There has always existed an ambiguity in the narrative mode of the third-person video game camera; we instigate the action but we also direct it by our choice of perspective, selecting the optimal angle to capture the performance. We are the hero, the storyteller, and the audience consuming our own tale of heroism. This ambiguity is brought to the fore in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice by the psychological struggles of the player character. Senua is a Pict warrior suffering from psychosis, who experiences powerful delusions, visions and flashbacks. It is an open question to what extent the game’s events are a tale of her own invention.
We might wonder who we, the game player, are supposed to be. Perhaps we are Senua’s psychosis personified, the constant companion at her back and the unseen half of her self. After all, it is we who discover the rune patterns hidden in plain sight and solve the puzzles, we who dash into battle against foes conjured from smoke. We are the force that compels her onward in her quest despite her misgivings and terrors, onward in the mad hope that we can somehow resurrect the man whose skull she carries wrapped in cloth on her hip. If we rotate the camera to face her, she turns her head away. In the gameplay segments we float beyond the periphery of her vision, sensed but never acknowledged.
She makes eye contact with us multiple times during cut-scenes, but this does nothing to resolve the ambiguity of our role. Sometimes we are the intrusive voices that chide and mock her, other times we are her abusive father, and at the finale we look upon her as Hela, goddess of the underworld, who keeps the soul of her dead lover. Only once does she speak to us directly, ostensibly as the player, in order to task us:
‘I need this sword. It’s important. Can you help me?’ We do so, acquiring for her a mythic weapon to fight a very possibly imaginary enemy. Senua believes in the reality of weapon and enemy alike.
How real must a torment be, before it is real enough to kill? How many wounds must an enemy inflict before we call it true? Hellblade takes us to a place where that which ravages the mind and that which rends the flesh are one and the same – but not every monster is a tangible thing that can be put to the sword. We battle impossible odds until the game intervenes and tells us plainly that we must stop enabling Senua’s self-destructive quest to recover the unrecoverable. Her sacrifice is to accept the fact of her loss, and ours is to surrender control to the other half of her, the half that knows her quest is a fool’s errand.