Playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I am struck by two things. First, that it is a distinctly British game: it has a British developer, characters with British accents and is set in an (albeit obfuscated version of) the Orkney Isles. Second, it echoes my own thoughts and feelings about being in therapy, particularly from June, 2016, just after Britain had voted to leave the European Union. I remember describing to my psychotherapist, whom as of this writing I’m still prescribed to seeing once a week, a sense of estrangement, like I didn’t recognise my own country any more. We talked and she gave me an article to read; Susie Orbach, one of Britain’s most famous psychoanalysts, said she was experiencing the same thing. In the week immediately post-Brexit, all her patients were feeling “dismayed,” “misplaced” and “unwanted.” “Notions of what the UK has stood for in people’s consciousness are being shredded,” wrote Orbach. “The vote was experienced as an assault on senses of self, of identity and community…”
By the time Britain voted Leave, Hellblade had already been in production for more than two years. But its depiction of Senua, struggling, also, to retain her sense of self, as she navigates a distorted UK, reflects a current, national mood. For various reasons, Hellblade might be seen as reflecting Brexit Britain.
After 43 years in the European Union, the Brexit vote marks a drastic change—or at least, the beginning of a drastic change—in British national identity. Once Brexit is finalised and implemented, the UK will become a sovereign rather than European country. It will no longer have to implement EU laws and will possibly lose its access to the European single market. Freedom of movement, which permits EU passport holders to travel to the UK for work, and vice-versa, may also be rescinded.
Moreover, immediately after Brexit, David Cameron and the majority of his Cabinet resigned. A year later, their replacements, including Prime Minister Theresa May, only narrowly won re-election. Owing to these political upsets and our Brexit deal still being unresolved, it feels like Britain is in flux. No-one can say for certain how the land lies.
Hellblade’s version of Britain contorts as you play. Entire sections of a building or a bridge hang in mid-air. Staircases vanish and re-appear each time you look away. You get trapped in a concrete maze, which rewrites and elongates itself every time you take a wrong turn. Navigating this world is confusing and you’re never entirely sure where you are, either in relation to the environments previously explored or where you’re trying to reach. It’s a Britain that’s literally in a constant state of transition. To walk through it is to feel confused. To know exactly where you’re heading, or how you got to where you are, is difficult.
Newspapers, politicians, EU experts: Everybody said Brexit wouldn’t happen. When it did, it was by a remarkably slim margin: 51.89% for Leave, 48.11% for Remain. The morning after the vote, on June 24th, the Leave campaign reneged on its promise to allocate the UK’s EU contributions—£350 million a week—to the National Health Service. Now, more than a year later, a Brexit deal has yet to be drafted, let alone finalised. Two Conservative Cabinet ministers are allegedly planning to form an anti-Brexit party; encapsulating our uncertainty, just after polling booths closed on referendum day, record numbers of Britons were recorded Google-searching “what is the EU?”
As Senua walks around Britain, she is assailed by dozens of different voices, telling her either contradictory information—“open the gate,” “don’t open the gate!”—or outright lying to her. Her deceased friend and spirit guide, Druth, regales her with extended, abstruse fables—the more Druth talks about mythical lands and ancient weapons, the harder he is to follow. As much as its grotesque of Great Britain, you become overwhelmed by Hellblade’s excessive information. Several times, Senua grabs her head and screams at the voices to stop. She can’t make sense of them and neither can we.
Especially at the end of Hellblade, when Senua realizes she cannot revive her dead boyfriend and that her entire quest, in a sense, has been false, it’s clear what she was told was also not outright trustworthy.
In trying to revive her dead boyfriend, named Dillion, Senua is also trying to return to a more idyllic, former life. The “darkness” encroaching on her is almost solely credited to his death; with him back by her side, like the old days, Senua expects everything in her life to become instantly better.
When Senua fantasises about reuniting with Dillion she imagines them together in a different, brighter Britain. In these sequences, the bleak landscape around her is replaced by green tress and sunshine—it’s a better, older time. The Brexit vote as well felt like an appeal, or part of a trying to get back to, a former and romanticised kind of UK. “Take back control.” “Take back our borders.” These were slogans of the Leave campaign. The United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, which spearheaded Leave, printed on its own election leaflets images of Winston Churchill. Its leader, Nigel Farage, repeatedly posed for photographs holding a pint of beer or a cigarette, seemingly trying encapsulate his party’s ostensible no frills, good-old-fashioned common sense. In short, the Brexit vote will reverse more than four decades of UK-EU cooperation, and its proponents expect it to strengthen both the British economy and national identity: it will take Britain back to a previous, sovereign state and, like Senua dreaming about Dillion, is anticipated by its supporters to make a lot of things here better.
The results remain to be seen. But a year after Brexit, and facing political turmoil, a highly ambiguous economic situation and the terrifying prospects of immigration bans and deportations, I personally remain unconvinced that reverting to some kind of past national model is or will be an improvement for my country.
Similarly, in the conclusion of Hellblade, when it’s revealed Dillion is in fact dead for good and cannot be resurrected, the only way for Senua to get on with her life becomes (quite literally, since she carries his severed head as a memento) to let Dillion go. She relinquishes her past and the voices in her mind seem to quieten down. She moves forward, not back. And it’s better for her.
Perhaps a minor or bathetic point to make, but considering some of Britain’s current political conversation, I appreciate Hellblade’s international cast. Developed in Cambridge, England, it’s also narrated by Chipo Chung, an actor born in Tanzania. Druth is played by Dubliner Nicholas Boulton and Senua herself is German-born Melina Juergens.
Brexit was predicated on the idea that Britain would be better off, in basically every respect, including and especially culturally, if it were out of Europe. After so much chest-beating about who the country is really “for,” a production like Hellblade, by benefiting from the collaboration of non-British and non-English people, helps exemplify at least one half of the Brexit debate. It’s made via international cooperation, and seems simply interested in other people from other places. In Britain’s ongoing political and social debates, the advantages of internationalism, whether economic or cultural, are worth reiterating.
I voted Remain, but feel vicariously, ambiently, responsible for Brexit. My attitude toward the referendum was lazy—“it’ll never happen.” And as much as I might criticize that back-to-good-old-British-values dogma, I’m also happy to cash it in: the diluted, reflective glory of being British, being an Englishman, being from the country that won two world wars, is something I quietly enjoy, and get all prideful and tumescent about. Essentially, I appreciate the sentiment.
Despite the prospects of destabilizing Europe and appearing reckless in front of the entire world, we still voted Leave. I don’t think it’s unequivocally myopic or founded in xenophobia or misinformation, but there’s something congenitally sovereign about British identity. Or at least, that’s how I feel, when I’m really being honest with myself.
And so it fits that Senua’s confusion, melancholy—the thing that troubles her—emanates largely from within. Her “darkness” is framed as an intensely personal affliction. She is on her quest not to save an entire world, but change something about herself. On the contrary, there is broader malevolence about her environment. There are things out there trying to subvert or destroy her. But getting rid of them is only possible once Senua herself changes—her fight back begins insider herself. It might be too easy a moral lesson, but if Brexit—be it culturally, internationally or economically, or all three—ends up damaging the UK preventing something like it happening again would take an encompassing shift in national attitude, a shift that would likely begin with individuals, like me, rethinking how they think.
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed and find more of his work at bulletpointsmonthly.com.