Combat and Character Design in Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is an indie game developed by Ninja Theory centered around a Pictish warrior named Senua. Her story is a mash-up of Celtic myth, mental health, and a recently recovered Roman goddess. On Thursday, the developer has updated their Developer Diary with new, in-development footage of in-game combat.


Ninja Theory has made a conscious design choice to eliminate any use of a heads-up display, instead conveying gameplay cues and feedback entirely through visuals and sound. Certain animations, lights, and particle effects indicate the efficacy and follow-up potential of strikes, while enemy health is shown through actual cuts, wounds, and bleed effects.

Even the lighting and weather effects in the game have been coded to shift dynamically in sync with Senua's status and moods. This makes the graphic and visceral quality of the game far more than eye candy, potentially taking the gaming experience to another level.


The gameplay and graphics of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice are not the only reasons this game is looking good for gamers interested in something new and willing to push boundaries, in large part due to its strongly-written female lead. In an early development diary, Dominic Matthews of Ninja Theory explains:
"Common wisdom in the games industry is that it's risky to have female lead, as games with a female lead are harder to sell than those with a male lead. But given that Hellblade is an independent, self-published, and self-funded game, we were only concerned with creating a character that's right for our story."
The story is as layered as it is dark. Senua's island home of Orkney is invaded by Vikings, her people are wiped out in apocalyptic fashion. Rather than centering this on a straightforward war or revenge narrative, Senua simultaneously embarks on a personal journey that explores her own mental health: the underworld you traverse as Senua is constructed from both the Viking invasion reality outside her mind, and psychotic manifestations from within.

I'm highly intrigued and excited by this game, which causes me to analyze and critique certain aspects; as with all incredible and inspiring pieces of art, the engagement of it is at least a two-way street and for me, certain questions arise.


The story and character of Senua is the brainchild of Tameem Antoniades, Ninja Theory's Chief Creative. He can recognize sexism in game design, but is perhaps a bit oblivious to his own problematic statements. Still, Antoniades seems interested in challenging sexist industry norms in his original notes about Senua:
"She is a challenging female form: not sexy, not skimpy, not young, not skinny, yet stunning, compelling, and believable." – Hellblade Development Diary 3: Senua
Looking at the final Senua design, I have to question if they've achieved all of those goals. On the positive side, they've abandoned the "scantily-clad savage" trope and her outfit avoids usage of the inscrutable pseudo-modern waist cincher that so many games are guilty of inexplicably tossing in. Senua is appropriately-muscled for a warrior: larger than your standard female Hollywood action star and more in line with what see with mixed-martial artists of today.

Although, the original facial captures (done wonderfully by Melina Juergens) for Senua's design included pores and wrinkles, yet her in-game face appears somewhat flawless, other than "sexy dirt" and a few strategically-placed, but still attractive scars. Like Melina, she has the face of an angel, and I'm left wondering if they could have pushed the boundaries a bit further.

Additionally, Senua's hair is in dreadlocks, which is a common but historically-inaccurate portrayal of Viking, Celtic, and Pictish cultures. Historical evidence suggests that these cultures didn't wear them, but film and TV series inaccuracies have nonetheless fueled belief in this falsity among some fans and enthusiasts.

This inaccuracy could be borne from misconceptions about how dreadlocks (or locs) are formed. Locs are formed naturally from clean and naturally kinky hair, which is why it's commonly seen in black African culture. The hair of white Europeans does not loc naturally, and requires weeks of what would otherwise be considered neglect to achieve a superficially similar appearance. Thus the belief that dreadlocks (a term whose origins are from white Europeans denigrating black African locs) are the product of unwashed and unkempt hair is doubly inaccurate in this usage. Historical evidence indicates that Vikings, for example, were known to take great care in combing out and washing their hair and bodies.


I'm very impressed with the gameplay Ninja Theory has shown of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice so far and despite what is a glaring misstep for me, I think it's clear that a lot of consideration and care has otherwise gone into main character's design. I'm looking forward to the day that I can get my hands on what seems like a very surreal, technical, imaginative, and emotional journey.

If you're as interested as I am, I encourage you to follow the game at its various social media touchpoints and support this cool indie publisher.



Adrian Martinez is a graphic designer, comic book letterer, hobbyist writer, and all-around geek living in New York City.