Why Hellblade 2 is more than a video game

Image source, Ninja theory

Legend, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is a sequel to the 2017 game praised for its depiction of psychosis

  • Author, Tom Richardson
  • Role, BBC Newsbeat

Visit any video game developer a week before their last big release and questions will remain unanswered.

Will people like it? What will the review scores be?

But when BBC Newsbeat visited Ninja Theory’s studio a week before the release of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2, another question loomed.

These teams’ games didn’t distribute as many copies as Call of Duty, EA FC, or Hogwarts Legacy, but they were loved by many. To the fans, they mattered.

So what does this mean for Ninja Theory, a developer that very much falls into this category?

For now, at least, studio head Dom Matthews tells Newsbeat they have other things in mind.

“We are extremely focused on the release of Hellblade 2,” he says.

“We are very proud of the game we have created and we can’t wait to spend this day together and for fans to get their hands on the game and enjoy what we have created.”

It’s a day that has been long awaited.

The studio’s previous game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, was released in 2017, made by a team of around twenty people.

One of them was Melina Juergens, the company’s video editor, who ended up taking on the lead role of Senua after the original actress dropped out.

“My job has always been to be behind the scenes,” she tells Newsbeat.

“So I was terrified of playing in front of people and being in front of the camera.”

Although this was Melina’s first acting job, she won a Bafta gaming award for her performance – one of five Ninja Theory won for Hellblade 1.

He received widespread praise for the way he treated Senua’s psychosis – a condition that can cause people to hear voices, see things that others don’t see, and have unique beliefs about the world.

It’s also something Melina herself experienced in her early 20s, which she describes as “a time of pure terror.”

“I could hear whispers and I could see dead people and things like that,” she said.

“So it was a very scary time.”

Melina says playing Senua was a chance to “use my experiences to do something useful.”

“And it was almost therapeutic.”

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, Melina won a Bafta Award for her performance as Senua in 2018

According to Professor Paul Fletcher, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge who worked on both games, the media has a spotty record when it comes to psychosis.

While there are some good examples, he says there are also “many cases where psychosis is almost used as a shorthand for someone who is behaving in a very crazy, even dangerous and violent way.” »

“And I think that should always be questioned.”

Professor Fletcher says he was persuaded to work with Ninja Theory because of their determination to avoid misrepresentation.

He says he also recognized “how valuable video game experiences can be in drawing people in and giving them experiences they might not have had otherwise.”

Both Hellblade games include hallucination sequences and rely heavily on audio to recreate what it’s like to live with psychosis.

The Ninja Theory team worked with Professor Fletcher and a group of patients with lived experience to ensure the depiction was as accurate as possible.

A new journey

The first game was more of a single-player quest, but Hellblade 2 introduces new characters and explores the effect of Senua’s interactions with them on her psychosis.

Studio director Dom says the aim was to show that mental health is often a “journey”.

“It’s not static,” he says, adding that the first game was about Senua “experiencing psychosis and really understanding it for the first time.”

This time, he says, she has “a certain level of understanding and acceptance of these experiences.”

“They’re not less strong, but there’s a different balance of power there. So it’s really interesting to explore.”

Hellblade 2 is also a technological breakthrough. Since 2017, the team has moved into a new custom-built studio with its own motion capture stage and audio studios.

The first game also used motion capture, but it was recorded in a meeting room in Ninja Theory’s old office.

Image source, Ninja theory

Legend, Ninja Theory was able to devote more time to making Senua’s saga extremely realistic

To emphasize this point, Dom says the team spent two days recording combat footage for the first match. For the second, it was 69 days.

They also spent time taking, and sometimes even making, actual costumes and props to digitally scan to enhance Hellblade 2’s immersion.

And this time, performance capture employed a much larger team, including stunt coordinators and other specialists.

For Melina, taking on this role with a much larger team was intimidating at first.

“It was a lot more eyes on me,” she says.

Some scenes, such as a swimming sequence early in the game, were physically demanding.

Melina remembers hanging from the ceiling for most of the day.

“You really have to tense every muscle in your body and you’re in a plank position all the time,” she says.

Both Dom and Melina say the hard work is worth it to spread awareness about psychosis.

In addition to the Bafta trophies on the studio shelves and award certificates on the walls, Ninja Theory also collects accolades from fans moved by their games.

“There were some really great quotes in there,” Melina says.

“One person said her brother was always embarrassed about her because she suffered from psychosis.

“And after playing the game, he said he could finally understand her and he apologized to her.

“So things like that are very comforting to hear.”

Image source, Ninja theory

Legend, Ninja Theory has also mapped parts of Iceland to illuminate the landscape for the new game.

There are hundreds of stories like this on forums and social media about Hellblade 1.

Dom believes the wider gaming industry is now focusing more on “the lived experience that goes into games and is used as a vehicle to tell stories to people”, but he says he’s not not sure Ninja Theory can take all the credit for that. .

Professor Fletcher, however, says he thinks Hellblade had an impact.

He now uses the game as an educational tool and believes it has helped raise awareness of psychosis.

Although he feels like he never made much of an impact trying to fight stigma alone, he says the explosion of respectful, thoughtful discussions in response to the first game left him “extraordinarily surprised and excited.”

But back to this question.

The video game industry, which has recently been hit by massive layoffs and shutdowns, is a very different place than 2017, when Hellblade was first released.

Some major publishers, including Microsoft, have made public statements suggesting they want to focus more on established titles and reliable, money-making franchises.

This led some to wonder if there would still be room for games like Hellblade.

Dom is convinced that this will be the case.

“I’m a big believer in gaming as an art form,” he says.

“And I think art is incredibly important in the world because it’s a way to tell stories, to change perceptions, a powerful tool to help people understand.

“I think there is a responsibility in the video game industry to continue to do this.”

For now, though, the studio can finally find out what fans think of Hellblade 2.

Melina says she hopes it can start more conversations and help people suffering from psychosis “feel seen and heard.”

“Because it’s really hard to explain to people,” she says.

“And they know there’s something they can show people to show them what they’re going through.”

Listen to Newsbeat live at 12.45pm and 5.45pm weekdays – or listen again here.

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