Ninja Theory’s latest project is quite startlingly different to some of the high profile games that they’ve tackled in the past. Certainly, Hellblade has a melee combat focus and a few superficial parallels to some of the games they’ve made over the last decade, but the way it’s being made is quite unusual.
Despite having worked on major platform exclusives like Heavenly Sword and taken on the task of rejuvenating the Devil May Cry series, the team behind Hellblade is just 15 people. It’s part of a new attitude toward development, aiming to capture that indie spirit of a small team and relatively small budget – notably, they haven’t turned to crowdfunding in order to fill their coffers – but while being a digital only release, also wanting to create something that can stand alongside AAA titles.
Senua is a fearsome looking woman, alone in the wilderness after her Celtic tribe was wiped out by marauding Vikings. Her wide eyes stand out in stark and shocking contrast to built up dirt and the gleaming blue paint that adorns the top half of her face. But Senua as a character is one wracked by psychosis.
Dominic Matthews, Product Development Ninja at Ninja Theory, said, “It’s a challenging subject, but as we’re doing this independently, we’ve taken the opportunity of taking on something that’s quite challenging and to try and portray it in a truthful and respectful manner. It’s an experiment, the independent AAA model, and tackling something like mental health is challenging, because we’re constantly learning about it.”
Going it alone has also given them a huge amount of freedom to create something they can truly call their own and tackle mature topics. We’ve all seen the stories of publishers asking developers to change from a female protagonist to a male one, and with Senua as the lead and the mature topics at hand, it’s likely that Ninja Theory would have faced a similar pushback – “I think that a lot of subjects like this, if you took it to a publisher, they would not be particularly enamoured with the idea, because it’s a risk,” Dominic said.
Senua’s psychosis seeps into every aspect of the game, from the enemies you fight being physical manifestations of the darkness that threatens to consume her, to the way that her perceptions of the environment around her alter depending on her state of mind at any given moment. There’s even a moment early on where it feels as though she’s about to break through the fourth wall.
Voices echo through Senua’s head, causing the screen to vibrate as they comfort, cajole, encourage, berate, or sow the seeds of doubt, but they are really the most overt demonstration of her mental disorder. Her hallucinations cause the world around her to change, plunging her into storms and darkness as she is wracked by fears. They may alternatively hold secrets and show her the way forward as she sees particular patterns, such as a face created by a shaft of sunlight that hits the trees in a particular way. There are moments that see her torn from any semblance of reality, heading deeper and deeper into her personal hell.
This has been deeply informed by working alongside a variety of people and organisations, Dominic explained. “We’ve had great support from Wellcome Trust, who are a charitable foundation, we’re working with a professor of health and neuroscience at Cambridge University. There’s also groups of individuals that have personal experience of psychosis, to try and feed into the game, give us feedback, but also give us insight so we can take some of those experiences and build it the creative effectively.”
“It is challenging, but I think we look at games and think it’s a shame that games don’t take on challenging subjects, whereas movies, books and theatre do it all the time. Games tend not to, or if they do, they tend to do it badly. We’re committed to doing it well and we really hope that we can; it’s not going to be easy, but we’re taking every step that we can.”
Compared to the free-flowing combat of their previous titles, which pitted you against numerous enemies all at once, this is a much more considered one-on-one affair. The camera pulls in close behind her, allowing you to focus on the towering malformed – or in one case flaming – foes who come at you. Wielding a great sword, combat focusses on parrying their blows before unleashing attacks of your own until they fall to the ground and fizzle into nothingness.
At the moment, this is perhaps the weakest and least distinctive part of the game, with little nuance needed to defeat the enemies that I encountered, and little to go beyond a relatively basic blocking and attack combat system and little variety in the enemies. Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and the game will evolve to include a greater variety of enemies through its development, but the nucleus is already there for them to build upon. Ninja Theory are striving to be open and transparent throughout the development process, with regular blogs, Q&A videos and details posted on their website.
Dominic explained, “We’re showing it so early [at Gamescom], because we’re doing this open development with development diaries and blogging, to give people a bit of insight into how we go about making games. We want to let people play the game as we make it, really, so it is early, but I think stuff is quite often drip-fed through to players and through to press, so we want to do the reverse and see what happens. The hope is that if people see the evolution of the game all the way through, I hope it will build a deeper level of engagement.”
That engagement could be key when the game eventually releases. While they’re aiming high with AAA quality, this will be digital only and a shorter experience compared to full-blown retail releases. Given Ninja Theory’s previous projects, that might come as a surprise to those who haven’t been following the game directly.
Dominic admitted, “It’s a really important message for us, because there is a danger that people will look at it and go, ‘well that’s just the next Ninja Theory AAA game’. We constantly have to say that it’s 15 people and it’s going to be shorter, but it’s going to be cheaper.”
“We need to sell about 300,000 copies for this to make its money back, so with that forecast, we can be quite comfortable and say that we are making it for our fans and supporters. It’s not going to be easy to do that number, I’m certainly not relaxed about doing that number, but it’s far more achievable than the millions that now need to be sold in a blockbuster AAA game.”
Even with a small team, the ambitious nature of this game is clear, and it’s important for developers to try and deal with difficult subjects like mental health, to broaden the horizons of what the mainstream can do. Certainly, Ninja Theory aren’t the first to broach such topics in games, but Hellblade looks to be a rather mature attempt at doing so while also marrying it to a game worthy of the ‘Independent AAA’ moniker.