Facing the Darkness Within: The Importance of Acting in Observer and Hellblade

Acting matters, but some acting matters more than others. The 2013 film Locke, for instance, takes place entirely in a single car, being driven by a single man, played by Tom Hardy. His performance absolutely has to carry the film. If the performance doesn’t work, the film doesn’t work, no matter how good the script or other aspects of the movie might be. Similarly, games that are primarily focused on the emotional and psychological experiences of a specific character, one who is voiced, or in some cases voiced and motion-captured, by a specific actor, demand the support of great acting.

Two games in recent weeks demonstrate, in very different ways, just how important a strong leading performance can be; in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, it’s the raw, fierce and vulnerable performance of Melina Juergens as Senua that exposes the character’s inner emotional world to the player, compassionately inviting us to share in the experience of her journey. Meanwhile, the cyberpunk horror game Observer is sunk by Rutger Hauer’s tremendously disinterested performance; it’s not a good game even aside from Hauer’s work, but his non-acting keeps us at arm’s length, preventing any of the game’s efforts to make us feel a connection to its tale of emotional pain and psychological horror from taking hold.

Hauer plays Daniel Lazarski, an observer, a tool of the oppressive, corporate-owned police force, as we’re told in an opening text crawl whose visual stylization is less an homage to Blade Runner than a straight lift.

It was here, listening to Hauer lifelessly read along with the explanation of Observer‘s backstory, that I first wondered if he’d been cast not so much because of his merits as an actor or on the strength of any audition, but simply because he is Rutger Hauer, perhaps best known for his work as Roy Batty in Blade Runner. To be sure, Hauer can act, or he could, at one time; as Batty, he ignites the screen. Harrison Ford may have top billing as sanctioned assassin Rick Deckard but Hauer’s Batty is Blade Runner’s emotional core, the source from which all its impassioned explorations of what it means to be human emanate. In other films, too, like the romantic fantasy Ladyhawke and the cult horror film The Hitcher, he is a commanding presence onscreen.

To say that there’s no sign of that passion or charisma here in Observer would be an understatement. Of course, Lazarski is an entirely different character from Batty, having more in common with the world-weary cop played by Ford than with the rebellious replicant he himself played in Blade Runner, but Hauer’s performance doesn’t convey world-weariness or cynicism or being guarded; the sheer lethargy of it conveys only that Hauer had no real interest in developing his character. I don’t know what you call the opposite of an actor fully committing to a role, but this is definitely it.

Like the opening text crawl, the Vangelis-esque title screen music, and the spinner-like vehicle in which the game begins, Hauer functions here not so much as an actor but simply, through his association with the game, serves as one more nod to Blade Runner. Observer involves Lazarski desperately searching for his estranged son who may be in great danger, and throughout that search, he’s supposed to be struggling–with his own failures as a father, with the strain on his psyche that comes from entering the memories of others, with the weight of the whole grim, seemingly hopeless world. But none of that struggle comes through, nor does any of Lazarski’s motivation, his desire to find his son and protect him from harm. Every beat of the story, from his pursuit of a killer who is leaving a number of bodies in his wake to the ultimate discovery of his son’s fate, falls flat, because our entry into this story is through the eyes of a man who sounds entirely disconnected from everything that’s happening, which leaves us feeling that way, as well. It’s hard not to conclude that the creators of Observer lacked the necessary respect for acting as an art form, hiring an actor for all the wrong reasons, and their game suffers as a result.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is similarly concerned with conveying to us the internal experiences of its central character. The Pict warrior Senua is on a quest to confront the goddess Hela and bargain with her for the return of her dead lover’s soul. At least, I think that’s right. I’m a little fuzzy on the details of Hellblade’s plot, because the specifics don’t really matter. This is less a game about objective reality and more a game about what happens in Senua’s heart and mind. It’s about her mental and emotional struggles, about psychosis and the difficulty of confronting old wounds that are rooted in trauma. Hellblade seeks to probe the darkness in order to find a realistic basis for hope, and for it to succeed, it must convey to some degree the struggles that Senua is experiencing on her journey.

And it does succeed; each element of the game supports the ultimate goal of opening the door for us to enter Senua’s internal world. Of particular note is the exceptional binaural sound design, which lets us hear the voices in Senua’s head crowding and swirling around us, one moment seductively supportive, the next moment vicious and cruel, stabbing at Senua’s most tender insecurities and most threatening fears. The combat, too, carries with it a sense of weight that almost feels burdensome at times. It becomes the rare video game slog that actually benefits the game it’s a part of, leaving you feeling like you’ve struggled out from under something crushing, or desperately fended off the demons within yourself for just a little bit longer. Even the game’s false opening statement that, if you die too many times, you’ll be returned to the beginning (perhaps a bit of misdirection by the trickster god Loki, about whom we hear so much throughout Senua’s quest) works to suggest that here, you can’t be too sure that anything is real.

However, the essential hook holding all the other elements together is the lead performance by Melina Juergens, who took on the role despite having no previous acting experience after standing in for it while also working as Ninja Theory’s video editor. As Senua, Juergens is fierce, raw, anguished, uncertain, wary, and strong. In contrast to Rutger Hauer’s performance in Observer, what we have here is an actor who is entirely committed to the role, using her face and voice to their fullest expressive potential to let us in, moment to moment, on what Senua is experiencing.

It’s a remarkably vulnerable and demanding performance, one that’s as subtle in some moments as it is large and loud in others. Senua sometimes looks to the sky with a pleading in her eyes, as if she’s begging the gods for a little bit of mercy; at other times, the corners of her mouth pull back ever so slightly as she gazes ahead with unmistakable determination. Through it all, her voice goes the distance with her, from the most reluctant whispers about the source of her own trauma to the rawest of screams that emerge from some place of pure anguish deep within.

It’s only because Juergens so fully internalizes Senua’s experiences and lays them bare for us that we feel, when Hellblade reaches its end, as if we’ve been on the journey with her. It’s only because of this that we feel as if a tiny bit of the glimmer of hope the game reveals in the end–a hope that Senua has fought tooth-and-nail for, a hope we’ve seen her desperately claw for with every fiber of her being–that some small part of it belongs to us, as well. If games are going to bring us along with a character whose struggles are internal as well as external, they need a lead performance that does the brave work of letting us enter the character’s tumultuous inner world.

For an important critical perspective on Hellblade, please read this blog post by Tanya DePass.


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