A (mostly) spoiler-free review of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
I had been reading about the development of Hellblade for over a year, and was immediately captured by two things. The first was the dark and foreboding visual representation of Norse mythology and Celtic culture. The second was its genuine, respectful approach to dealing with psychosis. I’m not talking about the often-blatant misrepresentation of psychosis portrayed in movies; this is actual psychosis, with the developers working closely with leading professors on the subject.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice follows a Pict warrior, Senua, on a journey both physical and metaphorical as she tries to save the soul of her dead lover, Dillion. Accompanying her on this journey is the narrator, one of the “Furies”, or voices, she hears. The Furies themselves are unreliable, offering conflicting advice or commentary on her every action. The narrator is aware of the player, as well, inviting the player to follow Senua. Another of the voices, and the only one that is consistently truthful, is Druth, her dead friend who serves as her guide with his vast knowledge of the “Northmen” from his time as their slave.
Also along for the ride is a cloth sack that contains Dillion’s head. Yes, her dead lover’s head, as Senua believes it would serve as a vessel for Dillion’s soul after she saves him from Helheim. At the very beginning of the game, she holds the sack in her hands, and as she speaks to it, if one looks closely, one can see the sack cloth move as the skull inside seems to breathe once. Chilling.
Finally, there is there is “the Darkness”, a manifestation of the “curse” she believes she has. It stalks her wherever she goes, tormenting her, and causes her psychosis to worsen. Battling this Darkness is a recurring theme in the game, and I found it to be quite intriguing.
The game is absolutely beautiful. From the haunting, nightmarish landscapes to the gorgeous scenes of natural beauty during those brief moments when Senua pushes the Darkness back, I can’t think of a game that looked so good. There were even moments when I had to pause to remind myself it was just a game. I was so engrossed in the story and the ambiance that I was teetering on being scared.
The gameplay consists mostly of controlling Senua as she tries to navigate the environmental puzzles she encounters. The game designers worked closely with leading experts and people suffering from psychosis to make these puzzles interesting as well as remaining respectful. For example, people with psychosis may see patterns where others don’t, so Senua must walk where she sees a tree branch align with a post to form the symbol of a rune. Another example might be a broken bridge she must cross, but first she has to align herself at an angle where a fence seems to cover the broken portion, allowing her to then cross it. Solving these puzzles wasn’t terribly difficult, but some were time consuming. I found them to be one of my favorite parts of the game.
The combat is brutal. I found myself quickly dumping it down to “easy”, and even then, I often found Senua being overwhelmed by the demonic Northmen. I finally learned to not button mash and instead look for the patterns in their attacks, much like in the puzzles. During battle, the camera is fixed, so that just like in real life, one can’t see what’s behind. The Furies will often warn of an attack from behind, but they’re not always reliable, as mentioned earlier. The more hurt Senua becomes, the louder and more desperate the Furies become, heightening the sense of anxiety and dread. With no health bar, the only choice one has it to listen to the Furies for the clues one needs.
Along the way, Senua encounters standing stones with Norse runes inscribed on them. Activating them results in Druth recounting part of a Norse legend, and finding all of them throughout the game provides a hidden scene that, while not crucial to the story, elaborates on Druth’s own backstory and sheds new light on Senua’s.
How much of Senua’s journey is physical, and how much of it is only in her mind? Part of what I loved about this game so much is what it doesn’t address in addition to what it answers directly. Revealing portions of the story through her own twisted lens, one can piece together what happened leading up to the start of the game, but it’s up to the player to decide what is real and not after that point.
All in all, this was one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. Extremely thought-provoking, intriguing, and even eye-opening, I would heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys a beautiful blend of puzzle solving, survival horror, and hack-and-slash.
runner's highs and writer's block
I never truly understood certain phenomena until I had experienced them for myself.
I was in eleventh grade when I first experienced a “runner’s high”. I had heard the term many times before that, and had always wondered what made it unique, or relatively so, among sports. I played soccer and football, and also practiced martial arts, but I hadn’t experienced any kind of euphoria like people had described.
Enter cross country. I joined the cross country team going into my junior year of high school, and it was a transformational period in my young life. The discipline and willpower needed to run that far was something I had never had. The time investment was enormous. And dang, did it hurt! If one has never had the pleasure of shinsplints, I would highly recommend avoiding them. But it was during those long runs that I first had a runner’s high. Running along the beach in the soft sand, a nice five-mile jaunt in the late fall in Florida, suddenly all the fatigue and discomfort I felt washed away like the sandcastles built too close to the splashing waves.
I’ve been a runner ever since then.
I was never a very good runner. I never won any races, and I’ve slowed down over the years, as well. I’ve had to supplement running with the elliptical machine and other forms of exercise that aren’t as hard on my joints. “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.” How true, Indy. How true. But shoving all that aside, I still get out there and put foot to road or trail for the simple fact that I love to do it.
The other experience I want to talk about is the exact opposite. A very unpleasant experience that can be devastating to an author. Writer’s block. I found my love of writing back in eighth grade, when our English teacher made us write a couple of short stories for a creative writing exercise. I wrote a three-part story that in my thirteen-year-old mind was sure to win a Pulitzer! It was about a group of specialists pulled together to help fight the bad guys during Operation Desert Shield. It was all terribly clever, and would lead to a successful career as a writer, I was sure. (Looking back, omg was it terrible, terrible writing!)
I kept writing all through high school, even taking as many creative writing classes as I could. One of my teachers even told me, “Wow, you can write.” That was top praise coming from him, one of the teachers I had always most admired. So, I wrote even more, and never stopped!
Until I finally hit that wall. I was shocked. I stared at the screen and couldn’t write one word.
I had writer’s block.
What was I going to do? I had no training or tools to help overcome the impossible situation in which I found myself! I felt like that Monty Python sketch where they commentate Thomas Hardy writing “Return of the Native”. That skit, by the way, is side-achingly funny. Go find it and give it a listen. You’re welcome. Now where was I? Ah, yes. Writer’s block.
If memory serves, I finally broke through that writer’s block by picking up a book by Orson Scott Card called “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy”. Being young and knowing everything, I skimmed it and already knew everything one of the masters of science fiction could ever say, and promptly put the book aside. Yes, in hindsight, I’d like to smack the younger me on more than one occasion. However, it did jar me out of my rut, and I got back to writing.
Over the years, I’ve come to develop my own method for overcoming writer’s block. I’ll share that with you now, in the hopes that it might help someone who may be suffering through that same frustration. It starts with the best piece of writing advice I ever received: write two pages every day. It doesn’t matter what you write! Just write.
I painted myself into a corner a couple of times while penning “The King’s Own”. The thing about that, though, was I refused to let it stop me. Paint dries, after all, and while I was waiting for said metaphorical paint to dry, I turned around and painted the walls behind me. I got through those blocks by continuing to write, either another chapter, a piece of another story entirely, or just some nonsense nobody would ever see. I went for those runs I love, and would have an epiphany, something which a few of my early test readers might remember. Not only does writing daily help improve one’s writing skills, it also helps break through writer’s block, not to mention leading to possible future stories to tell. I’m currently working on Samarra’s story, which arose from one of those little side-treks.
The secret to breaking through writer’s block, then? Keep writing. It may not work for everyone, but it sure works for me, even when I have to force myself to do it. Relax and let your mind wander. Write something else. Don’t let the frustration overwhelm you.
Oh, and go for a run. I always feel better after a good run.
The end of the innocence?
I never want to lose my sense of innocence.
I remember my very first kiss. It was 7th Grade, her name was Kim, and we were on a school bus heading back from a field trip. I didn’t even know her really, other than by reputation. She was one of the popular girls. But there we were, in the back of the bus, playing truth or dare with a bunch of other kids. It was a dare for her, and before I knew it, she was kissing me. I remember the sense of excitement and wonder that overcame me in that moment. A great mystery of what it would be like was suddenly revealed!
I remember the first time I stepped off of the back of the C-130 in Afghanistan. The heat, the dry breeze, and the altitude all hit me at once. There I was, in the very land where so much blood had been spilled over the centuries, where the Hindukush met me with a stark beauty.
I remember the revelation that Darth Vader was actually Luke’s father (spoiler alert!), the anxious-yet-eager feeling I had on my first day of high school, and the emotions evoked as I listened to the Carmina Burana performed live in concert.
That’s exactly the kind of innocence I’m talking about here. It’s the sense of newness, of wonder, and excitement. With how the world often works, it seems so many of us become jaded overtime, and we lose that sense of wonder that makes even the simplest things so joyful.
Now, that isn’t to say things can become old hat just because they’re not new. I’ve watched the Lord of the Rings movies dozens of times, and sometimes I’ll even watch the first disc of the Fellowship of the Ring by itself. Seeing the Shire always brings a smile to my face with its simple, quiet life and beauty. I’ve watched the first two Mummy movies (the Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz) a hundred times each, at least. I popped them in whenever I could while I was in Afghanistan; it seemed fitting at the time. Sure, the sense of newness is gone, but the feeling of adventure and excitement is always there.
But then I think back to some of my fondest childhood memories and how the advent of the Internet has ruined so much of it. The NeverEnding Story is a prime example of this. That movie will always have a special place in my heart. I remember watching it with my sister as a kid and we tried so hard to figure out what name Bastian gives the Childlike Empress at the end. We rewound and replayed that scene over and over trying to hear what he yells over the thunder. When that failed, we even hooked up the closed captioning machine and played it again. Alas, all we got was a caption that read [yelling]. And so, for years, the mystery remained.
That is, until just recently. I was lucky enough to foster an awesome dog for a short while, and he looked just like Falcor the Luck Dragon. That brought back all those feeling of wonder and nostalgia from my childhood. On a whim, I looked up the Wikipedia article on it, and right there, no spoiler warning or anything, is the name Bastian gave to the Childlike Empress. In an instant, the sense of wonder was gone. I alternated between disappointment, anger, and frustration. I had an answer to one of my life’s great mysteries, and I felt all the emptier for knowing it.
Maybe some questions just aren’t meant to be answered.
Or is it just that I’ve gotten older and that sense of wonder is fading? Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen and done so much, or perhaps it’s because instant gratification always seems to be less fulfilling that discovering or earning something in due course.
A friend of mine gave me a good perspective. He doesn’t get upset at knowing the endings to books or movies because it’s the journey along the way that matters. I like that attitude, and it fits right in with the entire belief of mine that instant gratification isn’t as fulfilling. I hit that cognitive dissonance, and regret that purchase I just made, or get angry about that spoiler I just read by accident scrolling through Facebook.
I’ve come to the decision, then, that I never want to lose my sense of innocence. I’m going to make that conscious decision to enjoy the simple things in life, and to find joy once more in the things I’ve already experienced. I’m going to keep popping in that first disc of The Fellowship of the Ring, and I’m going to sit down in the Shire, kick my feet up on a bench, and smoke a pipe with Gandalf and Bilbo.
And I’m going to enjoy it just as much as I did the first time.
High Fantasy or low fantasy?
I’ve often been asked to describe into which genre The King’s Own fits. At first, I thought this was an easy question. I consider it to be both low fantasy and dark fantasy. This, of course, was based on my own perception of what defines each genre and sub-genre, which may not necessarily fit with “accepted” definitions.
For example, my own definition of a nerd versus a geek is far different from the “accepted” stance. I say nerds are bookish and geeks are techish, and I fit squarely in the middle of both. When I explain that, I’ve been told it makes sense.
Back to the topic at hand!
What made me pause and think was when one reader called my book “high fantasy”. This was in sharp contrast to my thought of what it meant. What? High fantasy? I don’t have any elves in my book! There’s hardly any magic at all! How could it possibly be high fantasy?
Turns out, it very well could be.
Let’s discuss. Okay, I’ll discuss. You read and comment. ;)
My definition of high fantasy is a setting that is far apart from our own “real world”. Magic is commonplace, and there are often other races, such as elves and dwarves. I also include epic storylines, usually good triumphing over evil, in this category. The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, and Final Fantasy are all settings that I’d include in high fantasy.
For low fantasy, I’ve always viewed it as closer to our own “real world”, where there is little magic, and humans are generally the only race (or at least the predominant one). Stories are generally less epic in scope, and often deal more with personal (or at least, humanly relatable) trials and tribulations. A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) and The Witcher are two settings I’d include here. Interestingly enough, I’d also include The Hobbit, but not The Lord of the Rings, as the Hobbit focused mostly on Bilbo’s personal journey rather than an epic battle of good and evil. (Yes, I know there was the Battle of the Five Armies, but that was more of a backdrop in the book than the focus.)
Finally, almost as an aside, I want to briefly describe dark fantasy. In my view, this is more of a tone description, where things aren’t always happy and the good guys don’t always win. Once again, I’d put The Witcher and A Song of Ice and Fire here. Another way of looking at it is the world is less black and white, and more shades of gray.
Now that I’ve demonstrated some of what I think fit each definition, let’s see what the Internets have to say. Brace yourselves!
Low fantasy is described as a setting where magic intrudes on an otherwise normal world, or a realistic environment with elements of fantastical. An alternate definition is where the story is more realistic and less mythic in scope.
Okay, so The King’s Own seems to fit well enough into the low fantasy definition here. But let’s continue!
High fantasy takes place in a fictional world with its own set of rules and physical laws, and usually includes an epic good versus evil theme. Also common is the bildungsroman, or coming of age story of the protagonist, and a powerful mentor to guide and train the hero.
Well, dang. The King’s Own fits in here, too, with the bildungsroman, having a mentor, and, to a degree, the good versus evil.
Dark fantasy seems to be mostly described as a setting meant to instill a sense of dread or horror. Definitely not my vision of dark fantasy, but there it is.
So, if we take a look at all of these definitions, we can’t really shoehorn most works into one category. Let’s look at Harry Potter. It’s the “real world”, but also a “world within a world”, so it could fit into both categories. The Death Gate Cycle is at first glance high fantasy, but thanks to a very interesting twist in the overall story (which I won’t spoil!), it could very well be seen as low fantasy.
In the end, it seems there really is no easy definition, and it all comes down to personal opinion. Let’s not get started on authorial intent versus reader interpretation! Maybe another blog entry for that one. Some might even say lines were meant to be blurred, and some of the most well-received works are those that are difficult to describe. A unique spin on traditional motifs can make for some very engaging storytelling, after all.
What doesn't kill me only delays the inevitable...