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Analysis

P.O.L.L.E.N – A Narrative Analysis

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Search the internet for “what if JFK was never assassinated” and you’ll find a plethora of theories – elaborate imaginings of alternate history. Many of them have to do with The Warren Commission, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam, but the two most popular theories involve The Cold War and the space program. One of those theories goes like this: after working with Nikita Khrushchev to reduce the world’s nuclear weapons arsenal, a long-lasting friendship forms between Kennedy and Khrushchev, leading to a joint space program and colonizing Mars by 1986. Enter P.O.L.L.E.N.

In P.O.L.L.E.N’s alternate history, Kennedy survived his assassination attempt unharmed. The USA and USSR combine their efforts in space exploration in 1967. They publicize their findings, release their patents, and make the first joint voyage to the moon. By 1970, four large companies that built themselves up from those original patents combine to form the space exploration conglomerate RAMA Industries. By 1985, Earth has anti-gravity technology, and we’ve colonized other planets. There’s a huge explosion on Jupiter’s moon Europa that kills everyone except for one person in 1992, and the following year we put people on a new base on Saturn’s moon, Titan, because of some awesome discovery.

An interesting twist on this alternate history is that computers do not become a part of daily life. Imagine Bill Gates creating computer technology for space craft – there could still be a Cortana, but maybe she would function more like the computer on the Enterprise D, not like a virtual personal assistant. No personal computer technology by the mid-80s could also mean – gasp – no video games! No P.O.L.L.E.N!

Now that I have created a time paradox of sorts (Great Scott!), I should just press-on to all the wonderful details in this alternate world Mindfield Games has created.

SPOILERS AHEADDo not read if you have not finished the game.

Setting

Some fun facts about Titan: it’s Saturn’s largest moon, and scientists believe that conditions on Titan are similar to Earth’s early years. Methane cycles as a solid, a liquid, and a gas, just as water does here on Earth. Its mass is composed mainly of water in the form of ice and rocky material, but something about its atmosphere remains a mystery. Because methane is broken down by sunlight, scientists believe there is another source that replenishes what is lost. One potential source of methane is volcanic activity, but this has yet to be confirmed.

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Themes

As if signing a multiple-year contract with RAMA to work thousands of light years away from your family wasn’t isolating enough, the theme of isolation runs through the lives of characters Karen, Vasili, and you, the player.

For Karen, there is the pain of her husband’s death combined with being too far away from her children. Her work, her daily tasks of repairing or building things, is all that can bring her any real measurable amount of joy simply because it takes her mind off the loss she feels. She’s emotionally isolated. There’s a bit of support from Vasili, but he can only give so much because he is working through his own stuff, too.

To make matters worse, Karen becomes literally isolated by reasons that are never fully explained, just alluded to. She’s stuck in time – the worst kind of groundhog day. Her circadian rhythm is thrown off, so she can only estimate how much time has passed.  The research base has lost all power. The search for basic entertainment like a book becomes a daunting task, as she ends up manually rewiring the door to the library. The only thing keeping Karen going is recording her ordeal on cassette tape and finding entertainment wherever she can get it. And hope – hope that someone will come to her rescue.

Vasili was the only survivor from the Europa explosion. While he was lauded as a hero for bringing back crucial data from their mission, he questions why he had to survive. He was only briefly isolated in Europa, left to find a way to survive and wait for help, but a few years later his survivor’s guilt is still emotionally isolating him. He is the only one at the research base that has no family to speak of, no deep connection to another person. He tries with Karen, but it appears to be out of an empathetic desire to help rather than emotionally connect.

You become isolated too after a storm knocks out the communications that you just helped restore. After shutting yourself inside the base’s airlock, your only option is to unravel the mystery of the Entity and the chaos it’s caused to the researchers. As you move between alternate timelines, your isolation mirrors Karen’s. As you get closer to finding the Entity yourself, you realize there is only one way out of this place: death. Do we all die alone?

Excluding Vasili, all the other characters have on-going familial matters. Karen has lost her husband and now must somehow raise her two children while stationed on Titan. (Thank goodness for grandparents!) Amy and Philip want to start a family of their own but are finding it difficult to conceive. And Ion’s relationship with his father seems to be somewhat dysfunctional. Their families are a source of joy and a burden at times.

One question that I kept asking myself throughout the game was “is Karen’s timeline a representation of the afterlife?” In one of her recordings, she says “I think this must be hell. I envy those in hell who end up with other people.” Again, the isolation theme is playing out here, but what about the afterlife itself? We don’t really know why Karen is in limbo, but maybe she really did die in the normal timeline, and her limbo is some kind of purgatory where she needs to let go of her life in order to pass on. It’s up to the player to interpret.

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Characters

Karen Kowalski is a Lead Technician and a mother of two (Jessica and Ethan) who is still trying to come to terms with the death of her husband. He passed away two years earlier from an incurable illness. A book, “How to Handle Loss,” is among her personal possessions. Her medical records indicate that she has been suffering from stress and family issues. Letters to her children back at their home on Earth show how much she misses them, and that they are a major driving force for her will to survive in the alternate timeline.

We’re introduced to Karen when she’s at her worst. It’s been about a year, as she estimates, since she was plunged into whatever-the-heck realm she’s in, holding out hope for a rescue and for something to eat and drink other than RAMA bars and RAMA beer. She’s broken out of the air lock, but it doesn’t provide her with any answers she’s looking for. She blames the “Entity” in the cave for her predicament, for the year of solitude and loneliness.

Throughout the base, you’ll find messages to herself and others scratched in blank ink on various surfaces. On a task sheet, she’s written reminders herself to do simple things – eat, drink, breathe…die. On a wall on the second floor of the lab, she’s scrawled RAMA over and over again into a tight cluster. In her recordings, she details how she pops sleeping pills to numb the pain. At some point, she took an astronaut suit and placed in a sitting positing on a bench. You’ll find a photograph of her husband wedged between the rim and the glass of the helmet and a recording of herself talking to her deceased husband, promising that she’ll take the elevator down to the bottom of the cave to confront the Entity. She realizes she needs to die to save herself from the psychological burden of losing everything dearest to her.

Amy Pohl is the Operation Director of the base, an Astrobiologist, and wife of Philip Pohl. In her recordings about her plant and bee experiment, she notices that the Entity is affecting the flowers’ growth; their reproductive rate increased by 115 percent. If the Entity has that kind of effect on flowers, maybe it can have the same effect on vertebra creatures. Along with a negative pregnancy test result and that notation in her recording, it seems that her and Philip have fertility issues. Amy hypothesizes that maybe the Entity could increase their chances of conception if it is affecting the flowers in a similar manner.

In another tape, she hints that Karen possibly committed suicide; she had been missing for two weeks, and the only evidence of her disappearance were her clothes laying on a platform in the cave. Other documents penned by Amy reveal that no one on the base believed her to be self-destructive. However, according to a post-it note, Vasili completed Karen’s post-mortem, so I assume they found her body at some point. Amy doesn’t understand nor really believe Karen would commit suicide; she has children, and as a woman longing to be a mother herself, seems to believe that children should be a reason – if not the only reason – to want to stay alive. It all comes down to the Entity. She wises up to Vasili’s pleas to end the research and sees the Entity for what it is.

Philip Pohl is an Astrophysicist who decorates his room with research notes and diplomas that shout his academic achievements. His personality is a bit more closed off than his wife – more logical, more cautious – but like the others, he doesn’t underestimate the eerie power of the Entity. He discovers that the Entity itself is older than the bedrock, and then it becomes something that can’t be explained away by science.

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Vasili Romancheck is the Chief Medical Officer and sole survivor of the Europa explosion. He is able to offer Karen some guidance in self-conducted therapy, as he is still trying figure out how to deal with survivor’s guilt himself. His therapies include recording his personal thoughts and drawing, but it’s the drawings that are most telling: people drowning in the ocean while one man watches from the safety of his own ship as theirs burns in the distance; a small sketch of Europa with a pill in the lower left-hand corner of the paper reading, “Europa, you took so much away from me, but I still find myself missing you;” two dead bodies, one a skeleton, each inside their own coffin labeled Europa; darkness circles around a man who appears to be hugging a child; Dr. Romancheck being attacked by serpent-like monsters.

He’s also a smoker. His notes in the medical bay have cigarette burns on them, and there’s a no smoking sign on the wall – what a rebel.

Vasili believes that the Entity is elevating hormone levels in everyone to cause extreme cases of homesickness and extreme mood swings. The Entity’s influence could explain Karen’s sudden disappearance and apparent suicide. He urges the others to stop all research on the Entity and abandon the base. While the Pohls mull that over, he takes matters into his own hands – going over Amy’s head – and writes to RAMA HQ directly, requesting that the mission be terminated.

Unfortunately, Vasili doesn’t make it off Titan alive, leaving Amy, Philip, and Ion to clean up the mess and get far away from the base as fast as possible.

Ion Lem is Assistant Physicist to Philip and a huge fan of Vasili Romancheck. He is Ion’s idol. You’ll find a Time magazine in Ion’s closet with Vasili on the cover and a letter from Ion’s father, owner of Lem Company. His father references Ion’s childhood fascination with Vasili, and his hopes that Ion’s decision to join the research team on Titan was a carefully thought-out one. He closes out the letter by reminding Ion that he is always welcome to work for him. This subtly characterizes a potentially overbearing father who wants his son to be a mini-him, but yet is still able to let his son do his own thing. Whether this is genuine compassion or a sly manipulation tactic, we don’t know, but once shit hits the fan, Ion is ready to bounce back to Earth and go work for his father.

There is also a photograph of Karen in a towel beside Ion’s bed. She’s covering her face in an attempt to stop the photograph from being taken, but a note on the back reads, “what happens in space, stays in space – K,” suggesting a love affair between Ion and Karen.

The Ending

I’m sort of stumped about this one. We hear Karen’s voice as we make our way to the Entity in the cave, and she seems thankful that we have come to keep her company. But, then we get pulled into the Entity, and our world becomes a kaleidoscope. Is this meant to represent death? Are we going to join Karen where ever she is? Does the Entity eat souls? But maybe that’s just it – maybe the unexplained is not meant to be explained.

And such is the risk we take when exploring strange new places. We put the adventure and the research first, risking isolation from humanity itself, and the love and happiness it brings us.

Joanna is drawn to sci-fi and post-apocalyptic worlds, and games with a generous amount of gore. When she's not gaming, she's convincing her friends it's a good idea to go into abandoned buildings.

Analysis

A Mind at War With Itself: Hellblade and the Lived Experience of Mental Illness

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*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.

Hellblade

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.

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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.

Hela awaits.

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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