A few months into the onset of the Great Pandemic, I began diving back into gaming. (There’s a longer story here about a free PS4, but again that’s a longer story – the short version is by May of 2020 I booted up said PS4 and began exploring gaming again – once it became clear the Pandemic wasn’t going to be a short affair.)

Fast-forward a few more years and I decided PC gaming was the way of the future, mostly because old games port, and cloud-saving PS4 (or 5) data is a nightmare. (Speaking from experience.)

I now have over 200 games in my Steam account. Yes, I’m well aware that’s not a lot compared to some folk out there with 2 or 3 thousand, but honestly it’ll take me years to get through 200 so what’s the point?

So a couple weeks ago I needed to decompress. I needed to spend some time thinking about other things, and perused the catalog, and installed a few good-looking options. I like to press play without reading any reviews or doing much beyond previewing the product on the Steam store. I don’t recall what lead me to install Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice other than ‘that looks interesting.’ The 3rd-person perspecctive looked good, and that was about all I remember.

As soon as I pressed ‘play’ I was immediately gobsmacked:

And actually before this moment there’s the opening credits, which really set the tone and for which I was completely unprepared for – I mean the first credit given is for the Mental Health Advisor of the game. Not the Lead Designer, not the Principal Programmer. Mental Health Advisor. I had no idea what I was in for.

I began walking through the woods. I use an Xbox Series X|S controller on Windows 11, so I’m using left and right thumbsticks to look around when I realize, “Wait, there’s no HUD?” In fact there’s no … anything. No stat bar. No stamina measure. No nothing. I mean that’s all there is: nothing. I’m confused – and slightly scared, because there are ambient sounds and voices and there’s nothing on the screen for me to reference. I just am, and it just is.

I start pressing other buttons to see what else is available. In fact you start with everything you’ll need, and that’s one thing: a sword. There’s no tutorial. You walk, or jog. And you have two attacks (fast, and heavy), one parry, and one dodge. That’s it. Oh and “focus,” which is just zooming in on the perspective.

In an era of “Okay kids let’s teach you how to game this game” it was jaunting to not have that, and is immediately recognized as a strength of the game design.

Oh and it’s gorgeous:

Eventually you start encountering some markers with runes on them. You “focus,” and a narrator voice interprets the story of the runes for you. Thus the story unfolds. I won’t spoil anything here, but it is based on the Picts, and also Germanic/Danish/Norse mythology like F√°fnir and Valravn. These were largely tales/peoples I knew nothing or much about, and so in between gaming sessions I spent time reading Wikipedia articles or watching YouTube videos to unpack the names and stories of the cultures or characters the game was referencing.

And all the while I’m hearing voices in my head…in the game. I’m wearing headphones, so sometimes the voices are really, really close to overwhelming you – to the point where a few times I had to pause and break to refocus my real-world perspective. This game has layers, I thought.

Layers of light and sound. And sometimes of the same thing:

Oh this game is good.

And yes, there are…action moments. Fight scenes. It’s still just a game. But there’s no point discussing that here, other than to say:

Be good, and don’t die.

And yet, it’s way more intense than that. Like sweaty palms intense. Like my bpm goes from 60 to 120 intense. Like afterwords I need to break and catch my breath intense. Like after a fight scene I put the controller down and shout out, “WHaT THe FRaCK WaS THaT?!!?” intense.

Oh this game is gooooood! It’s a real art.

Senua is the main character. Her name alone has meaning, in the sense that it is an in/correct spelling of Senuna. And through a moment which has lead us to observe Senua at this time and location, she draws you in. But it’s not forced. She just is and you just are – her. And again there’s no HUD, no tutorial. Just…experience. (And yes, voices.)

The rune markers compound a story on top of the one in the frame of your monitor – a story based on other stories and yet a story entirely of its own creation. It is original, and educational – and those fight scenes, sheesh…

You keep going – you must keep going. Then, near the end, the look & feel is both familiar and different – Senua’s story is nearly over:

This game went so many places in such a short amount of time (approximately 8-10 hours of playtime). There aren’t a ton of fight scenes and yet when they are they are intense, requiring a focus and concentration that angers you when your timing is off and also makes you want to fist-pump when you get it right. (But you can’t fist-pump, because you need to keep fighting!) The ‘Northmen’ mythos was fantastic and really well done – it’s obvious real research went into this game design and story. Afterwards there’s a featurette you can watch (you can watch it before playing but it does contain spoilers – nothing revealed below) and it’s obvious that the game studio Ninja Theory are unlike most other game studios out there:

I mean it’s just a video game but wow what a welcome experience. And yet: not one for everyone. The game is overwhelming in some ways and to some people it will be completely unbearable. Which is kind of the point – or a point. Which is what is your breaking point? As in what was Senua’s breaking point? Or was she always like this? Are you always like that? What is “crazy” and who decides what crazy is or how do we ever really know what crazy people perceive versus our own reality – which one is true?

A solid competitor for my Top 10 of all time. No I don’t have a Top 10 list, but I know this one is up there – it’s that good.