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As much as I love the sound of pop music, a lot of pop artists never really connected with me in a meaningful way when I was growing up. Much of that comes down to the fact that romance so often plays a core role in pop music lyricism, and so often those romantic lyrics are explicitly written to be from a straight perspective. I'm a lesbian, and as much as I love the sound of some Gaga or Adele, it's rare for any of those pop artists to set my hopeless romantic side alight with their tracks. That's a big part of what made playing through the superb Sayonara Wild Hearts feel so special.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a recently released video game, which was pitched as a playable, female-focused, pop album. Taking between 60-90 minutes per playthrough, the game is comprised of approximately three-minute-long music rhythm action levels, from bubblegum aspirational romance ballads to more dramatic and slow percussion-based tracks. Players move left and right, as well as other actions like jumping over projectiles, all in time with the beat, attempting to collect gems in the non-stop scrolling levels for points, and trying to avoid head-on collisions which will break the flow of your run. You're basically getting to play an active role in a well-made pop album, with your actions paced incredibly well to the music, which in turn matches up with the emotional beats of the story. This is an exercise in interacting with music and visuals, and it undeniably succeeds at that.
Narrated by Queen Latifah, who adds a beautifully powerful yet comforting tone to the story, Sayonara Wild Hearts tells a story about a set of tarot card-themed goddesses in space whose hearts have been broken, and a woman down on Earth with a broken heart summoned to help heal and fix the hearts of the heavens.
Each of these distinct tarot card goddesses features in a few back-to-back levels, with their own musical genre, queer girl archetype, and gameplay gimmicks involved. One early level sees you chasing after preppy sports ladies on a motorcycle through crowded downtown streets, avoiding fireballs of rejection, before literally taking flight as a gentle ethereal pop soundtrack swells, singing about how this is definitely the last time the female singer is going to pine after someone she barely knows.
A later level sees the world warp visually in response to dubstep beats, as you pursue some hippy raccoon furries through the woods on the back of a forest stag, before a rock layer to the soundtrack kicks in and you're suddenly fighting off a mech with machine guns, pining about how you worry you're the only one who feels the way you do. Yet another sees you floating around as a digital avatar on the exterior of a woman's VR headset, as a beautiful ballad plays about coming out, starting to accept who you are and who you love, and that shifting you out of depression and anxiety in a hopeful yet somber track.
You basically spend an hour or so with Queen Latifah as your guide, as you meet a bunch of cute queer lady types, from the insulated gamer to the strong powerful sword lesbians, before basically defeating your internalized homophobia, coming out as gay, and returning to all those levels now aiming to kiss those cute girls. Seriously, the whole game builds to a beautiful final track where you just get to kiss cute girls over and over, and it's beautiful. It's an explicitly queer framework for a gorgeous pop album, draped in easily accessible but varied gameplay and coated in neon paint. This game feels like it was made for me.
Collisions with obstacles in levels are minimally penalized, with each track based level featuring frequent checkpointing. If you crash into something, you respawn back a few seconds and have to try again. You don't lose any points you had at that checkpoint, you don't have a set number of lives, the only real negative is that the song repeats slightly as you replay part of the level. It's a pretty well-balanced punishment for failure, with reloading checkpoints near-instant, little of each level needing replaying, and a full uninterrupted hearing of tracks enough incentive to improve your performance. It means you can afford to take risks going for extra bonus points, practicing levels just as easily as you can take the simple route and enjoy the track uninterrupted.
So often queer narratives focus on adversity and strife on their journeys, but this game just revels in femme queer romance from start to finish. Considering also how rare it is for mainstream pop music to venture into femme queer themes, it's a delight to have an album telling that story be so interactive and engaging.
I know some will look at the game's 60-minute length and feel that's short for its price tag, but this experience is so beautifully polished, unique, and energetically queer that I think it's well worth checking out, even if you only play it the once. The skill with which it escalates its narrative is masterful, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
Seriously, I have played this game through probably six times already, and the soundtrack has fast become part of my regular rotation of music. Just watch one of the videos embedded and you'll quickly see what makes this game so special.