Rarely do games leave such an impact on us that we remember much of it weeks after playing to its conclusion. Even less often do they make us wonder about how fragile our mental state really is .
“Saya No Uta”, from the minds of developer Nitroplus and writer Gen Urobuchi, literally gave me nightmares after almost every session. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the game hated me for playing it, as if Fuminori and his friends would still be alive if not for my ceaseless curiosity. Despite that lingering thought I marched through the vicious narrative night after night and arrived at the only three possible narrative endings. None of them made me feel any better.
When asked what “Saya No Uta” is, I usually began with a line about its disturbing nature and follow it up with “It’s also a story about love and Lovecraftian insanity.”. This could have been just an alright game if it stuck to basic tropes of losing friends and keeping your love, but it becomes so much more because of the way it utilizes its setting. The game wastes no time throwing us into the deep end of Fuminori’s hellish world with depictions of grotesque creatures that we’re told are his friends. The walls are colored a vivid blood red and flesh pink that hurt to look at after a while, and when we see them closely, we’re disgusted at the sheer amount of blood, guts, and pieces of human anatomy that litter the area. There’s such care placed in making the the everyday sights look plain wrong. Bedsheets are stitched together entrails. Walls have eyes. It made me afraid to sleep at night because I was scared that the next time I opened my eyes I would see all this myself.
The audio treatment is even better. When Fuminori’s friends try to speak to him an extremely distorted guitar slogs its way through the background, compounded by the bottomed out bass and distant drums that give off the feeling of drowning in an alien world. Fuminori’s life is a literal hell.
Fuminori’s salvation comes in the form of Saya, a girl that he meets while in the hospital. While he loves her unconditionally there’s an uncomfortable feeling that surrounds her. Saya, a perfectly human looking girl amongst these creatures, is superimposed against those blood covered walls and furniture made of entrails. It’s hard not to wonder about why she’s the only one that looks that way at first, but the longer the game locks us in Fuminori’s perspective the more alright it begins to seem. She speaks normally, acts normally, and is exceptionally nice to him. Over time, we become desensitized to the disturbing sights and sounds and, like Fuminori, learn to work around them. We press on and almost forget about all the grizzly landscapes as the story tightens around the characters. About halfway through however there comes a shift in the narrative perspective with Fuminori’s friend Koji.
While there are moments early on where we see the same scene from multiple angles, it’s the inversed shift to Koji that’s the most dramatic. We see the way Fuminori acts around his friends after his accident and understand what he’s going through because of what he sees. We see him fall deeply in love with Saya and find something normal in his world to cling on to. The world of Fuminori and Saya becomes our own, and then we’re ripped right out of it and back into reality.
The third person perspective (as opposed to Fuminori’s first person viewpoint) forces a physical disconnect between us and Koji. It’s hard not to feel like we’re merely watching him as he unearths the truths of Saya and tries to stop his former friend. The game gives off this feeling that we’re not supposed to become as invested in Koji’s life as Fuminori’s because of this. He is the outsider. He hasn’t seen the world Fuminori can’t get out of. He doesn’t understand.
Once Koji crosses paths with Fuminori’s doctor Ryoko, who’s looking for answers about Saya’s origins, he begins to learn a bit about that world. She’s the gateway that lets Koji try to understand what Fuminori’s life must be like. By finding the research of a doctor that initially discovered Saya she peered into the impossible reality, the truth, and it changed her forever. She never sleeps, she keeps a gun next to her at all times, and she remains emotionally distant. While her main drive is to figure out what Saya is, the more interesting aspect of her character is how she acts after what she’s seen. The way that Fuminori clings to Saya as hard as possible makes so much more sense when it’s his only way to keep any sort of humanity in his life. Without it, he becomes someone like Ryoko; cold, calculated, and yet utterly terrified and broken on the inside.
The ending where Koji and Ryoko finally confront Fuminori and Saya is where the real horror lies. Koji sees what became of his friends and his very understanding of the rules that govern reality are shattered in front of him. In that moment, all that mattered to him was destroying every possible molecule of the creatures in the vain hope of restoring his sanity. In the end though, the only thing he can do is stand there while Ryoko mercilessly kills Saya and rids herself of the nightmare that’s been consuming every good moment of her life before violently dying herself. The way she laughed about it haunts me still.
The aftermath of that event all but broke Koji and left me with the horrific images of everyone who knew and loved getting either killed off or changed into something inhuman. As he walks to the medicine cabinet in his apartment while calmly talking to the hallucination of Ryoko asking what he’ll do now, it becomes clear why he loaded his gun with a single bullet, held it to himself, and put it back for another night. The fantastical world of the interdimensional being Saya was never meant to meet our universe of hard rules and facts.
What’s great about “Saya No Uta” is the way it conveys the unknown as terrifying, not amazing. Rather than assuming people can handle otherworldly places with enough courage or motivation, it tells us that confronting things so far from what we understand as “normal” is impossible. It’s not a very positive outlook, but likely a pretty accurate one nonetheless.