APPLE DESIGN AWARDS
The Telltale Heart
How Simon Flesser created Sayonara Wild Hearts—and vice versa.
Sayonara Wild Hearts
A Pop Album Video Game
Describing Sayonara Wild Hearts is almost as challenging as playing it—even for the guy who made it.
“We’ve called it a videogame pop album,” says Simon Flesser, cofounder of developer Simogo, “and we’ve called it a dreamy arcade game about women riding motorcycles and wielding swords and shooting lasers in a dreamscape city.”
Flesser pauses. “That’s the very short version.”
That’s pretty on point, though. Sayonara Wild Hearts exists somewhere at the intersection between game and ’80s music video. It’s a high-speed roller coaster, a dance battle, a race through neon forests.
It’s also very likely gaming’s most adrenalized story about recovering from a breakup—all wrapped in an angular electric pink and purple visual style.
With such dramatic detail, you’d think that every pixel of the game’s design was intentional. Not so, says Flesser. In fact, quite the opposite.
“What I’ve found is that a project will tell you what it is,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t have to bring new puzzle pieces to it—it will instead bring the pieces to you.”
“The wind in your hair”
The first piece of Sayonara’s puzzle: speed. “When we started, we wanted something that was immediate and accessible,” says Flesser. “I’d always wanted to make something that felt like you had the wind in your hair, and [programmer Magnus ‘Gordon’ Gardebäck] had started riding his motorcycle again. So we fell into that idea.”
The second piece involved populating the game. Flesser explored characters based on tarot cards before making a hard left turn. “I read about the Teddy Girl culture of the ’50s in Great Britain: the cool jackets, the hairdos, the neo-Edwardian style,” he says. “I started drawing those characters and eventually put them on motorcycles.”
Back in those days, the game felt—and sounded—very different. “It had a much darker, more esoteric tone,” Flesser says. “No pop music at all. The musical influences were Ethiopian, Japanese, and surf rock.”
“We’re going to need some pop songs”
But something snapped into place when Flesser played a prototype to a more upbeat brand of background music. “Immediately we said, oh, this is what it’s going to be,” Flesser says, “and we’re going to need some pop songs!”
Flesser and team leaned into different influences: Swedish pop, the Eurovision Song Contest, and artists like Chvrches, Sia, and Charli XCX. To frame out the sounds, Flesser brought on composers Daniel Olsén and Jonathan Eng. Vocals were provided by singer and cellist Linnea Olsson, whom Flesser had met serendipitously at a music store appearance a year before.
“I always liked the culture of gaming,” says Olsson, “but I put all my time into practicing the cello instead.” When Olsson saw early stills of the game, she was sold. “And the female characters on motorbikes in an apocalyptic zombie world really appealed to me,” she says.
“A journey about finding your groove again”
But nothing was as serendipitous as the involvement of Queen Latifah, who contributed the game’s voice-overs. Reaching out to the queen was a shot in the dark, says Flesser. He brought up her name one night. Two weeks later, she’d finished recording the part.
The final puzzle piece was the story—which shifted until the team began the final level. “We never really knew how it was going to end,” he says. “We had the idea of ‘the girl turns into a superhero,’ and I wanted it to be a journey about finding your groove again, but that was it.”
So Flesser listened to what the game was telling him one last time. “To me, it doesn’t make sense to write everything down until you’ve seen what it is.”