I like Steins;Gate a lot. It’s an anime with strong emphasis on good writing and engaging characters. What I found surprising was that it was based off a Visual Novel, while previous visual novel anime adaptations I’d seen had been notable for insipid writing and bland characters. Interest piqued, I asked my readers what visuals novels out there I should try. I settled on Saya no Uta, for the duel reason of being produced by Nitro+, the creators of Steins;Gate, and written by Gen Urabochi, the guy who wrote Madoka Magica. There are slightly less…intimidating introductions to visual novels than Saya no Uta, given some of its plot elements, but I might as well start with the guys who got me interested in the medium in the first place.
It was…an experience.
Saya no Uta is primarily a horror story. It’s about a guy called Fuminori, who is saved from death after a car crash using an experimental medical procedure. The only problem is he now sees the world as covered in guts and tentacles and glowing pustules, as though the world has been taken over by a slightly redder version of The Flood from the Halo games. His friends now look like red demon monsters that bare no resemblance to humans in any way, shape or form. The only person in the world he doesn’t see as a horrible tentacled monster is a young girl called Saya. All this is shown is graphic, horrific detail. The opening sequence of the game sure throws you straight in the deep end. It’s really nauseating stuff, although you do get used to it as the game goes on. Which is quite clever on the part of the game, because it matches up well with how Fuminori himself also gets used to this world.
I could start calling the story Lovecraftian, but I’d be talking out of my ass seeing as I’ve never read any Lovecraft. Rather, I’d prefer to simply stick to the classic horror genre comparisons. Some of the characters certainly act like they’re in a horror movie, what with all the wandering around decrepit houses with monsters in them. It gets a bit silly when lines like “she knew she should leave but something kept drawing her forward” keep appearing, the trappings of the genre more overpowering than something as minor as common sense. But, to be fair, Saya no Uta is genuinely scary. It doesn’t rely on cheap scares either (not that they don’t exist, like the aforementioned wandering around decrepit houses thing). The main character becomes such a deranged monster by the end, some of the scenes where the other characters start to discover how low he has sunk are fantastic. One of the best moments in the game was a little connect the dots moment in my mind where I suddenly realise “he’s been having sex with that!?!”.
The centre story at play here is certainly interesting and very well written. I can’t exactly say the same about the plot progression though. Some of the complaints I’ve seen against Madoka Magica is that the plot twists were telegraphed. While I marvel at these peoples’ powers of clairvoyance, each plot twist was obvious in retrospect. There’s a very deliberate way the story unfolds. Saya no Uta, on the other hand, introduces plot twists that felt totally arbitrary. It’s as though they simply wanted to shock the audience rather than introduce these plot twists naturally. This is compounded by the fact that these twists, given the nature of the story, are often stuff like monster rape, monster rape of little girls and…well, more monster rape. Introducing what should be shocking scenes in such a haphazard manner robs them of any effect. Once you get over the original premise, Saya no Uta stops really scaring you from a surface level, because of the poor introduction of new elements. It mainly comes down to connected the dots horror as you unearth more of what the mystery behind the story is.
And then there were the sex scenes.
When I first asked for recommendations on what VNs to play, I quickly assured people that I wasn’t bothered by the presence of sex scenes. Not quite true. What I wasn’t bothered by was a regular old sex scene introduced for the sole purpose of wank material. I was also prepared for the gore and monster rape that Saya no Uta held, figuring the ending of the Berserk anime had mentally steeled me against whatever this game could throw at me. What I wasn’t prepared for were the two combined together. Saya no Uta’s sex is central to the story, and some of the scenes are demented, gross and repulsive. The problem is, the game was presenting them as though I was supposed to be getting off to them. Really now? Forget the fact I’m meant to be turned on after viewing the previous nightmare fuel. Now I’m supposed to be turned on my monsters raping little girls, mind-breaking slave ex-girlfriends and all sorts of awful stuff? Yes, it’s an adult game in a medium that relies on porn to shift sales, but I’m in here for the story and the writing, and the presence of these scenes hamper that exact element.
As an example, Saya no Uta generally has no problem showing you awful horrible monsters. Now I know there’s a rule in horror that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see, but there are key scenes in Saya no Uta where showing us the atrocities would have had far more effect. Without spoiling, there’s a scene towards the end where a character, who had previously found it impossible to believe some of the stuff he had read, shines a flashlight down at his feet and sees one of these monsters down there. Yet the game doesn’t show us this monster, when it really should have. It would have been the combination of seeing what made this character break down, as well as what that monster had become (there being a slightly longer story behind this monster). Yet the game shirked that task.
There are a couple of other moments too, such as one at the end where seeing a character in half-monster form in the mirror would have been a fantastic parting shot, but again the game decided against. Yet it had no problem showing the human rape scene and the mind breaking sex slave scene, when showing neither would have had far more effect. The chuckle of the character with the sex slave on the phone would have been far more chilling if the game left what he had been doing with her to our imagination. The reason why they show these scenes is obvious. The games need porn to sell. But I’m reviewing this from a writing standpoint, and having these sex scenes in full graphical detail, while not holding the same approach to scenes where showing the details would have had more effect, detracts hugely. Instead of being horrified by events, I’m mainly just being disgusted at the game itself.
One thing that struck me as odd was how little user interaction there was in the game. It’s not a big complaint, but it felt like they were ignoring the one big point in favour of visual novels. There was a grand total of 2 choices for the player in the game, and one of these was based off chance rather than you defining the character. The one time where they did allow you to choose was an excellent use of the visual novels mechanics, because you define how far gone down the path of madness the lead character is through your actions. I found it kinda funny that I automatically chose the option that I thought would lead to less sex scenes, which led to the story ending really abruptly. In fact, I think that ending was the best of the 3.
Spoilers for the shortest ending. Show ▼
Did I enjoy the experience though? Well, in the end, yes I did. It’s far from being a masterpiece. It’s incredibly flawed, the sex scenes totally turned me off, didn’t really use the strengths of its medium very well, and has hardly got me leaping up in anticipation for playing more visual novels. But I also couldn’t stop pushing through the thing in sheer fascination, wanting to unearth more of the story. It’s well written for the most part, and did set me thinking. It also made me afraid of shutting my eyes at night, but I’m not sure whether I’d class that as a good thing. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone in great faith, but I don’t regret playing it either. It was an experience. A fucked up, freaky, demented experience, but an experience I definitely enjoyed.