Saturday, April 13, 2024

Is Sayonara Wild Hearts the future of pop music?

Usually I button mash my way through the “start” screen of games, eager to skip through all those developer logos (sorry) to jump straight into the game. Yet with Sayonara Wild Hearts I found myself transfixed: the game’s logo pops up in shades of neon while catchy pop music plays in the background. From there, the music only gets better.

Created by experimental Swedish developer Simogo, Sayonara Wild Hearts is described as a “pop album video game”. In practice, that means skateboarding, motorcycling and flying your way through a series of dizzying, bright pink levels, collecting hearts to a Scandi dream pop soundtrack as you transform, Sailor Moon style, into your alter-ego and battle your enemies. It’s a wild ride that feels like playing through a music video – something I’d love to see more of in the future. Sure, Beyoncé may have pioneered the “visual album”, but was it interactive? No, no it was not.

Like all the best pop albums, Sayonara Wild Hearts deals in heartbreak. For the most part, the narrative is left conceptual, ambiguous and up for interpretation. The opening details a woman left heartbroken and, through the course of the game, taps into her alter-ego to overcome her depression. Swedish artist Robyn’s music trades in bittersweet emotions to have you crying in the club – just listen to Dancing On My Own – and Sayonara Wild Hearts does the same, with a serious emotional core wrapped up in euphoric, uplifting pop music. Forget other music rhythm games – there’s nothing else like this.

The game is only an hour or so long, (the length of a pop album no less) but it’s an absolute rush.

One minute you’re flying through space and wormholes, the next you’re riding on the back of a stag through a forest, motorcycling along crumbling highways, shooting hearts at hyper-speed, and flying on the back of a dragon. The abstract visuals feature anime-inspired shape-shifting and over the top (and slightly camp) dance battles, all hypnotically timed with the music. The only time it lets up is with the series of stages in a virtual reality headset, where the slower, laidback pace works perfectly with the game’s ballad.

Getting through the levels isn’t all that tricky: with fast reaction skills it’s easy to make it through. But achieving gold rank is a testament to your sense of rhythm as much as your hand-eye coordination.

Songwriters Daniel Olsen, Jonathan Eng, and vocalist Linnea Olsson have produced a brilliant array of songs, mixing icy synths, catchy melodies, and dreamy vocals. Mine is a particular favourite, with its shimmering sounds and addictive “your wild heart glitters” lyric that for the life of me I cannot get out of my head.

The pop tracks are interspersed with evocative electronica to put you in a trance, while the aforementioned ballad The World We Knew is genuinely emotional with its yearning, delicate melodies and crashing percussion. The soundtrack is available on all good streaming services, but the visuals, gameplay, and music are all so tightly woven together, it seems a shame to not experience it all as a game as intended.

The final level is a medley of the previous stages, both sonically and visually, which really captures the synergy between music and interactivity that only games can provide. Those catchy earworms all crash together in an extravaganza of synths and pinks, heart pounding and ears pulsing as you race through space and time and relive the best bits of the game in one long sequence that sees your protagonist rediscovering her sense of self. It is stupendous.

So do yourself a favour, download Sayonara Wild Hearts immediately and plug in your best headphones. As a pop album, it’s one of the best of the year. As a game, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience.

Ed Nightingale

[He/Him] Ed is a London-based blogger and freelance writer, covering music, film, theatre, games and lifestyle. A lover of culture, he can usually be found in front of the silver screen or a laptop - if you can play it, watch it, or sing it then he’s probably got an opinion about it.