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The Audio of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Ninja Theory sure have evolved as creators since their entry into the game development world. Way back when, they were known as Just Add Monsters, a young studio that brought us 2003 beat ‘em up, Kung Fu Chaos. Today, Ninja Theory’s latest release, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, is a gritty and emotionally challenging hack-and-slash title where players take on the role of Senua, a heroine who is struggling through some grave problems.

Part of what makes Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice so engaging is its unique take on audio. During a development diary, Ninja Theory showcased their efforts in capturing sound like never before, using what is known as binaural audio recording.

A binaural microphone takes in and records sounds in a way that emulates human hearing. Two microphones, separated by roughly a hand’s length, act as two “ears”, and allow some truly unsettling audio styles to be exploited.

As seen – well, actually heard – in the Hellblade Development Diary 15: Binaural Audio Test, the effect is eerie, almost as if you have voices in your head. This is a crucial style on which Hellblade bases its plot, as Senua struggles with deep psychosis. Ninja Theory are tackling one of the hidden demons of our time, mental illness, a crippling problem for millions of people, and a point not discussed enough.

For developers, the opportunity to tackle serious issues and raise awareness of topics is always a consideration. PlayStation Lifestyle had the opportunity to talk with Ninja Theory about how they were able to walk the knife’s edge when tackling a difficult topic like mental health, an issue so easily turned into tropes:

The Cambridge-based studio has consulted world-leading neuroscientists and non-profit organizations like Wellcome Trust to properly capture the experience of psychosis and its devastating effects on the human mind.

You can feel the effect of this care and attention to detail as you dive into the world, and mind, of Senua and experience an inkling of what it must be like to suffer as she does, and as so many do around the world. The visions of a landscape changing, the unsettling dread, and the subtle and sometimes overt voices from the depths of Senua’s mind – your mind – all work together to paint a picture of someone hurting.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice tackles mental illness using sound.

The audio in Hellblade is beyond anything you will experience in gaming. Every voice or whisper you hear sounds as if it originates from within your mind, while sounds from the environment try to draw you away or make you question your actions. It’s a deeply disturbing use of sound that is unrivalled by other forms of entertainment.

The team at Ninja Theory have created something truly meaningful in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Their passion for tackling mental illness is to be commended, and their method of giving people a glimpse into the mind of someone who suffers as such is both courageous and inspirational.

If you haven’t already, get your hands on a copy of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. And if you, or someone you know, is suffering with mental illness, reach out to your state or county’s mental health helplines.