The arduous quest to portray a tortured warrior

They come unexpectedly, flickering moments that leave you unsure whether you’re watching a video game or the real world.

Cold sunlight that causes wet rocks to become blindingly bright. Rolling hills seeping into the misty nothingness of the horizon. The almost photorealistic face of Senua, the unconventional hero of this 10th-century revenge story, as she grimaces with all her nerves tense and her veins bulging.

The verisimilitude of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, out Tuesday for PC and Xbox Series

You could argue that this hyper-realism is of utmost importance for a third-person action game that presents a pictorial realm of visions and wonders, of fire-breathing humans and slithering giants. Yet these folkloric accents are based on earthy, authentic details, such as the mud and blood stains that accumulate on the characters.

“The goal is to get people moving,” said Dom Matthews, the 40-year-old leader of game developer Ninja Theory, from his luxurious studio in Cambridge, England. “Our belief is that we do this by offering an experience that is credible. When someone forgets that they are in a video game level and focuses on Senua’s narrative journey, they are open to being emotionally moved.”

The first Hellblade game, Senua’s Sacrifice, was set in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe: Vikings had murdered Senua’s village on the Scottish archipelago of Orkney and sacrificed her lover, Dillion, to Norse gods. Players sent Senua to the underworld of Helheim so she could save his soul.

In the sequel, Senua’s field of vision expands as she makes her way across the stormy North Sea to Iceland, intent on tracking down those responsible for his death.

The franchise’s emphasis on authenticity and realism extends to the extraordinary fantasies of the main character, who suffers from psychosis. Senua’s turbulent mental state, played with fierce, anguished intensity by Melina Juergens, often manifests itself in disturbing ways: chattering internal voices swirling around her in 3D audio and shadowy enemies that are figments of her imagination.

In addition to this inner landscape, Ninja Theory has gone to great lengths to achieve believability for the physical world, basing much of the in-game material directly on real-world sources through a process called ‘capturing reality ‘ mentions. The intensive motion-captured combat system was the result of 70 grueling days with a stunt team, and field footage was shot in Iceland, Scotland and Wales.

The rugged terrain on which Senua walks, dotted with enormous volcanic rocks dotted with fluorescent lichen, was pieced together from satellite imagery, drone footage and photogrammetry, said Chris Rundell, an environmental artist. The team took thousands of photos of stones, trees, shrubs, traditional turf huts and small Viking-style statues that they had carved themselves before scanning them into the computer.

“You get a sense of the scale of the place, but also of how things feel, sound and smell,” said Rundell, who wanted to convey his own experience of Iceland: the pounding rain, the softness and hardness of the mossy, steep ground. – at stake. “If you’re there and you can touch that stuff, you carry it with you.”

Dan Crossland, a character art director whose unkempt hair and dark beard would make him a perfect extra in a medieval film epic, proudly reported that he had ordered real costumes for Senua and other characters from an artist in London. These costumes are on display in one of the studio’s many lounge areas, which are also filled with reference books on topics such as art history and programming. They are made from leather, cotton and hemp using period techniques such as weaving. Crossland then wore and even burned the outfits to make them feel more lived-in, hoping to evoke the “raw, broken-down state” of life in 10th-century Iceland.

“There’s nothing too playful about it. It’s just a fact: what materials they had, what was available,” he said. “It’s a matter of survival.”

Senua’s Saga is set around the time the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, was founded in 930. This was a place of “isolated communities,” said screenwriter Lara Derham, a place where “folklore and religion were closely intertwined in societies and in the land itself.” Senua has a penchant for seeing runic patterns in the environment, crucial for solving puzzles and unlocking the way forward.

These runic puzzles tap into the “horrible, bubbling sense of uncertainty” that people experiencing psychosis can encounter, said Paul Fletcher, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge who advised Ninja Theory on both Senua games.

Fletcher does not believe it is anachronistic to talk about psychosis in the Middle Ages, and points to a “quite surprising level of sophistication” in which people then talked about mental illness and, in particular, madness. There are classification systems in historical documents, he said, that reveal a “compassionate approach to understanding people.”

“It would often involve things like being thrown into turmoil by grief or terror,” he said, “or going into the wilderness on a quest to atone for one’s sins.”

For a game that prioritizes such a subjective perspective, the idea of ​​”capturing reality” can seem like a strange, even paradoxical approach. Yet it provides something like a baseline to which the game’s designers and artists have added impressionistic layers of sparkling and shimmering mental perception. The moon shines just a little more intensely; the colors of Iceland’s primeval landscape seem just a little more vibrant; particles and debris billow dramatically through the air. It’s a world of vibrant hyper-reality, seen through the eyes of a character whose cognitive abilities seem to be functioning in overdrive.

Fletcher views these elements as consistent with Senua’s mental state. “In psychosis, people very often feel incredibly close to natural events,” he said. Even time itself has changed, an eerie twilight turning into an enchanting night in the blink of an eye.

These details combine to create a strikingly aestheticized adventure, one that seamlessly blurs the line between the imaginary and the real. The protagonist’s slippery grip on reality and the delightful visuals that go beyond the ‘uncanny valley’, the result of both the enormous processing power of polygons and deft artistry, make Senua’s Saga as close to photorealism as it is interactive medium has ever come. They are tricks of the mind down to the last detail.

Yet this simultaneously deep-seated and illusory experience is rooted in Senua. As her subconscious appeared on screen with terrifying and blissful aplomb, Matthews said it was crucial that she remained a believable person.

“The same way we digitally translate a real costume into the game, we try to do the same with the reality of people’s experiences and that of neuroscience,” Matthews said.

The goal is for the player to feel both the full force of distance between themselves and Senua, a 10th-century woman with a detached belief system, as well as an intimate and often uncomfortable closeness.

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