my entire life, and though I don't hear distinct voices in my head like Senua does, I'm all too familiar with the wild fluctuations of my inner voice.

The further she travels, the more terrible Senua's psychosis becomes. She envisions inhuman giants attacking her, playing into the game's impressive combat system that favors timing and patience over flashy moves. She solves puzzles by seeing symbols in the world around her, but they aren't really there. Senua also suffers from apophenia -- the tendency to attribute meaning to perceived connections or patterns between seemingly unrelated things.

Instead of allowing a tone-deaf publisher to stifle their creativity, the developers at Ninja Theory took a risk and financed this game themselves. Several mental health professionals were involved in the project to ensure Senua's psychosis is portrayed accurately and compassionately, and they, too, were blown away by the final product.

Strong, independent women finally have become viable leads in video games over the past couple years, and Senua feels like the natural evolution of that archetype. She's more than a strong woman. She's vulnerable. She's defiant. She's scared. She's brave. Sometimes, she wants to kill herself. Other times, she wants to fight to the death.

Despite the ambiguous plot, Senua feels like a living, breathing person. Too often, her mind serves as an echo chamber of negativity, but she powers through it. I certainly can relate. For 37 years, I, too, endured the misery of my own mind.

Unlike Senua, I live in the the modern world and had the option of pursuing mental health treatment. A few months ago, I finally took that option. I was embarrassed and terrified, but I had to do something.

I no longer am embarrassed. For the first time in memory, I'm seeing life through a lens that is only partially clouded by fear and anxiety. The release of "Hellblade" came at the perfect time in my life, and I stayed up until 10 a.m. to finish it. I couldn't stop playing.

Senua doesn't have the support and resources I do, but she does the best she can. And that's just damn inspirational.

Four out of Four Stars


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