The sensitive challenge of portraying psychosis in Hellblade

melina juergens

For Tameem Antoniades, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the main sacrifice theme, comes close to home. For the past two years, he has given up almost every part of his personal life to create Hellblade. No vacations, no social life, no free time. “I’m exhausted,” Antoniades tells me over Skype. “Hellblade has become a burden, a huge responsibility for me and for the team. It felt very important to try to do something that belongs to us and we knew it was going to be very difficult, but I think I pushed this a bit.” too far for me. “


Antoniades’ conviction stems not only from the usual icy shock of a studio like Ninja Theory venturing into independent waters, but also from Hellblade’s unique vision: telling a story that explores mental health in a serious and nuanced way. . He is not just a Viking-themed fighter, but an intimate portrait of a warrior. Forget sanity gauges, Senua’s struggle to live with her own psychosis comes from a deeply personal place, both for Antoniades, Melina Juergens, the actress who plays Senua, and the people with psychosis who helped the project.
Senua Sacrifice

It’s never quite clear whether Senua’s journey to the depths of hell is physical or imaginary, but that’s exactly the point. Psychosis is a condition in which a person loses contact with reality, often experiencing hallucinations or delusions. For Antoniades, it was crucial that Hellblade portray psychosis accurately.

Originally, the idea of ​​exploring such a heavy topic didn’t seem like a huge burden. Antoniades tells me that he was simply fascinated with the subject in the same way that he was fascinated with the Nordic aesthetics of Hellblade. He wanted to create something different and, without yet understanding the human impact psychosis could have, it seemed like an interesting topic.


“Psychosis was very interesting for me, because although it seems that it only happens to other people, it is a mechanism in the brain that drives it and it is the same mechanism that makes us dream and that is where imagination and creativity come from”, Antoniades explains. . “I think a lot of the mythical journeys of yesteryear weren’t necessarily made-up stories, but rather someone’s literal experience. I think fantasy, psychosis, and mental suffering are closely linked. That’s what got me into it.” .

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“But the more I started learning about this, and we started bringing in healthcare professionals and people who had really experienced these things, it really hits you like a ton of bricks how personal it is.”

“This is a person you live with, who you have lived with for years. She can show up at any time of the day or night, wherever she is. She’s a teenager. I don’t think she can bear that,” says Antoniades. “It is all very well to understand the symptoms, but at the story level it is about how it affects people who grow up. And that’s where it is very difficult to separate. If you are trying to tell a story about a person and they have been stigmatized by your peers, ostracized or abused, then it becomes very difficult to treat it as a topic. When you are talking about the real suffering of people. “

But it was not enough to simply incorporate psychosis into the Hellblade story, Antoniades needed to make sure that Senua was as human and understanding as the teenager he had interviewed. There was only one problem: he didn’t have the budget to hire an actress.

Digging deep

Sitting next to Antoniades during my interview is Melina Juergens. She usually is the freelance video editor for Ninja Theory, but for Hellblade she had a huge responsibility to bring Senua to life. She tells me that she had never acted before.

“It was definitely a challenge,” she laughs herself. Not being a trained actress, Antoniades encouraged her to channel hers of her own emotions in the context of Senua’s struggle. She would have to delve into hers own traumas and pain, and use them to bridge the gap with Senua. “I had to cry real tears and scream with all my heart, and it’s hard for people to see you do that. Sometimes I would sit in the middle of the room for half an hour, thinking about really bad things and trying to cry.” and they are sitting waiting. “

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“What you see on the screen is that Melina is Melina,” adds Antoniades.

But with so many people pouring into Hellblade, Antoniades became increasingly aware of the enormous burden she had to make it all worthwhile. “The more I sought help from people, the more I felt like I couldn’t let my team down,” she says. “I can’t disappoint the people we’ve been talking to with mental health issues, I can’t disappoint these researchers and professors who put their name in this game and are confident that we would do a good job. And we” I have to get this out. game without going through the usual editorial support. It was, frankly, very ambitious. “

And, perhaps worse, Antoniades doesn’t even know if it will be worth it. “I think for many other people it will not be at all what they want in a game, but I suspect it will be a game that will touch some people in a very deep way.”

Hellblade is out now and you can read our review here. But I suspect that it will be some time before Antoniades closes all that he has sacrificed. But even if Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice doesn’t live up to expectations, Antoniades tells me that he’s proud of what they accomplished, not just becoming independent, but “taking a topic that’s so serious and then forcing yourself to take a medium both of the people don’t take it very seriously and really push to do something meaningful with it. “

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