Hellblade 2 Trailer Impressions

This weak Micosoft announced Hellblade 2 for their new XBox, apparently to everyone’s surprise. Not sure if they plan it as a full or timed exclusive, but given that the first game was first on PS4 and then came to Xbox One a year later, I think there’s a good chance that it will come to PS5 eventually, even though the developer Ninja Theory was bought by Microsoft last year. Guess we’ll have to see.

Even though it’s a short cinematic trailer without any narration, there is actually quite a lot of visual details that are really interesting, if you have played the first game. In the most basic terms, Hellblade is a game about an Iron Age woman who has traveled from Scotland to Norway to rescue the soul of her lover from the Norse underworld after he was killed in a raid by Northmen. She also almost costantly hears and sees spirits all around her that are driving her insane, which are very closely modeled after psychotic hallucinations and have gained a lot of praise for how well they replicate the actual mental condition.

I mistakenly assumed that the Picts in Scotland had disappeared before the Norse settlement of Iceland, but the two societies actually did coexist in the 9th century. I rewrote the following parts quite substantially with that in mind.

The trailer opens with the camera crossing the sea to a frozen, barren land with a big volcano that clearly identifies it as Iceland (and couldn’t possibly be Scotland). We get a small settlement that looks like a miniature version of a typical Iron Age hill fort.

The second shot is Senua with elaborate warpaint, surrounded by fire and shadowy figures in the background. And it really doesn’t look like they are a threat to her and give more the impression of supporting her.

Third is a first person shot of someone walking with a crowd of people with masks and torches towards a great wooden idol that is set on fire. Since the lighting is similar to the shot of Senua, and the camera in the first game was always very close up third person, I think this is probably from her perspective.

And finally there is another first person shot of someone walking with a group of what looks to be Northmen along a beach and awakening a giant. One of the men is clearly wearing a typical Germanic helmet, and the shields are just the type that was used in Scandinavia. The symbols on the shield don’t look Scandinavian, but they match the style that is frequently seen in Norwegian ruins in the first game. And as they get closer to the hill in the background it turns into an awakening giant.

It’s all very vague, we don’t have any additional details, and so I might not get it perfectly right. But I feel that there are some very strong implications here: My impression is that Senua traveled to Iceland after the first game and became a shaman. If she’s with Northmen explorers or some other rival group of settlers isn’t clear. But in the first game a lot of the narration was about Druth teaching Senua stories about Norse magic, and some people said that her lines in the trailer are an approximation of Old Norse.

What the overall tone seem to make very clear is that there is some kind of violent conflict going on, with Senua being in the middle of it. And what I find really interesting is that she seems to be a shaman or druid  just as her father was. Not to give too much away, but their relationship was a complete mess. To put it mildly. I could quite well imagine a story in which Senua ends up leading others to war with her powers of visions and knowledge of magic. And given that she’s not mentally well, the first game frequently got quite horrific and intense, and was rated 18 in Europe and M in America, this could become quite a violent and gruesome story.

The first game didn’t really need another story and I think nobody really expected one. It felt pretty wrapped up, eve with its very ambiguous ending.  But the game was essentially about how people in the Iron Age would have handled mental conditions, and treating it as a curse is only one option. Another is to regard the hallucinations and visions and messages from the gods, allowing the affected people to take the roles of shamans and oracles. I actually thought this aspect would have been nice to have in the first game as well and I see a very strong potential for a story of that kind.

There’s nothing really definitive about any of this, except that I am 99% certain it’s set in Iceland, but I think the overall tone gives a good impression of what we might expect.

You’ve taken your first step into a larger world

Twenty years ago, on this day, Baldur’s Gate was released for the first time. It was an immediate success and the first in a series of roleplaying games that made BioWare one of the biggest success stories in videogames for the next 15 years.

One saturday in the summer of 1999, I was absolutely, soul-crushingly bored. In my apathetic desperation, I got out my then small stack of game magazines to look for anything that looked halfway promising and that would get me through the weekend. The magazines all had one full page list of  all the reviews from the past 12 months, listed by rating. And they all had this game called Baldur’s Gate near the very top. I had one of the issues that was referenced and so for the first time I didn’t flip past the section that was labed “Rollenspiele”. At first, I was quite doubtful.

Up to that point, fantasy didn’t really exist in my life. I had encountered a good number of childrens’ stories that could reasonably be called fantasy, and I had read The Lord of the Rings a few years before. I thought it was neat, but it didn’t really stick with me after having finished it. My world consisted of Star Trek and Star Wars – which at that point I still considered science fiction becuase space – and my collection of games was mostly made up of space combat and strategy games, and just recently Half-Life. Fantasy held no interest to me and even though the game magazines at the time always had a dedicated section for it, I didn’t even know what an RPG is.

However, at the end of the review was a little box giving the game something like an 89% or 93%, which was what had first gotten my attention. And next to it were little one- or two-sentence statements from the two reviewers who praised the game as the most amazing thing ever. That was enough to make me read the whole 5 page review (which for such magazines was huge), and the more I read the more I got intrigued. So I grabbed my money, got on my bike, and went off to the department store in town where I always bought my games.

And the game really didn’t disappoint. I was hooked right from the start and since then I never wanted anything else. From there on, fantasy was it! I got lots  of other fantasy games over the following years, read piles of books, and got into tabletop games a year later. Baldur’s Gate was without any doubt the most important game in my entire life. At 15, I was probably highly susceptible to it, but there was more than that. I had already been getting into shoters and RTSs, but those never became a big part of my life. And I had been quite into science fiction, but that also faded away soon after.

But fantasy, that stayed with me. I can’t even imagine what person I would be today without my love for the fantastic. What would I be doing with all my creative energies? So I think it’s safe to say that encountering Baldur’s Gate was one of the most important events in my whole life. It was a turning point that set me on a completely different path from anything else I could have imagined.

Something I often wonder is whether this game is actually still that great? Of course it is for me, and always will be. But I have not played it in ages, and getting it running again these days can run into infuriating difficulties. And for anyone who doesn’t already love it, would it really be as fun as it was for us those decades ago? I don’t know. To anyone who has been wondering if the game is worth giving a try, I fully recommend doing so. But would I recommend it to people who aren’t already interested in it? Probably not.

But I am determined to give this game one more go. Quite possibly the last one. If it goes well, expect a proper any lengthy review of the game some point in the future. But don’t hold your breath, it’s a really long game.

Were viedeogames really harder back then?

Conventional wisdom holds that games have become much more easier over the last 20 years or so and that they are no longer challeging. I started pondering that myself when I got my first PlayStation 2 ten years ago and soon went to play every game with difficulty settings on Hard as default. And most of the time, I didn’t find Hard to be actually that hard. But was that because Hard had become the new Normal? Or was it maybe that I just got much better over time and my experience helped me even with types of games I never played before?

Over the last years or so I have been playing a couple of really old games that I absolutely loved back at the end of the 90s but that I never got around to complete. Most of the time not even the first third of them. Playing the Thief games was a lot of fun. Then this year I’ve been playing Settlers II, which always had me become stuck at the fourth of ten maps, and Knights & Merchants, where I surpassed the furthest point that I had reached as a kid after just 4 hours. I eventually gave up on the game because it was so incredibly slow and dull. It’s charming, and I guess that’s what had me entertained for weeks with this game, but it didn’t seem to demand any real skill or planning.

Now last week, I got the racing game Redout, which I saw described as a superior clone of Wipeout. I got Wipeout HD a few years back because it seemed like the closest thing to a more modern alternative to Star Wars Racer, but ended up finding it not living up to my expectations. The tracks were just much less interesting than those in Racer, both in the layouts and visuals. As it turned out, Redout wasn’t really that much better in this regard either. So I did the only reasonable thing and actually dug up the real deal. The game that I actually wanted to play the whole time. And I very soon realized that while the tracks were still great, Racer is a much simpler game than Wipeout HD or Redout. Not just simpler, but also much easier. The game has 25 tracks and I got first place on almost all of them on the first try. I think four or so took me second try to get fist place. And after just 3 hours and 15 minuts, I was done. I had completed everything that the game has to offer.

It was a bit underwhelming, to say the least. But it also convinced me of my suspicion I had for years now. Games back in the 90s and early 2000s were not harder than the games that we get today. Instead, we really just sucked at playing videogames when we were kids.

My favorite style of fiction I never knew I had

Having recently seen Drive and looking around for interpretations about it, I came upon a term that I had never really paid much attention to.

Neo-Noir.

What is Neo-Noir? It really is pretty much the same as Noir except that it’s used for works made from the 80s forward instead of up to the 60s. Other good recent examples are basically the whole Nolan movie catalog, with Inception and The Dark Knight standing out prominently. (Memento and Insomnia also really look like it, but I have not seen them yet.)

Inception is my second favorite movie of all time, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. And when you stop and think about it, that movie also has Noir aesthetics all over it. Pretty much everything happening in Cloud City is prime Noir material.

Looking back at it, the first works of this style that I really fell in love with were Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (including the TV series). Of course, you could argue that these are perhaps the two biggest cyberpunk movies ever made. But what is cyberpunk other than Noir with futuristic elements?

Which reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite videogames that I’ve always been thinking of as “cyberpunk without the futuristic elements”. Yeah, once you consider Neo-Noir to be a distinct category, it falls perfectly into it. The socially isolated protagonist living in a blurry gray world on the edge of legality. Characters looking for meaning in a heartless world and coming to bleak realizations about their own lives. And they hang out in a place that looks like this.

And suddenly it all came together: Mass Effect 2 is also a work of Neo-Noir. The first game had already blown my mind, but I was amazed when I came out to the street on Omega. And never had a game felt so perfect as when I first stepped through the door into Afterlife. It is my favorite game of all time, with no contenders.

After the really cool opening and time jump, the game starts with the Illusive Man smoking in a dark room with his Femme Fatale henchwoman Miranda next to him. I could write a whole article about that. (And I probably will, eventually.)

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel that there are at least a great deal of thematic elements of Noir in the Witcher books. The world went to crap, there’s no justice, characters with questionable morales are trying to do the right thing when dealing with those who are morally bancrupt, and there’s always a slight doubt that maybe everyone getting conquered by the Empire might not be the worst idea. And while it would probably be a bit nonsensical to call Bound by Flame a noir fantasy game, the mood of dignified despair is certainly there.

Bonus content: All my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You know, basically everything with Garak in it. (The Wire, Improbable Cause/The Die is cast, and In Pale Moonlight stand out.) And then there is Hellboy, Thief, The Big Lebowsky, Leon the Professional, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I think it’s probably much harder for me to come up with a list of amazing movies, videogames, and TV shows that don’t have a strong Neo-Noir aesthetic.

It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these years that there’s an umbrella term that encompasses pretty much my entire top list of greatest works of fiction ever made. But then, many of the works I mentioned are considered to be really great by a lot of people around the world, so it’s not like this is a style that hasn’t proven itself over the past decades. The period of their making also started just before I was born, which probably isn’t a coincidence either. It’s a style that I’ve been exposed to all my life. While the aesthetics of Noir and Neo-Noir are generally pretty easy to pin down, definitions of the genre are usually rather blurred and unclear. Yet at the same time, works tend to fall into a pretty narrow band of stories. Socially isolated protagonists who are living with one foot in prison and one foot in the grave whose lives have become empty and who are searching for any kind of meaning in their seemingly bleak worlds. Sometimes they catch a faint glimer of hope they can pursue, other times they doom themselves.

Questions about identity and filling an inherently meaningless existence with meaning are the basic foundations of Existentialism, which to me is really the only thing worth exploring in a story. I’ve been watching, reading, and playing stories of this type for all of my adult life and so I probably already do know most of what there is to know about it on an intuitive level. But as someone interesting in writing my own stories this seems like a great opportunity to refocusing my research.