Let’s clear the air first without dancing around the facts: Hellblade is an absolutely terrifying video game. A project that boldly breaks the mold from games you’re used to seeing from developer Ninja Theory, Hellblade shines the most when making you feel perpetually helpless throughout it’s 10-hour story; and helpless you will feel, for the entirety of it’s 10-hour story.
Hellblade is full of lots of interesting and twisted surprises; most notably, developer Ninja Theory’s approach to leveraging audio as a core gameplay mechanic. Voices and whispers are the first things you hear as the game begins.
“You’re safe with me,” the voice says. “I’ll be right here.” We’re given no reason to take comfort in these words, nor are we given any reason to question them.
“He knows she’s getting closer,” whispers a second voice. Shortly after a third voice whispers. If you’re wearing headphones — which you absolutely should be — you can almost feel the faint breath on your ear from these whispers. Are they trying to help me? Who is “he?” Which of these voices can I trust, if any?
Soon the whispers begin to blur together, with the original voice that lent a potential sense of comfort lost within the throws of a third indistinguishable voice barking for my attention. Next I began walking through a swamp. First knee-deep then slowly it surpassed my waist. The voices started to intensify agin, remaining swirled into one another. Finally came yelling and screaming between the voices, followed by a silencing (and sinister) laugh from something beneath the depths of where I currently stood — something pretty terrible most likely.
I took off my headphones and put the controller down for a second, desperately in need of just a few moments of silence. I haven’t yet fought a single enemy, though I felt like I just got punched square in the face. I heard the voices lingering even after taking off my headphones, vaguely concerned they would now follow me everywhere I went. Somehow, my hands were also sweating.
Hellblade uses what developers explain is Binaural Audio; a method of capturing sound by positioning two microphones in such a way that you hear the sound as if the person were right next to you. This is where headphones come in. Binaural audio offers a fully immersive 3D sound experience, but this experience is severely diluted if paired with traditional tv or pc speakers.
This type of audio gives the whispers throughout the game a terrifying sense of space. One moment you feel whispers in your right ear; the next they could be coming from directly behind you. You feel it, and it’s extremely terrifying.
There’s a moment in a later section of the game not far from the third boss. A whisper is heard subtly in your right ear telling you to go left, then a second voice in your left ear telling you not to listen, “It’s a trap, go right.”
As I inched slowly left the voices begin to speak over one another, louder and louder. The most frustrating (and terrifying) part of these voices is that you never really establish trust with any of them. Eventually, in some instances, they will all end up being untrustworthy. I decide to go left after a few minutes of indecisiveness as my tolerance for the ongoing whisper-war was growing thin and the chatter suddenly stops. I cannot recall being so frightened by a decision in a video game like this before. This was a decision to go right or left at a fork in the road, and it held more weight than I ever could have imagined.
Towards the very end of the game, surrounded by enemies, I’m told by a whisper that things will get better and I’ll get through this. Interrupting, a second voice tells me this is it, I’m going to die here. This is Hellblade.