The modern world is incredibly concerned with spoilers: the giving away of surprises before you, yourself, have reached that part in the narrative.
But some of the most effective stories out there are pretty up-front about their most surprising elements and still manage to forge a compelling, interesting narrative. D.O.’s Kana Little Sister is a good example of this — we know from the outset that Kana is likely to die at the end of the game, but that doesn’t stop it from being emotionally engaging throughout, and traumatic when the final moments of the story eventually roll around.
Another particularly effective example of this is in Nitroplus’ Saya no Uta (aka The Song of Saya), a horror-themed visual novel composed by Madoka Magica writer Gen Urobuchi.
Saya no Uta’s core premise is that its protagonist Fuminori has a neurological disorder that causes him to perceive the world as a horrific place filled with foul stenches, disgusting monsters and revolting, fleshy protuberances. This unfortunate situation came about when he was the sole survivor of a car accident that killed his parents, and his life was saved by an experimental neurosurgery procedure.
It’s immediately apparent that Saya isn’t what she appears to be. Fuminori knows this and the reader knows this.
At the outset of the game, he has been successfully hiding his condition from his friends ever since he was discharged from the hospital. They know something’s up — he’s been becoming increasingly detached from them — but not the scale of the horrors he’s having to deal with. And he has no intention of telling either them or his doctor Ryoko, who likewise knows that something strange is going on with Fuminori but is unable to prove it.
Fuminori has one thing that is preventing him from going completely mad in the hellish landscape of his mind’s own creation: Saya. Taking the form of a young-looking girl who is absolutely devoted to him, it’s immediately apparent that Saya isn’t what she appears to be. Fuminori knows this and the reader knows this, but he continues to go along with anything she says, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that following her deeper into the darkness will eventually result in a distinctly Lovecraftian “point of no return.”
There are three possible conclusions to Saya no Uta, and not one of them can be called a particularly happy ending. In fact, there are only two choices to make throughout the whole narrative: one early on where Fuminori has the opportunity to ask Saya to return his brain to normal — a decision which doesn’t magically make everything better — and another later where Fuminori’s friend Koji, by now pursuing the beyond-help protagonist with the intention of killing him, has the option of either charging straight in without concern for the consequences — a course of action he is repeatedly warned against — or waiting for backup on the understanding that this will also more than likely bring him in “too deep” to ever recover.
By the end of the game, Fuminori is undoubtedly beyond help and, had we not seen what he sees, it would be understandable to think of him as pure evil.
A particularly noteworthy aspect of Saya no Uta is the way in which the narrative is presented. Somewhat similarly to its stablemate Deus Machina Demonbane, Saya no Uta eschews the standard visual novel structure of unfolding exclusively from the first-person perspective of a single participant narrator and instead jumps back and forth between first- and third-person sequences. The first-person passages unfold from the perspective of Fuminori and depict his struggle against the hellish landscape surrounding him — and how Saya soothes his pain. The third-person passages, meanwhile, unfold in the “real” world, depicting how his friends and doctor deal with his mounting madness and possible crimes.
This is an extremely effective approach for the narrative Saya no Uta is delivering. It has the effect of making you sympathise with both “sides” of what is going on. By the end of the game, Fuminori is undoubtedly beyond help and, had we not seen what he sees over the course of the narrative, it would be understandable to think of him as pure evil that needs to be destroyed.
But that’s the important thing. We have seen what he sees: we’ve seen his honest desire to spend his life with Saya, to build a family with her and to live in peace, far away from the troubles and torment of the rest of the world. We’ve also seen Saya as Fuminori sees her: strong yet fragile; childlike in appearance yet mature in attitude; loving yet determined. It’s a total rejection of reality, of course, but with the way Fuminori and Saya are depicted in these sequences, it’s tough not to find yourself rooting for them to a certain degree, even though you see the atrocities they’re capable of elsewhere in the narrative.
With the way Fuminori and Saya are depicted, it’s tough not to find yourself rooting for them to a certain degree.
At the same time, the third-person sequences demonstrate the consequences of Fuminori and Saya’s actions: the pain and grief they cause; the lives they destroy. Even as you kind of want Fuminori and Saya to “make it”, it’s hard also not to completely understand and cheer on Koji as he tries to take revenge on his former friend.
Herein lies one of the most interesting things about Saya no Uta: like all good horror — and very little video game horror, it has to be said — it has a superb feeling for when to show things and when to leave them up to the reader’s imagination. For example, there are a number of explicit (and, notably, plot-relevant) sex scenes throughout the game; these are made doubly uncomfortable by the combination of Saya’s child-like appearance to Fuminori (giving an immediate feeling of “wrongness” to these encounters) and the reader’s awareness that she probably doesn’t look like that really. Between these two aspects, almost all eroticism is stripped from the sex scenes, though enough is kept in there to deliberately make the reader feel bad about finding them in any way even a little bit sexy.
We never do see what Saya looks like to people without Fuminori’s condition, though; we get a few hints in the third-person narration sequences, but otherwise, it’s left entirely up to the reader’s imagination. And, as any good horror writer knows, the reader’s imagination will almost certainly come up with something far more horrific than any explicit description of tentacles, slime and otherworldly appendages might conjure up.
There’s less truly, explicitly grotesque content than you might expect. Instead, Urobuchi takes the wise approach of leaving the most horrific scenes “off-camera”.
This philosophy extends to the more violent scenes in the game, too. Although it opens with a warning about “grotesque content” and the option for those with sensitive stomachs to blur it out, in actual fact there’s less truly, explicitly grotesque content than you might expect. Instead, Urobuchi takes the wise approach of leaving the most horrific scenes “off-camera”. There are notable exceptions, but there’s always a reason: an early, horrific scene involving Saya is included to emphasise the fragile aspect of her as a character and to allow the reader to empathise with Fuminori’s passionate love for this mysterious girl; another, later scene involving a secondary character highlights the fact that something terrible is happening to this person, but the full extent of what it actually means is saved for a later “off-camera” reveal down a crackly phone line, rather than explicitly depicting her torment.
Saya no Uta is good horror, then, and wisely, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Featuring only two meaningful choices in the game and a total play time of no more than three or four hours altogether, it’s nonetheless an engaging, horrifyingly compelling exploration of human nature and the desire — the need — for love. It’s beautifully written, expertly localised and makes stunningly effective use of the visual novel medium to tell its story through text, music, sound and visuals; for those with strong enough stomachs to cope with its more horrific content, it’s an experience you absolutely shouldn’t miss out on.
Just don’t expect it to end well.