"Hellblade" aims to give players an insight into mental illness.
Image: Ninja Theory
In a dank forest, Celtic warrior Senua is left alone to face fiery monsters, sinister voices, and an ominous darkness. But the harrowing environment that Senua grapples with isn't just a fictitious gaming world. It's meant to give players an idea of what it's like to suffer from mental illness.
Due for release in 2016, Hellblade is a third-person POV game that tells Senua's story as a warrior left traumatised after the Viking invasion. But different to regular actions games, Hellblade tackles psychological issues head on.
"The game's protagonist experiences psychosis, and suffers from depression and anxiety. Her 'journey into hell' is a manifestation of her mental health," Dominic Matthews, product development manager at Cambridge-based games developer Ninja Theory, told me. "As it's a third-person game, the camera sits behind her, and as a player you see her personal health through her eyes."
Ninja Theory wants players to understand what it's like for people suffering mental health issues. Given how immersive and interactive gaming is, they believe that players will be drawn into Senua's experience, and able to empathise more with what she and other sufferers go through.
"Because of the interactivity of video games, you're not just seeing the character's life play out, you're making decisions with them," explained Matthews. "When you put players in the position of a character with a mental health condition, it can help them understand what it is to suffer, and break through some of the stigmas attached to mental health."
But portraying mental health in any context isn't easy, and Matthews stressed that Ninja Theory was keen on giving as genuine and sensitive a representation of mental health and psychosis as possible.
To ensure an accurate portrayal, the team collaborated with Paul Fletcher, a psychiatrist and professor of Health Neuroscience from the University of Cambridge.
"When people think about mental illness in the context of making things, sometimes they want to sensationalise things, but it was clear that Ninja Theory wanted to represent mental illness as sensitively as possible," Fletcher told me.
"True understanding of mental health is not simply about books, lectures, or verbal descriptions but from deeper engagement on all levels," explained Fletcher in a release.
Hellblade's development model is based on what Ninja Theory has dubbed "Independent AAA". By this they meant that though they were a small 15-person team aiming to create something niche and out of the ordinary, they still wanted to keep high-quality production values associated with high-budget AAA productions. Think the philosophy of an indie game, encased in a blockbuster wrapping.
Gaming is increasingly being used as an unconventional platform for exploring real-world issues. Nevermind uses an Intel RealSense camera to monitor changes in heart rate and attempt to make you more emotionally resilient. And That Dragon, Cancer tackles grief head on, with the story of one father caring for his son who has terminal cancer.
"Movies, art and literature have tackled challenging and complex subjects, but video games haven't as much. The rise of digital distribution means that developer teams can take on these kind of subjects," said Matthews. He noted that Hellblade was a worthwhile "creative risk."