Video games mean a lot to me. They are not just a medium of entertainment but also provide unique experiences. They offer a chance to reinvent perception while acting in the safety of their confines. It is this property of the medium that I value the most. This article tells a personal story, one I believe is very important to tell even though I struggle with how to convey it. It tells about how the interactivity of video games helped me work through my grief about losing my mother. At least, how it contributed for a large part to the processing of it.

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Hellblade is a game that tells the story of Senua, a Celtic warrior woman who travels to the Norse realm of the dead to retrieve the soul of her beloved. Obviously this article includes some spoilers, and I really do urge you to play the game first to experience it for yourself. I talk about some game progression first because it feels important to do so. I can’t imagine not trying to convey to you how the game built up its effect for me, because it’s the sum of its parts that made an impact on me. Emphasis on trying, because I can’t let you feel what I felt while playing through this game.

To me, Hellblade was a story that connected with me over the loss of someone dearly loved and how the resulting grief can take hold and fester into a darkness that seeps into everyday life. Surely, there are vast differences between the game’s protagonist and my experiences, but there were also elements that we shared. At the start of Hellblade, I simply followed the story, getting to know Senua’s world and listening to the lorestone myths. Shortly after I, as a player, became in tune with the game world & how I perceived it, Senua touched the gate to Helheim and the darkness manifested on her arm. A clear demonstration on what it meant was shown as she writhed on the ground and rotted away before my eyes, and I felt a whisper of anxiety. The game had just introduced perma-death and I worried whether I could bring Senua to the end of her journey in the first run. It wasn’t that I would hate to have to replay parts of the game; I would hate for Senua to succumb to the darkness since I had just seen what that was like. My anxiety only increased when the game later taunted that, sometimes, the darkness grows even if you are victorious. Where other games usually feel light under the pretense that a game-over is simply the story being told wrong, Hellblade felt much heavier in weight.

We set off. I steered Senua to Valravn’s and Surtr’s domains, gritting my teeth at their challenges as they tried to bring about an early end to my play-through. The game made me grit my teeth a lot of times to be honest. There was more and more to lose the further we progressed and every little victory in combat and puzzle became incredibly valuable. Senua had taken on an important quest: to save her beloved from hell. But throughout her life she had also taken on a lot of voices. They screamed in our ears at the tiniest setback. They whispered among themselves the second I had to take a moment to work out a puzzle. They irritated me greatly with their constant denigration and laughter, obliterating any sense of accomplishment. I hated their negativity, and pretty soon I learned to mock them just as hard as they mocked me. It was gratifying, and in its own way empowered my resolve to see Senua reach her destination and fulfill her quest. So far Hellblade’s fights and conversations had my investment, but they weren’t terribly personal. That changed the moment I got Gramr, the broken sword.


The trials to get Gramr were interesting puzzles, but they had not prepared me for the hellscape that was the price for the blade. The river of blood and the clawing wall of burned corpses were unreal. I ran headlong into the swordsmen that appeared like apparitions, dodging and weaving and striking. They fell, and so did the group that followed after, and I rejoiced. But my glee was short lived as throughout the chasm of writhing burned bodies I was met with foe upon foe. Fighting the seemingly endless numbers of warriors that came at me became exhausting, and when a warrior carrying two axes showed up who matched me in speed and skill I again felt the fear of losing everything. I shouted and snarled at the enemy, cursing their speed. I somehow managed to survive, tiredly dragging Senua from the river. We traversed the rest of the path, and I watched in horror at the sight of Senua’s mother crying in this hell world. It stuck with me, grasped at me, being only slightly diminished by the bright beach area to which we were returned. I could still hear her. The voices chirped their return and promised their aid, but I cared very little for them; they said they would help but they were obviously lying. As I made my way through Fenrir’s maze, I kept repeating to myself to stop listening to the voices, period. I worked through the puzzles, another scene with Senua’s mother was ringing in my ears and weighing down my heart. They were the ones that didn’t just awaken my compassion, but my sorrow as well. We continued down through the dark maze of caverns until we found Fenrir: a nightmarish giant of a beast. He took a piece of Senua’s arm, but I fought back harder on the next turn, listening and slashing and again snarling at the dark. I hated the concealed fight, the flashes. The noise thundered through my headphones, and it enraged me. Fenrir was a bossfight, and it felt as if its combat form asked me how hard I would be willing to fight even when I had to strike with senses other than sight. Fenrir truly embodied giving in to depression for me. The game had forced me down into a pit for a long while, and at the bottom was this beast hellbent on keeping me there. It was likely that symbolism that made this fight one of the most intense ones I ever went through.

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Surviving Fenrir meant that the rest of the game became rather easy. Even the combat waves on the broken bridge were only a bother due to the camera work not being optimal for the confined space. I reached the endgame hall, blithely laughing at the voices who were suddenly clamoring not to go because they didn’t want to die. I’ll be honest and admit that I took satisfaction in their despair, and strode through the mirror without hesitation.

I landed right into a cinematic of Senua’s mother’s death that might’ve been meant as some sort of explanation. Except for me, it didn’t explain a lot. Instead, I had no trouble knowing Senua’s grief and that just made her actions very understandable for me. Her mother’s broken voice tore at me, reached in and grabbed at my heart. The voice of the darkness, I barely registered what it said. Just Senua’s presence, her determination, her rage awakening at the realization of being deceived. We ran onto the first platform and tore through the enemies with full combat mastery. We rushed onto the next platform where ghosts of Fenrir, Surtr, and Valravn were waiting and now I took some hits. The feeling of despair for losing everything came back in full force; I fought even harder, made Senua dodge and strike wildly while praying and hoping we’d make it. Thankfully we did, and we stepped onto the platform where Hela shrank back. It was so incredibly satisfying to see her become smaller, and my heart skipped a beat as we approached, ready to dodge any attack from her. I hoped we were ramping up for a merciless kill, an intense fight with a bloody severing of the darkness’s hold. Senua would save Dillion, they would live and- the camera shifted as new enemies emerged from the void. Part of me cursed, another wasn’t entirely surprised. It was acceptable. One last fight, and then we’d sink our blade into this god-

The voices had changed.
I swear they had been deriding me nonstop throughout the game. They had been replaced by an ethereal music when we were hacking our way through the first platform. But what was whispering in my ears now was a voice of concern and care and sorrow. It told me to stop, to let go of my battle. It pleaded again and again and I scoffed and laughed and scorned it. I wasn’t going to stop, I was going to fight, and I was going to win! We had come so far, to even consider giving up was preposterous. Yet after a good long while of fighting I could not help but consider what I was doing. Enemies fell, and enemies appeared. Looking towards Hela in the center of the platform, taunting but out of reach, I remembered the cinematic of Senua’s mother in the fire. I remembered their similarity and at that point I saw the situation in an entirely different light. Hela indeed wasn’t real. She wasn’t a ‘god’. She was a delusion. She was a fixation. A traumatic memory that had festered and taken hold, the grief never processed. It clicked with me that there was no beloved soul to save from hell. The fight in front of Hela was obsession in action. We wanted to destroy her, to do that one thing that would give us a sense of agency over events that had been completely out of our control. I had been so focused on winning the fight and getting here that I had been fighting this particular battle for a while now and only now noticed that it was endless. The obsession had taken hold of me, too. Because over time, through fighting Valravn, and Surtr, and Fenrir, and listening and feeling, Hellblade had shared its emotions with me. And I had shared my emotions with it. And I too wanted to see Hela bleed, because it would give me a feeling of control and that would heal the pain in my heart about events over which I had had no control.

Except, it wouldn’t heal my heart. And it wouldn’t change reality. And if Hela was the embodiment of fixation and obsession, then dropping everything to try and ram a sword through her seemed like just the thing that would keep me chained in that obsession.
The voice pleaded again for me to stop, and this time, I listened.


After my mother passed away, I hardly spoke of what it did to me. Talking about it was difficult, and it just became harder and harder as time passed. The world marched on too quickly and was out of synch with the flow of my emotions. When the wave of my grief was at a high I was locked in obligations. Once I finally wrestled away to be able to seek consolation, the wave had crashed and I was numb from its impact. If the world stopped to ask me how I felt it often did so at the end of conversations, during the grabbing of a coat. Or it filled in the answer for me because I was fine. Right? But I wasn’t fine. I was traveling in the opposite direction of fine. Eventually I stopped talking about my feelings altogether, stopped expressing myself. And my grief festered within me. I became cynical with the world and lost the enthusiasm that people knew me for. I felt hollow.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice made a difference because it invited me to express myself. It was easy. By freely expressing themselves, Senua, the voices with her, and her enemies gradually helped me face my own emotions and memories. Whatever feelings and nasty memories I had, hidden away and no longer spoken, I could consider them as I dodged, circled and slashed at the enemies in a flurry of activity. There was rage in me as a result of my experiences, and here was a space that allowed me to face it and dissipate it. The game had a healing structure, whether it was intentional or by accident. It prodded at my compassion, unlocking my emotions through story. It would throw me into combat where action was mandatory, a moment where I could let the fire of my anger decimate something without being afraid that it would break things I didn’t want broken. We would go through puzzles (which were quite often about making things from broken pieces), which provided me with a chance to rest and reflect. And before that rest could become a return to the habit of hiding my feelings, the game executed a well-placed surprise attack demanding me to stay active. Then at the very end, when I was fighting so incredibly hard for victory, it masterfully shifted my perspective on what it means to overcome grief. And to accept reality.

That is another reason why I took the time to write this article. As was mentioned in the opening paragraph, I struggled with conveying this personal story. But just the very act of trying to explain how much Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice helped me is evidence to how much lighter and more at ease I now feel with my reality.

Date: 04-06-2018
Author: E. Albers
Editor: C. Schwartz