[Game Theory] Music and Performance in Sayonara Wild Hearts

Racing through the bright, neon-lit worlds of Sayonara Wild Hearts is a unique and deeply affective experience. You play a woman who has been through a terrible break-up and is trying to connect to herself again. It’s set to catchy electro pop soundtrack, narrated by Queen Latifah, and brought to you in colorful neon landscapes. Some levels are races, others are boss fights, others are games-within-a-game. There’s much to unpack here. As always, this mini close-reading contains some spoilers.

Queer Dreamscape

Sayonara Wild Hearts takes place in an surreal alternate universe that symbolizes your feelings about heartbreak. You find a butterfly that transforms you to your masked alter ego, The Fool, who can traverse this alternate dimension on skateboards and motorcycles. Along the way you defeat enemies and restore balance to the world. Part racing game, part rhythm game, part platformer, Sayonara Wild Hearts keeps you guessing what its next level will be like. Throughout the game you defeat characters that are coded like your ex-lovers until eventually, you reconcile with them and regain your heart and yourself.

The game is chockful of references, that Swedish developer Simogo describes on their site: “Sayonara Wild Hearts is a soup made of pop-culture. It’s OutRun, the “teddy girls” sub-culture, Carly Rae Jepsen, Rez, cafe racers, WarioWare, Blümchen, the 1950s, modern dance, Akira, F-Zero, Space Harrier, Sia, Gradius, the 1980s, Charli XCX, Sailor Moon, Ouendan, Tron, Rhythm Tengoku, Punch Out, and a good portion of ourselves, strangeness, and mysticism stuffed into a blender”

From magical Sailormoon-inspired transformation scenes, to sword fights that resemble Shoujo Kakumei Utena, Sayonara Wild Hearts reads as much as an oath to music subcultures as to anime. The tarot card motif will remind you of the Persona series as well, and in particular the masked heroine of this game calls to mind Persona 5. Similar to that game, Sayonara Wild Hearts is about immersing yourself in your unconscious, fears, and heartbreak. The key is to confront these anxieties.  

Explicitly coded as bisexual, the aesthetics of the game stand out. Jenna Stoeber writes in Polygon: “The color range is drawn straight from the bisexual lighting palette, jewel-tones accented with neon UI elements. The tarot cards are all stylish ladies leading girl gangs, wearing cunning suits and letterman jackets.”

The wholesome, queer aesthetic of the game is matched with an electro pop soundtrack. Music is a great part of the game experience, and the player’s movements are almost a choreography of sorts through which the avatar fights, dances, and otherwise times her actions. Thus, this game is best read as a dance and a deep dive into girl-on-girl culture.

Butterflies and Other Symbols

How do you put yourself together after you’ve been through a difficult break-up? Sayonara Wild Hearts is about finding yourself again. This is expressed in fast, haptic movements, immersive techno music, but also in its mythology.

The butterfly at the start of the game, for instance, is key. Butterflies are allegories of transformation in mysticism, of becoming your true self. It brings to mind the parable of Zhuangzi as well, in which he dreamt he was a butterfly, and awakens: ‘Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.’

The fact that you play as The Fool is also no coincidence, since The Fool is often understood as the protagonist and most valuable card of tarot, which is also known as “The Fool’s Journey”. The term “The ‘Fool’s Journey” was coined by Eden Gray to describe the story of the Major Arcana of the Tarot, which all represent a stage on the journey – an experience that a person must incorporate to realize her wholeness.

This is a game about self-actualization, then. It can also be read as a coming-out game, where you come to terms with your sexuality. At the end of the game you heal yourself through compassion. Instead of fighting with girls, you kiss them delightfully and innocently. You let go of your exes in a healthy, compassionate way.

Game Play as Performance and Choreography

Much of the attraction of Sayonara Wild Hearts lies in its game play and music though, which together with the symbolism create a deeply affective game. It’s a rush. As a player you go through the motions and are asked to partly perform on instinct. Paul Tamayo voices this well in Kotaku: “The moment I let go and actually listened to the rhythm, my instincts took over. I felt the movement the way I used to when reading sheet music. Once I learned the sequence and installed it in my muscles, I could add some finesse to the performance.”

Like learning a music instrument, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a learning curve, but also a performance. Its rich affective game play teaches you, instructs you, but also asks you to immerse yourself. Feeling is central to the game play, but so is performing to the music. Often, this indie induces a truly immersive racing rush, similar to Mario’s Rainbow Road. The later levels are complex, and ask the player to memorize them, and pay attention to the music to know which moves to make.

Choreography would be the best word for this game play. It’s a combination of skills, timing, memory, kinetic design and narrative coding. This is a game that you feel, embody and every move is deliberately timed and felt. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a performance, and almost like a dance. It begs for affective reception – a type of reception that goes beyond stories and criticism and signs, and just asks you to immerse yourself and to experience different levels of intensities.

The thing with heartbreak is, you just have to go through it and experience it. You need to mourn. In this lucid dream world, you find your heart again. The song Begin Again voices this beautifully

I have tried to forget

All the pain and regret

It’s the last time

It’s the last time tonight

As you hold me so close

In your arms I just know

It’s the last time

3 thoughts on “[Game Theory] Music and Performance in Sayonara Wild Hearts

  1. Great piece! I have been scouring the internet for a write-up like this and I’m glad I came across yours Nicolle! Keep up the good work!

  2. This is an excellently written article! Thanks for going into detail about things like what inspired the game, there were several pieces that felt oddly familiar yet I couldn’t place them before reading this. It’s been months since I played Sayonara Wild Hearts yet I can’t stop thinking about it!

    1. Thank you so much for this kind comment! I agree, it’s such a beautiful game and I am so curious what the developers will do next!

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