Why Hellblade 2 is more than a video game

image source, Ninja theory

image caption, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is a sequel to the 2017 game that was praised for its depiction of mental illness.

  • author, Tom Richardson
  • stock, BBC Newsbeat

Visit any video game developer a week before their latest big release and questions will hang in the air.

Will people like it? What will be the scores of the reviews?

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

Those teams’ games didn’t replace as many copies as Call of Duty, EA FC or Hogwarts Legacy, but they were loved by many. For fans, they matter.

What does Ninja Theory mean to a developer who falls into that category?

For now, at least, studio head Tom Matthews tells Newsbeat they have something else in mind.

“We’re very focused on the release of Hellblade 2,” he says.

“We’re proud of the game we’ve created and we’re looking forward to spending the day together and fans holding the game and enjoying what we’ve done.”

The day has come a long time.

The studio’s previous game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, came out in 2017 by a team of about 20 people.

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

“My job has always been behind the scenes,” he tells Newsbeat.

“So I was afraid of performing in front of people and in front of the lens.”

Although it was Melina’s first acting job, she won a BAFTA Game Award for her performance – one of five Ninja Theories took home for Hellblade 1.

It received critical acclaim for its treatment of Senua’s mental illness – which causes people to hear voices, see things others don’t, and have unique beliefs about the world.

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

“I was hearing whispers and I could see dead people and things like that,” he says.

“So it was a very scary time.”

Portraying Senua is “using my experiences to do something useful,” says Melina.

“It almost felt therapeutic.”

image source, Good pictures

image caption, In 2018, Melina won a BAFTA Award for her role as Senua

According to Professor Paul Fletcher, a Cambridge University neuroscientist who worked on both games, the media has a dismal record on mental illness.

While there are some good examples, there are also many cases where “psychosis” is almost used as shorthand for someone acting in a very insane, perhaps dangerous, violent way.

“I think that should always be challenged.”

Professor Fletcher says he was motivated to work with them because of their determination to avoid misrepresentation of ninja theory.

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

Hallucinations persist in both Hellblade games and rely heavily on audio to recreate what it’s like to live with mental illness.

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

A new journey

The first game was a standalone quest, but Hellblade 2 introduces new characters and explores the effect of interactions with them on Senua’s mental illness.

Studio head Dom says the goal is to reflect that mental health is often a “journey.”

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

During this time, he says, “the stage of understanding and acceptance of those experiences.

“They’re not less powerful, but there’s a different balance of power there. So that was very interesting to explore.”

Hellblade 2 is also a step up in technology. 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 the boardroom at the old Ninja Theory office.

image source, Ninja theory

image caption, Ninja Theory managed to spend a lot of time making Senua’s saga come to life

To underline the point, Dom says the team spent two days recording the battle scenes for the first game. Second it is 69 days.

They spent time taking, and sometimes manufacturing, real-life costumes and props to digitally scan to increase the immersion of Hellblade 2.

This method used a much larger crew, including performance capture stunt coordinators and other specialists.

For Melina, stepping back into the role with such a large group was daunting at first.

“It had a lot of eyes on me,” he says.

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

Melina remembers being suspended from the ceiling for the better part of a day.

“You really have to tense all the muscles in your body and you’re in a static plank position,” he says.

Both Dom and Melina say the hard work to spread awareness of mental illness is worth it.

With BAFTA trophies on the studio shelves and award certificates on the walls, Ninja Theory also collects accolades from fans inspired by their games.

“There were some beautiful quotes,” says Melina.

“One person said that her brother was always ashamed of her because she suffered from mental illness.

“After he played the game, he said he could finally understand her and he apologized to her.

“So it’s very heartwarming to hear things like this.”

image source, Ninja theory

image caption, Ninja Theory also mapped parts of Iceland to inform the landscape of the new game

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

Dom thinks the broader games industry is now more focused on “finding its way into games and being used as a vehicle to tell people’s stories,” but he says he’s not sure Ninja Theory will take full credit for that. .

Professor Fletcher says he thinks the Hellblade had an impact.

He now uses the game as a teaching tool and believes it has helped spread awareness about mental illness.

Although he feels he never made much of an impact trying to challenge the stigmas, he says the explosion of respectful, thoughtful discussion in response to the first game left him “extraordinarily surprised and excited.”

However, back to that question.

The games industry, which has recently been plagued by mass layoffs and closures, is a very different place compared to 2017 when Hellblade first came out.

Some major publishers, including Microsoft, have made public statements calling for a greater focus on established titles and reliable, monetized rights.

This has led some to ask if there is still room for games like Hellblade.

Dom believes there will be.

“I’m a big proponent of games being an art form,” he says.

“I think art is incredibly important in the world because it’s a powerful tool for telling stories, changing feelings, and helping people understand.

“I think the games industry has a responsibility to really continue to do that.”

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

Melina says she hopes to start more conversations and help people with mental illness “feel seen and heard.”

“Because it’s so hard to explain to people,” he says.

“And they know there’s something out there that they can show people to show them what they’re doing.”

Listen to Newsbeat live weekdays at 12:45 and 17:45 – or listen here.

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