Of all the upcoming video games, the one many of us are most excited for is Hellblade 2. Well, that and Earth Defense Force 6 – what can I say, bug busting makes me feel good. Actually, I’m so excited for Ninja Theory’s latest that it might even tempt me, a lifelong Sony-head since the original PlayStation, to shell out for an Xbox. Shocking, I know.
Anyway, the first Hellblade offered players a fascinating historical setting to delve into; that of the late 9th Century. The game weaved together real-life tragic events on Orkney with the real-myths of Viking mythology. With a sequel on its way, I got to thinking: what can we expect from the likely historical setting of Hellblade 2? What will be its super secretive story? Well, I will get there – I promise – but first some musing and meandering. Oh, and I should point out, there are several spoilers for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice to be found here.
The first time that I read Cormac McCarthy’s novel ‘The Road’ I knew it would be the last time. This was a story that was discomforting, horrific, inspiring, depressing, and deeply moving – ultimately it was a rollercoaster ride of emotion that kicked my psyche’s butt. The language used was empty, sporadic and sparse, just like the post-apocalyptic world that Cormac’s finest work depicted. It was an intense and meaningful read, but not one that I would ever want to return to. The experience meant too much to me to be repeated. I can think of only several books and a few movies that had this effect on me, though not many video games. Actually, there’s only one – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Yes, I am comparing Hellblade to one of the greatest pieces of American literature of all time, it’s that good.
Hellblade took the video game world by storm in 2017. Here was a video game intended to be played through and experienced only once. For an example of this, just take a look at its trophies. Hellblade is one of the few games I know of that made it entirely possible to achieve every trophy in one run through. So, for those who haven’t played it, what made this dark fantasy journey so impactful to both the individual player and the community at large? That would, in my opinion, be down to its portrayal of psychosis. Developer’s Ninja Theory demanded that Hellblade offered an authentic depiction of mental illness. In short, they approached a sensitive issue with honesty, integrity and respect – something often all too lacking in mainstream media.
Alongside this bold approach, Hellblade also offered an astonishingly original spin on historical fiction. Normally horrific events of the past are utilised in video game stories as simply a mechanism to set-up a spot of exciting daring-do for the protagonist and player to take part in. An excuse to rationalise the need for our hero to have fun butchering the enemy on their way to face the end boss. Battles in which thousands lost their lives are purely background noise to the character’s journey. Sure, the battle-weary lead might shed an angry tear and raise their fist to the air and shout ‘Noooooooo!’ like some sort of budget-priced Darth Vader but, after that, most protagonists will crack on and get to killing. All that tragedy is like water off a pixelated duck’s back. For Senua, the lead of Hellblade, this was most certainly not the case.
There were four events that lead to the destruction of Senua’s mental wellbeing as she succumbs to the furies. The first event was her mother – who suffered from the same hallucinations but saw them as a gift rather than a curse – being killed by her father. The second was the abuse and neglect she experienced at the hands of her father, whilst the third was the belief the she and her curse were responsible for bringing the plague to the Celtic inhabitants of Orkney. This prompted Senua to leave her home but it was upon her return that she was led to the fourth and most painful event: that the occupants of the island had been wiped out in an act of genocide by Viking invaders. Not only that, but she found her love, Dillon, left blood eagled by the Norsemen. What is a “blood eagle” you ask? Well, at the risk of looking like my ego is entirely out of control, allow me to quote myself from the article Playing With History – Dissecting The Setting Of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice:
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.
After absorbing so much trauma, Senua’s psychological reaction is entirely understandable. The tragedy in Senua’s life, inspired by historical events – is the fulcrum that directly leads to her psychosis and eventual quest into the mythological land of Helheim. Hers is a journey in which both she and the player question everything they see, is it ‘real’ or simply a hallucination?
For the sequel then, we can imagine that this blend of influences will continue. Though perhaps, as the close of Hellblade suggests, this time Senua, having made peace with her furies, will use them – like her mother proposed – as a useful tool rather than a painful curse. But what of the sequel’s setting? The little that we know from what’s been shown in trailers and shared by Ninja Theory is that the game will take place in Iceland and follow Senua’s odyssey across the country. The game will also occur in the late 9th Century, a point in time when Iceland was being colonised by the Vikings. Yes, the same Vikings that were responsible for the death of Dillon. Now, whilst Senua may have accepted her grief and acknowledged the loss of her love at end of the first game, she will certainly harbour a deep burning hatred for those who caused her and her people such pain. Can anyone else smell the set-up for an epic emotionally invested revenge story?
Written records tells us that the settlement of Iceland began around 874AD with the arrival of Ingólfr Arnarson, though recent archaeological evidence disputes this claim and suggests that the settling began much earlier. Either way, Ingólfr had fled Norway after having become embroiled in a blood feud to make a new home for himself. He was the first of many. Iceland, despite its frigid name, offered a great deal of fertile land, ideal for settlement. Over the next few decades the entirety of Iceland had been colonised by some 16,000 settlers. We know that the possible genocide of the Celtish population of Orkney occurred in the late 9th century, so by the time Senua arrives in Iceland it is likely she will find a significant population waiting for her.
But how will she end up in Iceland anyway? It’s hardly like she can nip on a ferry and be there before tea. My theory is this: slavery. In the June 2018 issue of Science the report ‘Ancient genomes from Iceland reveal the making of a human population’ states:
Studies of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y-chromosomes from contemporary Icelanders indicate that 62% of their matrilineal ancestry stems from Scotland and Ireland and 75% of their patrilineal ancestry is Scandinavian.
One possible explanation is that a significant proportion of the original population of Iceland were slaves, taken by the Vikings against their will to aid in the settling of a new land. Viking raids and conquests weren’t just about the seizing of treasure or territory, they were also about the gathering of the valuable commodity of slaves. Indeed, one theory for what happened to the Celtic denizens of Orkney is that they weren’t killed, they were actually taken away to be slaves. Me again:
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?
Here’s my theory then for the setting of Hellblade 2.
Senua has discovered that a portion of her people are still alive living as slaves in Iceland. She sets off to rescue them, perhaps allowing herself to become a slave in order to make a successful journey across the sea. She first must break free from her bonds of captivity in a daring escape before setting off on an epic journey to save her people. Yet, as she travels, with violent revenge on her mind, she discovers that most of the Vikings she meets live as peaceful farmers. But still she desires vengeance for her people, still her head and heart burn with fury. Can she find a way to live with her anger or will she become the monster she feared she always was, as revenge clouds her judgement and she cuts down countless innocents?
The most recent gameplay reveal didn’t really go into major story spoilers, despite still being a fantastic watch with some stunning visuals. We see Senua and her followers attack a sleeping troll (never a good idea) with many of her comrades killed by the towering foe. Could this be how the game starts? Either way, roll on Hellblade 2; we’ve missed you Senua.
Playing with History is our ongoing series spotlighting video games and the real-world people and events that inspire them. From walking with dinosaurs in Jurassic World Evolution and talking real-life zombies in Days Gone, to learning about the Peaky Blinders, and chatting Ghost of Tsushima with a samurai expert, there’s plenty you may not have known about your favourite video games.