By Alicia Shephard, British Science Festival

It had been a long and exciting week and by 5pm on Friday I thought there couldn’t possibly be anything left to leave me in awe at this year’s British Science Festival. Little did I know I was about to be blown away by nothing more than a video game.

On the face of it Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice seems like any other game: it’s the story of an 8th century warrior who must overcome a series of challenges to rescue the soul of her deceased lover. However, Senua’s personal attributes add a new dimension to the game. She suffers with psychosis which causes both visual and auditory hallucinations throughout play.

When its creator, Tameem Antoniades, first came up with the idea he realised that without a medical expert it had the potential to contribute to the misrepresentation of the mental health community and open itself up to criticism.

Enter Professor Paul Fletcher, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. He was contacted by Tameem at the start of the game’s development due to his research in psychosis and his own clinical experiences. He was therefore something of a guide for the game’s developers.

Paul’s reaction to being approached was one of guarded enthusiasm. Guarded because of the potential for a game, like all media, to misrepresent mental illness, but enthusiastic because of the endless possibilities the game presented. He claimed that games seemed to him “an incredibly rich way of exploring the challenges faced by the mind because the player is controlling and guiding a character through a new and often mysterious environment and it allows the opportunity to generate much greater empathy."

If generating empathy for those suffering with psychosis was the overruling aim of the game then it undeniably succeeded. Reviews from those who played the game included one tear jerking account of an individual who had overheard their brother say he was ashamed of them for their psychosis. However, through playing Hellblade, the brother came to realise how little he had truly understood and apologised, uniting the siblings, as it could do to society.  

This is just one account of how the game has positively contributed to the mental health community as Paul told us the game had been received thoughtfully and openly. Perhaps the reason for the positive impact of the game stems from Paul’s own contribution.

His collaboration rapidly evolved into something much broader than his guidance. A series of discussions about how we perceive the world developed between Paul, the development team and those who had suffered with psychosis. These discussions were then incorporated into representing Senua’s experience and thus created a representation of psychosis universally accepted by the consulted psychosis sufferers. 

Paul told us that being accurate and truthful was a “central principle of how the game was developed” from the outset. This was facilitated by the small studio behind the game. Had it been a big studio production, the game would have failed to achieve what it has as its costs would have increased, therefore it would have had to be made for a bigger audience and become more commercial. Ultimately, it would have lost its authenticity.

Without the innovation of Mr Antoniades and his team, the scientific expertise of Paul Fletcher and the patients who so willingly expressed their experiences, this game would not have been the success that it has. As mental health issues continue to be prevalent within society it is imperative that we take on board the successes of this venture and apply it to future endeavours to better understand and appreciate mental health.