header is screenshot from Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Seeing Beyond the Veil
Yussef Cole

Just before she sets off to face Illtauga, the first of three giants to be defeated in Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, our protagonist, Senua, confronts the local clan leader, Fargrimr, about her intention to do what no one else has done. Though the giants are thought to be invincible, Senua believes, thanks to the gallery of psychotic voices filling her head, that she is destined to defeat them. Fargrimr chuckles, and tells her that though he doesn’t see a way how, he agrees that, if anyone can do it, Senua can. He tells her he has been waiting for “ … somebody with the ability to look at the world and see what might be, not what is. And that is you.” He continues: “I’ve seen you listening to the voices we cannot hear, the verdir and the gandir. You have the ability to see beyond the veil.”

This moment marks a turn for the series: it’s the first time that Senua is not only accepted for her psychosis, but prized for it, lifted up by it. Where before she was cast out for it, after being blamed for every possible misfortune by a superstitious and fearful people back on Orkney, she is now made heroic by association.

Though Senua, apart from her hallucinations, is alone for the events of the first Hellblade, we learn, as the story progresses, that she has been ostracized by her settlement, who fear and misunderstand her psychosis. She spends a long time away from her home as a result, even separating from her partner, who, along with the rest of the village, is caught and massacred by invading Northmen while Senua is gone. She spends the game wracked with guilt. In her head, her father’s voice rings out constantly, chastising her for her weakness, for not being able to fight her illness, for not being able to subsume it or repress it.

Senua’s psychosis is an object of shame for her in the first game. It is a colossal hurdle which she is only able to overcome by making a colossal effort, by facing down her fears and fighting through the hell of her guilt-ridden unconscious in order to finally, by the game’s end, make it to a place of reflection; a place where she can live with the voices and with the doubt about what is real and what isn’t.

This realization brings the first Hellblade to a close. We begin the sequel with Senua making turbulent landfall an ocean away, in Iceland, a new land full of new people and new challenges to overcome. For these challenges, her psychosis is apparently essential. It allows her, and only her, to rescue this land’s inhabitants from an invasion of terrifying giants by peering “ … beyond the veil,” as Fargrimr puts it. 

Only Senua can come into contact with the humanity-shunning Hiddenfolk who live beneath the earth in magically bounded caves and warrens. Only Senua can discover the painful memory which motivates each giant to go on their bloody warpath. Only Senua can find each giant’s particular weakness, can put each one down, can finally bring the saga to a close by eliminating the tyrannical source of these giants, the scheming Bjorg goði.

There’s a history as long as human existence of psychosis and other mental illnesses being treated as evidence of spiritual power, rather than as pathology. Many cultures have employed some version of Witch Doctor, Seer, Mystic, Medicine Man, and so on. The same humanity which has often seen fit to exile and reject the neurodivergent has, maybe just as often, sought to elevate those with divergence into positions of mystical power and privilege. But this accounts for external responses to psychosis. There’s still the matter of how it feels to be in this position in the first place, which Hellblade II woefully neglects in favor of a plot-driven adventure about a psychosis-powered superhero going about her tasks and saving the day.

In one of the essays in her book The Collected Schizophrenias, Esme Wang explores her journey in connecting her schizophrenia with theories of the occult and of other liminal, spiritual practices. “Working with the liminal involves working with faith,” she writes. “One article of faith is This suffering will be of use to you someday.

When Wang first told her mother that she was hearing voices, her mother consoled her with the suggestion that these may be “gifts” rather than “pathologies.” She connected Wang’s voices back to centuries-old Chinese traditions where those afflicted by psychosis were believed to be soul healers and mediums.

Of course, this is the precise direction Hellblade II takes, too. The magical unreality that once lived solely in Senua’s mind has bled out into the world itself, now chock full of giants and other mythical creatures. And where as before, she was left alone to deal with her delusions, unsure of whether what she was seeing was real or not, now she is surrounded by true believers, people who see her as someone who can lead them through this strange new world.

But in swinging the pendulum so far over to the other side, creator Ninja Theory brushes over much of the nuance of Senua’s relationship to her psychosis and to the voices she hears. In the first game, she lashes out at these voices, challenges them, and struggles to fully incorporate them into her psyche. In Hellblade II, she’s fully embraced them. They’re seen no longer as intrusive thoughts but welcome guests. Spurred on, perhaps, by Fargrimr’s vote of confidence, Senua even begins to think of them as actual magical beings, who’s wisdom is distinct from her own, and which she can use to accomplish her objectives.

After all, if the game itself grounds these giants and fairy folk in reality, observable by everyone else, why shouldn't Senua go on to fully accept what she sees as the real world, and not delusion? Why should she doubt her senses, her understanding of what surrounds her?

This turn makes dramatic sense but is far too simple for the depth of the subject Ninja Theory is trying to explore. It flattens down the complex journey Senua goes on in the first game—a story about coming to terms with the various, often discordant and uncooperative aspects of your own personality, those parts of yourself that might not easily fit into a world that prefers things as “what is” rather than “what might be.” And it tries to depict what it means to be okay with that, how to go on living anyway. Not, as the sequel sets out to do, to turn the whole world into a comforting and supportive fantasy, but to be able to overcome the many challenges of existing as a weird little non-comforming person and to continue on, stronger and more fully-defined in spite of it all.

Wang eventually describes how she makes the decision to keep some distance from mysticism, despite obviously benefiting from the emotional support it provides. “I knew I’d suffered greatly during psychosis and was not interested in turning face-first, again, into the storm of bleak and blustering insanity.” She explains that her intent in “ … learning about the liminal … ” was “ … not to prolong my psychotic experience, but [attempt] to make sense of [it].”

Hellblade II, it seems, is committed to making sense of what is senseless. In playing it, in helping Senua complete her mission, we all wind up collectively buying into the delusions and making them reality. If Ninja Theory wanted to do service to those living with psychosis, it perhaps should have allowed the complexities of that type of life to stay at the forefront of their text. Instead it gets forced down below, hidden under the blinding lights of heroic fantasy; clean, uncomplicated, and meaningless.


Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Bluesky @youmeyou.bsky.social.