There is almost a whole subgenre of visual novels that are used as jokes when they are recommended. The reason is that most visual novels fall into two categories: those with explicit sexual content and those that dispense with it in order to present kinder stories. It’s a dividing line, a way of polarizing the genre: Do you or don’t you want pornographic or gore content in your visual novel? And if you don’t want it, don’t you seek to appeal to more chaste and infantilized visions? Of course, this is reductionist and there are countless visual novels, especially in recent years (and thanks to popular platforms like the Nintendo DS), that span many more styles and genres, but the assumption is that most consumption is geared towards these two motifs.
The song of Saya (Saya no Uta, 2003) is part of that subgenre whose main motif seems to subvert that division. It was written by Gen Urobuchi, an anime screenwriter famous for his violent and cruel imagery that has earned him the nickname Uro-butcher. Broadly speaking, it is the story of Fuminori, a young man who, after losing his entire family in a car accident, wakes up in the hospital and discovers that he can no longer perceive the world as it is, but as a nightmarish version where everything seems to be made of guts and gives off a foul smell. Some kind of agnosia, says the protagonist. Even his closest friends are now masses of flesh that vomit irritating sounds when they address him. In this abject world there is only one exception, a young girl named Saya who is searching for her father, a doctor who seems to have some connection to the treatment Fuminori has received after his accident.
It should be noted that Saya is depicted as an innocent minor with whom Fuminori has a sexual relationship. The Steam version released 16 years later keeps the sexual content out, apparently with the approval of Urobuchi who believes that it was a detriment to the story that distracted from the horror elements. That sexualization added provocation and the taboo or the element to capture a certain audience that expressly seeks that content but also contains at least one sequence with elements of terror where that game of Eros and Thanatos, of contrast between the horror that surrounds and the moments of pleasure experienced by Fuminori in the company of Saya, have a relative weight. That said: I recommend playing without the more sexually explicit version because none of these reasons are sufficient to justify the inclusion of sequences that are there as a sales pitch.
The idea behind these recommendations for The Song of Saya is twofold. On the one hand, anyone expecting a story of a sexual nature is hit, from the very first scene, with elements of real repulsion and a narrative that descends into moral abysses. On the other hand, those who are looking for a work of unpleasant horror will find Saya’s sexual sequences (or, in Steam’s version, the implication of them) as well as couple conversations between her and the protagonist, exploring their feelings and affection. All in all, these are two styles that clash almost as if looking for a strong reaction from anyone who, even on notice, believes they will be unaffected by this story.
Urobuchi is no stranger to including philosophical and literary references in his work. The most obvious here is certainly cosmic horror, almost closer to Ligotti than Lovecraft, but it’s not hard to see that part of the inspiration for The Song of Saya stems from Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human with the inevitable echoes of Camus’ The Stranger. The main narrative we follow is that of a young man who has lost all contact with reality, disgusted by the world around him and whose nihilism will drive him not only to depression and suicidal instincts but also to dehumanizing and even homicidal behavior. His only concern, his only consolation, is the time he spends with Saya. A sweet voice in the midst of the daily cacophony.
The bubble sensation that a couple experiences is pleasurable. It is the idea that nothing in the world, apart from them, matters much. Saya and Fuminori maintain that relationship almost as a force majeure, but they enjoy it. However, this also implies something deeper: a simplified view of the world, where the rest of their needs (mainly, Fuminori’s bonds with his friends and, in a more explicit way, his relationship with reality itself) remain ignored. It is a relationship of dependency.
As a visual novel, The Song of Saya does not have many narrative branches. The first choice for the player appears very late in the story and puts us in a complicated situation: escape from that nightmare (with what implies facing the consequences of what happened until then) or dive deeper into it. It is this choice that has encouraged me to write about the game.
It seems obvious that, in the face of all that Fuminori has suffered, the possibility of returning to normalcy is the more positive option. The game presents that ending as the lesser of all evils, with the relationship between the protagonist and Saya fading away like a melancholy memory but, at least, with the ability to perceive reality again as it is and without further complications, although it does not leave all the atrocities committed up to that point unpunished.
This is presented, in reality, as the worst of endings.
If the player refuses to return to normality and instead succumbs to his darkness and sociopathy, the game not only “rewards” us with more content (more than a third of the game) but unveils many of the mysteries that the other ending left open. In other words: choosing the most terrible ending is the winning option.
We often find ourselves talking in games about the “good endings”, those that represent the golden path laid out by the developers, the original and canonical vision of the story. It so happens that when it comes to plotting “false” or alternative endings, negative endings are chosen. No one wants their character to die prematurely or be imprisoned. We always look for positive endings because there is a much more active identification between the player and the main character than in other media: it is our actions that determine their fate, it is our responsibility and we want to know that we have made the best possible choices.
The Song of Saya is a perfect counterexample, though not the only case. In this narrative, the possibility of causing less pain and waking up to reality is perceived as a “game over.” The true ending involves expanding that pain to the rest of humanity (or at least to others involved in the narrative) and keeping us trapped in a heady fantasy, believing the lie until it becomes our reality. To be involved until the end because, at the end of the day, this is fiction and by simply closing the window the game will be over and our reality will not be distorted by it.
It is clear that what Urobuchi was looking for here puts our reward systems in the balance. Generally, games tend to offer material rewards during progress: more items, more skills, more facilities, more content. When these games, in branching narrative structures, put us in ethical situations, another type of reward also applies: moral ones. We want to do “good”, either because that is what is expected of us (and unconsciously we believe that the designers will give us material rewards for it) or because that identification with the characters leads us to wish for the best possible destiny. The Song of Saya expects you to do evil and the reward is material (more story) but, in another way and oddly enough, also moral.
In the game’s ideal ending, Fuminori condemns humanity in exchange for granting Saya full happiness. It’s a bittersweet mood. However, there is some interest in taking a character down the route of a villain when the character himself is interesting and well-developed. His desire is to make the one person who has kept him alive in this hellhole happy, even if that means creating hell itself for everyone else. The love of both, or rather the desire to love breeds suffering. Fuminori gets his way, and that is our “moral” reward.
Urobuchi’s real work here is to cement that theme of how we can sacrifice everything for love (even when it’s a, shall we say, misguided love). If the premature ending, the one that generates less damage and returns us to normality, seems so unsatisfying it is not because there is more story left to tell or because the lovers are separated: it is because we have taken the most “selfish” option, the one that puts our own mental health before enduring in that love, an idea that, within all the bleak atmosphere that pervades Urobuchi’s work, is most romantic, in a sense less related to love and more to the idea of submission to great ideals.
Last year I played Death Come True (2020), an interesting live-action “interactive movie game” (sic) where the protagonist wakes up in a hotel with no memories, with the TV announcing that he is suspected of being a serial killer and with a victim tied up in his closet. The game is presented with multiple options but, in a very clever way, is actually entirely linear. At a climactic moment, the game offers its best decision: keep playing and unravel the mystery or abandon the game. It’s obvious that we want to unravel the mystery, but the story it develops also has a metalinguistic component that hints that the protagonist is imprisoned by his obsessions over the death of a loved one and that, in fact, the possibility of abandoning that search for the truth would be a kind of healing for him. I think the game fails to properly address that option as a ture ending because it puts the material reward (solve the mystery!) before the moral reward: let it go.
We tend to perceive video games as works of leisure and refuge, where the active role of the player, the responsibility we place in their hands, leads us to treat them with a certain paternalism. It is possible to conceive games with different endings where none of them is “positive” as long as they are thematically and narratively satisfactory, something that is not questioned in other media. It is important to be open to what we mean by happy endings because, often, a bitter ending can leave a stronger impression on us and have much more to say.
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