Hellblade – In conversation with Ninja Theory’s Dominic Matthews

Samuel Alexander

Shortly before E3 I was able to speak to Dominic Matthews, Studio Head of Ninja Theory about the studio’s latest project: Hellblade. What makes Hellblade really cool is that it’s set to deal with themes like mental health issues in an informed and sensitive way, something that we rarely ever see in video games.

Speaking to Dominic after E3 I was able to get a little more information on Hellblade

Tell us a little bit about the background of Hellblade.

‘We’ve been quite open with the development of Hellblade, describing the process as Independent AAA. It’s our first indie title, but we’re still focusing on everything that makes our games successful; engaging characters and story, artistic value and exhilarating gameplay and combat.

‘The story focuses on a Celtic warrior, Senua, and her journey in to a personal hell. This is a manifestation of her mental health issues, one of the key themes of the game. Senua must come to terms with her mental health and the events that caused these issues.’

This is a little conclusion I drew up and I wanted to check – Is there any relation between Hellblade and a previous Ninja Theory game, Heavenly Sword? The title similarities can’t be a coincidence…

‘Sorry, it’s not. It’s a completely new story that’s unrelated to Heavenly Sword.’

Aw, I loved Heavenly Sword … I’ll keep waiting.

‘A lot of people did! We’re proud of what we achieved. It’s great to see Nariko, the leading character, still used in a lot of Playstation marketing. Though some sensibilities may have carried over, Hellblade is completely new.’

On to Hellblade – there aren’t really many games, if any, that deal with mental health. So how did the decision for Hellblade to go in that direction happen?

‘It was always our idea with Hellblade to tell the story of a character struggling with mental health difficulties.

‘In creating a game independently we’ve got the opportunity to take creative risks. Mental health is a subject that is still unfortunately grossly misunderstood and is especially misrepresented in games. We look in to films, theatre, literature and art; all these mediums aren’t shy about taking on challenging subjects and representing them in an accurate and sensitive manner but for some reason games haven’t really done that.

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‘By creating something independently, we have the opportunity to focus on creating an entertaining and compelling experience but at the same time have that underlying theme that’s scientifically accurate and also accurate to Senua’s experiences. If people do experience and enjoy the game, the hope is also that perhaps people may learn a bit more about mental health issues at the same time.’

What steps are Ninja Theory taking to ensure that the underlying themes of mental health will be portrayed as accurately and sensitively as possible?

‘It’s a subject we’re treating with a great deal of respect. It’s something that has sadly been misrepresented in a lot of media, so there’s a lot of sensitivity surrounding it.

‘We’re working with Prof. Paul Fletcher, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. He’s helping us understand psychosis and other areas of mental health so we can build a solid scientific foundation. We can learn from the experiences he’s had through research and working directly with people that have experienced mental health difficulties. This comes with the support of the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation focused in part on broadening the understanding of mental health.

‘We’re starting to build up our engagement directly with people that have experiences of mental health difficulties. We’ll show groups of people the game, talk to them about our ideas, take feedback but also hear their stories and see how we can understand those personal experiences to try and realise elements within the game itself.’

It’s great to see you working directly with people, I think a lot of people’s research would just stop at the desk stage.

‘Working directly with people we’ve learned how diverse experiences of mental health are and how personal and unique they can be to each individual. Trying to understand those experiences and the impact it’s had on people’s lives, we can start to build up a picture of Senua, who will have her own personal experiences with but it will all feed in to trying to portray something that is truthful.

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‘Mental health covers such a broad range of symptoms and experiences. We’re often questioned about what our character, Senua, is diagnosed with, but we’re not strictly saying she’s diagnosed with something because there’s a broad range of things she experiences. Schizophrenia would likely be the closest diagnosis, with hallucinations and delusions but also depression and anxiety. Also, with the time setting of the game there weren’t such diagnoses.’

On to the gameplay – Hellblade looks to be a departure to previous Ninja Theory games; the camera has been pulled in and combat seems more intricate and up close. Was this intended to create a claustrophobic feel that fits the game’s narrative?

‘With all of our games we want to take the player on a journey. With Hellblade we wanted to bring the player really close to Senua so you’d go on this journey with her, seeing the world as she does. In combat this makes each fight feel quite intimate and meaningful. There are no throw away fights, it really is a battle to get past the enemy so the close camera allows you to show off a lot of detail and make for that intimate experience not just in combat but with the character.’

Hellblade’s development is being described as Independent AAA. What exactly does that mean? How does it differ from AAA and independent development?

‘We’ve developed AAA games for the past fifteen years. What we’ve found is that as there’s a fixed retail price on AAA games, so they can’t compete on price and instead have to compete on features. As the size and features of games have increased, development teams have grown and so have costs and the sales targets. This means that developers can’t afford to take creative risks with certain genres and diverse content. AAA games need to appeal to almost everyone.

‘We want to carry on creating AAA games, we have a fan base that want to play creative games but it’s difficult to do that on a standard AAA model. Our games are creative, and they appeal to a smaller audience. So we’ve taken a smaller team with a smaller budget to develop the game independently with all the creative freedom of indie development but with the resources of AAA development. This means a more niche game, distributed digitally at a lower price but with the drive from our small team to deliver on AAA production values.

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‘We’re being innovative in the way that we deliver quality. One example of that is performance capture – it’s a process that’s really important to us, a technique that we believe is the best way to deliver engaging character performance. We wanted to carry on using that in Hellblade, but it’s an expensive thing to do. We’d normally fly out to LA or New Zealand to shoot the game. With Hellblade we can’t afford to do that, so we’ve converted our board room in to a performance capture space with lights we bought from Amazon and wardrobe poles from Ikea. We’re partnering with Vicon who provide mocap cameras. So we’re working well within our budget

‘So, Independent AAA is about creating games with plenty of creativity, delivering them directly our players digitally at a lower price than AAA for a smaller audience. Yet we’ll still deliver high production value and quality.’

One last question about the future of Ninja Theory’s storytelling. In Hellblade you’ve dealt with an issue that’s not really discussed and considered taboo in video gaming. What sort of other issues might Ninja Theory explore in future? Perhaps a story that focuses on LGBT characters?

‘At the moment our focus is really on Hellblade so it’s difficult to see in to the future, and a bit premature for me to talk about. But I won’t shy away from comment on such themes. As I said with mental health; we look at other forms of entertainment and how compelling and impactful these mediums can be when treating challenging subjects with sensitivity. So I would love to see more video games take on these creative risks. We’re seeing it in the indie space, but I want to see more.

‘There’s a wonderful movement at the moment towards an acceptance of people and people’s choices in life regardless of their backgrounds –as long as people are happy and safe there’s a growing acceptance of how people live their lives. With this acceptance I would like to think the subject of sexuality can be part of video game narrative and that LGBT characters can just be part of games as they are in any other form of media.’

Check out the first playable footage of the game below:

Hellblade will be release for Playstation 4 and Microsoft Windows digitally in 2016. 

About Samuel Alexander

Samuel is freelance writer, occasional illustrator, craft enthusiast and fan of all visual creative media. He is a published author who splits his time between client copy-writing and creative writing.