How Hellblade reinforces myths about mental illness (+ end notes)

ZAM – Two steps forward, three steps back: how Hellblade reinforces myths about mental illness (Included + quoted in Critical Distance’s “This Week in Video Game Blogging” for August 27th)

My second freelance article went up today, and I don’t have much to add this time. I was reluctant at first to come out against Hellblade because it’s so rare that any form of media even makes an attempt at a nuanced portrayal of mental illness, but because it’s been pretty much universally acclaimed for that portrayal, I felt there was more than enough room for a different take.

I guess that’s the question when it comes to criticism: when is criticism warranted? If no one was talking about Hellblade, what would be the use of offering a counterpoint? And furthermore, would that amount to just kicking a game or any piece of media while it’s down? I’ve been writing a review of The Shrouded Isle that’s not particularly positive, and though The Shrouded Isle has a decent amount of coverage, there are comparatively few reviews because it’s a much smaller sort of indie game and so I wonder what the value of my perspective is. Not many people visit this site and the game came out a little while ago, so there’s no service to a theoretical consumer that I’m performing.

I had the same concern about my review of The Silver Case. I managed to frame it as an early look at Suda51 and where he would later end up, but what if it wasn’t made by a developer who would later go on to become A Name? I’m not what you would call a positive person, but I come out from my general negativity feeling like it needs to have some direction; positive criticism can highlight, but negative criticism tends to tear down and thus requires something in front of it to tear down, or it needs to simultaneously highlight something else while it’s stomping on the rubble. So with that in mind, there’s probably value in approaching every negative analysis that way; just saying that some talked-about media is bad isn’t saying as much as I’d like. (I realize this is all probably very obvious to people who are, like, good writers but it’s new to me so you’ll excuse treating it like a profound thing).

I do think I’ve (by total accident) succeeded to a point with my Hellblade essay here. It does address what I think (and which you, imaginary readers, should also think) is a very important topic: the portrayal of mental illness. But also Hellblade is supposed to be the perfect vehicle for exploring mental illness because it’s a videogame, and yet the conventions of a traditional videogame are its undoing. So that raises the question: how do you tackle this subject in a game? Can you even do it within such a framework, or does it require a new approach that relies less on a traditional videogame structure? If nothing else, the question is out there.

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