Senua and designing female characters

This is an article I’d written about a year ago around the time the game first came out, but I never published. Now, as the game has won several BAFTAs, I’ve decided to revisit this topic.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that deserves praise. It has accomplished so many things that few game developers seem brave enough to even attempt. First of all, the creative minds at Ninja Theory chose a female protagonist, which – for those of us keeping track – is already a significant rarity. More importantly, they chose to give us a female protagonist that is more than eye candy, the closest example I could think of being Lara Croft of recent iterations, and Aloy of Horizon: Zero Dawn. As if that wasn’t enough, the decision was made to focus on this female protagonist dealing with a form of psychosis. Now that’s brave. Especially since this was not done in any kind of simplistic or ham-fisted sort of way, but with great care and attention to both represent it faithfully and respectfully. If choosing a female protagonist is akin to walking on coals, this might as well mean throwing away your shoes and replacing them with gasoline-dipped socks.

Well done. Well done indeed.

I’m not here to speak on the mental health issue. I do not feel equipped to do so. However, I would like to put the spotlight on Senua and shower her with the praise she deserves. From her aesthetic design, to her personality, she is a truly unique character.

From the outset we are met with a warrior. The game starts with the character literally (and yes, I mean literally in the literal sense) going to Hel (with one “L” because it’s the Norse version). Initially, her motivations and history are unclear, but as the game progresses we learn more about her. She is a warrior of her tribe – Pictish would be my best guess – and, for once in a videogame, I can say that this female character undoubtedly looks the part. The “barbarian” trope was not used as an excuse to expose skin. Except for her arms (more on that in a bit), Senua is covered head-to-toe in hide and fur. One might even go so far as to call this armour. Interesting to note that nearly all the mostly male enemies she encounters are bare-chested.

Furthermore, unlike the “Hollywood” protagonist whom neither mud nor dust ever seem to touch, Senua starts the game in a bit of a state and it only gets worse from there. Mud, muck, blood and who knows what else in literal Viking Hel – she’s drenched in it all. Gashes from multiple wounds show up as the game progresses and – remember those bare arms I mentioned? – her arm is consumed by a slow-moving rot that spreads the more you die (allegedly, it’ll kill her if she dies too many times – but that’s another topic entirely).

Finally, the trope of the “strong female character” has had its detractors. It certainly is a good idea and something we need to see more of in videogames (and other media). But the nature of videogame narratives seems to make them rely on a simplified form of storytelling and some tropey shorthand to deliver their message. Unfortunately, this often turns said strong female character into a kind of parody of itself. An example of this is equating “strong” with “able to dish out violence” (the implication of violence and strength being inherently male characteristics is exactly the kind of thing that videogames often struggle with).

Senua is a strong character. Fullstop. Pictish, female and other adjectives to describe her may as well be secondary. The fact that she is a woman is a blessing to videogames – one that I sincerely hope the medium as a whole learns from and embraces. The fact that she’s a Pictish (or possibly Celtic) protagonist in a game steeped in Norse mythology is even better. But most importantly, she shows the kind of strength that one simply has to admire in anyone. Her going to (again, I say) literal Hel is only the start of her strength. Her determination shines in the face of all forms of adversity. She has the strength to say no when others would have her change (yes, change because she is a woman), and she has the strength to face the gods of the Northmen and demand a reckoning for the wrongs she has suffered at their whim.

That is exactly the kind of strength you want in a character who struggles with psychosis. That is exactly the kind of hero I want to be inspired by.

I can’t say if she is the hero we deserve, but Senua is the kind of hero we most certainly need right now.