Ninja Theory is a unique developer in several ways. Back in 2017, they released their tragic action-adventure game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. The game was a symbol of their branding, as well as proof of their new business model. Referring to themselves as an “independent AAA” studio, Ninja Theory strives to make games with small teams and budgets that look and play like a too-big-to-fail style game a la God of War (2018).
Hellblade also served as a hallmark of the burgeoning Ninja Theory aesthetic: It was a game about vikings, except it wasn’t really about vikings, instead being a zoomed-in approach to a trauma narrative through the lens of psychosis. The game was both lauded and criticized for its highly researched depiction of the mental condition, with high praise for the performance of voice and motion capture actress Melina Juergens. Also notable for its audio design, Hellblade utilizes 3D sound to simulate the experience of psychosis, which serves as the game’s guiding force: The game has no HUD, instead having its main character, Senua, rely on the voices, or “furies,” she hears as her guiding force.
Hellblade set a precedent for experimental but accessible games from Ninja Theory. To further their accessibility, the company is now releasing a series of development diaries to bring fans along on their journey as they continue to work on titles such as Hellblade II. Professor Paul Fletcher of the Health Neuroscience University of Cambridge appears to ask, “Could we combine the best of game design and technology with cutting edge neuroscience and psychiatry to help with mental suffering and to promote mental well-being?” Given the name of the first episode is “The Mission,” it seems that’s as good a mission statement as any.
In the first episode, Ninja Theory give a first look at their new working title Project: Mara. The trailer is spare: just shots of a hyper-modern building, some digital text on a screen and an excellently motion-captured shot of a character in terror. The trailer begins with one line: “I don’t know what’s real anymore.” Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades states Project: Mara is a “real world and grounded representation of true mental terror,” and like Hellblade, will hinge heavily on a research-based approach, working in tandem with mental health professionals and experts. The game will focus on one location and one character. He refers to it as an “experiment,” and a “showcase” of what could be a “new storytelling medium.”
It’s a big undertaking, and one that isn’t without controversy, but Ninja Theory seems dedicated to providing meaningful experiences through the medium of gaming. Hellblade received almost as much flak for its portrayal of mental illness as it did praise, citing the narrative’s invalidation of Senua’s desire for wellness. The story, at times, attempts to portray Senua’s illness as a point of strength, or a blessing. If anything, Hellblade is well-intentioned but might barely miss the mark. Their development diary is an indication that they will try to further hone their portrayals of mental illness and work even closer with mental health professionals to offer sensitive and meaningful content, hopefully with diverse tales that incorporate mental illness not just as a point of diversity or a plot device but as varied depictions that raise awareness and serve as representation for some of the more invisible conditions people struggle with daily.