Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice erases your progress if you let the rot scaling the protagonist’s arm reach her mind. Or does it? I’m not going to get into the specifics of this system because Ninja Theory kindly asked me not to spoil it at all, but it does raise a wider question about games and how they can subvert expectations in order to achieve their aims.
In the case of the abovementioned Celtic adventure, every mechanic is designed to reflect its key theme: psychosis and mental health. As I stated in my review, the camera is kept uncharacteristically close for the genre, creating a sense of claustrophobia. When enemies spawn behind you, it’s hard to track them, creating stress.
The voices that the dreadlocked heroine hears sometimes alert you to danger, but aren’t always reliable. And on top of all of that, there’s the lingering threat of permadeath: will your next mistake end your game – or (like the lead character) are you merely fearing something that doesn’t really exist? I’ll let you discover that.
There’s been a bit of a backlash to Hellblade’s save system – but isn’t this an example of the medium being used effectively? I’ve always maintained that, for as much as I love games, there’s so much more that could be done with them. And while I personally don’t have the imagination to realise the medium’s potential myself, my stance is always affirmed when I see examples like this.
I was definitely sweating playing during my playthrough of Senua’s Sacrifice – review deadlines and lost progress should never collide. But as I look back on my run through the campaign I realise how clever this system is: I feared the unknown just like the protagonist in the story. There is no other form of entertainment that can trigger this kind of reaction.
And it’s not just Hellblade that’s proved the power of games through the subversion of rules. Sticking with save systems, the infamous ink ribbon in Resident Evil reflects resource management. But there are also things like the Psycho Mantis boss battle in Metal Gear Solid or the conclusion to NieR Automata – game mechanics looked at through a different lens to instigate a response.
So I don’t think this should be discouraged: it’s what makes games special. If you’re planning to pick up Hellblade today then by all means worry, panic, fret, and fear for your progress each time you fail – but don’t wish the mechanic away. All of those emotions are intrinsically linked to the title's story, and we should celebrate it when games leverage their unique attributes to elicit a deeper emotional response.
What do you make of Hellblade’s permadeath mechanic? Should games adhere to a strict set of rules, or do you think these expectations exist to be altered? Lose all of your progress in the comments section below.