Here in the US, video games typically fall into a small set of genres. First and third person shooters dominate the American market, with other genres like adventure, puzzle and role playing games holding their own. In Japan, however, there are seemingly limitless types of video games. While American kids were marveling at the original Nintendo Entertainment System’s killer titles like Super Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda, Japanese gamers were learning military history and strategy in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or planning the next moves of their menagerie of mecha in Super Robot Taisen. Both Romance and Taisen were best sellers in Japan but at the time were never seen on American shores, mainly because as good as they were, they just wouldn’t have sold here in the States.
With the increased popularity of Japanese culture in the US, the borders to entertainment have opened. In the few arcades left here, it’s almost unheard of to not see a Dance Dance Revolution machine. Music games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are taken right from such Japanese classics like Guitar Freaks or Keyboard Mania, and it’s not at all surprising to see Japanese imports like Taiko no Tetsujin sucking down quarters.
Of course, there are many more types of games from Japan that have not made the transition to the United States. One of the preconceptions about Japanese culture is that young men seem to have a hard time with members of the opposite sex. It’s portrayed constantly in anime, with male protagonists becoming incredibly shy, subdued, or even having their nose burst into arterial sprays of blood during an interaction with an attractive woman.
That stereotype isn’t helped when all you have to do is visit TR for some Super Terrific Japanese Things. The country that brought us Nintendo, sushi and Kirin Ichiban is also the same country that has given us Eel Juice, Vagina Bread, and the Penis Powered Game Controller. The Japanese culture has long been known for its technological prowess, with innovation solving so many of their problems. So what do you do when you have a population of young men who are believed to have difficulty talking to the opposite sex? Make it into a video game! Enter Dating Sims: games in which the goal is for you to pursue one or more virtual girls in the hope of forming a digital love connection.
Of course, something like trying to woo a Tamagotchi is instant fodder for Rule 34, and it wasn’t long before the goals of some of these games went from wining and dining your digital partner to something far less innocent. Now, the idea of virtually frakking your virtual girlfriend would be enough to give Pat Robertson an aneurysm, but this is Japan, birthplace of tentacle porn. In the Land of the Rising Sun, if there is such a thing as a porn game, then you know there has to be a tentacle porn game.
Originally released in Japan in 2003, Saya no Uta tells the story of Sakisaka Fuminori, a talented med-school student whose life is torn to pieces when a car accident leaves him parentless and suffering from a traumatic brain injury. His vision of the world is twisted, with entrails, slime and ooze covering the walls of his hospital room. Doctors, nurses and even friends appear as twisted “flesh-beasts”, with even their voices warped beyond recognition. His world is a living hell, at least until he meets Saya, the only object of beauty left in his mind. An otherworldly romance blossoms between them, leading Sakisaka into a Gigeresque world; a journey that you the player get to accompany.
I will be the first to admit, aside from learning how to play mahjong in college specifically for bootlegged porn MAME ROMS, I have never played an erotic or eroge video game. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t played games that included sex in the storytelling process; I specifically remember the uncomfortable silence I received from my mother when I asked why a girl was spending the night at Golgo 13’s house. 8-bit humping aside, I’ve never even had the desire to simulate a relationship, sexual or otherwise, but when given the opportunity to take a first look at the infamous Saya no Uta, I couldn’t resist.
This isn’t a traditional game in any semblance of the word. It’s certainly not for everyone, and I’d even go so far as to say it’s not for many. If you’re too timid to give this a shot, here are ten things I learned about eroge, Japan, video games and myself while playing Saya no Uta. Special thanks go out to animator, artist and con favorite Steve Bennett for giving me some firsthand insight into Japanese culture. Please note, while much of Topless Robot could be considered NSFW, this article and the game it references include many subjects which could be particularly offensive.
1. Call for Help? Turn to Page 56. Fuck the Tentacle Monster? Turn to Page 69.
When I started researching this game, I found very little information about gameplay. Story details were readily available, but nowhere could I find what I would actually be doing while playing. For some reason, I went in with the preconceived notion that I would be playing a twisted/sexy version of Myst, exploring environments and trying to solve a mystery, all while getting laid. As I started playing, reading page after page of text superimposed over imagery that could have come straight from a Hellraiser film or the bridge of the Event Horizon, my preconception turned from Myst to Zork. I continued to read, waiting for the option to get eaten by a grue. Forty five minutes into the game, I still hadn’t been able to interact.
There is a very good reason for this lack of interactivity. Along with others of its genre, Saya no Uta is not really a game, at least in the American sense of the word. While being pitched as a game, Saya is more interactive/visual novel, an illustrated Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. It’s no wonder that this genre of game hasn’t been a hit here in the U.S., with its distinct lack of gibbing. The visual novel genre, however, has incredible potential. A few years ago a Bioware team member caught untold amounts of flame for stating that she would like to play the story portions of a game like Mass Effect without having to go through the action portions of the game. A format similar to Saya no Uta could easily accommodate requests to play the narrative without having to level grind. It’s not something I would prefer, but I can see the benefits of it. Additionally, this would be a perfect genre for mobile gaming (aside from the gratuitous sex). The download of Saya was a whopping 250 MB, which could easily fit onto the internal memory of a smart phone or tablet. While visual novels aren’t for everyone, it is clearly a niche that isn’t being filled by traditional publishers, and has tremendous potential.
2. This Shit is Real (The Medical Condition, Not the Sperm Hungry Sex Monster)
Sakisaka Fumimora awakens from his coma with his perception of the world twisted and warped into a nightmare. The damage done to his brain from his car accident caused him to experience a disorder called agnosia. While the more extreme effects Sakisaka experiences are a work of fiction, the disorder itself absolutely exists.
Agnosia is a disorder of the brain which causes a person to not be able to recognize objects for what they are. Some people may no longer be able to recognize the faces of voices of people they have known for years. Others may perceive colors differently from others, which happens to be one of the symptoms that Sakisaka suffers from in the game. Thankfully, there are no known cases of agnosia where the subject sees hideous monsters as beautiful girls…that’s just beer goggles.
3. This is Not the Game the Japanese Played
While playing, I noticed that during scenes of explicit sexual content, there was a watermark in the lower left hand corner of the screen marking the game as the international version, not to be played in Japan. Wondering how much worse the Japanese version could be, I asked Steve Bennett what the differences could be between the Japanese and International versions, with the answer being rather surprising.
According to Bennett, one of the actions taken by Allied forces after World War II was to ban pornography in Japan. As Japan was a very sexual culture prior to the war, occupying forces blamed porn for the aggressive and expansionary tendencies of the Japanese Empire, and the ban was created to curb their combative nature. That being said, it’s illegal for genitalia, real or animated, to be featured in entertainment; a ban that over sixty years later is still in place. While the Internet age has allowed “American-style” porn into the country, it’s technically contraband; something to remember before taking your spank mags to the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Japanese edition of the game likely features the same pictures as the international version, however any “junk” will be pixilated more than a hooker on COPS.
4. The Mysteries of Tentacle Porn Revealed
Bennett, while explaining to me the potential differences between the Japanese and International versions of Saya no Uta, has at last explained the reasoning behind Japanese penchant for penetrating protuberances; a.k.a. Tentacle Porn. Going back to that damn Allied anti-porn law, penises and vaginas were parts non-grata in Japanese entertainment. But those meddling Yankees didn’t say a Cthulu-damned thing about tentacles. In fact, so long as it’s attached to a monster, it doesn’t count.
5. The Story Is Surprisingly Deep
At first glance, it would be easy to pass this off as a horror story with shoehorned sexual subplots as fanservice. During my first play through of the game, it was easy enough to just chalk up some of the “steamier” moments to either shock value or wank material. After talking with Steve Bennett, he had me look a little closer at the story elements with a more analytical eye.
One of the things that had disturbed me was that Saya looked so innocent, but was capable of performing some incredibly horrible acts. Her behavior made me quickly lose any compassion I felt for her, which I initially thought was just bad writing for the sake of exploitation. Turns out I was wrong. Saya instead was supposed to represent a form of corruption. Her innocence was supposed to draw Sakisaka in, corrupt and twist him, like a smooth taking Satan.
Other elements tried to express the darkness that the writer believes is inside all of us. Characters whom we would not think capable of murder or rape, once corrupted by Saya, are easily able to complete these actions. It’s a stark warning; everyone has a level of darkness about them that under the right conditions could be released. In an age when we question the actions of marathon bombers, Jodi Arias and so many more, it makes one wonder: What would it take to make us that way?
6. The Sweetest Taboo
One of the more puzzling scenes in the game features the main character waxing internally about a sex act Saya is performing on him. At least three full pages of dialogue are spent with him questioning this act, one which we as Americans would consider rather typical behavior of young people Fujimori’s age. Again I had to engage Steve Bennett for an explanation.
As hyper-sexualized as Japan as a country has become, there are still stigmas placed on sexuality, particularly for young men. Bennett explained that while we as Americans are very individualized, with our actions only affecting ourselves, the Japanese culture still focuses on the group. The actions a man take reflect not only on him, but on his entire family. This causes Japanese males in particular to heavily analyze any action they take, including sexually.
One of the reasons for the popularity of games of this genre is that it provides a safe place for people to explore their sexuality, including the darker, more primal elements of sex, in the confines and safety of their own home. It’s in that privacy that all fears of family embarrassment cease, though it’s becoming a cause for concern.
As more young men retreat to the privacy of their rooms for sexual gratification and danger-free relationships, there is a growing concern that all of this is affecting Japanese population numbers. While other factors are to blame, such as the large number of people being more career and less family focused, some researchers believe that many Japanese men are simply forgoing relationships with real flesh and blood people, instead choosing to live as eternal bachelors or involved in virtual relationships. In this age of technology, how long until these virtual relationships develop the ability to become physical? It’s a pretty frightening thought, particularly if the Terminator has the appetite of Saya.
7. Don’t Get Attached (It May Scar Your Psyche)
When the game starts off, it’s very easy to put yourself in the shoes of Sakisaka. It’s even easy to feel sympathetic towards Saya, even though right off the bat you know there is something not quite right about her.
As the game progresses, it becomes harder and harder to maintain any sort of connections with just about any of the characters. The transitions these characters make, particularly Mr. Suzuki, are immensely troubling, enough for me to consider giving up on the game. Eventually I found myself almost desensitized to the violence, reading the story like I were watching a train wreck or Michael Bay’s Armageddon. It gets to the point where the game seems to try and push as many buttons as it can, and as the story comes to a close it feels like there is no more exploitation to be had.
One of the things that the game does very effectively is twist your perceptions of right and wrong. You start out believing that Saya and Sakisaka are a modern Romeo and Juliette, with a lot more slime and dismembering. The sympathy that you might feel for Sakisaka at the beginning sits with you as you go through the game, and I found myself incapable of forgetting that when he takes a turn for the worse. I doubt you’ll be able to forget either.
8. Ridley Scott Can Do the Less Is More Monster Treatment, This Game Not So Much
I understand the concept of limiting how often we see the “monster”. With the vivid descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of the creatures in this world, it’s easily to paint a good mental picture. The occasional glimpse of a tentacle or two are enough to whet a gore lover’s appetite but frankly, where’s the pay off? The game had no problem showing me sexual acts both mundane and of the tentacle variety, but we never get to see any full frontal images of Saya in her true form. It’s a three-hour long monsterphile’s cock tease.
9. I Have Found My Limits
When the game begins, it displays its laundry list of warnings and disclaimers. “This is fiction. All of the characters are over 18. Don’t try this at home kids. Tentacle monsters don’t want to have a one-sided bizarrely sexual relationship with you, etc.” It does stop to ask you a question though: Do you want the images to be displayed, pixilated or darkened? Presumably it’s to allow the fainter at heart to participate in the game without haunting their dreams or sending them to the toilet to puke up their last meal. As violent as the images are, it wasn’t the pictures but rather the content that bothered me. Beware, massive spoilers ahead.
A pivotal scene that I mentioned earlier involved Mr. Suzuki, Sakisaka’s next door neighbor. He’s an all-around good guy, waxing poetic for a few pages of text about how perfect his life with his wife and daughter are. He seems like the perfect example of husband and father, until Saya gets her greasy protuberances on him.
In an experiment to see if she can undo the damage done to her human lover, she probes Suzuki’s mind by sending tentacles up every orifice on the poor man’s face, twisting his poor brain until he is left like Sakisaka, his world a collection of twisted visions and horrific sounds. His perfect family arrives home and, because of his new condition, the sight of them as flesh beasts drives him to brutally murder them both.
As if this wasn’t enough, Suzuki ventures outside to see Saya, now the only beautiful creature in his world; a sight that drives the man to savagely rape her. Of course Sakisaka comes to her rescue, killing Suzuki, but later the star-crossed lovers take Sakisaka’s former girlfriend, mentally and physically twist her and then to proceed to sexually brutalize her for multiple scenes. Saya the flesh monster even morphs her body to have male junk, specifically to rape Yoh, who throughout the entire game has been completely innocent. To me it just didn’t make sense.
I’ve never had a problem with violence in movies and games, nor have I had any problem with sexual content in a movies and games. For the first time, though, Saya no Uta went way beyond entertainment, to the point of making me feel uncomfortable. Any level of compassion I previously felt for either Saya for Sakisaka was immediately destroyed when they started their rape fest. It made no sense to me that Saya, for all intents a rape victim, would literally in the next scene, perform the same actions on an innocent. Even more so that Sakisaka would join in when given the opportunity.
Truth be told, it was also embarrassing. While pornographic games are not my thing, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find some of the images and scenes hot. As soon though as they were brought into context, however, any sort of arousal quickly went out the door, only to be replaced with embarrassment and perhaps a bit of shame that it was even attractive at all to begin with. It was then that I realized that I knew what my limits for media were, for I had just reached them. It was at that point that playing through the rest of the game became work rather than enjoyment, not because the story was bad, but because of my own fear of being uncomfortable again. Upon finishing the game, I’ve come to the conclusion that some of the content was enough to make me not want to pick up the game again. Hardly a gaming sin seeing as how I experienced all three endings, but it’s hasn’t been since Duke Nukem Forever that I’ve put away a game permanently after completing it.
10. Getting Over Myself
It’s safe to say that this is the hardest evaluation of a video game I have ever written. To go one step further, this is the hardest article I’ve ever written. It’s not because of the disturbing content of the game or that it was not what I expected, but because of the unexpected. It would be easy to say that the game did absolutely nothing for me. The truth is, there was something appealing about Saya the character, at least before she started her home-based brain surgery business.
What would you do in this scenario? A young woman (or man, depending on your preference) who is completely subservient to you sexually, willing to please you in any way possible, is absolutely yours. At first glance she is a typical man’s fantasy girl: the perfect mix of Katie Morgan and Betty Rubble. I’d be lying if I said that mix wasn’t really frakking attractive.
I’ve struggled for weeks over this game, particularly how it made me feel. For a time I felt embarrassment and disgust that for a time I found the concept of Saya to be attractive. I’ve had nightmares about the Suzuki family in the game, with my family in their places. There is a part of me that was repulsed by the game, and another part which had to keep turning the pages. It was a strange duality, something that made me finally, weeks after finishing the game, grow a kind of understanding for Sakisaka and his obsession with Saya.
It would be easy just to write off this game as a twisted exploitation piece. At first I was very willing to, but closer analysis showed much more than just another Hot Coffee or The Guy Game experience. As I said earlier, this game is certainly not for everyone. It’s twisted, dark and disturbing, but it also has a message: there is darkness in everyone, all it takes is the right trigger. Regardless, however, of whether you like the game or not, one thing is for certain: you will ponder its meaning for quite some time. Saya no Uta will stay with me for some time, whether I want it to or not. Taste aside, it’s a journey into the psyche of humanity that will stick with you long after the last page is turned.
Saya no Uta is available in the United States from JAST. Steve Bennett can be found at your local anime convention or at stevebennettart.com.