In Season 5, Episode 13 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘The Masterpiece Society’, the Enterprise encounters a colony of eugenic isolationists who consider themselves the pinnacles of genetic perfection. Their isolation is under threat from a deadly sci-fi plot device that will render their planet uninhabitable. While the crew shit all over the first directive, as usual, it is Geordi La Forge who comes to the procedural solution that will save the colony – the technology in the visor that permits him to see can be Macgyvered into a doodad that will diffuse the plot device. How ironic, he notes, that the colony should be saved by a blind man’s visor; their eugenic practises would have terminated his zygote well before he was born.
Games criticism is familiar with the argument for diversity from inclusion. The representation of diverse subjectivities in games means they better represent the world, present interesting characters more people can identify with, and ultimately diversify the audience who will enjoy (and buy) games. There’s another argument for diversity we don’t hear as much about: the argument from quality.
Originally intended as a conventional fantasy narrative with a neurotypical protagonist, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a better game because its developers invested substantial time and effort attempting to understand and represent a subject affected by schizophrenic hallucinations. Not only that, but several of its stylistic and information-carrying techniques are truly innovative and deserve to push forward the standards of the art.
“While schizophrenia was the inspiration that enabled Ninja Theory to develop this new auditory UI, the design is perfectly transferable into other games.”
Senua’s Sacrifice is a stylish work of art in motion, and much of this comes from the effort put into representing a disorienting and untrustworthy visual sensorium. Environmental details such as flickering flames or blinking eyes on the bark of trees are neither present nor absent, but appear and disappear unheralded. Cut scenes intersperse in-engine rendering with video, change rapidly between introspection, recollection, and fantasy. Senua’s occasional direct to camera addresses are intimate and troubling, confounding our exact relationship with the character without explicitly breaking the fourth wall. The result is a new approach to representing a mythic or fantastical environment that does not reduce it to a mere physical environment with a pallet swap.
Senua is accompanied by many disembodied voices. One takes the role of narrator and stand-in for Senua’s own introspection, another the primary antagonist. The remainder form a chorus who berate, heckle, and cheer Senua on. They take on a great degree of informational load that would be reserved for the UI, providing hints when she encounters a puzzle or locked door, a running commentary on her wellbeing in combat that (together with her changing stance) replace the health bar, and shout warnings about incoming attacks from behind, removing the need for UI flashes. While schizophrenia was the inspiration that enabled Ninja Theory to develop this new auditory UI, the design is perfectly transferable into other games.
Even the simple desire to make the game respect Senua as a character has lead to a clean, beautiful design, free of a lot of the frippery of modern games, in which Senua’s struggle (while enlarged by the mythic context) is painfully human and intimate. This isn’t so much a design innovation as a recentering around minimalist principles, part of Ninja Theory’s independent experiment, but the respect for the protagonist as a tragic hero and vulnerable human is refreshing.
As a work of representation, Senua’s Sacrifice has limits. Writing for Polygon, author and mental-illness sufferer Dia Lacina criticised the game for minimising the social context in which Senua is presented, showing her psychosis only in the context of a vision-quest and not the complexities of navigating real life. This is a fictionalised person in a fictionalised context and not a true reflection of the real challenges facing people with psychosis, and while I (obviously) think Senua’s Sacrifice is excellent the setting puts hard limits on how realistic it can be.
“As a work of representation, Senua’s Sacrifice has limits.”
Senua also invokes the trope that psychosis provides the protagonist with special insight. In the context of a game where players have minor superpowers and a viking myth where magical runes and spirits reside in the world, the neat alignment of hallucination with a magical inner eye is aesthetically coherent. But the trope that mental illness provides special insight – or more perniciously, that mentally ill or neuro-atypical people have value only if they also have special gifts, or that the distinction of a mentally ill perspective is more valuable than being well – is tired and unhelpful. Another challenge Lacina presents for Senua’s Sacrifice as an act of representation was the extreme discomfort she experienced playing the game, arising directly from the game’s design. I don’t know what to make of that criticism – I found the game harrowing, and it is certainly intended to horrify, yet there is something bleakly ironic about a game about psychosis that a sufferer of psychosis could not easily play. But then I have played other, equally or more disorienting horror games which had nothing to do with psychosis which I would not recommend to someone who found Senua’s Sacrifice disturbing; the incredible, beautiful and deeply troubling Actual Sunshine is an excellent and truthful representation of suicidal depression that I absolutely do not recommend to anyone currently experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Senua is a landmark in the representation of psychosis, even if it is not always a success. But the inclusion of a psychotic perspective has contributed to the quality of the game. Diversity is important to the games industry because straight, white, able, middle-class males aged 25 to 50 don’t have all the answers to push the medium forward. New perspectives creating games are only making them better.