Hellblade: The origins of Hellblade, Preview

Every story needs a hero, and Hellblade’s is Senua. The image below was one of the first created by studio art director Alessandro Taini, and among a sea of concepts for Hellblade’s protagonist a character who starred in the game’s reveal trailer at Sony’s Gamescom conference, and who has to carry the weight of the game on her shoulders it’s the one that resonated most with the Cambridge based team.

“We had all the concepts on the wall initially, and every time we were walking in somebody was like ‘that thing just keeps looking at me’,” says Hellblade’s art director Stuart Adcock. “There’s something quite powerful there.”

But before those eyes captured the team’s imagination, there was her name. And that name was buried in a 1,600 year old Celtic shrine dedicated to the goddess Senua. When Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades stumbled upon an article about this archaeological find, Senua became lodged in his mind. (Later it was discovered that her name was, in fact, Senuna, but the article’s name stuck.) And once her name was established, her story, her look and the entire game’s mythology soon followed.

The origins of Hellblade

“When I came across that article I looked into Celtic culture, because all I knew about Celtic culture is what I see on tattoos,” Antoniades admits. “I didn't know anything about it. So I started looking into the history and it’s interesting. How the Celts clashed with the Romans that’s very well known, with Boudica and so forth. But what isn't known is that the Celts clashed with the Vikings or at least, I didn't know about that. And I thought that there were enough holes in our knowledge of history for us to create a fiction that would be ours.”

Though it’s called Hellblade, Ninja Theory claims the blade in question isn’t too important. Rather it’s Senua and her personal descent into Helheim that’s at the core of the game. Helheim, of course, being the underworld in Norse mythology.

History itself gave the team the initial ideas for Hellblade’s clashes. “When the Vikings would arrive they would feel like an alien race almost, because they were probably a clear foot taller,” adds Antoniades. “The Vikings described the Celts as pygmies, because they the Nordics weren't much shorter than they are now, whereas the Celts were a lot shorter than we are. So for them they would have just seen this race of vicious giants arrive.”
“Hellblade Is Not a Sequel. It's Not a SPiritual Successor To Heavenly Sword.”
With ideas about the underworld and demons rooted in both Celtic and Norse belief systems, Ninja Theory dug into the research with full force. The Celtic/Viking rivalry gave the team a fresh angle (“I didn't really want to kind of do an Asian themed game because we'd done Enslaved and Heavenly Sword,” levels Antoniades) to explore.

The Hellblade project began around March-time, originally with a team of six, and was first unveiled on the Sony stage at Gamescom in August. But the offer to announce Hellblade with Sony arrived deep into that five month period and, when it did, Senua didn't even exist outside of concepts.

“We answered a lot of [our own] questions by creating that [trailer],” reveals product development manager Dominic Matthews. “You know, like what does the character look like in 3D? And if you have a tangible thing like a trailer to deliver, you have to deliver the character, so it gives you real impetus to do those kind of things.”

Constructing the CG trailer forced Ninja Theory to finally settle on Senua’s looks and the game’s mood, and the tight deadline also led to the team testing some experimental motion capture techniques using office-made systems and tools. (Even iPhones and sticky backed printed paper sheets were trialed as a cheaper alternative to hiring a professional studio.)

Some of the tests worked and some didn't, but the spirit of experimentation continues to live on in the project. By the time you’re reading this, the boardroom in which I first sit down with the team will have been turned into a motion capture studio for gonzo filming.

Almost inevitably, that moody Gamescom reveal trailer led to numerous comparisons with Heavenly Sword. That it took place on Sony’s stage only fanned the flames, and Matthews is keen to set the record straight about the comparisons.

“The absolute truth on it is that we like what we do, so that leads us into similar kind of games. Hellblade is not a sequel. It’s not a spiritual successor to Heavenly Sword, nor was it ever intended to be. But we know that the fans of our games like what we did in Heavenly Sword, as they liked what we did in Enslaved and DmC, and we wanted to deliver something for them.

“The fact that it’s a female protagonist for us is just a question of ‘what’s the right character for the story that we want to tell?’ and in this case it’s Senua. And in terms of the name Hellblade/Heavenly Sword... Well, you know, ‘we like Hell and we like swords,’ is kind of the answer to that [laughs].

“There’s no twist in the story, no. You’re not going to get to the end of the game and go, ‘Oh wow! It is Heavenly Sword!’”

To be continued...

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