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The Sound Design of ‘Hellblade’ Makes you Feel Mentally Ill



Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek describe aesthetic within video games as the desired emotional response a player has to a game’s systems (MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, 2004). In the past developers designed mechanics and levels that were fun to play, then added in a story, sound design, and other elements at the end of development as an afterthought. In 2018, narrative and sound design has become a far more prominent feature of quality game design. Developers work to have the narrative, gameplay mechanics, and every other design element work in unison, to create a desired emotional impact on the player.

Ninja Theory, at no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times in recent years. Their PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavenly Sword went under the radar, while their 2013 remake of Devil May Cry was harshly panned by fans who were unsatisfied by minor tonal changes. Their next game needed to revitalize the company yet had to be limited in scope due to a lack of financial backing. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice found a home between the smaller scale of indies and the high production values of AAA blockbusters. It may not be the longest or most complex title to release in 2017, but it has shown the rest of the industry how to appropriately master aesthetic design.

Every element of Hellblade works in unison to deliver an intended feeling of confusion, fear, and helplessness in the player. The game places the player into the mind of Senua, a young woman tormented by psychosis. The game is inspired by Norse and Celtic mythology and so takes place in the late 8th century, a time when the world was cruel, buildings bore the scars of war and death, and the landscape was sculpted out of dark greys and sharp blacks. It is also a time period where very little is known about mental illness. Senua and her tribe believe her psychosis to be a curse, the voices that plague her mind referred to as furies.

The game is broken up into environmental puzzles and timing focused melee combat. The puzzles are often depicted as Senua mentally creating reasons for why she can’t move forward. It is only when she looks at the issue from a different perspective or wills herself to carry on, that the player can progress. Senua will constantly face shadowy creatures (visual hallucinations) in bladed combat. The camera is tucked tightly behind Senua’s frame, making it hard to see if an enemy is sneaking up behind her, and creating a feeling of claustrophobia for the player. Since it is hard to notice an enemy planning to attack from behind, the voices in Senua’s head will warn her and the player when they need to dodge. Every aesthetical element within the game, whether it be sound design, setting, narrative, camera focus or gameplay, is used to convey the emotional and mental sensation of struggling with psychosis.

It is often the smallest aesthetic choices within games which help them evolve from mediocrity to polished, praise worthy products.  Shut Up and Sit Down breakdown the aesthetic intricacies of The Sheriff of Nottingham. At its core, this board game is a simple gamified version of an interaction with a customs officer. However, the setting and physical elements of the game take it from a mundane process to a highly enjoyable social activity. Players must sneak contraband past the sheriff (one rotating player). They can make deals with the sheriff, fool him, or be caught out by him. You might not care whether you succeed or not, but when each item you possess has a representative card and all your money is represented by real coins, there is a tangible feeling of success or failure for each player.

To sneak in contraband, you must place your items in a small bag and converse with the sheriff. Shut Up and Sit Down discuss how the mere sound created by opening the bag effects the player’s emotions within the game. Before the bag is opened, the players involved take part in psychologically manipulative interactions, like bluffing, lying, and deal-making. However, when you hear the pop of the bag opening, all bets are off, and what’s done is done. The whole process creates a roller coaster ride of emotions for the player, that wouldn’t be anywhere near as engaging without the aesthetic decisions the creators of the game made.

Journey designer/engineer Nick Clark discussed how, “That Game Company was laser-focused on laziness when we began our first multiplayer project, Journey,” (Cutting Corners: Networking Design in Journey, 2014). On an episode of the podcast, Unfiltered, Journey designer Jenova Chen discusses how initially, Journey included multiplayer systems that pushed the player to be cruel to other players in order to survive. Journey is a relaxing and surreal experience of life. It’s about heading towards an end goal, the connections you make along the way, and embracing the end. Making this experience more troublesome and less enjoyable for other players takes away from this core concept. The games aesthetics were getting in the way of the desired emotional reactions within players. So the team set to work streamlining, simplifying and creating “lazier” (As Clark puts it) multiplayer mechanics.

Shreds of cloth, which are collected within the game, are used to allow the player to fly. Initially, the designers found that players were competing to hoard and steal these shreds of cloth from one another. Collision detection also meant that players could get in the way of each other progressing. So the game had to change. After play-testing, the game was designed to locally push the remote player’s avatar away when major collisions were about to occur. Non shared resources were also removed to combat players griefing one another. Sometimes developers have to go back to the drawing board, to ensure every element of the game is creating the intended effect of the overall experience. In the end That Game Companies’ work paid off. In 2012 Journey was lauded for having one of the most innovative and collaborative multiplayer systems in the industry.

Fine tuning your games aesthetics is crucial in every game. The gamification of a mentally ill person hearing voices may seem like a vulgar thought, but by doing this within Hellblade’s game design, the overall product becomes more authentic and respectful towards the real life source material. It allowed players to actually empathize with the mentally ill.

Feature Writer/ Reviewer for Goombastomp and founder of Quiet Stories For more info on upcoming books, podcasts, articles and video games follow me @OurQuietStories on Twitter. On a more personal note i'm a beard fanatic, calamari connoisseur and professional fat guy.