Saturday, April 8, 2017

Development Hellblade

Mental trauma is associated with schizophrenia,
but it's unclear whether it is a symptom or a cause.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was announced back in 2014 as a third-person action game set in Dark Ages Britain.  The titular main character, Senua, is part of a Celtic community that is devastated by norse raiders.  Being one of the few (or possibly only) survivor of the attack, she takes it upon herself to get revenge.  The twist is she isn't a very mentally healthy individual and is often plagued by hallucinations, voices and other problems typically associated with insanity.  It's an interesting idea for a game, but also has a lot of potential pitfalls.

For one, the game developers like to use the term "psychosis" to describe Senua's mental illness.  The problem is psychosis, by definition, can mean anything from trivialities like a child's imaginary friend or night terrors to dire issues such as schizophrenia or hypothyroidism.  Each classification has it's own particular set of symptoms and subcategories.  Schizophrenia, for example, has five separate subtypes including "paranoid," "disorganized" and "catatonic," each of which has its own rigorously defined set of symptoms.  I get the impression that the developers of Hellblade (at least initially) simply read a bunch of articles about what it's like to experience various kinds of psychosis and thought, "Hey, this is creepy and interesting.  We should totally make a game about this sort of thing!"  The problem is, it becomes a kind of insanity blender that doesn't have much to do with real mental health issues.  Of course, that's fine if the source of the madness is supernatural in nature, say in Silent Hill or Call of Cthulhu.  However, the devs have taken great pains to make the game feel authentic.  They've gone so far as to bring on two Cambridge professors (one a historian and the other a psychologist) as consultants.  Even Senua's character model has been meticulously detailed all the way down to her fingerprints.

Hallucinations are influenced by personal experiences,
but have shared aspects between individuals as well.
Despite taking longer than intended, the development team working on Hellblade has progress to the point that the game reached an Alpha state (playable from beginning to end) last year with a scheduled release date set tentatively to sometime in 2017.  Based on what I can gather from the dev diaries, it looks like the viking enemies in the game will appear distorted and unnatural due to Senua's poor mental health.  It's a cool idea, and not as far fetched as one might imagine.  We tend to think of our eyes as cameras and ears as microphones, but in reality quite a bit of what we see and hear is interpreted by our subconscious.  More specifically, parts of the brain that aren't executive function interpret the incoming data before passing it up to the command center (so to speak).  To put it in video game terms the human mind works a bit like the PS3 multi-core cell processor wherein the component that makes up a person's consciousness is only a small piece of a much larger whole.  Consider the fact that you don't have to actively think about things like blinking or breathing, your body just does it automatically.  Of course, you can control it directly so what's happening there is the frontal lobes of your brain are assuming control over a task normally left to the cerebral cortex to handle.  On the other hand something like heart rate isn't easy for most people to exercise authority over, and some functions of the body are completely impossible to control directly.  For better or worse, the same sort of thing can be said for the senses.  Mudding the waters further still is the subjective interpretation of sensory inputs.
Close your right eye and focus your left eye on the black spot.
At a viewing distance of about 6 to 8 inches from your monitor
the "+" symbol should vanish from view.

What tastes or smells good to one person might be foul and disgusting to another depending on how each individual's brain interprets olfactory data.  Even eyesight has this to a degree.  The human brain is constantly trying to apply patterns to visual data and fill in the blanks.  A really easy way to demonstrate this is with the blind spots we all have due to the way our eyeballs connect to the optic nerve.  The reason you don't have a blank patch in each eye's cone of vision is because your brain automatically compensates by guessing what's there.  In the case of someone suffering from dementia, they are increasingly unable to apply patterns leading to a decline in cognitive function.  Meanwhile a schizophrenic applies patterns haphazardly resulting in wildly incorrect interpretations of external stimuli. Personally, I'm curious to see what the game developers do with this sort of phenomenon in terms of puzzles and atmosphere - ditto for 3D sound and the controller rumble.

Sadly, story-wise I don't things are going to end well for Senua.  Effective antipsychotic medicines didn't exist until the 1950s.  Worse yet throughout most of human history the extremely mentally unwell were subjected to "treatments" such as bloodletting, trepanning and a variety of trials by ordeal involving water.  None of this helped, and in most cases did considerable harm. Regardless, fingers crossed that this turns out to be a psychological masterpiece (albeit inevitably tragic in nature).  If the developer's track record is anything to go by it's unlikely to be a very long game.  My guess is six hours tops.  That might be good thing though all things considered.  I just hope the time spent in her messed up head feels worth it.

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