Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice | Ninja Theory | Released Aug. 8th, 2017
The Independent AAA Game
In 2014 Tameem Antoniades spoke at GDC Europe about his new game development model. The idea, which led to Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, became known as Independent AAA. The model hoped to occupy the space between AAA games and Independent titles. Ninja Theory's new game model would produce AAA-quality games available at lower prices. The studio would keep creative ownership over the self-published product. It would also encourage a direct relationship between player and publisher. Or, as Antoniades put it at GDC Europe
It’s about self-publishing AAA-quality games that are narrower in focus, selling them for a fair price and connecting to your fans in a meaningful way. It’s a place for developers like us who don’t fit comfortably in the mega-budget AAA space but who are not true indie developers.
Ninja Theory's newest game, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is the first try at the Independent AAA experiment. The game hits all the goals for the new style of game. What's more, it avoids the AAA Arms Race symptoms like crafting systems, micro transactions, and franchise planning. The most important thing though, is that Hellblade manages to be an incredible game, as thrilling as it is engaging from start to finish.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice centers around a Celtic warrior named Senua. She has ventured into Viking territory to challenge the Norse Goddess Hella who reigns over Helheim, the land of the dead. Senua has come to Helheim to rescue the soul of her dead lover. Meanwhile, Senua is dealing with psychosis which impacts her ability to be a traditional hero.
The traditional hero's journey juxtaposed with the intimate story make this game one-of-a-kind. Neither of the stories ever takes priority over the other. And where the game's AAA side provides for astounding combat and beautiful art, the independent side allows the game to be experimental in how it tells its story.
This game, more than any other, puts the player in the headspace of the character. It is an important and exciting game that could not exist outside of the innovative space Ninja Theory created.
Senua's mental health isn't an afterthought for Antoniades and his team either. It is pivotal to the story they are telling. Again, in Antoniades' words,
The original idea for Hellblade was to create a new fantasy game that wasn’t derived from the well-trodden tropes that exist in entertainment. And so the idea was born that Hellblade would be a classic hero’s journey, a journey of suffering, but one where the fantasy world is a construct of Senua, the hero’s mind.
In that way, Hellblade doesn't use Senua's psychosis to twist the audience's expectations. There is no rug pulling at the last minute that reveals the story to be real or others imagined.
The entire game is real because it is Senua's real experience. There are momentary hints that other character's perspectives on reality differ. But the development team has such a thorough job placing the player in the character's headspace, that Senua's truth becomes our own.
Hearing Senua's World
When the game starts up, one of the title screens encourages players to put on headphones. The suggestion, which only takes up a small amount of the screen for a few moments seems a bit understated. Especially when playing the game with headphones transforms the gaming experience.
The design team has implemented 3D sound to put players into Senua's headspace. The voices that encourage and cajole our protagonist throughout the game ring in our ears. In combat, those same voices direct your sword and warn you about threats from outside the screen.
The sounds we hear also do more than putting us in a position to empathize with Senua. They are functional as well. The game doesn't have any tutorial. Everything we learn about playing the game- from solving puzzles to winning sword fights- we learn from the irritates whispers in our head. Not looking at a problem the right way? They will direct you. Letting an enemy's blade get too close? They will back you up. This style of teaching is more fun than the extended tutorials most games have and builds the world up.
There is even one boss battle where the enemy runs into the dark and circles around Senua to attack from a random direction. Again, the design team uses 3D sound to help the player know from which direction they should be expecting an attack.
Consequences To Death
Senua fights dozens of North men and a handful of gods on her way to confront Hella. Her real adversary, however, is The Darkness. The physical manifestation of Senua's inner pain, The Darkness consumes Senua's entire reality.
At the beginning of the game, The Darkness reaches out and grabs Senua's hand. She is marked. The hand begins to fester, turning rotten and black. Each time Senua fails a mission, the rot creeps further up her arm. Senua will reload at the last check point, like any other video game character. But the rot on her arm will grow. And once it reaches her head, where the soul is housed, the game will end and her mission will start over from the beginning.
This dynamic gave genuine stakes to the game. While there is some risk of death in most video games, it rarely matters. Until now, the highest stakes fights were in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor because the nemesis system meant the Orc who killed you would be stronger. Here though, there is an actual risk that Senua will die. And that you and she will have to start the entire adventure over again. This is one more layer of innovation and nuance not seen in most games that make Hellblade stand out.
A Singular Gaming Experience
With Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, Ninja Theory has crafted a game unlike any other. It seems entirely possible that they have struck gold with their Independent AAA model. It's also possible that making a game with players' experiences as a top priority works well. The most likely possibility is that those two options are deeply linked.
What ever the reason behind its creation, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a beautiful, story-rich game with heart pounding action. It tells its intimate story on a blockbuster level. The game hits every note a player could want From doing battle with Fire Giants to forging a god-killing sword to painfully mourning dead friends and family. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is one-of-a-kind.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is available now on PS4 and PC