So I’ve been playing a lot of Sonic Generations lately. This is partly because it’s Sonic the Hedgehog’s 25th Anniversary in 2016 and while SEGA has announced two special games to commemorate this event, neither will see release until 2017 because SEGA. So I figured I might as well mark the occasion by revisiting the last milestone anniversary Sonic game. Also, I just recently got a somewhat hefty new gaming laptop to replace my aging workhorse with the cracked monitor and failed hard drive I used to write to you all on that was as old as Sonic Generations, and I’ve been putting it through its paces with a collection of PC games I’ve had saved in my Steam library but have been unable to, you know, actually play until now.
For a five year old game, Sonic Generations has held up *exceptionally* well. Even just in terms of sheer visual appeal, this is a gorgeous, gorgeous game, especially if you download and install the optional shader effects to unlock the full lighting range of the Hedgehog Engine. For those of you who might not know, the Hedgehog Engine is a proprietary game engine SEGA’s Sonic Team built for the 2008 game Sonic Unleashed and was used again in Sonic Generations. I’ve been a huge fan and defender of the Hedgehog Engine since I first saw it in action and I always find new ways to be impressed with it. It’s the lighting that really sells it: The art style in Sonic games doesn’t try to be hyper-realistic like a most other games, but is instead bright, colourful, stylized and vivid, and the lush sunshine and cool shadows allowed by the Hedgehog Engine really bring Sonic’s world to life here.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the same age as Sonic Generations and was once a visual tour de force, but, on my new gaming rig, its age is finally beginning to show itself and Skyrim is starting to look a bit plasticky and rough around the edges. Yet another reason we desperately need that Special Edition re-release. Not so with Sonic Generations, which, barring the odd mesh here or there, looks like it could have come out yesterday. It’s not always a good long-term investment to chase the dragon of graphical photorealism.
But it’s the gameplay where Sonic Generations shines the brightest. What made this particular entry special is that there was a genuine attempt made to sum up, hone and refine years of gameplay evolution in the Sonic series. Now believe it or not I’m not talking about the “Classic Sonic” sections: To be honest with you, I’ve always found them the weakest parts of the game, chock-full of tedious platforming and unfair death-traps that demand countless amounts of trial-and-error. In spite of their conceit, they don’t succeed in recreating the feel of the original SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis games, but we shouldn’t ever have expected them to because that’s functionally impossible in the Hedgehog Engine. That is straightforwardly not the kind of gameplay mechanics that engine was built to handle. I’m talking about more recent history here, namely, 2005. That was when Sonic Rush was released for the Nintendo DS, a game that I firmly believe history will remember as something of a milestone. Sonic Rush was the game that introduced boost mechanics and tricking to Sonic, effectively changing the game for the series forever. In its “Modern Sonic” sections, Sonic Generations is the most comprehensive statement on post-Rush Sonic to date.
(Sonic Rush also introduced Blaze the Cat, who probably merits an essay of her own.)
There are still grumblings to be made here, though, and this actually brings me to my main point. If we’re being truly honest with ourselves, Sonic games have never actually been “good” per se-Even the first games were basically subpar Super Mario Bros.-style platformers with a good deal of questionable level design. Sonic games are built to be elegant technical demonstrations and showcases for stunningly imaginative and creative art design, and they’re at their best when they’re allowed to be this and nothing more. The way this manifests in Sonic Generations is that while most of the experience hinges on breathtaking action setpieces through jaw-dropping fantasy worlds, the entire game grinds to an absolute screeching halt on an infuriatingly regular basis thanks to its need to constantly slow the player’s progress with obstacles, enemies, bottomless pits, poorly thought-out platforming segments and death-traps seemingly placed at the absolute most inopportune moments.
This is a problem unique to Sonic, unique to this type of Sonic and something I have recently decided is not actually the series’ fault. I think what lets Sonic Generations down here, and all of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, is that in some ways these games are pushing up against the limits of conventional wisdom about how video games should play. The thought struck me as I was trying to navigate a particularly gnarly segment in Rooftop Run “You know, Sonic would be a lot better if there were no enemies”. To stave off the inevitable complaint, no, it’s not because I’m bad at the games and just need to “git gud”. I have been playing Sonic for as long as Sonic has been A Thing. I’ve beaten both Sonic Rush games, Sonic Unleashed (to my chagrin) and Sonic Colours and can S-Rank pretty much everything save Planet Wisp in Sonic Generations on a good day (and even that’s just because Planet Wisp in Sonic Generations is *fucking bullshit*). I genuinely believe the addition of enemies hurts Sonic and the series would be much better off without them.
Here’s why: Games like Sonic Generations are more like a set of skills to be mastered than a challenge to be overcome. There are a discrete handful of levels with a static layout that, so long as you clear them at least once, can be replayed in any order as many times as you like. In this regard the mindset I get into when I play a game like Sonic Generations is very similar to the mindset I’m in when I’m out in the bush training, and it kind of reminds me of an extreme sport in a lot of ways. Parkour and wilderness training both require acquiring a deep awareness and understanding of your surroundings, and in board sports like surfing and snowboarding a lot of times you’ll have a particular break or mountain you frequent enough you get to know all the ins and outs of the local geography and work with that to fine-tune your performance. Just like how in some video games you come to know the layout of a particular level you play endlessly to improve your time and score really well.
So when I’m cruising through a level in SonicGenerations pulling off perfectly timed jumps and sick mid-air trick combos it’s really frustrating to then slam facefirst into a spiked barrel that randomly dropped out of the sky at that precise moment that I had no means of anticipating and no way to avoid, thus causing me to take damage and ruin my ranking. Now to be clear I’m not necessarily talking about normal enemies, as Sonic and Blaze can use their homing attacks to bounce off of them and get additional air (though I question why they couldn’t have been replaced by more generic homing targets that would fulfill the same role without the risk of death), I’m talking about the random hazards that are scattered haphazardly throughout these levels that don’t behave in any predictable pattern, you can’t plan for and can’t avoid. There are a great many of these, and they frankly piss me the hell off because I see no reason for them to be there: Normal enemies, my personal misgivings aside, I can usually handle just fine because they move in visible patterns that can be attuned to through practice. But when environmental obstacles give me literally no clue and no time to react, I do consider that cheap and unfair. When I see stuff like that, I start to wonder if it’s just been dropped in the level arbitrarily because of the assumption the player needs to incur some risk of “dying”.
The history of video game “death” and its centrality to Gamer Culture is a broad and interesting topic that is nevertheless way above and beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say the fact that the language of death and killing has been normalized by video game discourse is something of a problematic and telling one: My favourite case study is how gamers always speak of Mario (or Sonic for that matter) “dying” when they hit an enemy or otherwise lose a continue, even though that’s not actually what’s happening in the text of the game experience itself. Furthermore, Mario doesn’t “kill” Goombas and Koopas, he breaks the spell that has been cast over them, and Sonic is destroying robots to free the animals that have been trapped inside and are being used as living sources of energy by a mad scientist. But that’s not what I want to talk about here; What I’m actually more interested in is the concept of failure states in general.
The conception of video games as, well, games, would seem to necessitate a win/loss condition. I’m personally of the opinion what we currently call video games has come to encompass too broad a range of experiences to fit under one moniker, and that it is in fact possible to have a form of interactive electronic entertainment (indeed several) that is not a “game” per se. But in less abstract and more pertinent terms, the requirement for video games to have failure states comes out of the medium’s arcade roots, where the whole point was to create a mildly addicting experience with an element of skill and strong risk of failure so players would be hooked and keep pumping more quarters into the cabinets. Video game arcades were not, in fact, terribly far removed from gambling casinos. But the thing is, nobody plays games in arcades anymore, at least not in the United States, so there’s really no reason for the entire medium to still be hung up on this mechanic: I don’t need to put any more quarters in to pick up where I left off in Sonic Generations, and the game’s myriad attempts to emulate this (with lives and a limited amount of times you can retry a level without quitting and restarting) are entirely unnecessary and completely infuriating.
If you boil the arcade heritage of video games down to its roots and strip away the gambling connection, which is ultimately what the need for the risk of failure stems from, what you’re left with is a set of reflex-oriented skills that can be practiced. Imagine a Sonic game where the point was simply doing runs over and over again on a handful of imaginative levels. I submit the result would look an awful lot like SSX Tricky (no surprise another one of my favourite games that I used to grind endlessly back in the day) or similar arcade sports games: There’s no risk of “death” there, only the challenge of racking up a better and better score or perfecting your hangtime off of a jump. I really think that a lot of the problems people have been having with Sonic the Hedgehog games is over a genuine failure to change the discourse surrounding how platformers “should” look and play: Everyone kind of knows how rubbish the enemy placement and constant death-traps in Sonic games are, but no one’s really put their finger on the real problem, which I believe is that the type of game Sonic is trying to be is actually an entirely different one than what people think they’re looking at.
I have to make the caveat I’m not opposed to the mechanics of enemies or combat altogether. If that’s the point of the game, that’s one thing: I used to love arena shooters way back when, and my current obsession is Hyrule Warriors Legends, a musou game through and through. Although even in that case, one of the reasons I took to musou so easily and enthusiastically is that it’s a lot of what I’ve been talking about here: There are a certain number of combos and attack strings the characters do, each character has a different movest and the challenge is actually in perfecting them all and finding new and different ways to apply them in different situations. But not every game needs to have combat and enemies: I think the primary goal of video games is to convey visceral aesthetic sensory experiences and communicate them with players directly, and combat can get in the way and cause us to lose sight of this.
Adam Savage of MythBusters fame, now of Tested.com, was asked once on a podcast what he thought of video games. In his response, he outlined a palpable sense of frustration with the medium: While he’s intrigued and excited by the possibilities of games to visualize imaginary worlds to be explored, he can’t get past the death and dying mechanic. He said every time he’s tried to get into games he’s been turned off when his experimental and expository train of thought gets inevitably cut off by shoehorned-in combat or environmental hazards, which is why the only game he was ever really able to get into was Myst. And even that left him vaguely unsatisfied, because he couldn’t help thinking there was more the game could have done to cultivate a sense of discovery.
I very much agree with Adam Savage here, because my experiences have been largely parallel to his. In a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for example, I think the real experience lies in exploring the world. In my most recent playthroughs of that game, I’ve actually *left god mode on* for extended periods of time and/or used mods to make 90% of the creatures allied with me. Part of that is for role-playing reasons (I’m an Earth-bones fertility goddess made of sunshine, yo), but mostly because I find that the combat and death mechanics actively detract from what I’m trying to gain from my experience. I mean call me a noob, a baby or a filthy n’wah all you want, I honestly don’t give a shit. Endless fighting and constant respawning is not what I play Skyrim for, and I am well aware of the irony of saying that about Tamriel “The Arena”. Also, Skyrim‘s combat is terrible. Seriously, it’s like two industrial robots swinging blunderbusses at each other.
Maybe that’s why the Altmer want to unmake the world.
As it pertains to Sonic Generations, I have a really deep-seated bugbear with how that game in particular treats failure. Namely, that it seems to explicitly punish you for it. There tend to be numerous paths through any given level, generally divided into two groups: Paths that emphasize speed, reflexes and tricking and paths that emphasize platforming and combat. Broadly speaking, Sonic Generations sucks at platforming and combat. So, if you get knocked off the higher, speed-oriented path, which more often than not happens as a result of the random nature of the game’s enemies and environmental hazards and not through any actual failing of your own, you’re sent into the Pit of Misery that is the lower path of the stages, which are populated by some of the most mind-numbing platforming segments and cruelest, most unfair level design and enemy placement known to mankind. Or alternatively, Sonic and Blaze just fall to their doom in a bottomless pit. And all of this could have been averted had somebody actually realised none of this was ever actually necessary to make the game at its most basic fun or challenging.
Players shouldn’t be punished for failure (especially when it’s not their fault), because failure is how any of us learn and improve. That’s why one of Adam Savage’s maxims has always been “Failure is Always an Option”. Discouraging people from trying accomplishes nothing and is a frankly terrible precedent to be setting: We can’t better ourselves if we’re indoctrinated to think practice or experimental failure is something we should feel bad about and will be punished for. Games like Sonic Generations are hinting at a new way to conceptualize interactive electronic entertainment by, ironically, embracing the past. Pinball is a great point of comparison, and probably the purest example of what I actually want out of video games (it’s perhaps telling SEGA got its start making arcade games and even many of its home console titles have a strong arcade pedigree), although even there you’ve got the gambling mechanic (which is why I only play video game recreations of pinball tables). Sonic is terrific at awe-inspiring setpieces, reflex training mechanics and sublime aesthetic creativity. So why not let it just be that? The evil robots and environmental hazards are really just slowing us all down.