After three years of development, Ninja Theory (DmC: Devil May Cry, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Heavenly Sword) is releasing their first independent game. I called Dominic Matthews, Product Development Manager at Ninja Theory, to talk about their upcoming title “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.”
The Harvard Crimson: What is Hellblade about? A lot of the press material has been pretty unique for the genre — there’s no combat depicted in the trailer, everything focuses in on Senua, etc — so what is it about? And how is it different from your last title, DmC: Devil May Cry? (DmC: Devil May Cry is an arcade-style action-adventure RPG developed by Ninja Theory and published by Capcom.)
Dominic Matthews: Hellblade is really a story about Senua’s journey. She’s on a quest to save her lover, it’s a journey and a struggle, a physical and a psychological journey, and I think everything in the game is there to be part of that journey. Every element of gameplay, whether it be combat or puzzle-solving or exploration, is all there to be part of that narrative journey. It is very much a narrative-driven game, something that we hope will leave an impact on people when they play the game. That’s one of our aims here as a studio, and for me personally, when we have fans contact us and say one of our games gave them an experience they’re going to remember. I think that’s part of what we want to achieve with a game like Hellblade. But Hellblade is a very dark game, it’s really a quite brutal game, and I think it tells a compelling story, one that will intrigue people, and we hope it will leave an impression.
It’s quite unlike DmC, you know, where the combat style was quite over the top. In Hellblade, everything’s very intimate—the camera is very close to Senua. It’s brutal, and it’s very visceral, so combat is different. It’s very tactical, but it’s combat where we want you to feel every blow, like every fight is a real battle that Senua has to get through to move on to the next part of her journey.
THC: How did your experience developing something like DmC, which was fundamentally about the gameplay loop as opposed to the narrative, feed into your work on Hellblade? How much of the decision to move towards more of a narrative focus was engineered, and how much was emergent?
DM: I think a lot of that comes out of our decision to develop Hellblade as an “independent AAA” game. You know, we’re a studio of about ninety people. After DmC, we stepped back and took a look at the game space, what’s happening in the industry. On the one side, you have the indie space where there’s a lot of creativity, diversity and depth to the genres, and on the other end you have the big blockbuster AAA games, which are kind of designed to fit the $60 bracket, and the number of genres which can survive there are limited.
So those games are getting bigger and bigger, and the studios are getting bigger and bigger, and the production costs are getting bigger and bigger. So you’ll see games now where they’ll sell five million units, and they’ll still be deep into commercial failure, which is shocking really. We looked at that market and said, we don’t want to ramp up to a three hundred person studio and just fit into the blockbuster space. The concept was, if we can make a game where we can keep the budget small enough, we only need to sell it to a few hundred thousand people
And that’s not easy, but it’s more realistic, and that gave us the confidence to make this game, which is really a Ninja Theory game. It’s 100% Ninja Theory. We’ve made a game that is different.
It’s different from a lot of the action-adventure games out there. It’s a very intense and immersive experience, and I think we knew from day one that Senua and her story would be at the heart of this game, and that a lot of the game would be built around that. Our Ninja Theory DNA is unique art style, character-led story, and combat gameplay. With those three areas of focus, we then layered on Senua’s experience of psychosis, and iterated all the way along until we had something that we were really pleased with.
THC: You’ve decided to explore mental illness and psychosis with Senua. Can you talk about when in the design process you thought, “this is something we can explore”?
DM: That was a decision we made really at the beginning of the process, and it kind of snowballed from there. We met with someone from Wellcome Trust, which is a fascinating charitable foundation based here in the UK. They support arts and creative projects that engage people with science, but not in an overt way—they like TV and games and movies, that sort of thing. We told them about Hellblade, and they loved the idea, and agreed to help us.
It was through them that we met Professor Paul Fletcher, who is a psychiatrist and professor of health neuroscience at University of Cambridge—we’re based in Cambridge and Paul lives about five minutes from the studio, which was perfect. We had the opportunity and the privilege really to meet with a group of people who have lived experience of psychosis, hearing voices etc., and hearing about their experiences and working with them to realize some of those ideas and concepts in the game, which has been fantastic and without a doubt has made the game more compelling and enriched the creators.