At the outset of Sayonara Wild Hears, a narrator — voiced by Queen Latifah — describes a world governed by three powerful arcana, and a new heroine who has emerged from the shard of a broken heart. That girl then appears, riding a skateboard across an astral highway, chasing an ethereal butterfly. Once she captures the creature, the heroine transforms into a masked superhero and sets off on a journey through a pink-and-purple fantasy realm where she chases biker gangs, rides a deer through a mystical forest, and explores a retrofuturistic VR realm. Things only get stranger after that.
The entire game is structured like an album, with distinct stages that last just a few minutes. The game isn’t shy about its influences. In fact, Swedish developer Simogo posted them all on its website, and it’s an extensive list:
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a soup made of pop-culture. It’s OutRun, the “teddy girls” sub-culture, Carly Rae Jepsen, Rez, cafe racers, WarioWare, Blümchen, the 1950s, modern dance, Akira, F-Zero, Space Harrier, Sia, Gradius, the 1980s, Charli XCX, Sailor Moon, Ouendan, Tron, Rhythm Tengoku, Punch Out, and a good portion of ourselves, strangeness, and mysticism stuffed into a blender
Where do you even start with a list like that? For Simogo, it began with a single drawing. Simon Flesser, one half of the small Swedish studio, had been researching “teddy girls,” a particularly British fashion subculture from the 1950s, that was both flamboyant and working class simultaneously. Flesser loved the look and started doodling different characters, including one wearing a bunny mask and smoking a cigarette. Around the same time, his co-creator Magnus “Gordon” Gardebäck, had picked up a new motorcycle, and Flesser was listening to a lot of American folk band Lord Huron. “I guess all of that just blended, and I started to imagine a game about a masked, motorcycle-riding avenger,” he explains.
Sayonara Wild Hearts took around four years to develop, and Flesser says that for around six months, that simply involved experimenting with different prototypes to figure out how to put all of those myriad influences into one coherent project. The game wasn’t always so bright and exciting. “It started out with a much darker and more mysterious feeling, and we played around with ideas of combining surf rock and taiko drums and Ethiopian influences as well,” he explains. “We’ve been through a lot of iterations.” One early version of the game was even entirely motion-controlled.
“I think it has the same philosophy as an album.”
The final game — which is available on PS4, the Nintendo Switch, and Apple Arcade — is a tight, arcade-styled fever dream that is almost unrelenting when it comes to surprising you with new ideas. One minute, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a side-scrolling shooter; the next, it’s a rhythm game where bikers battle through dance. There are massive boss fights and roller coaster-like trips through surreal locations. But it’s all tied together with a slick, minimal art style and frantic pop music soundtrack.
That pop influence also extends beyond the music and into the structure of the game. Each stage in Sayonara Wild Hearts is brief and distinct, and after you finish the game, you can play through them in any order, as if you were picking a song from a CD. “I think it has the same philosophy as an album,” says Flesser, “in that all levels are self-contained parts with their own little ideas and twists, but together they form a bigger concept. We also didn’t want to use the same ideas over and over, every level needed to feel like they presented their own little tricks — just like a song on an album.”
Sayonara Wild Hearts continues a tradition of unexpected releases from Simogo. The studio’s past work is eclectic, to say the least: there’s Year Walk, a haunting adventure game through Swedish folklore; Device 6, an interactive spy novel; SPL-T, a minimalist mobile puzzle game; and The Sailor’s Dream, a serene experience that’s sort of like a mixed media concept album. And that’s just to name a few.
“It’s like a silent promise to the audience.”
But Sayonara isn’t just a departure in style or tone. It’s also a much bigger project than Simogo’s past work. It took four years to make — Device 6, in comparison, took six months — and the team had to expand in size to realize the concept. The studio also worked with a publisher, Annapurna Interactive, for funding and additional support. (Flesser says that when Annapurna joined midway through, “the project really was in dire need of some deadlines and accountability.”)
This does raise the question of what, exactly, a Simogo game is. If the studio’s output is all so varied, is there a unifying theme or philosophy holding it all together? Flesser says that there is, but it’s not “an outspoken mission statement that we have to adhere to,” but rather something a bit harder to define.
“I don’t think there is an intentional ruleset we play by, but I think there is definitely a subconscious feeling of needing to stay somewhat within the expectations of what Simogo project is,” he explains. “And I feel it is sort of our responsibility to challenge that, without alienating people who have come to love our previous games. So it’s like a silent promise to the audience.”