In the last issue We talked A New Approach of Hellblade, Today we will talk about the New World of Hellblade.

For past Ninja Theory games, upwards of twenty artists would build the world. The game’s script always came first, and the world would then be built around it with unique areas created for every detail.

Things couldn’t be more different for Hellblade. One single principal environment artist a man named Dan Attwell is responsible for the setting, and everything else in the game is then going to be designed in and around the spaces he’s creating. Already, thanks to procedural creation tools, the environment’s scale is comparable with that of Ninja Theory’s previous games.

Hellblade’s set in the Nordic underworld Helheim, and it takes place on the edge of a nameless island where the geography has naturally formed around the shape of the game’s compass like logo. It was inspired by the caldera of the Greek island Santorini, and Attwell has finely shaped the island by merging the geometries he’s built with satellite data of Scandinavian fjords imported into Unreal Engine 4.


At the centre of the compass symbol is a towering citadel that’s a mashup of harsh rock and carved Viking longboat features. The space around it is a mixture of environs, with lots of natural negative space created by water defining the logo’s outline. With a world first design mentality the topology is always the starting point, the finer details and specific area themes after.

“The challenge came to work on the [location] height differences to get amazing views from all possible areas,” enthuses Stuart Adcock as we pore over an ideas poster containing almost a dozen possible work in progress world maps.

“And to really satisfy the goals which were, wherever you look, that there’s amazing vistas and incredible scenery.”

Swamp lands, hidden ports, valleys, giant gates, deep cave systems leading to twisted forests inspirational photographs and concept art are pinned up on the walls and circular pillars of the studio. Though Hellblade isn't likely to be a long game, the remit handed to Dan is that is should be possible for players to spend hours exploring the world should they choose presumably forgetting about the
action because they’re drawn in by the imagination on show. And, similar to the ever-present mountain in Journey, you should always be able to see where you’ve been and where you’re about to go.

The concept art for Hellblade’s world design is gorgeous, with what looks like beds of grass actually turning out to be blankets of bloody hands when you peer closer, or cave systems opening out into the screaming mouths of tortured monolithic skulls. But two interactive environment concepts in
particular stand out from the rest.
“beds of grass Turn out To be blankets of bloody Hands when you Peer closer.”
These aren’t pieces of concept art but real-time demos in textureless white environments set up to quickly playtest some of the team’s ideas. The first is actually something you’ve read about earlier this issue in our Rime preview the notion of optical illusions playing a part in progress and puzzles. Remember the Channel 4 idents in which the camera pans around a group of floating haystacks or buildings until the scattered objects magically form a giant ‘4’? The same rules apply here in the world of Hellblade: there may be no obvious way forward until you unlock a particular environmental conundrum.

So, doorways appear in cliff faces when you stand in the right place to line up a sequence of floating black shapes and focus on the resulting ‘hole’, or ramps to higher platforms become fused together by using the same principles. In one instance I see the shadows of twigs forming a skull under the right lighting.

Should these puzzles make it into Hellblade (and it’s likely that they will, but I must emphasise that the mechanics are still currently being prototyped), they won’t all be used for bog-standard progress. Part of Hellblade’s depth, and the potential for pure exploration, stems from finding hidden meanings and messages buried deep in the design of the world itself. Ninja Theory is keen to avoid both a Heads Up Display and standard collectibles, and the optical illusions are viewed as a way to hook you into the fiction in a new way.

The other prototype that really makes an impression is the concept of Malevolence. Stuart Adcock describes Hellblade’s Malevolence as the, “manifestation of your worst nightmares,” and it’s most easily summed up as dynamic parts of the world that attack Senua to make Helheim feel more threatening. With a 13-strong development team and just one person in charge of the world design, dynamic, moving environments sound like a goal too far. But Ninja Theory is nothing if not resourceful, and all of these features are natural byproducts of senior animator Jitaik Lim’s work on enemy movement.

“If we can take certain frames from an attack move and stitch them together, we can make interesting sculptures for the world that feel quite hellish,” explains Adcock as he shows me a video in which key frames from a creature’s running animation are being frozen into the world, one after another. “It has a leading edge, so it’s like it’s running towards you.”

 To be continued...