Turning Pop Music into a Video Game

The pop song has a bit of a bad reputation. It is one of the greatest and most ubiquitous
artforms of the past century, and yet “pop” has become somewhat of a dirty word in music
circles, with bands resisting the label and die-hard fans disparaging their favourites
when they “sell-out” with something a little bit poppier. Which is why when something like Sayonara
Wild Hearts comes along, a neon-lit arcade-throwback game unashamed in its love for pop music,
I pay attention. Because I love pop. More than just a celebration of pop music,
Sayonara Wild Hearts stakes its claim as a pop album video game. This goes much deeper than just being a playable
music video, or a rhythm game set to glitzy pop songs – in fact Sayonara isn’t really
a rhythm game at all, because pop music is about so much more than just its rhythm. Simon Flesser, one half of the game’s dev
studio Simogo, said that they “didn’t want to make a game that was deeply tied to
the rhythm, but rather make a game in which the flow of the songs would influence the
scenarios and actions on screen.” Instead of being a game in which the player
reacts to music, Sayonara Wild Hearts assimilates itself with music, taking the ideas core to
pop as a genre, and baking them into the very concept and design of the game. Pop skeptics would say that those core ideas
are vapid, simple and derivative. However as a poptimist, I think these traits
are a little misunderstood and are actually what makes the genre so great. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a game about love
and heartbreak, an age-old story that’s been the focus of countless great pop songs over
the years. While the plot itself is left rather vague,
we are told in the intro that the protagonist’s heart has been broken and it’s caused the
opening of a rift in the universe, which is exactly what it feels like to have a broken
heart. Our main character is thrown into a subspace
of neon highways and there encounters the Wild Hearts, masked avatars of romantic flings
that have come and gone. You are always clashing against the Wild Hearts
in contest or combat, representing the difficulties faced in each relationship. This vague and rather shallow approach to
the narrative themes of love and heartbreak is something shared by pop music and it’s
often perceived as vapidness. However, omitting details is what enables
pop songs to be universal, connecting with so many different people by meeting them in
their own circumstances. Pop songs allow us to project our own lives
into the music and find comfort or joy in the sound. It helps us to identify and express our emotions,
whether through dance or sadposting cryptic song lyrics to social media. Pop music is a way for people to feel understood,
by themselves and by others. Pop is able to do this for so many people
thanks to its inherent accessibility. Pop music is generally not meant to be a challenging
listen, it’s made to be refreshing and immediately enjoyable. So in its quest to be instantly likeable,
pop music is simple and can even become formulaic in its approach. There’s a general structure that most pop
songs fall into, they often use the same basic chords and progressions, and the focus is
on crafting catchy, bite-sized hooks. Likewise, Sayonara Wild Hearts is not a particularly
challenging game. Most of the time you’ll just be swerving
left and right to avoid obstacles and occasionally pressing the A button in time to the beat. You can collect heart pieces along the way
to generate points, but your score has no bearing on whether or not you pass a level,
it’s purely just an encouragement to do better. Even if you do crash or fall, the game doesn’t
penalise you any points for your failure, you’re just quickly reset at the previous
checkpoint, which are generously placed at every few bars of the song. The game also follows the same structure as
pop music. The entire thing only takes around an hour
to complete, about the length of an album, and it’s broken up into 22 short levels
each only lasting a couple of minutes. While regular levels are scored by more formless
electro-pop pieces, the boss levels feature fully-fledged synthpop songs and follow a
more classic verse-chorus form. In the level Begin Again, you find yourself
up against a motorcycle trio called The Dancing Devils. As the first verse opens the song and stage,
you begin by chasing one of the gang members through the streets. When the pre-chorus arrives they open up a
gaping canyon, and as the chorus hits the gameplay changes entirely, turning into StarFox
as you fly through rings in four directions. Then as the second verse starts up, you’re
back to chasing a second Devil through the city, and it repeats this same structure for
each of the members, giving the level its verse-chorus pop song form. Also just like pop songs, every level introduces
a brand new idea that forms its basis. One moment you’re riding a deer through
an enchanted forest, bouncing atop enormous mushrooms, the next you’re in a muscle car
drifting around the endless curves of a serpentine desert highway, or snapping between dimensions
while slowly cruising through the city on your bike. Each level has its own unique hook. Hooks are the most essential part of a pop
song – it’s the catchy bit that grabs the listener’s ear and demands their attention. A hook can be almost anything: the contagious
vocal melody of a chorus, a daring instrumental lead, even a drum beat if you’re The National. A good pop song should have multiple strong
hooks that are distinct enough to identify the song at a glance, keep the listener consistently
engaged throughout its runtime, and ultimately make the song stick in your head. So these level gimmicks in Sayonara Wild Hearts
are hooks. They give each level its individual flavour
keep you engaged by constantly changing the gameplay style on you, while keeping its core
foundation simple. Even just a shift in perspective, such as
looking backwards from in-front so the controls are reversed, or limiting your peripheral
vision in the first-person goes a long way in ensuring there’s no chance of you ever
getting bored. However, levels are so short that the hooks
are almost over as soon as you hit a groove. Take the stage Heartbreak IV, which introduces
portals on each side of the screen that teleport you across. This mechanic is explored for not even a minute,
then the level ends, the side-portals are gone and they never return. In the last minute of the game there’s an
ethereal skateboard grind that lasts all of 5 seconds and that’s it. The game relentlessly throws new hooks at
you and just as quickly discards of them before they get stale, in much the same way as a
pop song does. Some hooks may span a couple of levels, evolving
in the process, and a few return later in the game for a medley, but you never feel
completely satisfied that you got the full experience with any of the mechanics. It’s a tantalising taste that leaves you wanting
more, drawing you back to the game to play it over again, just as you do with your favourite
albums. These hooks aren’t all entirely original
though, instead they’re often references to older games. Sayonara Wild Hearts is unashamed of its wide
set of pop culture inspirations and wears their influences proudly. Conceptually it’s reminiscent of Tron, Cardcaptor
Sakura and Scott Pilgrim. Musically it has shades of CHVRCHES, M83,
and Carly Rae Jepsen. And its gameplay roots are in arcade titles
such as OutRun, Space Harrier and Xevious. But Sayonara wildly borrows small ideas from
a diverse range of games, from 3D Sonic and StarFox, to Rez and Panzer Dragoon, in order
to keep the playstyle fresh. Pop music is often called derivative due to
its reliance on other sounds. It borrows liberally from other genres and
styles of music from across the world, and covers it with a glassy sheen. This creates a wide diversity of sound within
pop music, and provides a space for experimentation, in which less accessible forms of music can
be introduced to a broader audience, and niche voices amplified. Pop is then a musical collage of the world’s
shared experience, wrapped up in a glossy packaging that everyone can appreciate. It may be derivative in its sound, simple
in its composition, and vapid in its themes, but these are the things that make pop Pop. Despite how it plays or looks, Sayonara Wild
Hearts is not a rhythm game or a racing game. It’s not an endless runner or a bullet hell
or a rail shooter. It’s all of these genres, and yet it’s none
of them. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a pop game. It takes a simple foundation, augments it
with a diverse set of rapidfire hooks, and pairs it with a universal story of love and
heartbreak. Instead of degrading music to just its rhythm
and using it as a mechanic, Sayonara Wild Hearts inhabits the very ideals that make
pop music what it is and builds a game out of them. And just like my favourite albums and songs,
it’s a game that I will be returning to over and over again.