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Hellblade and Narrative Harmony (and Dissonance)

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I finally got around to playing Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, and I was completely blown away by some of the design choices, particularly the use of audio and graphical fidelity. It's by far one of the best looking games I've ever played and is astoundingly lifelike in lots of ways that plenty of other reviewers have mentioned.

Because at it's core, it's a narrative-driven game, it got me thinking about some of the ways games handle narrative issues and why it succeeds (and sometimes fails) at creating a cohesive, player-driven experience.

At its core, Hellblade is actually a fairly simplistic game. It has two modes: slower, puzzle-based gameplay, and fast-paced action, although the vast majority of the game is the former. Some reviewers complained about this, saying the puzzles were either annoying or too easy. While I won't say I never got a bit frustrated with the rune-hunting mechanics and some of the time-based puzzles, the fact that the puzzles are easy is actually a brilliant design decision. The reason is because of Senua's auditory hallucinations.

If you haven't played it, the main character suffers from psychosis, represented in the form of the "Furies", which are basically voices that are constantly whispering to her. They are omnipresent throughout the game and very rarely do they stop. Narratively, this is a great way to represent her thoughts, but more importantly, her anxieties. The information they give is often dead wrong, or serves to weaken her confidence about her abilities. Because they're the main source of exposition for the game, the player has to listen to them, but also learn when to ignore them. For example, during some tense scenes, they'll actually tell you you're going the wrong way when you aren't, which is a real mindfuck if you're trying to navigate. The reason I think the puzzles end up being simple is just because it would be too aggravating to deal with a complex puzzle while having to ignore and listen to a bunch of chattering voices. The game instead chooses to sacrifice difficult puzzles for a stronger sense of immersion instead of dialing back on the voices, which would lose some of the flavour of the game.

Similarly, there are sequences in the game where your vision is severely reduced almost to the point of unplayability. In other games, this would come off as an annoyance, but with Senua it's a direct result of her psychosis and is intended to convey to the player her frustrations and her anxieties. Again, the parts that the player has to deal with are quite simple and actually not very frustrating from a gameplay perspective, but it FEELS much more threatening due to the circumstances.

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On another note, I've always felt games have a lot of potential for environmental exposition in a way that other mediums simple don't. You can't have a character in a film read a book for five minutes to get important plot details, but in games it's almost expected. However, there is a huge, huge issue with this form of exposition: it can't be mandatory or else players will have no idea what the hell is going on. In Senua, there are optional audio elements that consist mostly of retellings of Norse myths. It's kind of interesting and immersive, but it has almost nothing to do with the main story (which is by design). In other games, however, these elements are usually more important. For example, I recently played Obduction and there is almost no narrative aside from what you piece together from journals. If you avoid them or miss a few, you won't know what's going on since very little is spelled out for you. This isn't a bad thing, but it also encourages a certain playstyle of feeling like you have to search for every nook and cranny to get everything. The bonus is that you remove the obstacle of needing characters to act as exposition, which is almost always clunky in other mediums.

So what's the best solution? In the Souls game, most of the story is told through item descriptions, which is a pretty brilliant way of splitting the difference. Players are guaranteed to read their item descriptions to find out what they do, so there's little chance they won't get the pieces of story and lore as well. However, there are obvious disadvantages – firstly, you can't fit that much info in an item description, and secondly that players won't get every item the first time around (if at all). Some items are optional so some pieces of lore are optional. Yet, in a film, there's no such thing as "optional" story. How are you supposed to decide what's optional for a story and what isn't? Maybe the optional narrative is more interesting than the main narrative (which I'd say is quite common, especially in RPGs). In this way, Senua takes the safe option of having it completely optional at the expense of having it be pretty boring compared to the rest of the experience.

Ultimately, despite that, I felt Senua was still unafraid to make the story and the emotional experience the top priority for players, which actually meant there was a lot of ludonarrative harmony. My feelings of occasionally being frustrated and confused matched hers, as did my feelings of joy and relief when I was able to slice through a dozen enemies after being confined in a dank, lightless space. Occasionally, I wish more games would take risks by playing with the idea of making the character feel weak instead of powerful — so many games have a linear progression curve where you just get stronger as the game progresses. However, narratives rarely work that way. There are always moments of complete helplessness and desperation where everything is broken, and that rarely translates into games. Occasionally you'll see tricks where you lose your inventory or something, but that's generally quite fleeting and lacks the sense of visceral struggle that helps players feel connected.

Thoughts?

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