Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice lies about permadeath to more effectively evoke mental illness

Since its release a few weeks ago, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has come under fire for what some in the gaming community are calling a massive and willful lie. Early on in the game, our protagonist Senua becomes infected by a darkness that stains her hand, and every time she dies the darkness creeps further and further up her arm, clearly making its way for her head. The game tells you that “all progress will be lost” should this blight reach Senua’s head.

This is a peculiar piece of fourth-wall breaking knowledge that impacted the gaming community hard. It alluded to some sort of permadeath system, and permadeath systems notoriously fail outside of rogue-likes and Fire Emblem games. Most gamers don’t want to fear that their save file will be deleted if they die one too many times. When playing Hellblade, gamers were afraid of death.

At first, everyone who played Hellblade progressed through the game with caution, paranoid that the next enemy might cause them to start over from the beginning, as if it were some perverted punishment system held over from the dark ages of the arcade. But, as we now know, the permadeath system doesn't seem to exist as advertised. 

Dark Little Lies

As far as we know, there is no actual permadeath in Hellblade. To date, no one seems to have triggered a permadeath state. To test this out I attempted to purposefully die as much as possible in order to trigger permadeath, and nothing happened. Eurogamer went one step further and died as much as possible at every possible point in the game in order to test a fan theory that permadeath is only triggerable early on. They, too, found that absolutely no amount of death could make the game delete your save file. Simply put, it was all a bluff.

Gamers don't like to feel lied to, so this deception has the gaming community up in arms. Some say it is amoral to lie to the fans about a feature that doesn’t exist. Some say it’s just tacky. Others say that this bluff pushed people away from the game. Still others say that it was a way to make the player engaged in a gameplay system that was otherwise barebones.

But I have a different interpretation. I think this “lie” is something greater, a framing device for the deeper meaning of Hellblade: mental illness.

You see, this permadeath declaration is the only point in which the game speaks to you, the player. However, it isn’t the first time that you, the player, are addressed. Whenever Senua struggles with her own psychosis, she looks directly into the screen. The player is, in effect, a stand-in for Senua’s own mental illness.

This makes sense if you look at the game’s mechanics. The player is the will that controls Senua. It’s what makes her stop and fight demons that seem to come right out of her own mind. When Senua has to solve a puzzle, it’s not her who has to notice the rune, but rather the player. All of this behavior, all of these self-destructive tendencies, are motivated by the player, an influence inside Senua that is just as much of her mind as any other part of her psychosis.

This lie is not something that Senua sees, but rather that the player sees. It establishes yet another part of Senua’s psychosis: paranoia. In Ninja Theory’s documentary about the creation of Hellblade, it’s mentioned that people who suffer from delusions and hallucinations are suffering from what is essentially out of control creativity. They make a mental world and populate it with voices and entities that they whole-heartedly believe in. They respond to threats that aren’t there, act on rules of the universe that don’t exist.

That’s exactly what this lie primes you do to. It establishes a threat that isn’t real. It makes you, the player, run from a phantom that doesn’t exist. If you, the player, are a stand-in for Senua’s mental illness, then this subtlety uses your fear to model Senua’s behavior in a way that more accurately represents her own paranoia. If the game flat out told you that you couldn’t possibly permanently die, you would have no problem running Senua up to enemies and brute forcing your way through the game. However, by including this fake threat of permadeath, you control Senua cautiously. You control Senua cautiously against enemies birthed from her own mental landscape. You respond to phantoms and delusions with the same paranoia that Senua herself experiences.

Does greater meaning excuse lying to the audience? 

Because of all the layers of meaning that drove the permadeath deception, I don’t think that “morality” or “ethicality” play into it at all. Video games lie to us all the time, especially meta video games that like to break the fourth wall.  

Hellblade is a game made by Ninja Theory, who is perhaps best known for hack and slashers like DmC and Heavenly Sword. They know their way around an action title. Hiding information from the player is nothing new. The only reason why this seemed to hit players harder than, say, the lies told to the player in Spec: Ops the Line, the hidden information in Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, fake time limits in games like Undertale and AM2R, false mission objectives in The Evil Within, or all sorts of other video game lies, is because it addressed the player directly, in a way that stretched beyond the normal boundaries of game narrative. Simply put, the player felt personally betrayed.

But think about that for a second. If the player is an avatar for Senua’s mental illness, then the player is this creative force. It’s the player who is seeing runes in the landscape that aren’t there, but are mere coincidences. Isn’t this permadeath just another piece of information that wasn’t really there? Another symptom of psychosis?

If Hellblade is the story of Senua eventually coping with and confronting her own psychosis, then your realization that there is no permadeath system is the same as Senua’s realization that her fear of the rot is unfounded, and that it’s all in her mind. At this point, you start playing Senua more bravely instead of giving in to her paranoia, which fits in just fine with her narrative arc.

So did Ninja Theory lie to us? Yes. But did it make the game better? Yes. Hellblade is one of the most experimental games to come out of the AAA sphere in recent history, and tackles some really hard issues that are usually taboo to speak about. If all it takes to make a game like this is a little lie, I say it’s worth it.

For more, read our full review of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice