Warning: What follows contains some light spoilers for Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice.
Hellblade, a surprisingly moving and unsurprisingly gorgeous new game from Ninja Theory, launched today on PlayStation 4 and PC. It's an indie game with big-budget looks—and it only costs $30! You'd think that's what everyone would be talking about, but instead, it's a warning the game provides in the opening moments: "The dark rot will grow each time you fail. If the rot reaches Senua's head, her quest is over. And all progress will be lost." Your saved game? Gone.
It's not new for games to use progress erasure as a punishment for failure; the concept forms the basis of roguelike games, where you're meant to play the game over and over, learning through each death, and eventually succeeding. But it's not something you see in a game that looks like this. Usually, developers are terrified you might not see everything, and go out of their way to keep the player alive.
I've played a few hours of Hellblade in the past few days, and when that message came across the screen, my stomach turned. Naturally, a few minutes later, I made a careless mistake and died. Moments later, a grotesque darkness began to crawl up my arm. Not by much, mind you, but just enough to permanently alter how Senua looked, a stark reminder that failure will be tolerated—to a point.
From then on, I couldn't shake the fear.
The combat in Hellblade is simple but satisfying. Players can hit with two attacks—weak but fast, strong but slow—dodge out of the way, or block what's incoming. (If you time the block correctly—and the game gives a huge window—the enemy will briefly stumble.) It's also possible to briefly slow time. You can't take many hits before going down in Hellblade, and when death is near, the screen blares red, and Senua's breathing becomes heavy. All the while, the voices in her head take bets on what might happen. Some think she'll survive, others believe she's a goner.
Because the combat is simple, it's easy to fall into a rhythm where you presume too much about your own abilities, and it catches you off-guard. An ill-timed dodge, strong attack instead of weak. That's when the fear, once gnawing at the back of your mind, emerges. There are lots of things a game can take from you—loot, experience, a cool helmet—but a player's most precious commodity is time.
One of the game's boss fights last night had me sweating profusely, the controller nearly slipping out of my hand. On its own, the fight was thrilling, inventive, and required quick wits, but knowing a mistake would mean the darkness coming ever closer to engulfing Senua's body put my whole damn psyche on edge. The hairs on my neck were standing up, my teeth clenched. Every time I went on the offensive, I prayed my next hit was the last. Every time it wasn't, my muscles tightened, as I prepared to avoid the flurry of attacks headed my way. Dodge, hit, block.
Hellblade tells you it's going to delete your save, but it doesn't give you details. Will it take five deaths? 10? 100? The number is important, and it's easy to imagine a version of this game that was specific, counting down to your doom. A lot of games would have straight up put a meter in the corner, ticking off each death in the UI.
Instead, Hellblade keeps it a mystery. You pick up cues from Senua's body changes, but that's not an answer. The result is that you're always stressed out, which is very much in line with the game's character, who is also confused and stressed out.
It's a genuinely fascinating twist, one met with a mixed reaction, as news spread.
It made sense that headlines would spring up around the decision; it's a unique detail for an already unique game. It also wasn't surprising that people immediately started pushing the mechanic to its limits, with PCGamesN reporting that, after trying to repeatedly get their save deleted, Ninja Theory was actually bluffing and the warning was nothing more than a trick. This was immediately countered by other reports that it was, in fact, possible to lose your save when dying under particular circumstances. What those specifics are is not yet known.
Likely on purpose, Ninja Theory didn't respond to my request for comment.
The worst of all takes involved arguments that Ninja Theory being coy about how death worked was actually anti-consumer. Just because a game isn't designed specifically for your expectations doesn't mean it's anti-consumer, especially when a design decision has been purposely engineered to fit with the broader themes of said game. It might be a bad design decision, but that's another take entirely! Our desire to break every piece of a game down works against us when mystery becomes central to the intent of the people behind the art.
It was also easy to detect a sense of "Hey, that's not how this works in games like this," which is why Ninja Theory's decision feels surprising—galling, even. If a dozen other games had done this recently, it wouldn't be generating headlines. We should encourage developers to experiment with the status quo. There are plenty of games that have tried the old ways, and if that means you're turned off from playing one of them, that's okay. It's 2017, and we've had plenty of good games.
My intention is to finish the game before people figure out how it works; I don't want to know more about it. Even the possibility Ninja Theory was lying feels like a spoiler, one I wish I'd missed. Outside of the gripping storytelling and horror movie-esque audio, Hellblade's sublime tension is derived from the unknown. What happens when you die? Here's some advice: don't find out.