Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Highlights the Power of Living with Your Demons

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Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Highlights the Power of Living with Your Demons

Anyone who’s followed me on Twitter for a number of years knows I do not suffer silently. When I have gone through mental health issues, I “post through it,” making poor judgments as to what to share with an audience of literally anyone.

To anyone who’s known me in person for a number of years, the Twitter tirades look quaint. I’ve screamed at people I love, trauma-dumped on sometimes complete strangers and engaged in self-harm such as scratching or hitting myself.

I would live in cycles, ranging from four to six months each, of relative mental wellness followed by increasingly intense and unmanageable mental illness, primarily driven by worsening bipolar disorder symptoms. 

In 2021, I received a medical withdrawal from college because my ability to keep up with classes was nonexistent, especially with the days-long insomnia episodes that would leave me at the edge of consciousness.

In 2022, I experienced my first and only psychotic episode, perhaps worsened by my mental illness but triggered by bad medications. Although it was relatively mild, it lasted for two weeks, during which I would hear songs that weren’t playing, have delusions that I was being watched or judged and have explosive outbursts of emotion where I would scream at the top of my lungs as if I were being murdered. Around the same time, I experienced intense dissociation where I would temporarily lose all sense of where I was and what time it was, as well as my first panic attack where I believed whole-heartedly that I was about to die.

I scared and hurt so many people close to me. I lost opportunities I will never get back. And in 2022, I checked into a psychiatric hospital as I was deemed a danger to myself.

In the Hellblade games, Ninja Theory has been forthright about accurately portraying mental illness, particularly psychosis, as it is experienced by its main character Senua (who is played by Melina Juergens). I’ve never been fully convinced that everything in the games is a hallucination, and the second game cements that belief for me. If we take the fantastical world of Hellblade, with its demons, giants and gods, to be real, with the voices and visions Senua sees as the only hallucinations, its sequel, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, tells a much more hopeful and empowering story for those suffering and recovering from mental illness.

Although for me, getting better was a combination of time, circumstances improving, support from my family and friends and lots of therapy, what really turned my life around was a little pill I still take every night: an antipsychotic medication. Even though I was only psychotic for two weeks as a result of another medication, antipsychotics can be incredibly helpful for treating other mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder.

It’s been nearly two years since I was prescribed that first pill, and my life feels so different that I have trouble recognizing myself as the same person as before. I still occasionally get depressed or anxious or even a little manic, but it’s much more manageable and almost always related to my circumstances instead of a neurochemical imbalance in my brain. But I’m now able to live my life, hold a job, maintain relationships and engage in my hobbies in a much more healthy way. I actually want to live now, and at times, I’m even excited for my future.

Although Hellblade II is a little disappointing as a game—it feels like a step back from the original’s puzzles and combat—I found its story to be just as impactful as the original’s, and I was taken aback at how each game mirrored my own experiences. I played the first game in 2020, a horrible year for everyone, myself included. Although Senua makes some sort of peace with her psychosis and mental illness by the end, much of the game shows her in absolute agony, screaming and crying as her voices tell her how worthless she is. I felt a less dramatic but no less real anguish in my life at the time I experienced the story.

Four years later, I am now in a place where I am well enough to be there for others experiencing mental illness. Sometimes with people close to me and sometimes with relative strangers I meet online, I will tell the story of my journey and how I never imagined I would be where I am today, if I was alive at all. I have written about my experiences with mental health and neurodivergence multiple times in the past. As someone in sustained recovery, I feel a responsibility and drive to be there for people who were where I once was and to be a resource for them, just like those in my life helped me through my darkest moments.

Hellblade II doesn’t do away with Senua’s psychosis or mental illness, but she now often confronts or ignores the voices. She also meets several companions on her journey. Near the end of the game, they cross through a forest that essentially gives her companions psychotic episodes. As the only one who has learned how to deal with these, Senua reaches out to each of her friends one by one, guiding them through the forest to get to the other side. This is why I believe the story is more impactful if we accept the fantasy elements of the story to be real and not figments of her imagination: Senua is actually an active agent in her world, carving a path to improve it and supporting her friends along the way.

If you are struggling with mental illness of any sort, I can’t promise it will get better. I definitely can’t promise it will stay better. But I am living proof that it absolutely can and does happen, and there are so many more success stories from people coming from much darker places than anywhere I had gone. The most beautiful message I took away from Hellblade II was that once you can get better yourself, you can start the work of being there for other people who need you.

Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game InformerTwinfinite and Looper. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.

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