GamesBeat: It was validating for a lot of people?
Antoniades: Well, what was great was, once the game was out, we got so many messages, which we put into our accolades trailer. It felt like it would be flippant, when we made that trailer, to just put in press comments or whatever saying it’s great. We put in actual user comments, and we received so many of them. You’d struggle to read these letters without being moved. It really was affecting people.
The best way it seems to have helped people is that — the experience of psychosis and being stigmatized is so intensely personal that it makes you feel so alone in the world. To have something out there, an aspirational hero, a hero that’s not a victim — she’s a fighter — a hero that has these things and is able to move on and press forward and not give up, it’s rare. Just by existing, I think the game has made people feel like they’re not alone, or they shouldn’t be ashamed of this. If a game, of all things, can represent these aspects, then maybe, they’re not so unusual. We’ve had a lot of letters and emails from people who have used the game to make other people understand what they’re going through. I’d say that’s probably the best possible outcome for us.
I was also very worried about the subject of death, which is another subject we don’t talk about very often. It’s raised quite a lot in the game. I think I was worried that perhaps we should avoid that subject. The issues people have when they have severe mental health issues — they’re long-standing, ingrained, repetitive thought patterns that are really powerful. It’s not one game or one thing that will tip them over the edge. Whenever I had that choice — should we talk about this, should we put this in the game or not — I always fell on the side of truth. If this is what people go through, what they think, what they talk about to us in our interviews, then we’ll represent that, rather than trying to romanticize it.
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GamesBeat: To you, is the world of Hellblade real, or is it a metaphor for Senua’s imagination?
Antoniades: A theme in the game is that no one’s reality is “real.” When you’re stepping into Senua’s shoes, you can only ever see her reality. There is no other reality that you can step into and say, “Aha, that was that, and this is this.” I would say that her journey is real, as in she is physically traveling. It’s not all a dream. I’ve said that much before.
GamesBeat: A fair amount of it is rooted in history, facts about the Vikings coming into the Orkney Islands and so on.
Antoniades: Yeah. The Vikings did land on Orkney, and they did replace the Pictish population. We don’t know how. There were trading routes between Britain and Scandinavia. We brought on a professor from Cambridge, Dr. Elizabeth Ashman Rowe — she’s an expert in Celtic and Viking history — as a consultant. I likened the fantasy part of the game to something more like Don Quixote, where he’s fighting a windmill, but he sees it as a giant. There’s an interpretation of the world that’s fantastical, but it’s rooted in a real place.
GamesBeat: I hope you’ve accomplished something for people.
Antoniades: I hope so, too. I’m already super happy about the response so far. I do genuinely believe that it’s given a voice to some people that have been ignored. We’re all very proud of what we’ve accomplished on this game. I’m grateful to our fans, the people who’ve loved the game. It’s a great feeling, especially coming off DmC.
GamesBeat: There was a surprising controversy about the permadeath aspect of the game. I wonder if you could address that in some way. If anything made the internet crazy, it’s that.
Antoniades: Yeah, there was that. I think it made a top-five trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. and U.K. But it was there — we debated it internally as well, whether we should do that or not. We did it because it was in service of the story and the experience. We wouldn’t have done it just to make the game hard, needlessly hard. We felt justified that it added to the experience while knowing that some people wouldn’t like it.
We’ve done a lot of those things in this game. Not having a HUD, having the camera so close, the incessant voices — all of these things sound like terrible ideas when you first raise them. We knew we were trying to, first and foremost, make an experience work. If it was in aid of that experience, we put it in, knowing that it’s not going to be a game for everyone. We knew that. That’s one of the benefits of not going down the triple-A publishing route. We don’t have to be like everyone else. We don’t have to please everyone. I think the consensus is pretty good now. People get it.
GamesBeat: The facial animations turned out to be amazingly effective. Did you discover in parallel here that you could do faces that crossed this uncanny valley?
Antoniades: It was a group effort. You were there at the GDC session. It was a really concerted effort, with 3Lateral, Cubic Motion, Epic, and ourselves just focusing on one character to make that the best possible character we can. We decided to scan Melina, our actress, and so, we had a real world reference we could always look at side by side. Anything that looked slightly wrong, we could address.
In my view, the uncanny valley — when you see a character that falls in the uncanny valley, it’s because something’s wrong. Those things that are wrong can be fixed. The fact that we could fix — I wouldn’t say we fixed all of the issues, but we fixed enough of them that you believe in the character. If we hadn’t done that, this game would not have worked. It’s so much about Senua and close-ups on her. The whole thing wouldn’t have worked if she looked dead-eyed or creepy. That would have gone very badly, given the subject matter.
So yes, we did put a lot of effort into that, into the facial expressions. Melina put an extraordinary effort into her performance as well. I think it was just focusing on one thing and trying to do it really well that paid off.
GamesBeat: Why did you think Melina was the right person for the role?
Antoniades: As you probably know, she was our video editor. She was in our office. She’s a very expressive character in the office, a natural mimic and a natural comedian. I think that’s also a good sign that she can act. But she’s freely admitted that she’s experienced mental health issues in the past. I don’t mean — she said it was OK to mention that she’s had some severe issues. I felt like she could go there, as much as she was comfortable in doing. I think she was quite comfortable, after she got used to it, performing in public. She was quite happy to go to very dark places. I think she found that experience cathartic.
In some ways, she was — in some ways, the role was made for her. We were very lucky to have her. She tried to act, at the start of the process. She tried to act, and it wasn’t working. I asked her to stop acting. You can’t teach someone to act. They just have to be. And so, we made Senua more like her, as opposed to making her be someone she’s not if you understand my meaning. Which perhaps isn’t the best way to do casting, but in this case, it worked.
GamesBeat: I also thought the voices were very well done. How do you function with all these people talking in your head?
Antoniades: It’s strange, isn’t it? The main thing I was worried about was just that it would be incredibly annoying to most people. It’s strange how people just internalize those voices very quickly. They start to feel a bit odd when the voices aren’t there, which mirrors what people say to us who hear these kinds of voices. A lot of people that hear voices say they wouldn’t want to be without them. You don’t understand it until you experience it yourself.
GamesBeat: How did you feel about the horror side of things, as far as how far to go with the representations of horror? Or whether you weren’t going far enough?
Antoniades: I spoke to a good friend of mine who had an episode, a psychotic break. He’d describe moments where he was screaming on the ground, thinking he was going to die. He said we should show that. I think what people don’t necessarily understand is that these experiences can be like living nightmares. They can be like being in a horror story in some instances. They can be beautiful as well, liberating and wonderful experiences. But when you see and hear about how horrific it is, I think it helps you empathize.
I wasn’t shy to go there. I think that’s a part of it. And I think any rational person who sees those kinds of visions in that kind of situation would be terrified. It’s interesting how we talk about people with severe mental illness as weak, when any rational, strong-minded person who also sees those things or hears those things or is living that kind of reality would act just like that. It’s a different way of looking at it, flipping it.
The truth is, no matter what we do, we can only touch on the experiences. However horrific we make some of these moments and scenes in Hellblade, it’s nothing like the intensity people who actually experience these things go through.
GamesBeat: I thought the scariest moment was when I was moving around in the dark, trying to get away from the creatures there. I kept thinking there would be a jump scare somewhere, and it didn’t happen. It was almost entirely within my control. If I avoided those creatures, then I succeeded.
Antoniades: But it’s the tension that’s horrible, right?
GamesBeat: Was that something you heard a lot, that the anticipation was scarier than the actual images sometimes?
Antoniades: Absolutely. Some people describe their experience as like — sinister? That’s what stuck with me. This idea that the world has turned sinister around them. The TV starts to send them messages or when the phone rings, they know it will be terrible news. There’s this constant state of anxiety and dread. It’s less about the monster popping up and scaring you. We didn’t really think of this as a horror game at all.
GamesBeat: What were you trying to communicate in the ending?
Antoniades: I don’t want to — I have a very specific logic behind the ending in mind. But it is open to interpretation as well, so I don’t want to give a specific interpretation that will spoil it for other people. What I will say is that — there’s a recurring theme of dying within yourself and being reborn.
I think that relates to people I’ve talked to who’ve come up through this experience. They’ve come out the other side. You don’t hear about this much, but a lot of people who have severe psychotic breaks, they recover, many of them, with help. They come out of it transformed. They come out feeling like they have reconstructed their reality to such an extent that some people give themselves a new name. They talk about their old self in the third person.
There’s this concept of the death of an old reality and the birth of a new one that’s a recurring theme within the game. But at the end, the voices are still there. The visions are still there. The symptoms are not going away. But her understanding of her reality has changed, and so she’s able to — she remembered her mother saying, “Every day is a new story.” The implication of “there’s another story to tell” means there’s going to be a tomorrow.