The modern video game industry isn't entirely dissimilar to the movies; we've got expensive yet safe blockbusters and low-budget, risk-taking independent productions vying for our attention and cash. But what of the middle ground; that space which sits in between these two distinct camps and seeks to offer the kind of experience which combines the best traits of both? Attempts to claim this largely uncharted territory have come and gone in the past, but now UK studios Ninja Theory – the team behind critically-acclaimed titles like DmC: Devil May Cry and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – looks set to deliver the most convincing take yet with Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice.
"After DmC: Devil May Cry we took a step back and saw that the games space had evolved into two distinct markets," says Ninja Theory's product development manager, Dominic Matthews. "On one side, there are the big blockbuster AAA titles that push production values, are created by teams of hundreds of developers, have big feature lists and are designed to appeal to mass audiences of millions. This is the space where genre diversity and creative risk taking is squeezed in aid of hitting the big sales targets needed to justify the big development costs, where only a small number of genres can now survive.
“At the other end of the market are indie games where new genres are being created regularly, creativity thrives and small teams can make games on a budget for niche audiences. But in the indie space the highest production values are often out of reach given the development resources and budget available."
Ninja Theory have been on both sides of the fence. They worked with Capcom on the AAA Devil May Cry reboot but have also produced smaller, indie-sized titles, like the iOS release Fightback. The studio have identified that a potentially profitable space exists somewhere in the middle of these two disciplines. "We see the space in-between as 'Independent AAA', where games with AAA production values can be made with the creative and free indie spirit," says Matthews. "Where smaller teams can make smaller, creatively diverse games for smaller audiences, but still hit the highest production values."
The product Ninja Theory intends to push into this space is Hellblade, an action adventure title for PlayStation 4 and PC which boasts bold production values, gory combat and a focus on mental health issues – the kind of melting pot that many big-name publishers might feel is too risky for them to take a chance on. "In the case of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice we’ve taken a team of 20 or so developers, found innovative ways to achieve AAA production values but still take creative risks and tell a story that is different to anything out there," says Matthews.
"Key to this model is that we’ve kept our budget low and, as such, we don’t need to sell millions to break even. We need to sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies to make our money back, which gives us the confidence to make a game that isn’t aimed at everyone. Our lower budget means we can take more creative risks without fear of not being able to achieve the multi-million unit sales that the big blockbusters now need to be deemed a success.
"Hellblade sits in this middle-space: about half the size of a regular AAA game, about seven to nine hours for a playthrough, and sold digitally at half the price of a regular AAA game. Our hope is that if we can make the independent AAA model work for us, others can follow too and we can bring more diversity and creativity back to AAA quality gaming."
Originally announced in 2014, Hellblade has drifted in and out of the public eye in the past few years. "We took the decision to announce the game early so we could share our development journey with our fans from the very beginning," says Matthews. "We revealed the game on-stage at Gamescom 2014 and have been documenting our development journey through dev diary videos ever since."
This approach has led to some misunderstandings, however – in 2015 it was reported in the gaming press that development had been restarted, hinting that all was not well in Senua's world. Matthews is keen to correct this false reporting.
"We didn’t start Hellblade development again," he says. "It was a misunderstanding that came about when we moved from our 'vertical slice' stage of development into production. As is very common in development, a vertical slice phase is used to test ideas for the game before production of the actual game starts.
"Production is the name of the phase of development where you make the actual game following a period of experimentation. When we said in our open development that we had started production, following our vertical slice phase, some people interpreted this as us saying that the development of the game had started again. This was a good lesson for us in how we handle open development. We use terminology like ‘Production’ and ‘Vertical Slice’ in development all the time, but it taught us to be as clear as possible with the community and to not make assumptions about the understanding of the development process or the industry terminology used."
On the surface, Hellblade might seem like your typical hack-and-slash action title, but the way in which its enemies are manifested has the potential to make it unique in modern gaming. The protagonist, Senua, suffers from troubling visions that threaten to overwhelm her sanity and as you're seeing the game through her eyes you’re privy to these nightmarish sights and sounds.
"As the player you experience and interpret the world just as Senua does," says Matthews. "You’ll see visions, have to make sense of world around you and journey with the voices that Senua hears throughout the game. We’ve taken great care to try and realise truthful portrayals of the experiences of psychosis presented in the game. For example, we learned that for some people who hear voices hear them just as anyone would hear another person’s voice. So all the voices that you hear throughout the game are recorded binaurally. Binaural recording is where you capture sound with a head-shaped microphone, which ‘hears’ sound in the same way a person does, so that when you listen to the sound back through headphones it sounds like the audio is coming from the world around you. This makes the voices incredibly life-like. When you play Hellblade, you’ll be able to hear voices all around you, far away from you and up close, whispering in your ear."
Mental health is something that’s rarely handled with any degree of finesse in video games, but Matthews is keen to stress that Ninja Theory aren’t using it as a cheap way to ratchet up the tension and gain easy scares. "We’ve taken great care to portray Senua’s experiences in a way that’s accurate to the types of things that people who have mental health difficulties live with," he says.
"Through Wellcome, a global charitable foundation, we’ve worked with neuroscientists as well as people who have lived-experience of voice-hearing, visions and having unique beliefs. In particular, we've worked closely with Professor Paul Fletcher – psychiatrist and professor of health neuroscience at University of Cambridge – to understand the scientific foundations of psychosis and with a local recovery college group who have kindly told us of their experiences and helped us realise them in-game. This has done so much to not only help us make the portrayal realistic, but also rich and compelling. It would have been wrong to go into making a game like Hellblade without conducting proper research and we’re incredibly thankful to all of our collaborators in the area of mental health for the support and insight they’ve given us."
If there's one common theme which unites all of Ninja Theory's other games, it's tight, thrilling combat. Fans of the studio will be pleased to learn that despite their preoccupation with faithfully depicting mental health issues, Hellblade will still allow you to kick some butt. "Hellblade has a different type of combat to something like DmC: Devil May Cry," says Matthews. "The combat is interwoven into Senua’s journey and struggle, so it’s more intimate, brutal and tactical – but it retains the hallmarks of Ninja Theory combat."
We have no DLC planned, and we’ll wait to see how the launch plays out before making any decisions on what comes next for Hellblade
In these days of post-launch DLC and sequel-heavy release schedules, it's tempting to ask what the future holds for Senua, but Matthews is adamant that for the time being at least, Hellblade is a single, self-contained story. "We have no DLC planned, and we’ll wait to see how the launch plays out before making any decisions on what comes next for Hellblade," he says. He's also very clear on the fact that the game is only intended for PlayStation 4 and PC at this stage, with no other platforms being considered currently.
There's clearly going to be a lot of surprises in store for fans of the studio when Hellblade arrives on August 8, but Matthews feels that the cost of the game will perhaps be the biggest shock. "I think the price-point of US $29.99/£29.99/€29.99 was a surprise to a lot of people," he says. "We’re doing something very different with Hellblade, so we’re trying to get the message across that Hellblade is half the price of a AAA game but half the length. It’s a different model that players aren’t used to, but the reaction to the concept of Independent AAA has been great. Other than that, I want to keep the surprises as surprises!"