In 2007, I was blown away by Heavenly Sword. This isn’t the typical case of “launch-title goggles” or fanboy praise either; I realize that the gameplay of heavenly sword left much to be desired. It was the narrative that pulled me in, and the exceptional facial animation that dropped my jaw. The way characters emoted brought a realism to the fantastical narrative. The story would prove a bit too nebulous for many, but I loved the way the looseness would let my mind wander and explore. Since then, I was similarly floored by Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and impressed by DmC: Devil May Cry. Ninja Theory has proven itself brilliant with new IPs, and capable of humanizing and expanding on even the most well established franchise.
Unfortunately, the studio has not had the financial success to match their brilliance. As much as a retelling of an ancient Chinese myth in the setting of an apocalyptic future where robots cart all humans away into a virtual reality slave camp is an amazing game and work of art, it isn’t exactly marketable to the frothing masses that demand either hyper-violent splatter-fests or spreadsheets of stats accompanied by chibi knights brandishing swords the size of a rhinoceros. I’m not saying that all gamers fall into these categories, but enough do that vast commercial success has eluded the geniuses at Ninja Theory.
Rather than bashing their heads against a wall again or selling their souls, Ninja Theory has refocused on making a smaller scale game. While still maintaining a AAA look, the independent downloadable title will be a more focused journey that will allow the developers to deliver the experience in their own way while saving budget. They are once again here to tell a story, and Hellblade promises to deliver in an equally exciting and terrifying way. Check out the trailer:
Mental illness is no joke, and very often mishandled in the media for either comedic effect or cheap characterization. Mentally or psychologically impaired characters are there to be nuts until someone points out that it was all because their family was murdered, at which point the audience shares a self satisfied smile and nod, understanding the true depth and complexity of the unfortunate soul while learning a little bit about themselves, too. Except in the real world, mental illness is more often an untreated terror that leads people to the streets or prison, with no warm fuzzy resolution beyond the dull haze of anti-psychotics as you try to find anywhere that will employ a mental patient living in a halfway house.
If you couldn’t tell, I feel very strongly about the issue. Ninja Theory has earned my trust with their previous titles, but even I am skeptical how it will all turn out. Luckily, development has been almost transparent, with frequent developer diaries updating us on the status of the game. The most recent dev diary explores this exact concern:
It is inspiring to see a company taking the issue so seriously. In a game where the horrors come from your own damaged psyche, it is easy to oversimplify by making the world just a reflection of bad things that happened to the character. To treat it in such a binary way, where the evil fish men must clearly be a reflection of the trauma of your fisherman dad being lost at sea, is a misrepresentation of the warping effects of mental illness. Psychosis restructures the world around you, misinterpreting stimuli and tailoring your responses. It is a powerful distinction from the “normal person wracked with guilt” narrative that so often passes for real mental illness in media.
From what little I’ve seen of the gameplay, there’s still a long way to go before the game is polished enough for its 2016 release date. I will be following this one closely, both as a huge fan of Ninja Theory and someone who cares about the mentally ill. If anyone can tackle the subject matter, Ninja Theory can. Stay tuned for more updates as they develop, and follow development yourself on the OfficialNinjaTheory Youtube Channel.