Spoiler Warning: This article contains major plot developments for Hellblade.
At 14 years old, my reflection was my enemy. I didn’t see myself; I only saw the sickness.
Senua stares in the dusty mirror with her face contorting into a look of disgust. “Worthless,” a voice in her head criticizes.
I took one glance in the mirror and my stomach turned. I couldn’t wash my own hair, and I barely managed to climb up and down the staircase. It was as though I was living inside a body that had already decayed, but still required upkeep like a corpse being prettied by an embalmer.
“Go on, feel sorry for yourself, because there is no one left to do that for you,” the unwanted visitor in Senua’s head sneers.
I detested the girl in the mirror. She was weak, she was tired, she was pathetic. She was chronically ill. I avoided her for months.
Senua places the mirror down. “Why go on?” she asks herself. But she does. Despite it all, she does.
Despite it all, I did too.
As I played Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice for the first time, I connected to Senua, a young Celtic warrior battling psychosis, in ways I didn’t expect. Developer Ninja Theory put great effort into making Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice an authentic experience by providing a nuanced portrayal of mental health with the help of experts and thorough research. This led me to draw parallels to my own struggles not just with mental health, but with chronic illness, too.
For over a decade, I’ve battled three different chronic illnesses, and last year I went through one of the worst mental health breakdowns I’ve ever had. Hellblade helped me better realize how both my physical health and mental health intertwine, such as my inescapable anxiety about my wellbeing.
Early on, Senua discovers a growing rot on her arm. It’s ugly, black, and the game warns that it’s destined to not only kill you but restart your progress completely if you fail too often. I immediately panicked. How many times could I die without major repercussions? Would I really have to start over? The lack of communication on exactly how many tries I had was reminiscent of how chronic illness is a beast of unpredictability. It gives the sense that Senua’s own body is against her as this rot attempts to envelop her completely. She fights this notion by getting back up after each failure and trying again.
Senua’s rot is sudden and disturbing, appearing out of nowhere on someone who seemed otherwise physically fit. I thought of my own life. When I was 12, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome snuck up on me and snatched me away when I was starting a new chapter at a different school. Before I even had a chance to make meaningful connections, I was switched to homeschooling because I was too ill to make it there in person. This lasted four years, shut in a home I couldn’t physically leave without distress.
Every time Senua respawns after death, she glances at her arm nervously to see how far along the growth is. I thought of all the nights I’ve spent googling bizarre symptoms and was reminded of the dread that certain chronic illnesses bring: You’re never getting better. The rot, just like the Crohn’s Disease I was diagnosed with at 21, either stays the same or gets worse. Treatment helps keep it under control, but there’s no cure.
While health problems weren’t new for me, my CFS diagnosis as a teenager brought an abrupt and jarring stop to my life. I felt like a shell of the person I once was, like how Senua feels without Dillion by her side and after being labeled “cursed” and banished by her own community. I was misunderstood, surely, but what was most difficult was that some doctors and peers didn’t believe I was sick. This resulted in a lot of self-doubt and crippling self-esteem, some of which I still battle today.
Senua deals with self-doubt too, and the conflicting voices in her head don’t let her forget it. “You can do it!” one yells. “She can’t do it. She’s too weak,” another says. “She won’t make it.” With headphones on, these chaotic voices swirled in my head, bringing tension and devotion to the fights I engaged in. I would swing my sword defiantly and beat the monstrous foes despite many saying I couldn’t. I thought back to how I demanded to go back to school at 16, despite my family’s fears that I wasn’t well enough. And I did it. I graduated, and it felt like the most incredible feat in the world.
Although it was difficult to face these memories and emotions, my time with Hellblade wasn’t negative. I came away feeling at peace with myself and inspired by Senua’s unwavering resilience. I only hope that more games tackle mental health in similarly profound ways. If a fantasy action game can do it, then why not others? We’ve seen the topic explored in games like Celeste and Night in the Woods, but the amount of developers diving into stories about mental health remain slim. The interactivity of video games is a powerful tool both for driving empathy and changing our perspectives, so the possibilities feel endless.
Living with chronic illness is difficult, but despite these challenges, I’ve come a long way. So does Senua. Her personal journey ends on a bittersweet note after a battle that is brilliantly cathartic. With your sword all charged up, you relentlessly cut through enemies without mercy as if you have nothing left to lose.
Senua finds that she isn’t successful in the ways she hoped to be – Dillion couldn’t be saved – but that’s what makes this story so impactful. She finally views the rot on her arm and her psychosis as a part of herself. She accepts the loss of Dillion and partly the loss of herself. It left tears in my eyes. I too must accept the “rot” of chronic illness, and games like Hellblade help me find ways to embrace it.