If past generations saw their wanderlust reflected in Alice peering down a rabbit hole or Luke Skywalker staring down a sunset, the COVID-era equivalent will almost certainly involve a hero gazing into a screen: With most of the U.S. still advised to stay home as much as possible, televisions and smart devices feel more than ever like flickering portals, promising the addled mind passage to anywhere but our own four walls. Since I don't know when I'll get to see it again safely, I spent my early mental excursions visiting my hometown of New York City, using old seasons of The Real Housewives and Flight of the Conchords to travel down familiar streets frozen in time, years away from the pandemic's stateside arrival. From there I moved to Desus & Mero's back catalog, gleefully profane dispatches from a world where bad news felt a little easier to laugh at. Lately, though, after I've texted my mom, hugged my partner and given our elderly cat a scratch behind the ears, I've found my evening's respite venturing out into a city left untouched by the moment's menace.
Not Washington, D.C., where I've lived for the past decade; our infection curve is still the wrong shape. But a neon-hued city where it's always twilight hour, where the gravest danger is failing to trust your heart, where the streetlamps all pulse to the same rhythm and staying safe is a mere matter of keeping up with the beat.
Even with such glittering charms to recommend it, Sayonara Wild Hearts eludes easy description. The small Swedish game studio Simogo, whose past hits Device 6 and Year Walk feathered the borders between puzzle games and adventure novels, dubbed the project an "interactive music video" when it began development five years ago. The resulting work is something more remarkable: a full-fledged pop album born into a video game's body, where level design plays by the same rules as songwriting. The breakout hit of Apple Arcade upon its debut one year ago, it soon spread to most digital platforms and won an armload of awards for artistic excellence. (A new physical edition has been teased for wide release this fall.) But to me, it has found its truest resonance in these past few fraught months, where powerless desperation haunts the collective mood — because everything about its design makes me feel, if only for a few minutes at a time, superpowered.
Sayonara begins, astonishingly, with the voice of Queen Latifah, whose narration in the opening cutscene traces the outline of a premise: "Not long ago in a town much like yours, there was a young woman who was very happy. Until one day, her heart broke so violently that her sorrow echoed through space and time." There is more to the setup: a universe governed by serenity, a great disturbance that throws it into chaos, the promise of a savior who will restore order. But in a way, you know the beats before you hear them. In a statement accompanying a first-look trailer in 2018, Simogo called the game "a soup made of pop culture" and namechecked Akira, Tron, OutRun, Punch Out, modern dance, Teddy Girls, the 1980s and the 1950s among a dozen other ingredients. The pledge is not to present a brand-new story, but to be to the hero's journey what DJ Earworm is to the Top 40, building a whole from all the best parts.
The narrator introduces us to our heroine, a nameless tomboy skateboarding home from work, shoulders hunched by solitude. Moments later, a reintroduction, as a cosmic cyclone whisks the girl away from her house to a twinkly rainbow road twisting through space. In a flash of iridescence she is reborn as "The Fool," a masked avenger modeled on the figure from the tarot deck but decked out in Sailor Moon glam. Her new form is poised and untroubled, facing the camera for the first time in a balletic pose; she wears the attention so well that you half expect to hear Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" pounding in the background. Instead, a beat-savvy remix of Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune" tumbles alongside her, its shiny, culture-mashing upgrades mirroring her own.
From there, a few familiar paths emerge. At its heart, Sayonara is an "auto-runner" — the player charges toward the horizon of a darkened cityscape, avoiding obstacles and gathering heart-shaped collectibles to rack up points. But surprises abound: In the course of her journey, The Fool will trade her skateboard for a motorcycle, a drifty convertible, a Green Goblin glider and the back of an enchanted deer, each one subtly changing the pace and style of play. At times she'll break format completely to face an enemy in a swordfight or an Atari-style shoot 'em up. And even at their most straightforward, each level is also bound to the rules of rhythm games (think Guitar Hero), where the key to landing a move is lining it up with the music. Luckily, the music is great.
Sayonara's soundtrack is two-thirds synthwavey instrumentals, composed by frequent Simogo collaborator Daniel Olsén. But its backbone is an LP's worth of sparkling original songs, which wouldn't sound out of place in a poptimist roundup of the 2010s — and which, like so much modern pop, are the work of a talented Swedish assembly line. The chain began with Gothenburg songwriter Jonathan Eng, who first conceived the songs as bare-bones guitar demos. Singing cellist Linnea Olsson, recruited after Simogo's artistic director Simon Flesser caught her live at a Malmö record store and was awestruck, performed the pristine vocals that serve as the game's inner monologue. Between their two contributions sat Olsén — this time as producer — who says his job was a kind of vibe translation, rebuilding Eng's rough sketches to suit a world of Day-Glo fantasy.
"We have a collaborative playlist on Spotify," Olsén tells me by phone from his home in Los Angeles, describing a research phase where reference tracks were matched to key story moments for inspiration. "You would find Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX, Chvrches. Some K-pop and J-pop. We'd just drag and drop songs where we felt like they fit: the textures in this song, or the melodies in this song." Composition and design moved in parallel, with Olsén writing less than a minute of music at a time and sending his work to Flesser to lay underneath a level in progress. "He would put it in and be like, 'I want this to feel slower.' 'I want something mystic.' 'OK, at this point, maybe you can have a drop.' And I would change the music, and then he would change the level, and we would go back and forth like that: music, level, music, level."
If that effort sounds tedious, the payoff is ecstatic: Play the game well and every leap, swoop, punch and parry will land in perfect time as though threaded through the logic of a Hollywood musical. It's the feeling of walking around sneakily syncing your steps to the song in your earbuds, but legitimized by scale as the whole landscape plays along, rendering the sonics in bursts of motion. "Begin Again," Eng's best-constructed song and my favorite level to replay, speeds through a stylized San Francisco whose streets literally quake apart at the chorus, allowing the action to dive below ground. "Forest Dub" matches a trippy bass groove to a roadway that warps and wobbles with the kick drum. "Parallel Universes" teleports The Fool between alternate-reality versions of the same course, flipping the switch on every two and four beat and thus forcing players to internalize the metronome.
Throughout, Olsén's sound design is empathic: You realize that a synth tone can feel like flying or falling, can sound pink or blue or fuzzy or cold, depending how the waveform has been sculpted. Not to be outdone, Linnea Olsson sings with such sensuous urgency that at times it's hard not to throw down the controller and shout along. She is in top form in "Inside," a battle against the cheekily named villain Little Death, as she builds from breathy restraint to fever pitch in a hook that calls its inspirations out by name:
And it's late nights, and it's Game Boys
And it's too bright, and it's synth noise
And it's Charli, and it's milkshakes
And it's Carly, and it's heartbreaks
Though the non-player characters never speak or sing, their presentation radiates musicality as each chapter pits The Fool against a new tarot-inspired enemy. The lightning-fingered Little Death keeps her namesake's bony visage and grim scythe, but swaps the cloak for black biker duds and a Debbie Harry bob. The Dancing Devils and Howling Moons are Grease-style girl gangs with post-punk swagger, style cousins of Sleigh Bells and Savages. Hermit64 and the Stereo Lovers serve mannered androgyny by way of 2000s Janelle Monáe and 1970s Patti Smith.
Crucially, these challengers are all feminine, but present a few distinct models of femininity to sample, signaling that our heroine's unexplained heartbreak may also be an identity crisis. Whether or not you connect with the popular interpretation of Sayonara as a coming-out story, its queer gaze is undeniable: Bodies transform, soft-butch fashion reigns and the combat has a flirtatious tilt, buzzing with the coy charge of The Matrix's dojo sequence. The participation of Latifah, whose voice returns throughout to commend high scores, gives the proceedings a house mother's loving wit. And the climax — not quite a plot twist but best left unspoiled — turns the streak of fluidity inherent to dance-pop and club culture into practically its own character. Intentionally or otherwise, a story of individual renewal is animated at every turn by the history of LGBTQ communities staking out space to move and breathe freely, as their true selves.
Writer Sasha Geffen, an avowed gamer and author of the book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, says The Fool's steady accrual of new weapons and modes of travel resonates hard with stories of gender-blurring self-discovery. "Because the physics work differently for each vehicle, learning how to pilot each of these things feels almost like being given a new body: As it keeps escalating, you get more competence or more power, but also it gets harder," Geffen says. "Even just the gesture of introducing the main character as her 'real world' self — in her bedroom, being sad — and then layering this dream persona that you actually play as, is a pretty juicy move. Anytime there's that kind of overlay of selves, there's going to be some tension between them."
That tension may also be what makes synth-pop just the right vessel for Sayonara's vision. Olsén says an early draft of the game leaned a little more goth: "The music was kind of electro-surf, really gritty, and all of the themes were really dark. But then halfway into the project, Simon was playing the game and had some Chvrches on in the background — and just thought, 'Wow, this fits so much better.' " The bolder sonic palette adds layers of possibility to the story (are the villains evil exes, romantic fantasies, both?), as well as to the visual design. As Geffen points out, the contemporary artists on Simogo's mood board all draw heavily from the 1980s, the era that took synthesizers mainstream and established the modern music video, a surreal new world for those sounds to inhabit.
"When MTV started up," Geffen explains, "you could [suddenly] turn on this designated channel and see not just simulated live performances, but fantasy spaces. People could act out the themes of a song in these dreamlike narratives that didn't necessarily have to make sense. Because synthesizers are 'unreal' in a way, it fed really nicely into the sense that music videos can create unreal space — dream space."
The function of dream space stretches far past entertainment, of course. It is where children run their hands across the fringes of adulthood, where the marginalized glimpse greater potential and opportunity; it is the seat of activism and the most reliable refuge from trauma. I've clocked a lot of time in dream space over the past few months, and I sense that I'm not alone. Of the pandemic's many tolls, perhaps the most startling is its theft of real space, a resource so elemental that many never dreamed of life without it, nor imagined how quickly its absence would raze livelihoods and grant glitchy video-chat software the rights to basic human expressions of joy and grief.
In that light, it makes sense that the coping techniques I saw trickling through my newsfeeds in the early weeks of lockdown hinged on taking control of whatever real space one had left: making food from scratch, touching the edges of nature, creating tiny sanctuaries at home. Dream space, naturally, is not so easily shared. But by affinity for the same works of art, we can at least identify those whose dream worlds resemble our own. Since beating Sayonara and completing most of its expert-level challenges, I've found a small new comfort in watching others experience it for the first time, via YouTube playthroughs that capture their reverie unfiltered: "Oh my God, she's so rad! Look at you go!" "I can't believe I'm a magical lesbian girl now." "I'll admit I'm actually getting a little emotional here." Their stumbles are on display too, but the game is forgiving in that way, allowing players to skip obstacles that thwart their progress too many times in a row. Over and over, the operative theme is release from inertia, freedom from self-torment, faith that it's OK to not be OK, because one day you will be.
Life has made those maxims a bit harder to swallow recently. The fear I felt at the onset of summer, when bars and theme parks opened their doors to the still-poisoned air, feels almost quaint compared to what's followed. The flattening curves bent back into fearsome spikes. The slow creep of sickness and financial calamity into my own cherished circles. My artistic heroes snatched from the earth with half a life's work left to fulfill. The parallel nightmares of state violence, roaring through cities unsettled by Black death, and extreme weather, blanketing whole states in water, fire, ash and debris. Even for those of us with the unearned, arbitrary privilege to carry on working at home through all this, precarity is always clawing at the edges of the frame, psychic strain always seeping from cracks in the walls.
When I can manage, I have tried to take shelter in a memory from a simpler time. In it, I am 25 or 26, still living in New York, on a head-clearing stroll to nowhere in particular. It's twilight in the East Village, and the late summer weather is cool enough for the jacket I'm wearing but warm enough to leave it open. In the past year I have bailed out of a steady but bruising job and a loving but strained relationship, and moved back into my childhood bedroom to regroup, broke and bummed and short on self-esteem. With the creaky iPod Classic in my back pocket, I have spent the walk testing out songs from Body Talk Pt. 1, a daring new release by a former teen idol turned Europop rulebreaker, whose knack for pairing depressive lyrics with thrilling hooks has been slowly working its way into my stubborn indie-rock heart. I am listening to Robyn's voice while I puzzle over where I'm going and where I've been and what to do right now.
And then, like a spray of fireworks, comes the deep cut "Cry When You Get Older," a bittersweet anthem about confronting jumbled priorities and the chaos of youth, delivered through a mist of robotic harmonies that sound like they've known you your whole life. I hear the song's verve and drive and exhilarating textures, and I don't even know why but I break into a sprint. For the next three and a half minutes, I am leaping off curbs, dodging garbage cans, weaving around the occasional bemused passerby as I chase the dimming skyline. When the final chords ring out I clatter to a stop, hands on knees, sweaty and winded and grinning wide.
I think of that feeling now, and for a few dreamy moments, I am a lovesick fool tearing down an astral highway at a zillion beats per minute, nursing a heartbreak the size of the whole world. I know I'm not OK, not now, and maybe not for a while. But one way or another, I know I have to keep running.