Content warning for descriptions of violence and abuse.
This post contains spoilers for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Tomb Raider (2013), and Breath of the Wild.
“Is this the price you pay for the gift you have?”
Dillion, protagonist Senua’s dearly departed, says this as a token of comfort. Senua suffers from psychosis (the game starts with a warning for those who actually have the mental illness). However, her mental state is also associated with magical gifts: a sixth sense in combat, an ability to recognize patterns where no one else would, and visions of the future. Here, Dillion proposes that Senua’s suffering is Good Actually™. Without it, she could not find beauty like she can now. Her suffering allows her to become who she is. It allows her to become strong. She should accept it. And be grateful. This attitude towards suffering got a lot of mainstream attention with Game of Thrones’s final season, but it’s a fairly common trope in video games in general. Hellblade, though, operates as its nadir. It’s a game that wears the clothes of progressive politics, centering a strong female character, touting its research and care, but that uses the same worn story of trauma being equal to strength. To borrow a framework from Eva Zee, Hellblade is exploitation without honesty.
Many games of this scale rely on suffering to humanize their women, even if they are more forthcoming about it than Hellblade. Lara Croft cannot just be Tomb Raider, at least not in this “humanizing” reboot; she has to earn it with blood. The 2013 reimagining does this not only through the gleeful, wanton violence of V I D E O G A M E S, but through violence against Lara. Death animations play like scenes from Final Destination, snippets of torture porn. Its cinematography calls to mind recent horror classics, as Lara both descends into violence and ascends to survival. But rather than being a story about suffering and terror, it’s a superhero origin story. In short, what Lara goes through is traumatic and terrifying, but the game fetishes that suffering. It is what turns her into an icon. To the point where the credits kick off with a repetition of the title card and a display of the marketing catchphrase: “a survivor is born.” Now, Lara can be a hero. She’s suffered enough to become one.
The princess Zelda in Breath of Wild occupies a similar space, albeit with more grace and nuance. Though our hero Link is the catalyst for the big bad’s defeat, Zelda has an equally important and heroic role. While Link was asleep, recovering from a near-death experience, Zelda held Calamity Ganon, the supernatural evil threatening her kingdom, at bay. She is undeniably powerful, a character with agency and strength, but the game communicates that strength by foregrounding her suffering. In the game’s various flashbacks, we see Zelda straining at the role she has been placed in. But as the player watches her struggle, they know what awaits at the end of it: Zelda’s acceptance of her fate and her invisible conflict for 100 years. Zelda’s character, her choices, feel irrelevant to the role she is destined to play. She is a ghost in her own story. Both a moving story of important labor made invisible and yet another silencing.
These three games all ground their female characters’ suffering as the catalyst for their strength. Lara Croft’s trial by blood allows her to become Tomb Raider. Zelda’s acceptance of her fate results in her long-lasting invisible war against, and eventual triumph over, evil. Hellblade foregrounds Senua’s mental illness as the direct source of her power. While Breath of the Wild manages to have a multifaceted perspective of trauma and loss, Tomb Raider and Hellblade reflect their sickly light back on each other. Without the suffering of these women, there would be no game to play. In the case of Hellblade, it vividly creates Senua’s suffering, but does not, cannot, offer a life outside of it. All things in her life, good and bad, build out of her mental illness. Her father’s cruelty and Dillion’s kindness revolve around it too. Her suffering is the sun around which the rest of the game orbits.
The bones of Hellblade are well worn hero’s journey fare. Senua’s family and friends are killed in a viking raid. In an attempt to save her boyfriend’s soul from torment, she travels to the afterlife with his head. If she can reunite his body with his soul, he can be freed. On the way, she must fight several powerful giants and the gods themselves, all while being beset by voices and visions from her past, including that of her abusive father. The basic tropes of these kinds of stories are all here, marked and artificial. Senua receives mystical help from a legendary sword and guidance from a ghostly mentor. Gates block her path until she defeats a powerful foe. Ultimately, she reconciles herself with her shadow, becomes a whole person, and leaves triumphant, though the entire journey was a vivid hallucination.
Leaving behind the absurd, “gotcha” ableism of the story’s final twist, Hellblade’s problems come from its details, not its structure. Stories like Annihilation and The Wizard of Earthsea have similar broad beats, but intentionally and slowly work through the trauma of their characters. Both these stories have moments of horror and terror, but they are often quiet and careful. The Wizard of Earthsea spends just as much time on the mundane troubles of its protagonist’s life, as it does on his eventual quest. Ged, the titular wizard, finds joy in the ordinary things of the world. His final confrontation with his shadow is quiet and slow. Annihilation is a slow burn that flares up with moments of violence, but always lets itself settle down to simmer. It too ends with a quiet moment of recognition. Senua’s suffering is lavish in contrast.
This is most explicitly communicated by its cinematography. Hellblade’s camera is relentless. The beginning of the game is a slow, single shot, following Senua as she takes a boat to the land of the dead. This sets an aesthetic precedent for the rest of game. The camera cuts rarely, creating a constant state of dread and tension. It’s invasive; it never leaves Senua alone, never gives her a moment in which she is not being stared down. The camera resembles the villagers that the game half-heartedly condemns. It forever waits for her facade to break, for the monster to be cut loose. Senua’s body becomes battered, bruised, and blooded; the camera never cuts away from her. It is not a sexualizing gaze, but it does objectify.
This refusal to cut for much of the game’s runtime reflects its emotional tenor. At nearly every moment until the end, Senua is reliving suffering, experiencing suffering, or being set-up for suffering. There are no empty spaces; there is no normalcy. In one scene, as Senua is approaching a massive gnarled tree, she flashes back to when she first met Dillion. The barren field burns with golden grass. The sun lights her head. But as she remembers that Dillion is dead, as she blames herself for his death, the dark, vacant world returns. This contrast shows that the game has two modes of exploring mental illness: abject dread and glorious light. There is no space for Senua to experience the constantly changing tides of living.
Mental illness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In contrast, it is the tensions between one’s society and one’s illness that define one’s experience. As Dia Lacina’s excellent piece on Hellblade puts it, “A person’s mental illness is inextricable from their social context… [Hellblade] presumes a world where people with mental illness exist wholly divorced from their societies.” We do get some moments where Senua describes her life before she came to the underworld, but it mostly serves as exploitative exposition of her abuse. We have no context for or experience of Senua’s daily life.
As someone who has lived with high-functioning depression and anxiety for as long as they can remember, this feels, at best, disingenuous. Sometimes, in a depressive episode, even the most basic tasks feel out of reach, and you feel useless and broken for being unable to do them. Sometimes, depression feels like a buzz in your ears. Annoying, but manageable, until you catch yourself in the mirror and feel that you can’t possibly go on like this. You are so hurt and so tired. But yet, school or work or family call and you answer. Sometimes life is good and you are surprised at how nothing changed, but you still feel better. Sometimes all this happens and more in a single hour or day. Hellblade is so loud that it can only duplicate the most crass version of that contrast, no gray, just black and white.
Dillion illustrates this false dichotomy too. A shining ray of positive masculinity in the face of Senua’s father’s abusive darkness, Dillion is always kind and always patient. If Senua is nothing but suffering, Dillion is nothing but virtue. At times, the game seems almost self congratulatory about its reversal of the typical video game plot. Senua is the center of the story, trying to save a distant and uncharacterized male romantic interest. But Dillion is no subversion, just an abstraction. Dillion’s absent perfection serves only to patronize. He is perfect and distant in a way that Senua cannot be. His body is only a symbol, while Senua’s bleeds before us. He is a hollow reversal of a damsel-in-distress that turns both him and Senua into caricatures. Senua even says, “Without you this darkness has made me a monster.” Again, a simplistic contrast that allows no room for nuance, no room for the harm that Dillion might have caused Senua as well as the good. He never gets frustrated, exasperated, or confused, while Senua is all those things always. They are paper people made for each other, archetypes without history.
It is difficult to even talk about something like Hellblade without laying my own mental illness at your feet, showing you how I am actually qualified to talk about this. In the process I relive a portion of it. In the words of Yasmin Nair, trauma is our passport. Our suffering is what enables us to be taken seriously. This is Hellblade’s entire runtime: suffering experienced again and again for the benefit of a presumed neurotypical audience. Because the traumatized, especially traumatized women, need to expose their trauma to be taken seriously. The fact is, by writing this I have contributed to Hellblade’s toxic thesis: that exposing and showing of trauma is the clearest way to build strength and empathy.
Working through trauma in fiction is a thorny problem, made thornier by the fact that trauma is quite literally sold. Hellblade itself was a timed console exclusive for Playstation, only releasing on Xbox a few months later. For a limited time, Senua’s trauma can only be experienced on Sony platforms. Every work that is sold, and even those that are not, deal with this problem. Contradictorily, fiction also offers us a means of talking through our traumas. Even Hellblade forced me to articulate how and why it cheapened my experience and thus helped me work through what that experience was. So if fiction about mental illness and trauma is going to continue to exist, which it will and should, what do we do? This is a question far too large for a single article, but Eva Zee, in their analysis of Split, offers the beginnings of an answer: “The decision to elude… actual abuse, which could be read as bourgeois tastefulness, instead, in context, becomes a refusal to totally participate in commodifying histories of abuse.” The cut is a means of taking control of one’s own narrative. Cutting away can separate trauma from the marketplace and help us imagine a future without its infection.
There are many examples of films and games that cut in this way, Annihilation, Hyper Light Drifter, Assassin’s Creed: Origin, Moonlight (what a final cut), among many others, but one strikes me as particularly relevant. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the title character rushes to save the life of a wounded princess. She frantically unbuttons her shirt to get a look at her wounds. But as soon as she does, the camera cuts away. We see only Nausicaä’s quivering hand and pained face, only her realization that this girl will die. The moment the film shows is empathy, not pain alone. This princess has only a minute of screen time, but the contrast between her suffering and Nausicaä’s empathy gives her dignity.
Senua gets a lot more screen-time, but she gets no such dignity. In the final moment of the confrontation with the shadow, Senua does not accept herself by finding an old friend or a familiar place, but by being stabbed. We watch as her jaw slacks, her eyes roll, and blood flows out of her wounds. She lies there, a quivering corpse, as the ghost of her shining, perfect boyfriend mirrors her to provide words of hollow comfort. The camera does not cut away to let someone else see her, to grant her the mercy of being understood. Instead the game has the eye of a clumsy autopsy, cutting Senua open until she, quite literally, bleeds on the floor, everything seen, but nothing learned. There is no outside world for her. Hellblade never lets Senua live; as soon as life might be possible for her, the game ends. Because there is no outside world, there is no place without suffering for Senua. Even her moment of reconciliation is defined by it.
Hellblade stands in the shadows of capitalist institutions that encourage us to sell our trauma, to expose our wounds at the expense of our dignity. But we can look away. We can make and find art that does not speak but listens. Art that allows itself to cut, to move away, to imagine something else. Art that believes our hurt and that does not showcase or sell it, but lets it be, lets it heal. This is not enough. As long as art is being made under capitalism, this problem of commodifying trauma will remain. But it is a start.