Checking the Score: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

It’s not often that I find a succession of musical genres and methods present within this feature for the second consecutive month. That the sounds I bring to the forefront will crop up to the point of discussion once again — a break from the usual norm that is hopping between upbeat tunes one moment, traditional instrumentation the next, only to land eventually head-first into a sea of formless, foreboding, abstract electronics by the end of it all. Rare as it is that I pluck myself out from the perilously unsettling sounds of classical-electronic fusion, only to find myself thrust into another salvo of weightless sounds that invoke just as mighty a feeling as anything organic or otherwise concentrated.

You might put that down to August being, how shall we put this, more on the quiet side release-wise, but that doesn’t mean this month’s highlight, Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, should be greeted with any less decency or any less respect. Because for a creative work so heavily promoted as one aiming to tackle the seldom seen topic of mental health, Hellblade’s predominantly story-led notoriety is gifted in its moderate success, by as much its soundtrack as it is its visuals. And not because Hellblade musically takes and borrows from all corners of the musical World to conjure something so ironically varied it’s bland. For all the sins many musicians and producers use in today’s radio-friendly blather of nonsense masquerading as pop music — notably the use of compression to squeeze too much into a single composite — the strange thing here is that once in a while compression can be used for good. Both for production and more importantly, for context.

Hellblade Screenshot
It doesn’t take a neurologist to work out that for a game whose focus sits with the objectively abstract and perhaps chaotic nature of the human mind – in all its wondrous and terrifying architecture – the focus, sonically, is on main character Senua’s perception of the World around her. More importantly, how that transcribes on a mental plane rather than a physical one. And for someone suffering from psychosis, the translation certainly isn’t going to be rosy. Even when the game briefly skims the region of positivity and Senua reconciles with the few good memories that crop up during the game’s run-time. These more happier times, meeting her soon-to-be love interest for the first time in a meadow — and fittingly one of the first and rare occasions where the soundtrack focuses on matters like chord progression — are almost shackled by an overwhelming condensing and compression of what should be a very melodically-focused track, but still keeps the music’s overall spacious ambience to drive home the directionless state that a young person’s mind can devolve into.

But that seems to be the general motive and objective with Hellblade’s soundtrack: to emphasize how askew and distant an individual’s mental state can get under extreme strain. Whether it’s having long, drawn-out ambient pieces with the heavier bass sections thrust into the spotlight, the sudden shifts to these crescendos of tribal-like chanting, even the hard-to-spot string instrumentation blurred to the point of almost losing its individuality, these grand, expansive soundscapes are exactly the kind of harrowing and oppressive feelings one gets when the seat of the soul, the mind, loses its way. When even the fondest of memories are distorted so; what should be a fond return to happier times instead gets wrapped up in this impenetrable ball of compressed notes and strum guitars, only to fade once more into the backdrop.

Hellblade Screenshot 2
So throughout all the trials and tribulations Senua goes through on her quest through reality and her own perceived “reality”, in any other situation you’d expect a final boss/combat theme to be this manifestation of one’s collective struggles. The last hurrah perhaps; music to go out with a bang over. No, instead what we have — and cleverly so — is a theme that disposes of the need to be greater in scope and chooses instead to be more refined. Though still overshadowed by emotion, the fundamental pieces of any music, much like Senua’s regaining of willpower and of confidence, finally break out and reveal themselves. A lead melody, a rhythm, a drum beat, a clearer chord progression – more clearer than any attempt previous – the final battle isn’t so much the player-character reaching the pinnacle, but finally having the mental strength and pure will to beat back the vacuous droning depriving one’s morale and confidence.

Imagine my surprise then (which then quickly evolves into shock) to hear the opening lines of the game’s designated credits “theme” and mistake this initially for the kind of radio-friendly cheese I’m so antagonistic towards. And yet, despite my prejudice, with everything that’s ocurred during the nine-or-so hours both myself and Senua waded through, the presence of a more conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus song, complete with reverb-soaked pianos and 4/4 percussion, bizarrely comes as welcome relief rather than unwelcome disdain. Despite the simplistic (perhaps corny) lyrics standing as the odd centerpiece; for a soundtrack that has spent most of its time deprived of this same concrete physicality, could this perhaps be a final reference to Senua’s salvation of having, at last, climbed from out the pit of her psychosis and traumatized line of thinking?

Hellblade Screenshot 3
It’s an odd addition and one I can not simply shrug off as just some tacked-on pop-like sensibility to add counter-weight to what is an overwhelmingly dark, foreboding and persistently-oppressive soundtrack. Rare as it is to find music that approaches the method of compressing and calibrating recorded sounds to give that illusion of impending, crushing defeat mentally, Hellblade’s lasting gift is its understanding of how best to translate liberation from one’s mental state. Not as some great spectacle to behold, but as having, at long last, broken through the fog of, at its worst, suicidal tendencies that just might have cut one’s adventure short.

For all that Ninja Theory get right with the pacing and progression of the story, I give praise to the soundtrack for not treating mental health as just another shallow, Hollywood-esque stride for bombast and empty spectacle. Because as anyone with mental health issues knows (myself included), the overwhelming sense of no escape and of the World transforming into this ominous nothingness one can’t flee is the worst feeling of them all. It’s the smallest of steps — or seemingly-insignificant choices — that eventually reveal themselves as the blessing in disguise. And Hellblade musically delivers on that crucial point. 

To dive even deeper into the wonderful world of video game OSTs, be sure to read our complete Checking the Score series.