Saya no Uta -- The Song of Saya is often called the single most screwed-up game ever released -- and with good reason. Written by the acclaimed author of Madoka Magica, Psycho Pass, Fate/Zero, and this season’s Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, The Song of Saya is a visual novel about medical student Fuminori.
After a car accident kills his family and leaves him in critical condition, he awakens to see the world as if it were a fleshy, pulsating, gore-covered, wasteland populated by scores of eldritch abominations.
He is on the edge of suicide until he meets Saya, a girl looking for her missing father, who -- unlike everyone else -- looks and sounds like a completely normal human.
From the start of the game, we can see that Fuminori’s life is a living hell -- quite literally, as far as he is concerned. The world is beyond disgusting, his friends look like unworldly monsters, and even his bed sheets look and feel to him like a horrible mix of skin and scattered gore. From the start, it’s hard not to sympathise with him.
The trick is that even as his and Saya’s actions move the pair straight into villain territory, you still sympathise with them. This is the game’s greatest success -- not only in getting you to root for the villains but also in getting you to agree with their actions on some twisted, emotional level.
So, without a doubt, The Song of Saya does a great job of getting the player into the mindset of Fuminori. But the story is only the start of how the game involves you in his plight. The game’s backgrounds show the world as he sees it -- in all its gruesome detail. Worse yet are the pictures that show how his friends and other people appear to him. That said, though, the game isn’t overly graphic in what it shows. While the backgrounds and pictures are unsettling (to say the least), it is what isn’t shown that is the most unsettling.
But more than simply seeing everything wrong, Fuminori’s other senses are equally distorted. The game’s soundtrack -- when following his point of view -- is largely a cacophony of discordant music and random sounds (unless Saya is present). On top of that, the voices of his friends are nearly screeches that, while somewhat understandable, are almost painful to listen to.
Finally, as if to heighten the grotesqueness of Fuminori’s distorted perceptions, we often see how normal the world actually looks and sounds when the game follows the story’s other characters. And it is this juxtaposition that makes our returns to Fuminori’s point of view all the more horrible.
Let’s be frank for a moment. The Song of Saya is a game with murder, filicide, kidnapping, cannibalism, rape, possible paedophilia, sex slavery, extreme body mutilation and scores of gut churning eldritch sights. To put it another way, The Song of Saya is not a happy story and is in no way, shape or form, a game for everyone.
The hardcore sex scenes (which can be censored if you so choose) are particularly unsettling. While such scenes are pretty much par for the course in Japanese visual novels (and The Song of Saya has several), the story’s implications as to who Saya is makes the sex anything but erotic despite its normal seeming presentation.
The number of interactive choices in the game is limited to only two, with only two possible options for each of these choices. While I have long advocated that even a single interactive choice is all you need for a game to be a “game,” I understand that many may not agree. And though the number of choices in the game is minimal, the impact of these choices is major as they completely alter vast portions -- as well as the ending -- of the game.
What’s interesting about these choices though is how they force you to perceive the story. While the first choice is made by the main character, the second of these choices is approached from the perspective of his rival. Thus you feel less like a character in the game and more like the writer of the story, able to choose in what direction the story will go.
I can’t say I had fun playing The Song of Saya -- I’m not sure you can really “enjoy” playing it -- but I am glad I played it. While extreme, it was a great ride into the dark side of insanity that somehow manages to make you sympathise -- and even empathise with the protagonist -- even as he becomes more and more depraved.
And as I played, I never felt that, like in many recent torture-porn movies, it was being fucked-up just for the sake of being “fucked up”. The gradual descent of Fuminori and his relationship with Saya were always at the forefront of the story.
But perhaps the most fascinating thing about The Song of Saya is that somehow, in the middle of all the horrors it presents, it manages to make the abominable, beautiful.
H.P. Lovecraft would be proud.
Saya no Uta -- The Song of Saya was released in English on May 7, 2013. It is available for purchase on the JAST USA homepage [NSFW].