The recent announcement of the fifth game in the Fabula Nova Crystallis compilation, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII came with a number of revelations. That the game will be more akin to an action RPG than previous FF games, that more of the world will be interactive and that the art design is going to be more specific and segmented than the first two entries of Lightning’s Saga. It’s already being considered a further blight on the series by fans (I’m entirely ambivalent about it), but the thing that most interests me is a feature that has been referred to as The Doomsday Clock.
Apparently, this will be ticking away in the background of the game as you perform various actions, engage in battle and generally make progress. Some people have already begun to condemn the idea as it reduces the amount of freedom that the player has. You will have to complete the main campaign within the set time frame, meaning that extraneous activities will lose out due to the urgency. Their displeasure is completely understandable, especially if the Clock is simply a device to cover a lack of content, but looking beyond this game it could revolutionise others.
The number of games that throw players into the role of a saviour is, frankly, obscene. Such a role brings with it certain limitations, one of the most prominent of which is that you are running on a deadline to save the world, or your wife, or whatever your objective happens to be. Or rather, you should be. Logic dictates that the enemy will not wait for you to complete side objectives and grind until you think that you are good enough to overcome them. They run upon their own schedule irrespective of your progress but this is something that games almost never embrace. Instead, you are left to your own devices, free to take as much time as you desire before finally shaping up for the final battle.
Free to ignore the world’s end and make deliveries instead.
It creates a sense of dissonance and breaks the fourth wall, reinforcing the idea that the player is in control of everything. Perhaps the best example of this in practice is the Velocity Gamer Network’s 2011 Game of the Year Winner, Skyrim. The map is massive, populated with thousands of NPCs from which you can receive dozens, if not hundreds, of missions in addition to the main campaign. These are often banal personal tasks while the storyline paints a world in dire trouble as imminent destruction looms thanks to Alduin. Everyone in the world knows that you are Dovahkiin, yet they still ask you to put aside the job of saving the world as if their deliveries are more important. For the purpose of the game, it’s all good and well. The goal is to give players an engaging adventure that can safely be referred to as a life substitute, but the very nature of it flies in the face of any logic.
It’s a mentality that plagues many RPGs, particularly those developed in the West that focus more on freedom, but that isn’t the only genre to suffer from this delusion. Shooters, action games, even platformer hybrids; any game, really, where the protagonist is reactive, responding to the events that are happening around them rather than acting of their own accord. It can be argued that this is a necessary evil in video games thanks to their interactive nature but there are some that have proven that this is not the case. A great developer can implement a deadline to powerful effect and it’s here that I’d like to cite Heavy Rain.
Standing around while his son drowns. Not a good idea.
Ethan Mars has only a few days from the kidnapping of his son to save him from drowning in a stormwater drain. Now, I understand that the game is extremely strict in its narrative, the player cannot deviate from David Cage’s script and wander about a barren world aimlessly for days on end, but it still manages to create a deadline and force the player to realise this and stick to it in a way that Max Payne 3 or Ratchet and Clank does not.
What I’m saying is that more games could benefit from a feature like this. The player would still be free to go back and continue playing when the largest threat is dealt with free from the tyranny of the Clock, meaning that no value would be lost through its inclusion. It might help to draw players into the story and events, knowing that the game will end in their failure if they do not act promptly and isn’t that often the goal of gaming: escapism?
Personally, I’m undecided on the issue. I find the games that I get most involved with are those that adopt a fanciful visual style as it is a larger leap from reality so maybe this would have the opposite effect to what I’ve been spruiking heretofore. And besides this, gaming has never been subject to the logic and limitations of reality, so what point is there to do so now? I suppose the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of this idea will be proven upon the release of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Until then, feel free to weigh in with your opinions on it.
A Mind at War With Itself: Hellblade and the Lived Experience of Mental Illness
*Note: This article contains spoilers for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and references to mental illness. Reader discretion is strongly advised.*
More than six months on from its initial release, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s dedication to an honest portrayal of mental illness through the protagonist, Senua, ensures the game remains one of the most meaningful and affecting of recent times. While discussion of media products’ value has turned the past few years to focus on inclusive portrayals of race or gender, the mentally ill remain underserved. Too often do depictions of depression, anxiety, and psychosis latch on to the simplest and, in some ways, most offensive stereotypes. Seeing Max Payne or Sebastian Castellanos trying to drown their sorrows is a world away from my experiences. By contrast, Senua’s struggles—from both a narrative and allegorical standpoint—are more relatable. In focusing on accuracy above all else, Ninja Theory succeeded in creating a title capable of resonating with an audience normally forced to the fringes in fiction, and, for that, the team deserves to be applauded.
Hellblade’s surface-level portrayal of psychosis has been lauded from many quarters, including being named as Game Beyond Entertainment at the recent BAFTA Game Awards, yet the adventure doubles as an allegory for life with mental illness. The opening moments set the tone of the title as Senua, beset by disembodied voices, steers a primitive canoe along a fog-shrouded waterway. The tranquility of the surroundings contrasts against the maelstrom of sound, and therein lies the first hint of the game’s deeper engagement with its central topic: unlike injury, physical deformity, or racial and sexual difference, mental illness has no easily recognisable signs. An individual looking on sees only another person, while the sufferer is being torn apart by the conflicts running through their mind. However, those voices—the Furies, as Senua thinks of them—are central to more than just Ninja Theory’s depiction of psychosis and, by extension, the Hellblade experience; they are also integral to the message that the game ultimately conveys.
Senua arrives in a strange land where mutilated corpses stand as a warning of horrors yet to come. Though players do not learn it until later in the journey, the character’s quest in this faraway place is to bring her lover, Dillion, back to life by descending into the Viking underworld of Helheim and confronting its nightmarish deity, Hela. Given that the game is burdened by the weight of reality through Senua’s movement and the level of detail, the mission seems incongruous.
However, this dissonance contributes to the allegory. Mental illness is fundamentally irrational—the sufferer episodically or eternally unhinged from reality. External circumstances may induce or exacerbate conditions, but the insecurities arising from them are rarely easily attributable to a clear source. Thankfully, I cannot claim to suffer from issues as intense as those of Senua, but I can understand her plight. We with broken minds feel disassociated from those around us and unable to relate. As such, although outreach programs are a noble endeavour, their premise is flawed. When trapped in the throes of a negative or deranged mindset, letting someone else in feels dangerous:
‘What if they don’t believe me?’
‘How will they judge me?’
‘What if I hurt them or, worse, they hurt me?’
Even knowing that such doubts are nothing more than the illusory creations of my brain, when they run rampant, I am unable to contradict them. These false realities overpower my seemingly tenuous awareness of the objective world. Finding a buoy to cling to in the storm-tossed waters of mental tumult is nigh impossible, but I have someone and Senua had Dillion.
As such, Dillion is far more than a MacGuffin; he is a symbol of the path out of the darkness that Senua had begun to walk. Therefore, her determination to bring him back to life is not just another fantasy video game objective, but a cry for help. Senua wants to be healed. However, to do so, she must undertake a harrowing journey that will force her to confront both internal and external demons.
Before Senua can pass through the gate to Helheim, she must enter the realms of the gods Valravn and Surt to make them bleed. In the story, these two beings appear as little more than obstacles to be overcome, and the puzzles that lead to them border on busywork. The aforementioned gods are of far greater relevance in the allegory as they stand in for the first phase of healing: diagnosis. Together, they reflect the lived experience of mental illness.
Valravn is a god of illusion; thus, of the two gods, he is the easier to contextualise as a metaphor of Senua’s psychosis. As players progress through this section of the game, they solve optical-illusion-based puzzles by utilising gateways that alter parts of the environment. This alignment of mechanics and the subjectivity of perception results in the level being a reflection of the struggle to recognise reality. For Senua, that means realising that the voices that plague her are not external beings, but manifestations of her subconscious and, therefore, are unable to guide her. For me, the battle is to remember that other people will not judge me negatively offhand.
Similarly to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and psychosis, social anxiety has been trivialised by its use in the vernacular and mistaken for a desire to avoid interaction. My experience is the opposite. I would relish the freedom to attend events or talk to people in social situations comfortably, but these things are trying, and I invariably end up drained or on the verge of tears. In a crowd, I feel overly alert for even the faintest hint of danger, and, in conversation, I am tormented by thoughts and fears of what the other party thinks of me. Though these worries make daily life difficult, I have no idea if they have a firm basis in reality. Subjectivity overwhelms objectivity, which is also true in Valravn’s realm where illusion rules over the material world.
Surt is different; rather than reflecting the experience of mental illness, his flames describe its nature. Fire makes for a powerful metaphor. When controlled, the heat and light afforded by flame is comforting, but, loosed, it becomes all-consuming. One of the most frequently overlooked qualities of ‘abnormal’ mindsets is their ability to self-perpetuate. Though they can destroy lives, the abject greyness, voices, or delusions become a solace. Far from feeling ruinous, they reassure against stressors and daily rigours. In Surt’s world, the inferno rages at the touch of an external catalyst, leaving Senua’s only option to run, terrified, towards a gate and break through to quell the flames behind her. This gameplay conceit echoes the often episodic experience of mental illness, as well as the struggle of escaping its grip. One does not simply walk out of a warped mindset—a breakthrough is needed.
Identification is necessary before hope of healing. Overcoming Surt and Valravn reflects the former process, allowing the gates of Helheim to open so that Senua can confront her demons. At that point, the title’s focus shifts from the present to the past, beginning by revealing Dillion’s role as a symbol and, later, a guide to help Senua flee from the harmful influences that permeated her youth. The series of diverse challenges that ensue is a kind of therapy, delving into some of the watershed moments of her past, clarifying and correcting misconceptions presented earlier in the adventure. In the present, as in the past, Dillion arms Senua with the tools to challenge those people and voices who try to silence and subjugate her by revealing the truth that she is not cursed, but ill and misunderstood.
With these challenges complete and the legendary sword Gramr in her possession, the protagonist embarks on the last part of her journey. Hela’s final guardian is Garm, a half-rotted beast that uses darkness as its weapon. The implication is clear: throughout the game—as in wider discussions of the topic—Senua has referred to her mental illness as a darkness, so this penultimate battle is intended to strip away remaining misconceptions and free herself from her psychosis. Subsequent events seem to confirm her newfound freedom as she steps through a mirror and leaves behind her Furies.
However, as with everything in Hellblade, reality is to be questioned. Hela is not the goddess that Senua believes she is, but a manifestation of the core of her own psychosis. During the battle, Senua realises the unintentional evil done by her father in his attempts to expel her demons, contextualising the realms of Valravn, Surt, and Garm as extensions of his actions. According to common belief, these epiphanies should enable Senua to overcome her issues and emerge as a well-adjusted member of society. Instead, she is forced to fail and fall without ever having been able to lay her blade upon her final adversary.
In taking this approach, Ninja Theory displays both boldness and maturity. Nonetheless, this seeming death is not the end. Hela takes Dillion’s skull and casts it into an abyss, following which she transforms into Senua. By conflating the two characters in this moment, Senua’s development is emphasised; though she needed Dillion to help her see that she was not cursed, she no longer needs to rely on him.
The truth that Ninja Theory conveys so effectively is that mental illness is not an adversary to be defeated or an obstacle to be overcome. As time has passed, I have developed an awareness of the beginnings of an episode and formed an ability to analyse what in my life can be changed to mitigate its impact. Furthermore, though another person may be able to provide guidance and assistance, the struggle is always deeply personal. We can often barely describe the wars that our minds engage in against themselves, and we certainly cannot invite someone else in to fill us with rainbows and sunshine.
As the sun breaks through the clouds, revealing one of the most breathtaking sights in all of Hellblade, Senua’s Furies return, rejoicing at still being alive. The protagonist had to ‘die’ because she tried to reject them. She smiles to hear them again, having realised that they are a part of her, as mental illness always is. Living with such problems can, at times, be a harrowing, seemingly impossible task, but to deny them is to deny the self.
I could write volumes more about the levels, enemies, mechanics, and story of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and how all of these disparate elements work together to present a more cohesive and compelling experience than almost any other game built on the same scale. For now, though, all I have left to write is thank you to the development team for having the courage and conviction to bring this game to life.
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