After playing through Ninja Theory’s wonderful creation that is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I was very relieved to overcome the permadeath challenge set by the studio, or did I? The game was a breathtaking experience, filled with tense moments, dramatic encounters, madness and the fear of permadeath. You can read all about it in our recent impressions piece of the game.
At the beginning of the game, you are inevitably killed and have to watch as Senua suffers from the darkness slowly filling her body and killing her. You are then warned about the possibility of your save file getting permanently erased, starting over and losing all progress. The darkness manages to leave its mark on your hand, and with every death it slowly grows on your arm and you mustn’t let it reach Senua’s head or else she will die, permanently. Funny thing is, turns out there is no permadeath system implemented in the game after all.
During my playthrough of the title, I managed to die five times. With every time I died, I grew more frustrated and had to concentrate more, mainly because I was so near the end and didn’t want to do this all over again. However, PCGamesN managed to investigate whether permadeath actually exists or not. One of the site’s staff experimented by killing himself over 50 times, and indeed, turns out there is no permadeath after all.
I was personally very impressed by Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and what it had to offer, and the feeling of fear you got from losing all your progress grew an emotional connection between my own fear of losing my save file and Senua’s fear of not saving her beloved Dillion, a much more serious issue than losing a save file if you ask me. The fact that they managed to trick the entire gaming community into believing permadeath existed makes me admire Ninja Theory’s piece of art even more. They managed to trigger an outcry from those who tried the game and stopped playing once they got the message at the beginning and complaints from those who didn’t even try the game just because they knew it contains permadeath.
Convincing the player that a feature exists in a game where in reality it doesn’t is a very tricky place to be, especially when it threatens to throw you back to the start of the game no matter how far you progressed. Some speculate that the feature is automatically turned off in the background once you pass a certain point in the game, but this is yet to be proven. Until someone proves Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice punishes you for dying until you reach a certain point in the game, try not to die too many times early on.
The reason behind implementing, or not implementing actually, a permadeath feature is to grow the connection between the player and Senua and their mutual fear of dying in the process of reaching their ultimate goal. Not only that, it helps the player share some of Senua’s madness, mainly being scared of things that simply aren’t real.