By Andrew Walker
The Board of Church Ministries is tentatively exploring a Mental Health Initiative that could be partly reflected in The Messenger. Stay tuned for more information.
The initiative fits well with a current video game I have been making my way through for the past few weeks, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, by developer and publisher Ninja Theory (Rated: M). Writing about video games may be something new for The Messenger, but as the saying goes, “Write what you know.”
Senua’s Sacrifice is an unusual game in that it is more focused on a deeper understanding of mental illness and fostering empathy for those that have it. The protagonist is afflicted by “psychosis,” a mental disorder that has many potential causes with symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and catatonia.
The developer has spent significant time and care creating this narrative, and Senua’s mental state is more than just a gimmick. The mental health advisor Dr. Paul Fletcher and nonprofit Wellcome Trust are given top billing as the game begins. Fletcher is a psychiatrist and professor of Health Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.
The story follows Senua on her Dante-esque journey through the Celtic/Norse underworld of Helheim to find her lost love, Dillian. Throughout the journey not only does Senua have to face the trials set before her, but also those of her own mind.
The player is constantly asked to question their reality through the use of distorted visuals and a constant bombardment from the voices in Senua’s head that at times can be trusted and at others not. Explaining it in a few sentences will not do the experience justice.
At times it can be nearly impossible to make decisions based on the conflicting information thrown at the player by the six voices Senua hears.
I found that I was being told specifically what I should do to succeed, but I had begun to just ignore all of the sound I was hearing. It took several failed attempts in an encounter for me to realize that my coping attempts were hurting my progress.
This mimics an exercise that many mental health professionals will use when trying to inform people about psychosis. Volunteers attempt to maintain a conversation while they are bombarded with conflicting statements from people around them. In living with a condition, some struggling people shut out the real conversation around them—and we need to be understanding.
While the narrative structure of Senua’s Sacrifice takes a Norse framework, there is much that we can learn from this game. It allows for an amount of empathy that I have not previously found in books or other media.
The game forces the player to experience the frustration and paranoia that those with psychosis and schizophrenia deal with in many of their daily interactions with others. It demonstrates the patience needed for us to love our neighbours who suffer from this all too common condition and allows us to walk a mile or two in the shoes of those we don’t often hear about.