The Gameplayest Thing Alive
Greetings Sonic fans and other Sonic audience.
There is an issue in the way we think about games that I find to be a fundamental one. Before I get into it though let me paraphrase few examples of arguments that people are constantly making over the Internet. And many people surprisingly agree on those arguments.
“Sonics stories were never good.”
“I play a game, I don’t play a movie.”
“Real gamer only cares about gameplay.”
“You hear this guy talk? He says that he likes Sonic for the story. So you can safely ignore him for he is an idiot – a real Sonic fan doesn’t care about the story.”
To my surprise those arguments seems to be accepted by the majority and I find this very disturbing. It’s also something that is horrendously detrimental to gaming in general. Sonic is in the frontal line of these believes and he is about to lay his life first if this mentality goes on.
What are videogames?
OK, let’s just leave Sonic for a moment. Let’s just talk about games in general instead.
What are games?
To understand this better let us first leave the PC and console world and instead talk about games before any electronics was ever devised. We were playing ping-pong, football, basketball, any other ball, chess, draughts, any other board game, many card games and so on and so on.
These games had one thing in common. There was no story. We can see that the word “story” doesn’t really have any meaning here unless we talk about the history of said game (when and where it originated or something like that).
So if we look at games from this angle we can conclude that the paraphrased comments above are justified… But are they really?
Games evolved over the course of time. There are many different features that were not present in the past and those new features are essential in games today. Why would it be justified to remove those new features now?
Some people think that if videogames today are not fun we must scrap everything about them except the core. Then we should improve the core and prove that it was improved. Only when this is done, we should bother with other stuff (story, music, art directions and etc.)
But then I thought about it and seen many examples of games where this approach just didn’t work. The explanation used was always simple: they did it badly, they screwed up the gameplay and so on. Of course the game didn’t work because of the needless story, music and so on since the main thing didn’t work.
Why is that? All those attempts to improve gameplay or to perfect the game amounted to nothing. Were the designers and programmers really so bad at their job? Was it because they were distracted by the “artificial” need for the story or graphics “nobody” cared about?
Just to digress for a minute, I don’t think that perfect gameplay can be achieved. How will you know that the gameplay is already perfected? Do you really think that only endlessly improving the gameplay and not even bothering putting any soul into the other parts of the game will ever work? I have seen so many people claiming that other things than gameplay are not even important enough to deserve any kind of criticism or attention.
The core of the videogames
I think that there is something missing, something must be wrong here. If some system becomes too complex It would make sense to try and dissect everything, create solid foundations and build everything on top of them again. But this whole process where people are designing a sonic game over and over again from its core feature – the gameplay – is for some reason still failing. But why is that? Maybe because those games are now more designed around something people call a “gimmick”, rather than “core” gameplay mechanics.
But so far the “core” gameplay mechanic is almost always present in Sonic games (things like running, homing attacks and platforming) and it is still not working. Why?
And then I had a really crazy thought. Maybe there is something fundamentally wrong about our basic reasoning. We thought that in order to solve this issue we must return to the basics, to improve gameplay. But I don’t think that these are the real basics!
What we did was that we assumed that the very core and the very basic element of games was gameplay. We based that on our primary observation, that videogames are the evolution of the very same games human kind have played for hundreds or even thousands of years. Those games were fun and engaging even without stories. Those were the games that later evolved into videogames. Stories were just added like a little bonus, something that is nice to have but ultimately doesn’t matter. Something that is just an interesting trivia but is not really anything important nor has anything to do what with the “fun” of the entire experience. If we look at it from this way then of course it would makes sense that when the game doesn’t work we must change the rules of the game to improve it. Who cares about what is actually on the box, right? Neither picture on the box containing the cards nor any special design for the chess pieces will help us if we think that there is something fundamentally wrong with the game.
But here comes the revelation. What if the gameplay is not the core of the game? What if the gameplay is not why we play the games? What if it’s like that at least in terms of the video-games?
Spiritual predecessor of videogames
I just figured out that there is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning behind the evolution of games. Videogames didn’t evolve from those board games, card games or ball games. The only videogames that did evolve from those games are the ones that really resemble them – chess, mine sweeper, solitaire, etc.
But the videogames we gamers play the most evolved from a completely different kind of games. I think that the very notion that videogames are for kids probably comes from this original concept these videogames came from.
What were we doing when we were kids? Well, maybe not our generation, because the electronics already took over big time. But what about one or two generations before? What were kids doing in their free time? They were playing. Yeah, they might have been doing some sports, playing football and such… But I don’t really think that kids in general were spending most of their time playing something with clear rules – clear gameplay rules.
How about toys for example? Those are not supposed to be used as chess pieces on a chessboard. Those are not supposed to be used as any kind of props for some card game or some sport game. The toys are usually not used in any kind of game where you have a clear score and objective to accomplish. Sometimes those kids would not have toys but they would have some costumes – or no special props at all and they would just imagine having those.
But … in that case – what the hell were those kids doing? How did they dare to enjoy their free time without gameplay or without any mechanics? Just holding the toys in their hands, making silly gestures, waving them around… No score to achieve, nobody to beat in any kind of match. And they dare to call it playing! Playing a game even!
But if that works… what is the core of this? Why the heck can something like that be entertaining?
It’s because children are entertained by stuff they imagine. Their imagination is entertaining enough for them to find this activity fun. And this imagination always comes with some kind of story.
“I am Superman and I will beat you puny evildoer!”
“Only if you can catch me fist!”
And the fun begins. Sometimes you will see kids with robot toys pretending that they are fighting. But most of the time, if not all the time, there will be some element of story involved. Kids’ imagining that their toy robots have a reason to fight is something that keeps them interested. Their origins and abilities also can have some story. The “gameplay” of the fight itself is not important. If the kids build something from the construction set, they too are trying to build something with a meaning.
Don’t you think that this is where videogames started? At least the action and RPG ones? Just think about it. When you read your favorite fantasy books as a child, you were most likely like: “Oh man, I so want to be a wizard from this story!” Or you were like “I so want to be a mighty warrior who saves this kingdom!” And next time you would come to forest with your parents, you would pretend to be one of your favorite heroes.
When vidoegames were starting, we had some RPG text adventure games. We didn’t have any graphics yet to translate our imagination on the screen. But then the basic 2D action adventure platformers came. And we could finally get a neat visual feedback. It was so awesome. We could finally go on our adventures we dreamed of so long. Who cared if spacebar made the character jump 20 pixels high or 30 pixels high? The important thing was the adventure, the story!
Are we taking the right lesson from the history?
Maybe games evolved from the sports or board games… but video-games have also spiritual ancestor in human imagination and children’s plays. The evolution took place here even if toys are not a direct predecessor of videogames. The videogames just took over a concept that worked in different area. This concept became famous, and it eventually prove to be successful.
I will just mention one surprising trivia:
How stories in videogames came to be?
There was a company and a man who brought story to videogames. The company was Nintendo and the man was Shigeru Miyamoto. It was the first time when the creation of story actually preceded the development of the game. This appeared to be highly successful, it brought a new life to the videogame industry and it was widely used ever since.
It’s ironic however. Nintendo is the company that only seems to focus on gameplay today. And Miyamoto himself is trying his best to kill any traces of story from the games he designs these days. He even said in one interview with him that he is actively making sure that members of his development team don’t sneak any bits of story into their games. This is how far the mighty has fallen.
Is story always a complex novel?
Story can have many forms. It’s not always in the form of: “Once upon a time, there was a …” and going through novel long establishment of every detail in the imaginary world all the way to the twist, climax and conclusion. A good full-fledged story will have these elements. But when we have some basic trivia about our world – about our videogame world – we too are being exposed to a story.
You think that Sonic was famous and popular once because of his “perfect gameplay”? Do you not realize the power of the content of his games? Many people who talk about history of Sonic are mentioning his attitude. You could see it in his idle animation. It was something that was rarely being done those days. That is a story my friends. His attitude was selling the games. His character was what people desired. But you can’t isolate his attitude from the story. If there are no events to react to, nobody to fight against… what’s the attitude good for? If there is nobody to fight, how do you show your cool? If there was absolutely no context for this, it would be so much weaker (if it worked at all).
So… do we really need it in a Sonic game?
Could you imagine this cool and edgy Sonic being loved by masses if his levels were only consisted of colorful rectangular blocks and he was just facing some basic geometric shape as final boss? Despite some people find this context meaningless, it is actually really important. Only once this context is gone, people start to feel that something is wrong. But they can’t explain it. And that is why they advocate for better gameplay out of confusion.
The character of Sonic the Hedgehog – like any other character you control in games – is for the player to empathize to. It’s for the player to identify with. Without a story, you have only empty shell.
We could see some basic trivia in guides for his games. His height, weight, interests… how do these affect the gameplay mechanics? They don’t! It doesn’t matter for the gameplay if he is 2 feet or 15 feet tall. But it is telling a story.
Even if the 2D action adventure platformer doesn’t have a manual, it still has a story that is being told by the visuals. People who actually played the Classic games could see the story. They were on a real adventure. It was not just jumping on enemies and evading obstacles, while maybe enjoying “interesting” and “innovative” visuals. There was a cleverly hidden narrative of a conflict between nature and industry. And it was portrayed in engaging and spectacular manner.
That was the core of the game. Not the gameplay. It was the awesome feeling of becoming a charismatic powerful hero for a moment and go on an epic journey to save the natural world from an evil industrialized empire.
What do you think an average person imagines when you say Sonic the Hedgehog? I thought that the description “the fastest thing alive” comes first to mind. Why so many people try to convince the general public, Sonic fans and entire gaming industry that Sonic is supposed to be the “gameplayest thing alive“?
But… masses of people loved Classic Sonic, yet they rarely mentioned the story…
I even had once a discussion with some person who told me that game must be fun first and foremost. To which I agreed. But then, he started having really weird arguments that didn’t make sense to me. So in the end, I learned that he thought that gameplay equals fun. That it’s a synonym for that word. This is the sentiment that causes so many confusion in people when they try to understand why Sonic games worked. Because if they try to really investigate and dissect why the games worked, their gameplay sentiment makes them discover… that those games actually didn’t work!
I have seen quite few articles and youtube videos where the content creators tried to discover why Sonic games don’t work today – and sometimes they tended to come up with this discovery: “Sonic games were never good to begin with.”
They were mentioning the trollish level design where the game is forcing your brain to think that you should go fast but it punishes you hard for going fast. You see only very small part of the screen in front of the character. During the great speeds, you have only fractions of a second to react. And nobody can react that quickly.
Those people did forget that the level design was most of the time really clever and Sonic Team was able to achieve a balance between speed and control. But still, Sonic games were never the best games in terms of gameplay. A super smooth refined gameplay was not the point. The point was being awesome!
Why would attitude of Sonic help so much in selling the games? How is his idle animation helping in gameplay? How are the countless automated sections helping in gameplay? You just sit down and watch during those. But do you think that this hinders the game? People were actually enjoying it!
This is why you have people who claim that because Sonic games never had a good gameplay in the first place, it means that Sonic games are overrated.
No! The gameplay is overrated! The games are not!
Are you trying to tell me, that Sonic – somebody who was at least once in the history the most popular gaming character – was not actually popular at all? That his games were “overrated”, so people were buying them only out of some necessity, conspiracy or mistake?
Think of the children!
If we have the “gameplay sentiment”, when we think that the gameplay alone determines a quality of the game, we must come to the conclusion that Sonic games were never good. But the thing is – Sonic games were about empowerment. And if you think that Sonic games were mainly for children because of the graphics, you must also realize that in this case, the importance of gameplay is even more reduced. If children thought that Sonic was awesome, don’t you think that they would be interested in his story? You can hardly have an awesome character that does nothing but jump on platforms while having no context behind his existence.
I got into Sonic games by playing fan games. Incredibly buggy, sluggish and almost unplayable fan games. But the character of Sonic the hedgehog was incredibly engaging for me. Even the fanfiction stories in those games were. I was really confused when I learned that those stories had nothing to do with the official stories. And I was disappointed that the official stories were so vague and simplistic. It was a huge let down.
Why are we having an army of adults who scream on the Internet that Sonic games should not have stories or just the most simplistic ones out of necessity? You know what demographics is harmed the most every time this idea is pushed further into everyone’s throat?
The very same children you claim you are doing this for! I would go even as far as to claim that the most important thing about Sonic games actually is the story (at least for the children). Don’t you think that children want to learn who the character is when they think he is awesome? Don’t you think they want to see him in action and in some settings they can relate to? Don’t you think they want to imagine him being real and working in their world? If your kids asked you who Sonic was, why would you be slapping them yelling: “Shut up, it’s not important! Just run and jump over the obstacles using the analogue stick!”
Back in my time, people were reading fairy tales to their children before they went to sleep. I always thought that children were interested into these stories. I know I myself was. Parents didn’t tell list of jokes to their kids, they didn’t read them instruction manuals… they read stories to them.
Today, we have the option to give people the opportunity to control the character from their favorite stories. But in the same time, we are trying to forcefully rob them of his story. We say: “As long as you play a game, you just need to use the controller to move the character. Don’t you dare making any sense of the imagery you see on the screen! If you want a story, go and see a movie! If you want to have a context, have only the most simplified one that is on the box! Don’t ask questions! This unhealthy interest in things that don’t matter must be killed in you!”
When gameplay is the focus in arguments
If you have a really hard time to stomach that I am trying to convince you that core of Sonic games is actually a story and that the gameplay is only a secondary objective… try to substitute the word story for either appeal, spectacle, content, experience, feeling… or something in this sense. I know that it’s not the same – but it works on the same level. People are somehow attributing all these things to gameplay. They think that gameplay equals fun, gameplay equals content, gameplay equals spectacle (or alternatively, liking spectacle makes you graphics whore)…
Gameplay in the strictest technical sense is just the mechanics the game uses. It’s the thing that enables the player to interact with the game. I would describe it as something between physics and level design (not level art, purely the white-box, obstacle placement design). If you claim that gameplay is the only thing you enjoy – or even the main feature in the game you enjoy – you must be talking about some kind of arcade game that is based solely on feedback you are getting while manipulating the controller. Something like Tetris or mobile snake. But the big console games are not supposed to be like that, are they?
I was actually rewriting this article over and over. I knew that trying to say something like this is for some reason controversial. And it is controversial especially in Sonic franchise for some reason. But still, in games like this, the story is important. And I believe that the story (or the content if you will) is the core reason why was Sonic popular with masses.
The games didn’t need to explicitly tell us all the details about Sonics’ world mythology to make us love it. The games only needed to create some hints for us. Something we could get attracted to and discover that there was something more behind it once we were hooked enough. In today’s Sonic games, we are not getting anything else but the shallow value. We are not getting any pay off for being more interested in the series, for being investigative, for becoming a fan… Today, it’s thought that liking story is bad. Despite it was too created in the same kind of development process as everything else in the game. Despite it has many people wondering how it will continue. Despite people want to know more about their favorite Sonic characters. Despite Sonic games always had something deeper in them than just gameplay mechanics. Despite Sonic games were successful in times when story mattered…
If you are a person who likes the story, you are most likely going to be cast out from the franchise for allegedly destroying Sonic somehow.
If this sentiment will last and ultimately wins… kids (and everyone else) may also stop giving a damn about the games (something I believe actually already happened). When the games try to sell on the identity of the titular character – but refuse to actually give him any identity – kids may end up just picking other games. Or they will just go to playground and play pirates or ninjas… and their stories will be more interesting than anything they will be able to see in the videogames. Those videogames they once hoped would realize their dreams.