Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a phenomenal experience. Note that I’m not saying a phenomenal videogame. When viewed from its individual gameplay mechanics, Hellblade is certainly nothing spectacular. Combat is solid, yet repetitive. Puzzle solving is functional but wholly unoriginal. Exploration reveals some graphically spectacular locations; however these are very restrictive with regards to the elements that can be interacted with. Yet to fixate on the mechanics alone misses out on what can only be considered a breathtaking, challenging and ambitious experience from developers Ninja Theory.
It deftly weaves a protagonist who suffers from psychosis and, in a rare moment for media in the modern age, is supremely well researched and implemented rather than the simplified trope of; ‘mental health issues are bad’. For it to exist within a setting and context that is both historical and mythological is an remarkable achievement, and it certainly ticked all my boxes and kept me playing from beginning to end.
But this article is not a review of Hellblade (that was already covered by our own Jim Hargreaves). Instead I’m going to dust off my reference books and delve a little deeper into the history that provides the context for the protagonist’s quest. Admittedly, there’s a whole lot of fascinating Norse and Celtish mythology that the game incorporates, but that’s so expansive that it’s best saved for a future Playing with History. For this month’s edition, I’m sticking with reality – or our perceived sense of reality, as Hellblade teaches us, we all define our own reality every day.
For those who haven’t delved deep into Hellblade (or are currently halfway through) do be aware that if you keep on reading past this point, you will likely find some
There’s no missing that right? I even changed the font and used capitals and everything. You’ve been warned.
The protagonist of the adventure is Senua, a Pict – or Barbarian, as known to the Roman’s situated to the south of Hadrian’s Wall – from the archipelago of Orkney. During the Viking invasion of Britain in the middle of the 9th century, the numerous (for fans of counting, there’s approximately 70) small isles just off the North-East coast of Scotland were quickly conquered and placed under Norse rule. It made a lot of sense to the Danes, because the islands provided the perfect hideout to launch their pirate raids inland (fun bonus fact: Viking literally means ‘to pirate’. So, it’s both a verb and a noun and means that a Viking can go viking).
The tribes who lived upon Orkney disappeared from history. Ninja Theory postulates that the inhabitants were wiped out by the Viking hordes and that Senua is the sole survivor. She, alone, must journey into Viking mythology, on a quest to save the soul of her murdered lover (more on that later). This genocide of the Pictish inhabitants is only a theory, however. A theory that has only grown in stature during the intervening centuries, primarily based upon the violent reputation of the Vikings.
In modern media, Vikings are mostly portrayed as stinky, blood thirsty, horned-helmet wearing barbarians.
Which is mostly untrue.
Firstly, Vikings weren’t all that stinky. In fact, the smells wafting off a warrior’s hairy body must have been a fragrant bouquet of delight compared to the odorous stink emanating from the Picts. Vikings washed once a week and even went so far as to fashion beauty products out of small animal bones. These included tiny tweezers, used to remove rogue hairs from an unwanted monobrow, and small spoons, to remove excess ear wax from gungy ears. They’d even take the time to dunk their lice infested hair into buckets containing month old urine to eliminate the pests (and to give their hair the blond, or ‘blonde’ for the ladies, appearance that was so fashionable at the time).
Secondly, Vikings weren’t as bloodthirsty as their ferocious reputations would lead us to believe. Rather than chopping off the tonsured scalps of terrified monks, much of their time was spent doing boring things, like farming and trading. Indeed, their raids of England turned into invasion, then ultimately integration with Saxon society, because English soil is just so darn fertile it’s pretty much irresistible for any farming aficionado. They also spent a lot of their time trading with the inhabitants of far off lands, explaining how Viking coins were found as far afield as Afghanistan.
They also didn’t have horns on their helmets. Only helmets used for ceremonial purposes have been found by archaeologists with horns or wings upon them. For battle, helmets resembled bowls with a nose guard attached to one side. These helmets were typically made from several pieces of iron riveted together in a ‘spangenhelm’ style of helm. As iron working techniques became more advanced, warriors could be seen showing off on the battlefield with the ‘Gjermundbu’ helmet. This classy number came with a funky visor to protect the wearer’s eyes and gave them a far more intimidating appearance. Due to the expense of iron though, poorer warriors (who made up the majority of any war band) would have to make do with a simple leather cap to protect their delicate bonce from swords, axes and arrows.
But that’s still a no to the horns. Having a weighty pair of iron or cow horns on a helmet would affect the wearer’s balance during a fight. Not only that, it would also provide the opportunity for a canny Saxon knight to grab the horns of the helmet and manipulate the Viking warrior into an easy-to-kill position. The whole ‘horns on their helmet’ things came from scared monks after their first interactions with Viking warriors, believing the fearsome foes to be a physical manifestation of the horned devil himself.
With a question mark over the accuracy of Vikings being stinky, blood thirsty, horned-helmet wearing barbarians, it’s easy to consider other fates for the inhabitants of Orkney. Perhaps they were sold into slavery? The slave trade was a hugely profitable venture at the time, so enslavement would certainly be a preferable option for the invaders. Why choose to kill off the Picts with a spot of gentle genocide when you would lose such a financially viable commodity?
Or perhaps integration ultimately occurred? Just as Vikings and Saxons integrated over the centuries to become one cohesive society (only to be conquered by the Normans in 1066, who themselves originated from the Vikings) perhaps the Picts of the Orkney Islands were conquered and then became part of the Danish community. This could provide some explanation to the many links behind Celtish and Viking mythology.
Or maybe Ninja Theory are correct and the Vikings just killed everyone. They were certainly capable of incredibly violent acts. Just look at the way in which Senua’s lover meets his fate at the hands of the invaders. He is ‘blood eagled’. The blood eagle was a ritualized method of execution where the victim was placed prone, to then have their ribs severed from their spine with a sharp blade. Finally, their lungs were pulled through the bloody openings to create a pair of “wings”. There is a continuing debate amongst historians about whether the ritual was a literary creation (the only two examples of blood eagling are found within the Norse sagas whatever the Vikings TV show might tell you) or an actual historical hobby. None the less, with many other examples of barbarity to be found within history, genocide is certainly a possibility to be considered.
Regardless of what really happened, Ninja Theory certainly cannot be faulted for the level of detail that went into their historical research for this game. From the macro, such as exploring a fascinating historical mystery, to the micro, such as resisting the temptation of turning Senua’s clothing into a boob and bum revealing cliché. Instead she is clad in a historically accurate manner with no easy-to-impale cleavage on display. It is clear to see that Hellblade is an extensively well researched videogame. A refreshing change and something to be saluted.