Tumultuous, demanding, unpredictable: you could pin these words on the calendar year of 2020 just as easily as you could use them to describe the genre-bending celebration of pop music and video games that is Sayonara Wild Hearts. Booting up this effervescent arcade racer for the first time, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed: levels shift and change at breakneck pace; new mechanics are introduced and discarded with barely enough time to get used to them; much of the detail in the music and environments passes by as you focus on survival. It’s a stunningly beautiful game, but it can often feel hard to keep up.
So how do you keep up?
It’s a question I found myself asking earlier this year as the weeks began to bleed together and I started measuring time by the number of months since I’d last hugged another person. My city was facing a second lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, which ultimately would see the extent of my in-person social interaction restricted to the supermarket checkout for the next three months; during this time, the internet was my window to the rest of the world, but with wave after wave of devastating news plastered across my phone every day, the outlook was more than a little sombre.
Sayonara Wild Hearts isn’t a game about a pandemic, nor is it about police brutality, racism, economic instability, inequality, climate change, or any of the other issues that have spent time in the global spotlight this year. It’s a deeply personal tale about love, heartbreak, looking inward, and moving forward, but its transformational imagery and demanding, fast-paced gameplay create a consistent sense of change and unpredictability which reflects in miniature the upheaval we’ve collectively experienced in 2020.
By proceeding through the game’s neon dreamscape, the characters you encounter, the environments, and the mechanics alike undergo endless metamorphoses that require your constant adaptation. Roads which wind among the shoulders of skyscrapers crumble or, conversely, appear out of nowhere; a swordfight slices a masked woman into two mirror images of herself; the smooth momentum of your motorcycle is cast aside in favour of the leaps of a bounding deer. My first impression had been one of infatuation, but also one of overwhelm, impossible as it had been to anticipate the changes which just did not stop coming. I had taken one look at the absurdly high scores required to achieve gold rank on all the levels and quickly shelved the thought of ever becoming good enough at the game to attain them.
As the year was becoming bleaker, however, with its own relentless challenges and changes, the colour that Sayonara Wild Hearts promised to return to my life could not be understated, and almost without me noticing, it crept into my daily routine. I began by revisiting those levels I had quickly fallen in love with the first time I’d played: Clair de Lune with its skateboarding and light, unencumbered interpretation of the Debussy theme; Begin Again with its motorbikes and feminine flair; Mine with its stylish choreography and sparkling musical motifs. After each collision (of which there were many), the game put me right back where I had been only moments before.
Try again, it seemed to say. It’s alright.
Time passed, and the varied levels underwent their own transformations, slowly shifting away from that initial impression of unpredictability toward one of familiarity and reliability. I hurtled down the same tracks over and over until navigating them became second nature, discovering a burgeoning sense of order in the shifting environments around me. The intense focus I had previously needed to employ in order to survive gave way to moments where I could momentarily take my eyes off my character to take in the changes around me and appreciate them all the more. More than once I even found myself singing along to the game’s bittersweet lyrics as I careened down narrow neon alleyways, drawn in as I was to the shifting world which had inadvertently become a familiar, comforting retreat from the endless shifts of real life.
Those levels which had once seemed impossible to master were now ones I could navigate without error, and seeing my skills improve until such time that I could complete the game without a single death granted me a sense of agency in a time when so much agency over my day-to-day life had been stripped away.
Indeed, against the backdrop of a global situation that seemed to be increasingly volatile and insurmountable with every passing day, returning to Sayonara Wild Hearts was a metaphorical lifeline – not in spite of the initial impression of unpredictability, but because of it. Even if I couldn’t anticipate the next big upheaval in the real world, with time and persistence I learnt to anticipate and embrace every change and transformation in this game that had itself once seemed to embody an unpredictability of its own, creating a sense of order when there seemed to be none left in the world.
As my city slowly emerges from its months of lockdown and we look toward the future, further challenges approach on the horizon. The pandemic and its ramifications are far from over, the climate emergency is inching steadily onward, and the countless inequalities of our world are still as present as ever. It’s hard to stay grounded at such moments, and all too easy to lose hope. Sayonara Wild Hearts concludes with the idea of moving forward, but as the broader context of uncertainty endures, I don’t have it in me yet for a goodbye.