Ninja Theory explores mental health with Hellblade

Samuel Alexander

Ninja Theory, the team behind Heavenly Sword and DMC: Devil May Cry, announced recently that their latest video game, Hellblade, will centre around themes of mental health and psychosis.

Hellblade was announced last year as Ninja Theory’s first next-gen title with a PC release announced early this year. Since then the team has been keeping us up to date with developer diaries showing off new technology used to create stunning yet unusual visuals whilst details on the story were kept under wraps, until now.

Inspired by Celtic mythology, Hellblade tells the story of Senua, a warrior left traumatised after a Viking invasion. The story will follow Senua’s journey into her own personal vision of hell, manifested by her own mental health issues.

It looks like Ninja Theory will be delivering us another brilliantly crafted tale with their usual dark and mature twist, but the exploration of mental health may make this story the first of its kind in the world of video gaming.

Mental health is needless to say a sensitive subject and one often taken far too lightly by the media, particularly in modern fiction. To ensure the subject of psychosis is portrayed as accurately, sensitively and respectfully as possible the writers and designers at Ninja Theory have been working closely with Psychiatrist and Professor of Health and Neuroscience from the University of Cambridge, Paul Fletcher, as well as arranging to consult with people who have experience of mental health difficulties. It’s truly refreshing to see a developer taking such care with a sensitive subject, particularly a developer known for delivering such solid and intricate storytelling.

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Fletcher says, ‘True understanding of mental health is not simply about books, lectures or verbal descriptions but from deeper engagement on all levels. Working with Ninja Theory has shown me the potential that gaming has for sharing in a character’s experiences and engendering empathy in ways that go well beyond those offered by simple academic descriptions. Maybe this approach will contribute powerful new ways of challenging stigma.’

Hellblade is being developed by a small team, 15 people to be exact, under Ninja Theory’s ‘Independent AAA’ model, which I imagine allows for more in-depth communication between the team-members – communication being vital for ensuring that the issues of mental health are handled sensitively. This also allows the team to work with all the creativity of ‘indie’ game development, but with the resources in place for AAA development.

Tameem Antoniades, Chief Creative Director at Ninja Theory, said: ‘In Hellblade we are pursuing creative independence in order to explore a compelling subject matter and gaming experience that would not be possible under the current retail model.  In movie terms, this would be a quality independent film, not a Hollywood blockbuster.  Digital self-publishing means that we can offer a smaller, but high quality game at around half the price of retail games.’

Supporting the project is the Wellcome Trust a global charitable foundation which aims to build a greater public understanding of science, and in particular health.

‘More and more, games have an exciting and innovative role to play in giving us new perspectives on health and mental health challenges. Rather than being a didactic game teaching us about psychosis, Hellblade allows us to explore it through the creation of a compelling and complex character, and the world that she inhabits,’ says Iain Dodgeon, Creative Partnerships Manager at the Wellcome Trust.

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In essence, Hellblade will provide players with an opportunity to step in to the shoes of a character living with mental health issues. Through such an engaging method of story-telling perhaps players will be able to gain an insight in to the day-to-day lives of those living with mental health issues as they empathise with the character put in their control.

As video gaming becomes more and more mature with the complexity and detail of story-telling, it’s good to see that the subject matter of those stories is also becoming more mature and relevant, particularly when handled in such a sensitive and understanding manner.

Be sure to take a look at Hellblade’s E3 trailer below, and have a look at the developer diaries (find the latest one here).

Hellblade will be available on Playsation 4 and PC in 2016.