Ninja Theory’s upcoming game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is being developed by a small team, with a modest budget. That doesn’t mean that the studio is scrimping on the details, however. One of the biggest areas that they’re putting particular focus on is the titular character, Senua. Today, we’re taking a closer look at the Pict warrior, pointing out the inspirations, historical roots, and other easily missed details behind her creation.
Hellblade is set around 790 AD, according to the game’s creative director, Tameem Antoniades. “It’s specifically that period because the Christians haven’t arrived yet,” he says. “It’s in the Orkney Islands, which is just off Scotland. Shortly after the Vikings landed in Orkney, the Celtic population in Orkney disappeared. People don’t know why. The story sets out to explain that.”
One of the mysteries that Hellblade is addressing – as fictional as the solution may be – is Senua herself. “They discovered a goddess fairly recently in England, and the only thing they found was a carving on a stone that says, ‘To the goddess Senua. We have fulfilled our vow.’ And there are some gifts there. There’s nothing else known about this goddess. We thought there was a nice little mystery there – who’s this goddess and what vow was fulfilled?
Senua’s in-game model is the result of high-tech scans and motion capture. A Serbian company, 3Lateral, scanned in the face of actress Melina Juergens using proprietary technology. Juergens portrays the role of Senua in the game, and she’s also Ninja Theory’s video editor.
The Picts’ distinctive face-painting is the reason why the Celtic tribe earned the name. “The Picts were a people that used to paint themselves in war paint using woad, like Mel Gibson in Braveheart – though he was several hundred years too late. The Pictish warriors were given the name by the Romans, because they were pictoral. They were like barbarians, and were mostly naked in fact,” Antoniades says. Records from this time period are sparse, and what the painted designs actually looked like has been lost to history. Ninja Theory decided to keep Senua’s paint simple, and within the bounds of something that she would be able to apply to her own body. “We actually grabbed paint and made patterns on paper and scanned it in and put it on her,” he says. If you look closely, you might be able to see finger marks and other distinctive smears.
Senua’s hair is a striking part of the character’s profile, and it’s also rooted in history. “They put lime in their hair, that would clump up and give them this dreadlock look,” Antoniades says. Her hair is decorated with a variety of small stones and beads, though that flourish has more to do with art design than historical accuracy. “They’re just little decorations kind of holding that stuff together. We put that in mainly because she’s so dark, and it helped to bring it out.”
Senua is a fierce warrior, but one of the biggest battles she’s fought has been internal. The character is battling psychosis, and she hears and sees things that other people don’t. It’s an element that’s more fully explored in gameplay, but her headpiece is a physical reminder. “Part of the idea is that the voices that are intruding on her, she wears this almost as a kind of protector,” Antoniades says. The word “barbarian” is often used disparagingly, but the Celts of this era were skilled craftsmen. “All the jewelry is incredibly ornate, from the period.”
What kind of animal fur is Senua sporting? Antoniades says it’s based on wolf.
Senua’s brooch has significance to her past. “It’s a warrior pin that’s almost like a little sword; it represents her warrior status that Dillion probably gave her.” Dillion is Senua’s former lover, and as we’ll soon learn, the pin isn’t the only physical relic of his that she’s hauling around. “These brooches, they’re very common Celtic pins for women,” Antoniades says. “But the Vikings really liked them, and they appropriated them. So when you see Vikings TV shows you’ll see these ornate brooches that were actually meant for women.” The design is also an interesting – and mysterious – detail. “The threes seem to be common in Celtic symbology. They don’t really know what it means, or why it’s so significant. It’s hard to unpack what these things could have meant, because the Celts didn’t write down a lot, or the things that they did write down didn’t survive. But it’s variously described as infinity or when the Christians kind of appropriated Celtic and Pagan symbolism, that was then turned into the trinity – but it didn’t start off meaning the trinity, it meant something else that we don’t really know about.”
Senua’s sword is critically important in combat, but the game’s not a stylish-action game like some of Ninja Theory’s previous titles. She uses it to battle Vikings, but the game has extended sequences that don’t feature any swordplay at all. She also loses it at a certain point in the story, where it’s replaced with a blade that she puts particular significance upon. Is it the titular hellblade? Not necessarily. “I thought of her as the Hellblade; she is the Hellblade,” Antoniades says. “It’s not the sword that’s important in this story, like it was in Heavenly Sword. It’s her.”
What’s in the sack? Well, it’s Dillion’s head. Senua believes that the head contains the soul of the departed, and she’s taking it with her to bargain for her love’s release. It’s a grim totem, but that’s not the most disturbing part. “The head itself isn’t complete [at this point in development], but at times you see it suck in breath,” Antoniades says.
Senua’s mirror isn’t just for checking on Pictish paint. These items had an important role in the period, which is also the case in Hellblade. “They were considered magical. They weren’t made of glass and silver, like the mirrors you get now,” Antoniades says. “They were made of polished iron, so they were really rough and the reflections were ambiguous. Druids used to use them to see into the underworld. It’s based on a real Celtic mirror.”