Why is Hellblade 2 more than just a video game?

Image source, Ninja theory

Comment on the photo, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is the sequel to the 2017 game that was praised for its depiction of psychosis

  • author, Tom Richardson
  • Role, BBC Newsbeat

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

Will people like it? What will the review scores be?

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

These teams’ games were not ported in the same number of copies as Call of Duty, EA FC or Hogwarts Legacy, but they were loved by many. For the fans, it was important.

So what does this mean for Ninja Theory, a developer that largely falls into this category?

For now, at least, studio head Dom Matthews told Newsbeat they have something else on their mind.

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

“We’re very proud of the game we’ve created, and we’re just looking forward to spending that day together, enjoying the game and enjoying what we’ve created.”

It’s a long-awaited day.

The studio’s previous game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, was released in 2017 and was made by a team of about 20 people.

One of them was Melina Jurgens, the company’s video editor, who ended up taking the lead role for Senua after the original actress dropped out.

“My job has always been to be behind the scenes,” she told Newsbeat.

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

Despite this being Melina’s first time acting, she won a BAFTA Game Award for her performance – one of five Ninja Theory wins for Hellblade 1.

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

“I would hear whispers, I would see dead people and things like that,” she says.

“So it was a very scary time.”

Melina says filming Senua was an opportunity to “use my experiences to do something useful.”

“And it felt almost therapeutic.”

Image source, Getty Images

Comment on the photo, Melina won a BAFTA for her performance as Senua in 2018

According to Professor Paul Fletcher, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge who has worked on both games, the media has an incomplete record on psychosis.

While there are some good examples, he says there are also “a lot of cases where psychosis is used almost as shorthand for someone behaving in a very crazy, potentially dangerous, violent way.

“And I think that should always be challenged.”

Professor Fletcher says he was persuaded to work with Ninja Theory because of their determination to avoid distortion.

He says he also realized “how important video game experiences are in drawing people in and giving them experiences they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Both Hellblade games include hallucination sequences and rely heavily on sound to recreate what it is like to live with psychosis.

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

New journey

The first game was a solo mission but Hellblade 2 introduces new characters and explores the effect of Senua’s interactions with them on her psychosis.

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

This time, he says, she has “a level of understanding and a level of acceptance of those experiences.

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

Hellblade 2 is also a step forward technologically. Since 2017, the team has moved into a new custom-built studio with its own motion capture stage and sound studios.

The first game also used motion capture, but was recorded in the board room of Ninja Theory’s old office.

Image source, Ninja theory

Comment on the photo, Ninja Theory has managed to spend more time making Senua’s Saga feel very realistic

To underscore this point, Dom says the team spent two days recording combat footage for the first match. The second was 69 days.

They also spent time capturing, and sometimes even making, realistic costumes and props to be digitally scanned to enhance Hellblade 2’s immersion.

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

For Melina, returning to the role with a larger team was daunting at first.

“There were a lot of eyes on me,” she says.

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

Melina remembers being suspended from the ceiling for most of the day.

“You have to tighten all the muscles in your body and be in a stable position,” she says.

Both Dom and Melina say the hard work is worth it to spread understanding of psychosis.

In addition to the BAFTAs on the studio’s shelves and award certificates on the walls, Ninja Theory also collects accolades from fans who have been influenced by its games.

“There were some really great quotes,” Melina says.

“After playing the game, he said he was finally able to understand her and apologized to her.

“So it warms the heart to hear such things.”

Image source, Ninja theory

Comment on the photo, Ninja Theory has also set parts of Iceland to illustrate the setting for the new game

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

Dom believes there’s now a greater focus in the wider games industry on “the lived experience finding its way into games and using it as a way to tell people’s stories”, but says he’s not sure Ninja Theory can take all the credit for that. .

However, Professor Fletcher says he believes Hellblade had an effect.

He now uses the game as an educational tool, and believes it has helped spread awareness of psychosis.

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

Back to that question, though.

The gaming industry, which has been hit by mass layoffs and shutdowns recently, is a very different place compared to 2017 when Hellblade debuted.

Some major publishers, including Microsoft, have made public statements suggesting they want to focus more on established titles and reliable franchises that make money.

It has led some to wonder if there is still room for games like Hellblade.

Dom is convinced he will be there.

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

“I believe that art is very important in the world because it is a way to tell stories, change perceptions, and is a powerful tool to help people understand.

“I think there’s a real responsibility in the gaming industry to continue to do that.”

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

Melina says she hopes she can start more conversations and help those dealing with psychosis to “feel seen and heard.”

“Because it’s very difficult to explain to people,” she says.

“And they know there’s something they can show people to show them what they’re going through.”

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

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