Sega – The Overprotective Parent
I read this article:
Sonic history – Polygon article
And I shudder in horror. The text of the linked article is a clear indication that nothing will change and that they still blame downfall of the Sonic series on the alleged mistakes made prior 2010, despite their clear focus on “never trying anything pre-2010 again” created new and much more severe mistakes. And instead of remedying on that, they are going this perilous route even further in attempt everything will solve itself.
I am apologizing in advance. This article is really long. I was trying to make it shorter. But in the end, I thought that some concerns must be described in full detail in order to get a real insight on all the important issues.
Sonic is Our Fwiend!
I started having first concerns when I read the words of marketing Director Al Nilsen. Let me cite his direct quote:
“I think [Sonic’s] legacy of great gameplay and great graphics and a very cool character,” says Nilsen, who then repeats himself with more inflection, “a very cool character, was the legacy that had been established by myself and the rest of the Sega team. And what’s interesting is I think that legacy still exists to this day.” It’s a legacy Nilsen calls “Classic Sonic,” and it’s a legacy he believes has been tarnished.
I’ve got few observations regarding this quote:
- Gameplay is mentioned first. I don’t like the implications. But that’s just a minor issue.
- Seeing the overuse of the term “Legacy”, this is probably why the “Classic” and “Legacy” terms got mixed up once in the translation. It probably relates to the confusion that came from the last year’s Fire and Ice interview. I guess that people in SoJ internally use these phrases all the time.
- Is it just me or do those words imply that the literal Sonic’s legacy lies only within the Classic games and that all additional ideas that came in later games only tarnished the perfect image of Sonic?
The More Synonyms for “Roots” You Know, The More You Are a Sonic Fan
Then the article says that Nilsen speaks of the character with fanaticism, that he is constantly talking about him on his personal social media and podcasts, and that he is basically friends with Sonic. All of that while allegedly “romanticizing the early games” and “being heartbroken because of critical defamation”. He also seems to be obsessed with gameplay.
This alone sounds horrible. I always thought that this is a description of a Sonic fanboy. It is said that he departed during the development of Sonic the Hedgehog 3. However, if people like him remained as marketing directors or other influential managers, we’ve got a problem.
Yeah sure, the people who created Sonic and who are in charge of the franchise must have some (even emotional) connection and even bias for their mascot. But the way this emotional attachment is described in this article is frightening. I think that this explains why the extremely strong nostalgia driven direction just won’t leave the main franchise.
I mean, sure; stay true to your “roots”, to your “legacy”, to what made Sonic great in his “heyday” (let us use all the buzzwords Sega invented and replaced over time to excuse the repeated use of this concept that provably didn’t fix anything). We need Sonic to have some kind of identity, something that has universal and uniform appeal. He should have consistent identity. But is the use of checkerboard backgrounds and ladybug robots really accomplishing that? Do we have nothing else under this facade? If there is something more, it’s clearly not present in the current games. It’s not even gameplay, since all the recent nostalgia driven Sonic games have vastly different gameplay too.
Nilsen, What Does Your Scouter Say About the Number of Sonic Friends?
Another terrible quote from the Polygon article:
“Then the story started getting convoluted.” he continues. “If I was Sonic, I was probably having an identity crisis.” Nilsen thinks the series’ canon, or the “bible,” as he refers to it, needs to be “tightened up.” “You don’t need this cast of 8,000 characters,” he says.
I surely hope that people like him have zero power over the franchise.
First of all: Is there an actual Sonic bible? I think that it’s either just a rhetorical device… or an abstract concept. There can’t be an actual Sonic bible, seeing how all over the place the franchise is. If it actually exists, then it is either really short (like that it only says: “Sonic is a blue hedgehog that can run fast”), or it’s just a collection of stories that happened in previous games.
If I got a nickel every time I heard that Sonic has a convoluted story and that his franchise has way too many characters, I would already buy the whole Sega and fire all the people who still keep saying this nonsense!
Since when does Sonic have a convoluted story? Nilsen is talking as if Sonic was some long running TV show that had multiple story arcs that spanned and intertwined over decades. Where did anyone get that idea? It’s only “convoluted” when you mash all of the various continuities together. And since Sega damage-controlled Boom’s existence because “it’s a different universe”, it means we are meant to welcome even more universes. When you count the canon main games, the story is strictly straight forward and instead of being convoluted, it is actually lacking any complexity. Except for the story of Knuckles, Shadow and the emeralds, there is basically no story to talk about.
Does Nilsen know what the word “convoluted” means? The story of these characters is basically bare bones. Most of the time, it doesn’t even interfere with the story of other characters or Sonic’s world in general. There are few story elements overarching like the Death Egg in Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 or the copy of the Emerald shrine powering the Eclipse Cannon in Sonic Adventure 2. But nearly all individual plots and motives in all Sonic games are just new ideas that don’t connect to the previously established lore. All the bonds to the previous events in the story are rather weak and the player rarely needs to know anything regarding the past events to understand the current story.
If this causes the plot to be “convoluted”, it’s not because the writers care too much about the story like what is implied! It’s actually because the writers pay almost no attention to the Sonic mythos whatsoever! If you don’t want the story to be in this chaotic state, you will not solve it by no longer focusing on the story or “tightening up the bible”! You will not solve it by removing the characters! You will make it only worse by refusing to work with the mythos and fantasy of Sonic’s world!
Theory So Crazy It Can’t Be Debunked
Ever since Shadow’s story arc ended, every single following Sonic game introduced an isolated one time plot that didn’t connect to any previously established story:
- Sonic 06 introduced Soleana, Solaris, Mephiles, Silver and future world. All of this is now gone.
- Unleashed introduced Werehog, Chip, Dark Gaia, Emerald shrines, new function of the Emeralds and prophecy of a cyclic world destruction. All of this is now gone.
- Colors introduced a race of alien creatures that can be used to power Eggman’s contraptions instead of chaos emeralds. All of this is now gone. These aliens appear later in Lost World, but they are only in the gameplay and are never even acknowledged by the characters in the story.
- Sonic Lost World suddenly introduces entire new world and its local villains. All of this is now gone.
- Now comes Sonic Boom with entirely new universe. Each separate media, each new game, comic or episode from this franchise resets the continuity, scrapping everything that happened in the past; except if they want to make a joke or if they want to “develop” joke characters. (Comedy Chimp has more consistent personality than Amy. Go figure.)
Let me ask you a question: What exactly does the word “convoluted” mean? If it means that that there are way too many different worlds, timelines, dimensions, story arcs, motives and directions… then yeah, Sonic’s canon is convoluted according to this terminology. But I would rather call it “disjointed”.
I somehow doubt that Nilsen would like to fix this issue by hiring writers who understand the stories, characters in the Sonic franchise and have some actual vision what to do with them. I assume that he doesn’t have a sophisticated idea like that since he needed to exaggerate the number of characters.
It was never about the amount of the characters. It was about how they were used. And the games that tried to trim the number (and significance) of the additional characters ironically used all of those characters even more poorly… including Sonic himself!
Seriously, this argument “Sonic has too many friends” was repeated in the ether for so long that it became a dumb static noise. It’s like as if Nilsen lives in the year 2008. Every Sonic game since then was Sonic only and if it introduced a new character, it was only a villain, sidekick or other one-time meaningless character. And it didn’t really fix Sonic’s “identity”.
(“There are way too many characters, we shouldn’t create new dumb characters!” Says SoJ and then releases Lost World with six new characters who – even with their intellect combined – are still dumber than Big the Cat.)
I wonder what is Nilsen’s vision of ideal Sonic mythos or “Sonic bible”. If he thinks that Sonic stories shouldn’t be “convoluted” with many characters, how does he imagine those stories can work?
If you think about it, “tightening up the bible” would only enhance the problem Nilsen has with the alleged “convoluted” story, because you wouldn’t be allowed to have any continuous story arc, setting or character development. Every new story would have to take place on a random new world with random new characters. So it would end up being just the same way it is now. Either that, or every story would be exactly like Colors – Sonic and Tails vs. Eggman. The end. Reset. Repeat. So again, the same way it is now, only even duller and more repetitive.
Is that it? Is that what will help Sonic to finally find his identity and shine again? Are the stories and characters in Sonic really the thing that disgusts the general audience so much that they refuse to buy the games? And the most important question of all:
“Is this theory falsifiable?”
Why is that the most important question? If this theory that ‘Sonic works best when he is not serious, has almost no story or additional characters and is made exclusively for kids’ is unfalsifiable, it is not a theory but a blind faith. And if the people in charge are fine with pursuing their blind faith, we can be assured that things will never change. They will see literally any kind of feedback and reception through their ideological lenses and it will only support their core dogma.
The Identity Crisis of Sonic Developers
Nilsen using the word “identity” also scares me. It’s as if Sega managers listen what words fans keep using on the Internet, so the former can start mindlessly throw those words around.
Sonic is losing his identity because his direction is all over the place. He is also losing his identity because Sega is trying to cut out everything that is not pure gameplay or the most basic premise. Or worse – they replace this stuff with content from other more popular franchises without understanding the source material… or even Sonic franchise itself.
This franchise has no solid grounding. It is too simple and every additional stuff keeps changing. Other franchises completely devour Sonic. Sonic Lost World is not a Sonic game, it is a Mario game with Sonic in it. Sonic Boom Rise of Lyric is not a Sonic game, it is a Ratchet and Clank / Crash Bandicoot game with Sonic in it. Mario and Sonic at Olympic Games are not Sonic games… they are not even a Mario games. Those are sports games with cartoon characters in them (without the factor of being over the top, wacky or unconventional; it’s just weird).
That’s why Sonic is having identity crisis. It’s not because he has too many friends. That argument doesn’t even make sense. Existence of other characters doesn’t make Sonic as a fictional character any less distinctive. Do they fear that other Sonic characters are too much like Sonic or stole the spotlight from Sonic? That’s not even remotely what happened. There was no new spin-off game with a different titular character ever since Shadow the Hedgehog, which was released more than a decade ago. And another decade old game, Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, was the very last main Sonic game where you could play as other characters then Sonic. What other games we had with multiple playable characters since then? Sonic Free Riders? Oh yeah, that game should have had differently colored Sonics like in Sonic Colors. That would surely help to maintain Sonic’s identity… (That was a sarcasm.)
Other Sonic games that had multiple playable characters and performed poorly were Sonic Boom games for Wii U and 3DS. Despite that, they are pushing Sonic Boom like crazy. There is another Sonic Boom game coming up and they invited Rafei – one of the Rise of Lyric developers – to educate us about Sonic’s history and share his thoughts on how Sonic worked in the past and now.
Why asking a proven bungler to talk about Sonic’s history? Either the Japanese division hates him and was only forced to have him for this interview, or they simply can’t see how their “why Sonic sucks” theory has absolutely no cohesion.
Maybe it’s because simply every single person in this article had a different opinion on what went wrong (though the article didn’t make it clear that the ideas these people presented were contradictory). Fair enough. But even so, it’s sad to see they all had the same opinions that formed 8 years ago, despite they were invalidated many times over.
At Least Now We Know That We Should Keep Sucking
Iizuka said that he wants Sonic to be loved even by people who don’t play the games. That’s rather counterproductive, as the people who don’t play the games dominate the discussions about Sonic ethics. And Iizuka also wants to keep Sonic a nostalgic icon of fans childhood. Yeah, make him even more nostalgia driven… and even when dealing with people who don’t play the games so they have no prior experiences with Sonic. And finally, he also says that he wants to build a Sonic title which will represent his evolution over the last 20 years. This sounds really conservative, which is not particularly good in the current state of the franchise.
Then we get another golden quote from Christian Whitehead who was hired to remaster Genesis titles for mobile:
“The impetus for Sonic’s redesign stemmed from a — perhaps misplaced — desire to continue to push Sonic as a AAA brand.”
They are playing the minor league. Willingly and purposely so.
That is even more underlined when later Olson mentions that he knows they will ultimately lose some fans because of their approach, but they are ready to do it because they believe that they are focusing on what means to be “Sonic” and what means to be a “Sonic game”.
So all people who are concerned about this franchise and who endlessly ask why it sucks and how to make it better – we simply don’t get it. According to the current Sega standards and direction, Sonic is not broken or even failing. Sonic is at the exact spot they want him to be: A small niche franchise for a minority of fans who are so overly attached that they will support it no matter what. Those who don’t like it can and will leave. And Sega believes that in the long run, new fans will join them.
According to Sega, Sonic franchise shouldn’t be made into something that will attract masses, as this would betray their vision. They probably have some higher moral code telling them that making Sonic relevant again would make him a sellout (because Call of Duty or something).
The quote about how Sonic shouldn’t be an AAA brand proves it. They don’t want Sonic to be famous again. They don’t care about him being well sold or recognized as a quality franchise for everyone. They want old fans from the glory days to go away because they expect too much (we hear quotes like “don’t expect too much” or “don’t get overhyped” too damn often). They want only new fans who don’t remember how much bigger and greater were the Sonic games back in the day.
Sega mainly wants Sonic to occupy this spot of an obscure, simple and boring character that exist only to be revered as an artistic rarity by pseudo-intellectuals who endlessly look for reasons why he is so great so they can make “Top 10” trivia videos on youtube about him.
Sonic Boom – a New Fresh End
Here comes Rafei. It was stated in one interview that nearly nobody in BRB knew anything about Sonic. Rafei himself didn’t convince me that he knows why Sonic works either. His views are as twisted as one would imagine.
At least he kind of realizes that he lost, but he is blaming it on wrong things. He is again fueling the “we were trying to make Sonic too good, shouldn’t have aimed so high” argument.
Rafei says that Sonic Boom is very different in tone… That is simply a lie. Sonic Boom universe is a perfect evolution of the new direction of Sonic games that started with Sonic Colors. The dominant feature of those games is “humor” that ridicules the universe and tropes this franchise is built on. This remained consistent even in the Boom series. Needless to say that the writers who started this direction (Pontac and Graff) ended up writing for both 3DS Sonic Boom games. Yes, RoL was a bit different from the style of Pontac and Graff, but the writing was mimicking their style.
It is obvious that Sega knows people are emotionally attached to Sonic. Rafei says that some people feel they are “entitled” to Sonic because they grew up with him. He uses the word in such a way that it’s obvious he used the presumed “entitlement” of some select fans as an excuse why not to listen to them. Of course, there are many crazy Sonic fans out there that shouldn’t be listened to. But he obviously didn’t assess the situation well. Those “entitled” Sonic fans were criticizing Rise of Lyric even before it was released. And the exact same criticism they used could be later heard from critics around the world. This is how “don’t judge before it’s released” philosophy failed big time.
Why can’t we have some middle-ground? Sega is a company of extremes. We either have complete attachment or complete detachment. We either have Nilsen or Pontac.
Pick your poison.
It is saddening that people always only take the most marginal features from Sonic’s history and try to push them as the most important aspects of his franchise. Some people think that Green Hill zone is a perfect representative of Classic Sonic games… and Rafei seems to emphasize Sonic breaking 4th wall in Classic games because of his idle animation. To my knowledge – except for that animation – Sonic never broke 4th wall in the entirety of the Classic Trilogy. And he almost never did it in the entirety of all his games up until Colors. So this begs the question if breaking the 4th wall is even one of the features that defines him at all.
Sad that they chose this approach as predominant for the Boom series. The entire package of those games feels grating and boring because of that. Some trailers for RoL even have Sonic saying how his adventures are mundane. Way to start a new series and introduce this new world that was a “breath of fresh air” by stealing all the positive energy we could otherwise have.
At least Rafei says in the end that he has no authority to answer the question where Sonic should go in the future. I will give him credit for that at least.
If they want kids so much, they should ask Disney movies for advice in that regard:
Zootopia – Even if you write for kids, you need to give a damn!
Read the article to find our how a story for kids is being written for real. Or at least check this quote:
“When a filmmaker creates a world like the one depicted in Zootopia, they must also make sure that the audience cares about that world and feels invested in it. If we as an audience view the film through the eyes of a character that doesn’t care for the world, then we won’t either. On the other hand, framing the film through the eyes of a character that absolutely loves the world of Zootopia will compel us to care as well.”
That’s rather different from what we keep getting from the entirety of the Boom package. Sonic Boom is made specifically in attempts to make us not care about anything but the jokes.
All Hail the Plumber!
“I think it’s a pretty tough ask to expect Sonic to be as big as games like [Grand Theft Auto] today,” Whitehead says, “but with the right mindset behind it, Sonic has the chops to be as great as any high-quality platformer Nintendo is currently putting out.”
They are bringing up Mario and Nintendo again. Freiber, Nilsen, Whitehead… I bet that even the other people present brought this up too out of record.
Why people who work on Sonic have this suspiciously extensive knowledge of Mario? Of all characters in gaming, they chose to focus on Mario! OK, the companies that created the two mascots competed in the past. But why are Sonic people talking about Mario concerning their plans for the future? Especially since those franchises no longer compete against one another and are totally different? Associating Sonic with Mario today makes as much sense as Associating Bayonetta with Mario.
They say that Rise of Lyric was too ambitious game. If Sonic Boom was properly finished and polished, would you consider this game too ambitious?
But maybe it all burns down to the question of the supposed “implausibility” for a Sonic game to be an AAA title. If we compare RoL to standard AAA titles, that game is nowhere near ambitious. But if we want to compare it to the mentioned Nintendo games, I can see where Whitehead is coming from. This kind of thinking is a perilous road however. You just don’t want to be like Mario for various reasons. Following Mario’s example and design prove to be perilous for Sonic. It would be better if Sonic games were developed by people who knew nothing about Mario.
Even Mario has problems with relevance. But since those problems are not “ethical” or “moral” concerns whether the content of those games is “appropriate” for children – or gamers in extension – Nintendo treats those problems as if they didn’t exist. They lost their touch with the usual gamer. And they know it and they keep isolating themselves on purpose. Why? Because they think that this is best way of doing things. They think that making great ambitious games for mass market automatically means transforming into sellouts. They think that mass appeal automatically means forsaking all deeper values for money. At least that is what I have gathered over the years from the endless interviews made with Nintendo and even Sega people.
They are all trying to transcend above this extremely materialistic mindset so they can stop caring about money and start thinking exclusively about the artistic qualities of their creations. Which is great, I love it. I want more people to put their heart and souls into their work. I want more people to forsake their greedy ways and gain some principles and integrity.
There are two problems with that however:
- Despite there are probably many people at Sega and Nintendo who wish to pursue their ideals, there are always other people (in most cases their bosses) who are just those money hungry assholes that will always set the working conditions to ridiculously absurd extremes. Even if the developers are pretending to be the good guys who are trying to “better the gaming” and all this shtick, their bosses are just people who want the next Minecraft of Flappy Bird to be made. We had this apology about quality of SEGA games coming from their new president recently… and despite that, the mobile department kept treating their products very poorly. There are obviously many problems in those companies that can’t be overcome… so the only artistic choices they can green-light are: “keep it simple” or “stop making it ambitious”.
- These developers are simply doing it badly. They think that they are “innovating”, “using their imagination”, “evolving”… But the opposite is happening. Mario is the king of stagnation, the kid-friendly Call of Duty. If they think that Mario is this alleged proof of creativity, they are completely close minded. Are Mario games good? Many of them are, sure. But how can people really know that Mario games are the best platformers in the industry when they just keep sticking to their comfort zones and practically never talk about other games? Especially nowadays, when gaming is so huge and diverse. Sega people believe that only their limited understanding of the Sonic franchise and Nintendo games are legitimate sources of inspiration. Because of that, they are – consciously or not – denying us any other source of inspiration. They feel that other games break the “safe” and “appropriate” philosophy they hold so dear.
The Direction of our Game Proves We Are the Good Guys
I will have to say it because people don’t seem to understand it. Making simple lighthearted games over-saturated with primary colors and cute music is not how you prove your creativity and status of a “good” let alone “creative” game developer.
The “simple” approach on the game development (as opposed to the “ambitious” approach) is welcomed mainly by the producers, sponsors, shareholders, stock holders… It is more important to gaming politicians than gamers themselves.
This means that in the end, this pursue for a higher standard (by being simple) in the name of noble motives (by being “appropriate” or “innovative”) ends up being completely counterproductive. Developers pursuing this formula are achieving the very thing they are trying to fight against. They don’t want Sonic to be like in Adventure times because it would allegedly pander to the low tastes of everyday Joes who only want to see explosions and other cheesy visuals in allegedly poor crafted games with no substance. But now, even with this safe approach, we see the developers creating cheap games with no substance. These games are only getting praised because “they were meant to be this way” and because of the bright infantile visuals. Only now it doesn’t attract this cursed everyday Joe. It only attracts pseudo-intellectuals who want to feel good about themselves for liking the “quality games”.
In the end, the simple games are judged on their own terms and praised for achieving this level of simplicity and child-like charm (they were meant to be this way) – while the complex, ambitious and “gritty” games are not judged on their own terms but rather on some kind of unspoken ethics (those were not supposed to be made, period). Those games are described by artists and pseudo-intellectuals as “trying too hard”, “too edgy” or “dark and gritty”. This is simply not fair.
Why is Nintendo and their ways of making platformers so glorified by everyone in the industry?
It’s two reasons basically. It’s their history and their image of being a rebel. They go against the mainstream. And they are infinitely proud for it. And they are many people in gaming – developers and gamers alike – who have very good reasons to like Nintendo because of that.
Today gaming is plagued with shady practices, deceptive and fraudulent behavior… sometimes even lying. Games are being released incomplete, bugged, overpriced, having most of their features locked behind pay walls… That is something nobody really likes. And Nintendo appears the be the ultimate good alternative. Except for their history with draconian practices, selling rather empty games for the same price, not releasing enough games in general, monetizing your Let’s Plays and any other youtube videos that use Nintendo games footage and making you buy toys to play their games. But that’s besides the point. There are people who can chew all that and still not like the practices of other gaming companies.
It seems that majority of the Nintendo policies revolves around strong conservatism. Nintendo wants to convince the whole world that the gaming in the past was way better than gaming today. Too bad that they apply this even in areas that people don’t really see in a negative light, like online multiplayer or voicechat.
Nintendo are basically the Amish of gaming. They want to get back to the simpler times – presumably to the NES times when they ruled. They would like to scrap all of the needless modern technology they feel is only forced upon the player. Why forcing gamers to play in HD? Games are not about graphics! Why forcing them use online? Games were always fun without it! Why forcing them use voice chat? People on the Internet are mean anyway! Why forcing them to to play ambitious games? They would need bigger hard-drives for that and smaller games can still be fun! In our days, we didn’t need fancy-schmancy things like that.
However, they seem to embrace modern concepts when they can claim: We came up with this. People who admire Nintendo seem to attribute many things in gaming to Nintendo. And that is probably the reason why this Mario philosophy won’t leave Sonic. People all across the world, gamers and developers alike (even the ones from Sonic Team) attribute Sonic’s fame to Nintendo. They think that since Nintendo came first with Mario, they basically invented the concepts Sonic was based upon. And since Sonic was less successful than Mario, it means that Sonic was really clumsy in making those concepts work. And by this reasoning, he should be fixed by further following the modern Mario example.
There is probably a fundamental problem that makes everyone point at Mario each time Sonic – or heck, even any other platformer game – is discussed. For Nintendo fans, it sounds really cool when they can keep pointing out game design features and say: “This exists because of us.” It’s not just fans who say it. Miyamoto once said something along the lines that they basically invented platformers and RPGs with Mario and Zelda and everyone in the industry builds on what they came up with. He also claimed that he could easily design a Halo game, but he simply choses not to because it’s bellow him (the concept of FPS sci-fi game with a serious story is probably not creative enough for him or something).
I find this trend of ideas monopolization really disturbing. And many people find it disturbing too as the FineBros incident suggests. Yeah, Nintendo didn’t try to patent those ideas, but they are teaching the world about the importance of being the first to come up with something.
Even if Nintendo was the first in introducing of all the ideas it claims authorship for:
- It doesn’t mean that nobody else would possibly come up with this idea if it was not for them.
- It doesn’t mean they used those ideas the best way possible.
- It doesn’t mean anyone else using those same ideas can’t expand on them beyond Nintendo standards.
- It doesn’t mean that Nintendo can take credit for the expanded ideas other developers came up with simply because Nintendo was the first to come up with the original ideas.
Being First Doesn’t Mean Anything
People think that using ideas of others is copyright infringement or something. Well, at least as long as cool ideas are used by people or companies they don’t like. If its liked people or companies, it’s another story:
- Super Mario Bros wasn’t the first 2D side scroller game. It was Pac-Land. Pac-Land also had richer environments. Super Mario Bros kind of looked empty in comparison. Miyamoto even confirmed that Pac-Land was his inspiration for Super Mario Bros.
- Star Fox was not the first game to use polygons. See I, Robot
- Legend of Zelda was not the first action RPG either. See Hydlide.
That being said, Nintendo is not “evil” for using those ideas or not being first. Ideas shouldn’t be copyrighted. Not vague ideas like “making a platformer game” or “making a game for kids”. Many extremely famous and popular things are improvements of ideas that existed before.
The Art Is an Excuse for All the Wrong Reasons!
Sales matter more than you think. I already wrote an article explaining why it is so:
Famous by Obligation
But I understand that some people want the game developers to have some “standards” that go beyond making money – even if the standards are on the expense of making money. When the developers have ideas that the fans don’t agree with and the general public is not interested in, the ideas are justified by something I would call “artistic decision” of the developers.
Why? Because that’s how usually people excuse existence of a piece of work that is not really interesting to the general public, yet they insist it actually holds much greater value than anything this barbaric public wishes to spend tons of cash on.
I am all for art. I enjoy art very much and I always look for an intellectual enjoyment that goes beyond the shallow values. But I don’t believe that many poorly sold Sonic and Nintendo games deserve this justification.
The critics, gamers and even game developers who use the art argument have a really skewed perception on what art actually is. Most of them think that art can only manifest in the form of abstract visuals and cute dreamy elevator music. They think that art must be unconventional, but in a really mild and completely… “inoffensive” way. They think that it must never be thought provoking, or only invoke thoughts about shape, colors, level design… jokes… and not thoughts about life, relationships, gray areas of good and evil, debatable ideals, controversial choices… or any sign of violence. No, that would be either too aggressive or too complex. And as we all know – convoluted means “not art” for those people.
Is really creating big fictional worlds with thought out inner logic not art? Since when? Do all characters need to be talk like poets for it to count as art? Or do all characters in game need to be silent? I have a feeling that people indeed think that a game with silent characters is somehow superior in the art department.
Ambitious Complex Projects? That’s So Pseud!
Why is it so controversial for the establishment? It’s not like giving an actual context to the franchise would make it stop working. Not everything must be super-realistic… but that’s the magic of Japanese fantasy/sci-fi. They can create visually stunning worlds that are outrageously unrealistic compared to the real world – but it all makes sense in the internal logic of the fictional world.
If you take for example an element as simple as a floating block in a 2D side-scroller game, you can do wonders with it. Either you can make it so it actually doesn’t fly and that it is only growing from the background to the foreground (if the level takes place in some interior), you can make the platform being stylized as a bridge held by ropes, you can say that it has anti-gravity engine and stylize the block like metal alien looking platform (like Forerunner structures in Halo)… or you can leave the reason why it’s floating unexplained but you can still at least stylize the platform artistically in a way that makes it fit to the natural environment of the fictional world.
Now compare the aforementioned artistic stylization of a level design element with how Nintendo does it: the floating blocks are simply… blocks. Rectangular blocks that fly just because. They have question marks on them because that’s how you know they contain a power-up or bonus points. Sometimes they appear as brick wall to signify that player can demolish them. And that is not even immediately apparent from the looks of it and the context. (Can you crush a brick wall with your fist? Does Mario give the impression that he has super-strength?) It’s just historically given and mechanically learned.
Well, at least those are still abstract elements in overall grounded environment… unlike modern Sonic games and their candy-lands.
It’s not to say that one approach is morally wrong and the other one is morally right. And these are the extreme examples, it’s not always this absolute. It’s just that Sonic used to have a world that Sonic Team was interested in building… up to some point. And when they stopped, the original vision for the franchise drastically changed – or even vanished. It’s hard to see any justification in the current artistic decisions, because they are completely self-serving. Those choices are being made because “Sega can do anything with Sonic”. They just generate random ideas on the whim and include them into the gameplay. People who value Nintendo philosophy seem to only care about the isolated concepts they can see on the surface. The actual application of those concepts is not sophisticated at all. The reasoning why are said concepts used is reduced only to: “it looks cute”. This is a lazy way to make art. If that really is the excuse behind the creative choices.
Art Savvy Kids
Many heads in the gaming industry for some reason believe that “platformer” is a genre that is always meant to be for kids. Many people despise humans and human cities in Sonic games. Why? I think I know the answer.
It is Nintendo again.
Nintendo monopolized the market of platformers in people’s minds and now they think that every platformer game must follow Nintendo standards to be good. I am not kidding, some people even go as far as to say that “we admire Nintendo games because of their ethics”. However, Nintendo and people who adhere to this lighthearted moral code don’t realize, that in order to have a “masterpiece game”, one does not have to make it look like a shape intelligence toy.
OK, if some platformer game needs to be kid-friendly (and I don’t advocate that Sonic games aren’t), why it also needs to look like it is aimed exclusively at kids? Why not make a mature looking game that has no content that would be harmful to kids? Instead of making a content that looks like children’s area? No wonder that kids don’t care for that. Things like this become juvenile to them really fast.
This attempt to overly kidify everything probably comes from the notion some people have that games in general are always only meant to be for kids. Because reasons. Teens, young adults, adults or seniors are probably not allowed to entertain themselves. And if they do, they can only do so via pursuing “adult” activities… like soccer. Even though soccer is also played by kids and it could be argued that it’s just a dumb game without deeper substance that only makes you uselessly lose time. Despite that, the money that is poured into this sport is insane. So why can’t other forms of entertainment lose this stigma that it’s always meant to be just for kids?
Nintendo thinks that it developed an universal blueprint on how to make kid-friendly platformers. And the rest of the world is looking for reasons why it is true. To avoid this “stagnation” they keep demonizing, they should be looking for reasons why it is not true. Only then the developers will not be afraid to try something different.
If there was a platformer that peaks interest of kids and doesn’t make adults around it uncomfortable by making them look like overgrown kids, it would the next big thing. There is currently an empty spot on the market exactly for this kind of thing. And Sonic has the potential to be this thing. This hypothetical game can still be this desired artistic masterpiece. If you include story that takes itself seriously, realistic foundations for this fictional world, emotional investment, magnificent vocal soundtrack, high stakes, even drama… With all that you can create something marvelous.
Sonic fans (at least the vocal ones) are probably the people who will tell you that a game that has all that is bad by design. And they think this because they believe that a game like this would fail at nearly all of its goals. That it would just attempt to be something that it can’t possibly be.
That’s the big idea here. Sonic just can’t be great because it’s hard and we don’t even want to try! And according to this Polygon article, it’s not just fans, it’s developers too. People who own Sonic are losers and they hide behind statements like: “It can’t be done!”
Newsflash: It can be done!
Ratchet & Clank – Story Trailer | PS4
Look Sega, Ratchet is going to fill this empty spot on the market before you. Sonic has been around for much longer. But he refused to evolve. And it’s a shame, because Sonic used to have much greater potential than Ratchet. Sonic universe can provide more action, cooler spectacle, more mystery, more fantastic worlds, much more awesome music, even more dangerous villains and so much more powerful heroes than Ratchet.
Sega could potentially still pull this off. But it can only happen if the project is indeed ambitious. That will never happen as long as those people with inferiority complex run the franchise. They won’t fix the franchise with some kind of easy move that has few gimmicky ideas. Sonic Minecraft is not happening. The chances of digging a gold vein with a basic non-ambitious “naked roots” game are negligible. You can’t plan for this kind of success. Markus Persson didn’t expect his game to be this revolutionary. If Sega wants to keep trying to win a lottery, they will keep losing.
It’s incredible irony that people in the comments praise this new Ratchet game despite not being “photo-realistic” or “brutal” or other features most AAA games on the market have. However, compared to the current Sonic games, this game is photo-realistic and brutal. The people who are surprised by this are probably the same keyboard warriors that guard Sonic’s kiddy identity because they fear that narratologists want to transform Sonic series into something literally as gritty and dark as Gears of War.
The current people behind Sonic have no clue what to do with him. And they hold him so tight that they will strangle him while doing so. They are like overprotective parents that will never let their kid to go out. They are afraid that their kid will change and will no longer be their little cute baby that depended on them. They are afraid that he will go on a journey to the world and will find his own path they disagree with. They are afraid that their kid will be interested in things they don’t like. They are trying their best to only allow their kid to see a few select friends from the Nintendo neighborhood so their kid doesn’t “learn bad manners”. They don’t want their kid to do anything complicated because they don’t believe their kid would succeed while pursuing ambitious goals like that. They want to be there to protect him and let him cry on their shoulder when critics laugh at him. They keep telling him that it doesn’t matter he is not popular or admired because he will always be their baby.
It is touching in a way… But this kind of relationship was proven time and time again to be unhealthy to the kid and even pathological if taken to these extremes. If the parents don’t allow their kid to go into the world, learn to live in it, adapt in it and finally prosper… this kid will not outlive them.
Nilsen: “The future for Sonic can be as bright as [Sonic’s home planet] Mobius is.”
Using my previously mentioned metaphor, Mobius can be imagined as either name for Sonic’s kid bedroom where his parents hold him hostage, or as the name of his day-dream fantasy land. Sonic needs to stop living in his past or his imagination and needs finally come down to Earth.