Understanding Psychosis Through Interactive Medium

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In our society, the concept of mental illness is considered taboo. People consider the victims to be lying or in a delusion. They are even ready to believe it as a work of witchcraft but are not ready to consider it as a normal illness. It is because it cannot be seen or ‘felt’ by the people not experiencing it. That is where the audio and visual experiences like movies, audio documentaries and games play an important role.

Let us talk about visual media first. Movies like ‘A beautiful Mind’ correctly depicts Nash’s (the protagonist) gradual onset of paranoid schizophrenia. Now this term itself is boring even to read, yet to feel. Thus, these mediums cuts all the difficult and boring part and directly lets us feel what the character is feeling in more personal way.

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There are also certain movies which light-heartedly covers several mental illnesses and makes them easier for children and parents to understand. Disney Pixar does exceptional job in this field. The movie ‘Inside Out’ directly covers the serious and taboo topic like Depression in such an imaginative way.However, through this medium, you are still watching those condition as a third person. So, it is still not enough to completely connect with those feeling.

Interactive Media can be the most important medium to create an awareness about Mental Illnesses and help curing them. It helps you immerse in the whole new world. Here, instead of watching the protagonist, you ARE the protagonist. It successfully helps you transfer his happiness, his sufferings and his fears to you. Wearing the protagonist’s shoes, you start feeling his emotions, like fear of death, joy of success etc. Still, for a long time, it was not used as a mainstream medium to raise awareness about mental problems.

An independent Game studio, Ninja Theory, released a mental horror game ‘Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’ which turned out to be commercially successful as well as the nearest depiction of Psychosis ever to be presented on an interactive medium. Without spoiling anything from the story perspective, let us have a deeper look at it.

Hellblade is a story, inspired by Norse mythology, about a viking warrior Senua, who is suffering from psychosis. She is on a quest to save her beloved Dillion, who has been slain by Northmen. Senua must go to the Norse version of hell to not just retrieve Dillion from the dead but also deal with the legacy of her ill-fated parents. The most interesting thing here is that psychosis is never mentioned throughout the game. Instead, it is shown that whole village considered her mother and her ‘cursed’. 

They even blamed her for a terrible plague, and for invasions from the wicked and dangerous Northmen. This led her, blaming herself for everything that the village accused her. It is again a subtle representation about the suffering of mentally ill people from the stigma over mental health in the society. Here, Senua sees the vision of her childhood tree, where she fell in love with Dillion getting burnt due to her ‘curse’.

Here, the psychosis is a core element of gameplay as playing as Senua, the player constantly hears the whispers, helping as well as trolling her throughout her journey. As a player, it becomes unbearable sometimes as the sounds and the screams makes us feel both, terrifying and irritating. Her imaginary companions, who mock her, haunt her and demotivate her, creates an anxiety that something bad and horrifying is about to happen. It can be seen in the video linked here.

There are also certain puzzles, which are all about perception, about seeing the environment clearly: Looking through illusions, parsing your own externalized trauma. Senua’s journey is a path to learning to see what’s real and what’s not. You never know whether her visions are real or just her imaginations. Sometimes, you are in a lush and a playful environment which suddenly transforms into a claustrophobic, dark hell. A puzzle from the game where you must find a part of the environment, resembling the symbol.

Throughout the journey, when you feel her sufferings, you start empathising her; and with her, all the other people suffering the same fate. In the end, Senua is finally able to come in terms with all the voices in her head and finally embraces them. Instead of considering it as a curse, she accepts them as a part of who she is, which depicts her victory from herself. As Dillion said ‘The hardest battles are fought in the mind, not with the sword.’

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