Nowadays, originality in content is viewed as a straight myth, and more important is originality in structure. I was reminded of this fact again when I came across this strange visual novel created by a very obscure author found in the deepest channels of internet self-publishing. The author’s name is Wynnie Ng, and it seems as though after purging this book from her being, in the form of prose, she must have had some doubts – because there is no longer any sign of her website at all.
The work in question, called Sarah’s Song, is quite a marvel. It draws from so many separate areas – Miss Ng wears all her influences on her sleeve quite openly – but the whole adds up to the sum of its parts. I won’t be able to talk about it properly without diving into the core of the story, so let’s get straight to it.
The two main and most obvious influences of the work would be Saya no Uta and the semi-colon series of science fiction visual novels. The main character is a loner just shy of being a hikikomori except for the fact that he still has to go to university classes. He has strange hallucinations of a girl called Sarah calling out to him. He reads up on strange web rumors about mysterious killings going on around the city. He uncovers a conspiracy involving men in black & aliens after finding a Tor link on an image board that allows him to download an indie game from the deep web – but ignores it. He also has an annoying little sister that visits him every now and then.
What separates this work from being straight-up Chaos;Head is found in the writing style. The narration for this first part is done in a rather economical and detached manner, with a light poetics of description akin to Otsuichi’s Goth series. For example, the narrator describes the dormitory he’s situated in over here.
“Spending too long in a dark room, with the only source of light being the monitor of your laptop, makes the whole field of vision grainy. It feels like sifting sand within an hourglass. I have to leave. My stomach’s hungry. When I open the door, a flyer flops onto the floor. The design is loud and says more about what the designer wants to feel, rather than what is actually felt. I leave it there, taking one last glance. A line of ants is walking on it. I have to remember to buy ant poison.”
These moments are terse, but they’re contrasted with an extremely bloated and slightly ironic style of prose within these strange biological-nightmarish dreams that our narrator has:
“Blood and guts and tripe dripping from the walls, as the hallways swirl and dissolve, one into another, as though someone had made a Doom 3 mod by copy-pasting the same series of flesh texture-settings throughout an entire space. Icky, and purely icky, and for that matter – just for good luck – extremely icky.”
This entire part of the game is still shrouded in mystery, and there’s even a very hazy distinct between what is real, and what isn’t. Sometimes your sister will appear, and she’ll talk to you, and later you’ll see her again, and she won’t remember the meeting. Other times, classes will distort into lectures being given by strange alien shapes and pods.
But, once again, if that was all that Sarah’s Song had, then I wouldn’t even bother reviewing it.
Ultimately, the main theme boils down into a kind of exploration of relationships. Questioning, especially, the nature of our intellectual conception of a relation – the metaphysical personality-to-personality stuff – versus the socially visceral elements, of biology and all that. This is seen through the eyes of the protagonist, whose detachment comes from what he calls ‘social gratuity’. He uses a vulgar twist on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to describe this – that life is less of ‘shadows & sunlight’, and more like a massive struggle not to be choked in a massive womb, grasping at the small flows of fresh air coming from the entrance. Man is stuck within vulvic walls of sensation, and can only break free by drawing into himself, the ‘clear field of the mind’. The narrator brings up Piaget’s developmental stages of children growth, and talks about the studies of children talking to themselves before it became internalized as thought. Everything is a funnel that pulls inwards, and the highest man has to be the unmoved mover that is perfectly suited for the lifestyle of eternal loneliness.
Yet, this is where Miss Ng derives the intellectual twist from. Although this is what the narrator believes, he finds himself all the more subject to the ‘worlds of blood and delusion’ the further he draws away from others. This is all tied in with a slow descent into Capgras Syndrome. He starts to think that other people, including his sister, are imposters. At this point the narrative reaches a high ‘denpa mode’.
This ends the first arc of the story. The narrator goes crazy, and he finds all the buildings to be existentially separate from himself like Sartre’s Nausea. He runs and runs through the streets until he sees a kind of heat beacon dragging out of him – like an MMORPG sidequest arrow. Following his instincts, he reaches a strange apartment complex, where he goes to a strange floor, where he sees the mysterious ‘Sarah’ in full sight. It’s very vague as to what happens here, but he either gets consumed, or he loses his consciousness, or he dies – but it’s a full bad end. Then, there’s an epilogue where a mysterious scientist inputs ‘File Subject 125’ into a computer.
Sarah’s Song rests on the power of its constant movement, and differing trajectories. It chooses a Kinetic but layered approach to storytelling. Every ending its own story, but then opens up a next one, which provides a different problem. If the first arc was about the problem of ‘self’, then the next one is about ‘friends’.
The arc begins right back at the moment when our narrator is slowly losing his mind, but this time, he hears a different kind of call. Rather than being dragged by that heat beacon, he hears a voice in his ear, and it brings him to an indie rock concert in an underground bar, where a girl that looks like ‘Sarah’ is a vocalist. This performance causes an overflow of emotion to emerge from him in unprecedented waves, and he faints.
When he’s brought to, he’s in the band room, where the band members are all sitting around him. This is where the core of the story is revealed in one massive exposition dump. It turns out that a secret lab funded by the secret service is researching on tailoring the biological ‘castle of delusions’ that is the mind. This kind of philosophy of biological pessimism has its roots in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and the Psychoanalysts, but it comes into scientific fruition in the works of Peter Watts, Thomas Metzinger, Project Itoh and Stanislaw Lem. Miss Ng draws from those foundations, but develops on a few specific ideas different from those.
The overall plan of the lab is to test how much biological-social reality can be tailored. It draws on some experiments (explained by Daniel Dennett in his book Kinds of Minds) as to how primates have special ways to sense their mothers through hormones and various other biological means. It also draws on a plethora of other experiments, such as drugs that make one feel unity and a sense of God, and mental conditions like Autism, Capgras Syndrome, and Cotard Syndrome. The lab wants to figure out whether people can be manipulated if you drown them in alienation by purposely abusing those mental states to make them unbalanced, before swapping over to the positive states, of motherliness and unity, to turn them into adherents or believers to some kind of greater form.
This all loops back to the mysterious ‘Sarah’, who is revealed to be the form of the primary ‘living biological weapon’ – Experiment Setting Sun. The basic plan is to use Sarah to warp the minds of the members of society already pre-disposed to alienation, so that she can draw them in as adherents or slaves. These subjects are scouted through monitoring things like the test results & group project feedback reports of various schools and institutions to see which students are those that are more anti-social. In other words, what Welcome to the NHK would be like if there was actually a deep governmental conspiracy.
The vocalist of the band is called Sara, and she’s a failed version of the experiment that escaped after developing a sense of self and morality. She, and a justice-seeking researcher, broke off from the lab to create their own counter-lab. The band members are all various people who’ve already been saved by Sara. This is the moment where every single member talks about their own Raskolnikov story and whatnot.
It is at this moment that the craziness of the novel’s structure comes through again when the tone suddenly shifts into Slice of Life comedy action something. The narrator is now stuck with his new indie band member friends as they uncover a massive conspiracy – hacking, infiltrating labs, and fighting other experimental monsters scattered around the place. In the meantime he also begins to get along with his real family, and he struggles along with his college course.
This represents the intellectual counterpoint to the philosophy of isolation that was espoused in the first part – but there’s no way that Miss Ng will let the reader off here. This is also not a Bildungsroman about socialization. Logically, if you pit a small ragtag group against a massive organization with resources & manpower, they’re bound to fail if they don’t get their act together. The Slice of Life fun turns back on itself as a critique of the genre, because the group of friends have so much fun with each other that they are not prepared for the eventual backlash that happens when the service strikes back.
So what happens is a brutal series of kidnappings of various family members, assassinations, and other dastardly shenanigans as the team and their friends get culled off one by one by super-agents, cyborgs, aliens, and every form of monstrosity that the biological-nightmare lab can sic at them. The protagonist and Sara are left, and they leave town and try to head off to live, at the very least, a life of peace and hopelessness. They manage to for a while, but they’re taken out. So ends Arc 2.
Arc 3 is focused around ‘family’. The starting point comes before all the dirty tactics are taken, and Sara figures that her rebellion is useless and turns herself back over to the organization, to protect her new family. The rogue researcher, Alice, escapes and disappears. Without Sara, the group of friends also dissipates.
This arc applies a powerful tonal shift again, this time being Slice of Life in the truest sense. It almost reads like one of those slow and penetrating psychological realist novels that focuses on a small family’s life, or like a Chekhov story or an Ozu play. It focuses on the narrator having to re-orient back towards his family, and the narration cycles upwards into third-person narration focusing on not just the narrator, but all the other members of the band.
This is where Ng shines, because it breaks away from the mystery, SoL comedy, and the strange warped world of the scientific mystery genre to deal with life itself. In this way, it may also be a critique of the previous Arcs, and their genre trappings. No longer are the characters able to escape into a mysterious, horrific, but fun world of conspiracy and men in black. They return to normalcy.
Of course, this arc ends with the plan of the lab coming into fruition, and Earth being taken over by Sarah.
Arc 4 is called the ‘Mother’ arc, and it ties everything together. The narrator, browsing through and imageboard, sees a link that leads to a call by Alice to call back the whole team together. This time, the whole game falls back into that hyperactive, joyful, humanity-saving style that appeared in the second arc.
As a final arc, the fourth arc cannot be any more emotionally satisfying. When they all meet up again, Alice discusses, in philosophical terms, the eternal struggle between mind and flesh. She talks about the Descartesian tradition and how things were blended together thanks to newer and more nuanced non-dualistic views of philosophy. Nowadays people find it hard to separate the mind from the body. This worldview is represented by the biological manipulator Sarah.
But, Alice notes, humanity has a track record for foiling instinct and fighting against passions to build greater intellectual projects. He brings up Einstein’s famous “escape from everyday life into the restful contours built for eternity” quote. In this lengthy discussion, she brings up a variety of ideas, such as language being the ‘crytography against the body’, and other weird things about how the mind may be a quantum computer, and how humans can map possibilities abstractly, while at lower consciousness levels, animals cannot map past into future. The main point she builds up to is that there may be a way to fight against the biological tampering with a mental ‘vaccine’ – or a kind of counter-meme.
And it all ties back to Sara, because although Sara was a failed experiment, she inadvertently opened a path to creating an intellectual memetic counterpoint to desire. Alice has created a new song that Sara has to sing in order to spread the language vaccine out there, but they have to save her first.
And so begins an intense action-packed dived into a bio-military industrial complex. One of the small gripes about the story (even in Arc 2) may be how a bunch of ex-anti social youths can manage to break into a military complex and deal with all sorts of other monstrosities. Essentially, Miss Ng delivers enough suspension of disbelief by making it such that there’s only one member who is a genius hacker in the group, and this person tailors the environment, while the other members carry out the plans on the ground, mostly having to deal with meeting certain evasion objectives that an average person with enough preparation can pull off. Furthermore, the plots also usually involve hacking into other bio-weapon containment cells to release evil monsters that make no distinction between friend and enemy, so the heroes get extra cover as the soldiers have to deal with the monstrosities. This also makes for intensely pants-wetting survival horror style chase sequences, where our heroes will have to evade the monsters in the corridors.
Mainly, though, most of the time Miss Ng doesn’t care about those loose ends because her prose and pacing quality is so superbly on point that you only question these things after the plot – and even then you can write it off as meta-commentary on the thriller-action genre (making normal humans into heroes) and all that kinds of stuff. After all, these genre elements do fall in with the story’s view on how genres can be both idealized and idealized to the point of escapism (as in what happens in Arc 2).
Furthermore, the previous 3 Arcs of the story, with their intense psychology, poesy, philosophy, and action, were probably so all immersive that the reader cannot help but just righteously go with whatever is occuring at this moment.
Wynnie Ng knows this, and so she sets up the finale to be the most ridiculous thing in the world.
The finale involves the band saving Sara, and deciding to go on a full out public performance with flyers and everything, as a way to lure out Sarah and the MiB. Thus sets the stage for the most ridiculous finale in the world.
To put it simply, the story ends with a Psychic Battle of the Bands. This happens due to the fact that Sara’s counter-memetic song is written in the form of an Alt Rock song. When Sarah appears, with biological slave minions and all, she is hit by the soundwaves but doesn’t flinch, and so, she decides to grow an entire band from her body, somehow counters with a counter-counter-memetic song, and gets her biological slave minions to play drums and bass. It only ramps up from there. Song after song plays as each party develops their own song as the linguistic counter-meme to the other person’s song. The OST here is absolutely balls-droppingly hype and perfected. I think there were about 10 or so songs that played during the whole battle.
And the final song, or Sara’s Song, involves some kind of quantum transcendence for humanity related to the theories of quantum mysticism and other stuff like that. I’m not exactly clear about the details, since I was too blown back by the sheer madness to even take note of the details. Humanity shifts into the next stage, and becomes post-human, and then comes the ending.
Floating in some kind of post-existence or afterlife, the entire cast appears, and talk about the events of the game, and they leave the screen one by one, waving goodbye. The narrator and Sara wave to the screen, and it fades on a final cg. The title menu changes the name from Sarah’s Song to Sara’s Song.
This kind of meta-fictional ending has been done in a whole ton of places, including Mother 3, Evangelion, Stardust Memories, SubaHibi, and Drakengard 3 – and actually its a really fitting ending in a series of specific circumstances. This type of ending is an ending of joyous celebration of the work itself after all, so it works more for works of sublimely high entertainment and artifice. It can only work with a work that is truly and completely ridiculous. And that is what Sarah’s Song is. It’s a work that seems to draw all its parts from a whole lot of places, but the end result is quitely frankly ridiculous. The tonal shifts are quite ballsy and ridiculous, given how hard it must be to write in such a variety of styles and still make it stick. The psychological detail is also ridiculous, and so propels the work to one of the best analyses of alienation and social relationships out there. The plot is rife with pop-culture, but it also knows when to focus on not making too many references. Every arc serves as a counter to the previous one, and it actually ends with a worldview closely related to the worldview that the narrator had at the start, just that its placed into a different context altogether, and so the meaning shifts.
What would it take to make a story like Sarah’s Song? I have no clue. I clearly wouldn’t have been able to do it. I am not well read into the gamut of strange quantum & biological theories that underline Alice’s soft refutation of the biological reductionist worldview for a kind of Progressive-Cartesianism. I am not well-read enough in hacking to be able to pull off those intense and lengthy explanations of how to break into secret military complexes. I won’t be able to describe, as well as Miss Ng, the traits of those creepy biological experiments in detail – such that the survival horror segments are endlessly gripping. I don’t think I’d be able to do as well an examination of social alienation as she does, in how she manages to describe the lives of people who suffer different variants of the same problem – each with a distinct tone and a distinctive analysis of their deep psychology. I also had no idea how she got a band to make such amazing songs for her ridiculously and enjoyably insanely artificed ending. Clearly this is an author that must have studied up all sorts of topics, as well as all sorts of genres and Light Novel or Visual Novel styles (solely to be able to destroy the tropes one by one), as well as all sorts of psychologically powerful writers, as well as prose poets.
Thus Sarah’s Song is a work that is action-packed, philosophical, funny, emotionally moving, gripping, entertaining, satiric, horrific, poetic, logical, illogical, psychological, and does everything possible under the sun. I do not understand how a writer like this can exist, and make an indie work like this, and then disappear into the deep mists of the internet. Who knows where she is now?!