header is screenshot from Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Those Puzzles Where You Line Up Parts of the Environment
Ed Smith

It’s less to do with veracity of verisimilitude or even questions of sincerity—although I’m always dubious about videogames in particular that have those disclaimers or ‘consult your doctor’ or ‘call this number’ stuff at the start, because they seem like backhanded, ‘humblebrag’ kind of ways of promoting the game’s maturity, severity, gravitas, artistic necessity, and they’re also embarrassing, since I’ve never played or seen anything in a videogame with an effectuative power that might, in its aftermath, command therapeutic intervention. But still it’s less to do with the veracity or authenticity of Hellblade II’s illustration of psychosis than it is to do with how the mainstream videogame, in its current form, the form which we’ve collectively cultivated, is unequipped to convincingly record and then describe, compellingly, back to an audience, abstract experiences of any kind. The lingua franca of videogame mechanics—the stuff that all games do or, if they don’t do that stuff, they’re in some way informed by it or reacting to it or subversive of it deliberately—does not have words for some of the most common and naturally occurring individual human events. And it’s not that games could never do this, could never be this. But the conventions at the moment are such, and so rigidly adhered to and inured against substantial, long-lasting change, that the videogame, as form, is beginning to feel somehow finished or permanently ossified. I feel like Hellblade II is meant to be—and audiences and critics are encouraged to regard it as—a different type of videogame, a variation on accustomed form which, in turn, allows for delineation and portraiture of subject matter to which games are likewise unaccustomed. But it becomes another example, alongside Catherine, the work of David Cage and Quantic Dream, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and others, of how videogames can’t help themselves when it comes to the mechanisation of humanness.

You’ll approach a path that is maybe blocked by some rubble, and first Senua will say to herself, “I need to find a way around this,” and then voices in her head will say, “she has to find a way around,” “there must be another way,” “she has to look for another way,” and then a third voice, the narrator, might come in and say, “yes, another way, there was another way,” and then sometimes you might even get a fourth voice, the fire-throated id or voice of evil, and he’ll say, like, “you’ll never find another way around.” So the impression becomes a cacophony of voices, a psychotic onslaught of thoughts and feelings assailing Senua—voice on voice on voice—but they’re very often, rather than contradictory or divergent or intrusive in a way that reflects the nature of psychosis or any kind of psychological or emotional illness or turmoil, a choir, and also directive—your assistant when it comes to navigating the game. It’s the same with those puzzles where you have to find pieces of the environment that align with the cryptic on a locked door or on a road that is grown over with trees. 

You find the shapes, you angle them just right by moving the third-person camera, and the route is opened. Now, this thing about trying to find patterns and lines without abstract shapes, like the idea of voices in your head, is certainly true of psychosis and afflictions by which Hellblade II is inspired. But the aberrational, individual and sensory nature of those experiences becomes undermined by how they’re rendered as a reliable utility for the player. This isn’t an argument about how Hellblade II, through its mechanics, implies—states—that psychotic symptoms have a positive, constructive, practical application in life. Rather, it’s about how the existence and necessity of videogame mechanics and the inherent mechanical nature of a game has to—has to—deabstractify the abstract. The player must be able to progress. The environment must be navigable and coherent. In the strictest computational sense, to guarantee an output, the game must also facilitate an input, and as such, the basis of the game’s subject matter, a bewildering, highly individuated and extremely debilitating, often mystifying psychological disorder, is appropriated into a set of mechanical instruments and functions, and in that process, despite the depth or extent of developer Ninja Theory’s research into psychosis, a tremendous amount of the truth of the condition and how it feels to have that condition is unable to exist in the game. The conventions of the game, this type of game, the general Videogame, insist on a level of functionality and operability that naturally excludes the elucidation and modelling of dysfunction. 

The videogame mechanic requires that you can understand it, and progress with it, and control it, and so it is against the nature of the videogame mechanic to convincingly illuminate things like human psychosis, trauma, introspection, reflection, and personal conflict, when they are, all of them, if you want to tell some kind of truth about their nature and our experiences of them, not straightforward, and not easily controlled, and not understandable in any singular or tangible or quantifiable sense. Perhaps this is why the ‘press F to pay respects’ thing from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare feels to everyone so completely absurd. There we have a direct transaction between a videogame mechanic (press F) and abstract human experience (grieve, remember) and it seems even the game’s makers know this is ridiculous—I think throughout that scene in Advanced Warfare, there’s a detectable tongue-in-cheek. Hellblade II’s self seriousness and the earnestness of Ninja Theory makes it harder to extrapolate but the game has precisely the same problem, whereby the inscrutable and the unknowable, and the questions of human emotionality that have plagued us across our collective existence, are translated into eminently usable and intelligible mechanical processes, and by that translation, the game’s observations and interpretations of all those pestilential experiences will always feel incomplete, shallow, naive.


Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.