hellblade 2 is a walking sim

I have many thoughts about hellblade 2: senua’s saga, a sequel I had awaited with much trepidation considering what I thought were the key strengths of the original. (short, vague answer to that: I think hellblade 2 dances an even finer, more thoughtful line in forcing senua to contend with other people and other lived realities, in addition to her own inner tumult. it expands her psychological framing and raises questions about individual vs collective subjectivities that fit well into the first game’s themes while expanding beyond them. it walks the cliffside down to the failings of flattening senua into a simple savior or superhero, but somehow never quite falls. I see where yussef cole for polygon is coming from, but I disagree on almost every point.)

but here’s a simpler thought I’ve been having as I read some critical thoughts re: the gameplay mechanics—hellblade 2 is not an action-adventure game (contra wikipedia), it is not a souls-like, it is not a AAA third-person RPG like god of war. it’s not failing to be enough of a video game; it is not a tech demo.

it’s an (extremely expensive) walking sim.

the gameplay mechanics of hellblade 2 are, in sum:

combat is even simpler than in the first game. enemy animations are universally slow and easy to read, so parries are near-trivial to execute. senua’s mirror power is an auto-kill on everything right up until the final fight of the game. if battle ever feels difficult, it’s because of hellblade’s choking, frantic narrative atmosphere: the sound design and visual language tip you into a constant fear of the violence and death that are inevitable in this game’s world. there’s no difficulty except in how you’re meant to feel like senua, for whom all of this is near-impossibly difficult.

outside of this, the game’s immaculate and clearly expensive visual design may fool you into thinking you’re playing an AAA in the vein of the latest assassin’s creed or, again, god of war. but then note the total lack of UI, of progression mechanics, of inventory screens. the most complex menu-ing in hellblade 2 comes only if you a) tweak your subtitles to best capture the game’s binaural sound design, or b) play in the photo mode. both cases emphasize drawing you into its pre-baked narrative and aesthetic experience; neither give you freedom to explore the game qua game.

“genre” does double work in the video game medium: there is a genre to a game’s game-ness, and a genre to its story-ness. (the ludo and the narrative, as it were.) for the latter we use appellations of cinema, or novel: science fiction, post-apocalypse, high fantasy, slice of life, romantic comedy. but the former often blends into the latter. metroidvanias usually take place in sci-fi (metroid-) or gothic fantasy (-vania) worlds. you’d expect a game set in the distant future of 20XX, starring a robot that acquires powers from defeated enemies, to play a lot like mega man.

certainly plenty of games play around with these associations, but the ties are there and strong in the imagination. so, in short: a game that looks like hellblade does not seem like it should play like firewatch. but if you come into it with that expectation, suddenly much of what the game is doing makes sense and feels less like a disappointment or betrayal. mechanics exist to increase immersion into the protagonist’s psyche, and go no further; when a gameplay mechanic is unnecessary for this singular narrative interest, control is simply wrested from the player (fitting for a game about a person for whom self-directive is fleeting and haphazard).

this is just a long way, really, of saying that I think hellblade 2 knows exactly what it is and accomplishes exactly what it wants, and if you think the game is a lesser version of some other game or genre trapping than you might reconsider whether the game was ever actually interested in being a part of such a genre. which is an even longer way of saying: meet a piece of art where it is, not where you think it should be going, and even if you still dislike it you get a lot closer to digging meaning out of what it’s trying to do.