Sayonara Wild Hearts is a Bright, Loud Game That Tells a Sweet, Subtle Story

Sayonara Wild Hearts is a Bright, Loud Game That Tells a Sweet, Subtle Story

Video games are still learning the art of subtle storytelling, but a game about neon biker gals at war somehow nails it.

I've said in the past that arguing whether games are art is like trying to lift yourself up by your shoelaces. Great philosophers went to their graves still tormented by the question "What is Art?" I don't foresee a future where the light of understanding reflects off a Twitter fight about video games.

Games may or may not be art. There's no final word on the matter. It's all subjective: In the '90s, people were moved by footage of a wind-tossed plastic bag from the film American Beauty. (Ask your parents.) That said, I think it's safe to say video games are potentially great messengers. Morals, emotions, and words of encouragement can exist in games' settings. Since you play games instead of just observing them passively, those messages have the ability to hit you twice as hard as they would if they simply come from a movie or a book.

Games aren't a perfect vehicle for delivering these messages, though. Whether it's because of the medium's young age or because games engage nearly all your senses at once, their lessons and messages tend towards the "loud, obvious, and/or oblivious" side. BioShock Infinite tut-tutting about how "both sides of a struggle are equally bad when one side is being violently oppressed by the other" is still carried around as a prime example.

Developers are gradually getting better at molding the narrative aspect of their craft, thankfully, and I expect there will come a day when players won't have to automatically cover their heads when studios break out the Lesson Stick. You might already be surprised where you'll find thoughtful messages about life and love. I reviewed Simogo's rhythm-action game Sayonara Wild Hearts last week, and I'm still thinking hard about everything it has to say.

It's funny to tell people Sayonara Wild Hearts has a quietly positive message that's beneficial for anyone who plays it. At a glance, the game is as subtle as a midnight fursuit rave DJ'd by CHVRCHES; there is literally a sequence where you motorcycle down a torrent of Death's own aqua-blue vomit. But Sayonara Wild Hearts' brilliant neon coat is just the showy plumage it uses to get your attention. (It's damn effective, too: This is arguably the most stylish game since Persona 5.) Once its magic motorcycle-riding protagonist tears her way through the five dark Arcana-themed gangs causing turmoil in a once-harmonious universe, you're left wondering, "I wonder what that was all about."

That's when the fun begins. Sayonara Wild Hearts' doesn't label its lessons or remind you to think hard about what might be symbolism. At the same time, there's clearly more to its glowing battle ballet than androgynous women in masks chasing each other on bikes.

I personally sewed together a few theories using Sayonara Wild Hearts' narrative, imagery, and song lyrics. The protagonist, who adopts (and is adopted by) the Fool arcana, might simply be recovering from a romantic relationship that fell apart, as the narrator suggests. But I figure she might also potentially be trans, and dealing with the struggle of transitioning. It's also possible each Arcana gang the Fool chases and beats the hell out of might represent a struggle within herself, whether with depression or any other mental illness. (If this is the case, kudos to Simogo for going buck-wild with its representations for mental turmoil instead of resorting to shadows and gloomy black clouds.)

"I took the training wheels off yesterday." | Simogo/Annapurna Interactive

These are just my theories. I can't point at any of them and say, "This is what Sayonara Wild Hearts is telling you." That's the best part of games and other artistic mediums that implement their messages carefully: Said games gradually become many things to many people. Anyone who's in a struggle can take solace in them. In the case of Sayonara Wild Hearts, the most important part of its message is reserved for the game's ending: Whatever's dogging you right now, everything's going to turn out OK. Maybe not perfectly, but OK.

Conversely, if you just want to enjoy an adrenaline-pumping game that combines driving, shooting, collecting, and rhythm mechanics, Sayonara Wild Hearts is good for that, too. I admit that sometimes a three-headed wolf mech that tries to kill you with laser-eyes is just a three-headed wolf mech that tries to kill you with laser-eyes.

Major Game Releases: September 23 to September 27

Here are the major releases for the week of September 23 to September 273. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.

  • Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, Baldur's Gate 2: Enhanced Edition, and Planescape Torment: Enhanced Edition [September 24, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch] - More classic RPGs are coming in for another go-around. Planescape is of special note because it's number two on our list of the Top 25 RPGs of All Time.
  • Contra: Rogue Corps [September 24, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch] - Contra: Rogue Corps is here, aka "Big Men With Guns Who Say Eff Words." If you subsist on games about gunning down zombies, come get your meal.
  • Mario Kart: World Tour [September 25, iOS, Android] - It's still a little weird to see the words "Mario Kart" next to "mobile," but 2019 is nothing if not interesting. Mario says, "Buckle up unless you want to become the-a star of one of those gory videos they use to scare bad drivers straight! Woo-hooo!"
  • Dragon Quest 11 S: Echoes of an Elusive Age [September 27, Switch] - Dragon Quest 11 was one of my top picks for 2018, and now it's coming to the Switch with an extremely impressive port. Don't miss it, or the Scions of Erdrick will find you and beat you with cypress sticks.

This Week's News and Notes

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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