Sonic the Hedgehog Full Series Analysis
When it comes to gaming, the story isn’t always as important as it is in other forms of media, such as movies. There are some games that rely purely on the game mechanic and don’t have a story at all; others very clearly have the story written first and build the game around it afterward. The StH series has seesawed between both of these concepts over the last two decades. In some instances, there’s little to no story present, and in some there’s so much that the gameplay wasn’t given enough focus during development. As the gaming world has matured, StH has done so as well, and is only just starting to find more solid footing in terms of storytelling.
But first, the critical question: Do the StH games really need a strong story?
The inevitably unsatisfying answer is both yes and no, because not all Sonic games have the same goal. A game like Sonic Drift really doesn’t need much framework to be entertaining, whereas Shadow the Hedgehog‘s entire purpose was to explore the backstory of the title character. Then there are games that manage to pull off a happy marriage of the two, such as Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure. On the other hand, Sega’s been guilty of attempting to force story into places where it wasn’t needed, as was the case in Sonic Shuffle. And when it came to StH2006… Well, suffice it to say that I describe that game as, “Sonic fell asleep while playing Final Fantasy.”
It’s important to note that Sega has demonstrated both sides of the spectrum, because there are many that claim that Sega can’t write. Sega can write just fine; the problem is that around the time Sonic Adventure 2 came out, Sega’s style of writing took on a shift that would ultimately lead to one of their biggest complaints: they began centering stories around new characters. (For a better look at what this has resulted in, refer back to the section on Abandoned Characters.)
Now, don’t get me wrong, as I don’t automatically think this is a bad way to write, but it does require a lot of thought in advance. When introducing a new character, the writer has to take into account what role this character needs to fill. A general rule of thumb is that, if a character that already exists can perform the task(s) needed, it’s wiser to go with that character. Having too many characters requires both the writer’s and the audience’s attention to be unnecessarily divided. The more characters we have to keep track of, the harder it is to care about each one. Another thing to keep in mind is how long this role will be available. When it’s only a temporary need, this too encourages the writer to use a pre-existing character if one is suited to the task. Should a new character need to be created for a short-term role, the writer has an additional responsibility with regard to what’s done with that character after they’ve outlived their usefulness. If the writer has done their job, they ought to be able to pull that character back out of the bag of tricks in the event that a similar need ever arise again. There is also the option of permanent removal from the story in some form or another.
However, I think Sega’s aware of this, whether they always execute it well or not. They clearly understand that it’s wise to reuse characters that their audience is familiar with, because they do so with many games that require additional roles, such as Sonic Drift 2, Sonic Heroes, and the Olympics games. What I think is Sega’s fatal flaw is that they began to use character creation as a crutch for new stories. It’s easy to fulfill a need for a new character when the story comes from that new character. This becomes a problem after a while because it leads to a graveyard of unrecycled characters, which ultimately detracts attention from the main characters.
This series has been going on for 20 years. In that amount of time, it’s amassed a group of stable characters that have been able to show their strengths, weaknesses, personalities, motivations, and fears. This is where the stories should be coming from. Too many times in recent years has the watered down version of the game plot been, “Sonic meets [new character] and an adventure happens.” After this amount of time, the series’ core characters are developed enough that a skilled writer doesn’t really need to come up with new stories; the characters will find the stories themselves. When a writer has dynamic characters, it’s a common exercise to just stick the characters in a room together and let them go, without any plans of an outcome. A story will usually present itself.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Sega should stop making StH characters all together, but it does mean that, at this point, there will be more scrutiny over new characters than ever before. There’s a small army of discarded characters that can now fill in the needs that new stories will dictate, if crafted carefully. This is especially true because there are a lot of classic era characters that have fallen to the wayside and are open to reinterpretation in the modern era. From this point on, every time Sega creates a new StH character, the fans will be watching very, very closely to see what’s done with that character — and furthermore, whether or not it was needed at all. The fans of the forgotten characters will be watching more closely than anyone.
StH has a really great cast at this point, all of which can be used as inspiration for future adventures. Eggman is an especially useful plot device in this regard, because a genius intellect can potentially come up with just about anything a writer would need, and his eccentricities will always keep us on our toes. Some may complain that this is the same old formula as ever, but there’s a reason for that: it works. Still, I think there’s room for expansion beyond Eggman’s schemes. Really, any entity within the Sonicverse could lend itself to finding new adventures if enough thought and creativity is put behind it.
For an example, let’s take a look at one of the organizations that’s made a name for itself in the modern era: the Guardian Unit of Nations, or G.U.N. as it’s often called. The StH series has depicted this group in many ways over the course of its use, ranging from powerful to unscrupulous to downright incompetent. We know that they’ve unfairly accused Sonic of crimes in the past, and several characters have connections with the group. This, to me, reads as the perfect breeding ground for a new story. Suppose G.U.N. has decided that in order to be more effective at their duties, they need more authority. This could easily be crafted as either a misguided sense of justice or as good ol’ fashioned corruption of power.
G.U.N. as an actual antagonist rather than an incidental one would put Sonic in a very uncomfortable position, given that this group is supposed to be an ally in defending the free world. When Sonic & co. inevitably begin to fight back, G.U.N. could use its position to launch a smear campaign and a warrant for his arrest, which would limit Sonic’s resources in being able to counter their progress. The situation could potentially get even more uncomfortable if G.U.N. were to call upon Rouge and/or Shadow, as they’ve worked directly for the organization in the past. Meanwhile, with Sonic wrapped up in this debacle, Eggman would be free to do basically whatever he wanted, provided he didn’t feel that G.U.N. posed any sort of threat to his plans. But what if they did? Would that mean that Sonic and Eggman would then need to form an uneasy alliance? Would Eggman betray that alliance at a critical moment? Ah, but Tails has a thorough understanding of machinery these days, and I had mentioned in the Characters section that he ought to return to tagging along with Sonic. What kind of difference would his presence make? If Shadow and/or Rouge really were called upon to work, would they take the job? What would happen if they refused? Even if they took it, would they follow through? What if this is the game where Fang is revived, and he’s also chasing after Sonic for the reward money? Who’s heading up this underhanded scheme, anyway? Is it someone that’s been working with G.U.N. for years and waiting for the right time to strike? Is it a third party that’s coercing someone in command into doing his or her bidding?
This example goes to show how a thoroughly fleshed out world with dynamic characters doesn’t have to rely on the introduction of new elements to present an interesting story. The scenario above would require one, perhaps two NPC G.U.N. officers, and even then it wouldn’t necessarily have to be anyone new; Shadow the Hedgehog featured a G.U.N. commander in many scenes of the game. He could be a villain, or perhaps he’s just another connection to the inside that the main characters could tap into for information. The possibilities are wide open.
Sometimes a story can arise from an event rather than from characters. There are a lot of stories, games or otherwise, that begin in the wake of a disaster of some sort — or take place leading up to one, perhaps in an attempt to avert it or to minimize it. This is where stories such as Armageddon and 2012 come from. A large-scale event (and not even necessarily a bad one) could easily serve as the basis for a story.
By the way, I think it’s important to point out that not all games have to revolve around Sonic. Games such as Knuckles’ Chaotix and Tails Adventure were very, very fun games, and neither of them even had Sonic present. When I was in high school, I used to joke that there ought to be a game called “Sonic Sidekicks” that centered around Sonic actually having been captured, and it’s the rest of the cast that gets the spotlight as they try to save him. Other times I’ve imagined a game that allowed the player to take on the role of Eggman instead of Sonic, because I thought the role reversal sounded interesting. As with the scenario we examined above, the possibilities could take us anywhere.
I also think it’s just as important to note that, depending on the game mechanic, it’s okay to not have a story, too. Sometimes games are just inherently fun to play without any extra bells and whistles. A few sentences of framework doesn’t hurt, but there have been times when I felt Sega tried too hard to make a game that was obviously not related to the main canon of the series have a logical explanation. I know I mentioned it earlier, but I really must point to Sonic Shuffle on this point. If ever there was a game that didn’t need an explanation, it was that one. All we need to know is that we’re playing a video board game with mini-game challenges. That’s all there is to it.
Before I end this section, I do have to take a moment to address the Storybook Series of games. I know some people complain about them, but personally, I’m all for these games. They’re a great example of the type of game that doesn’t need to be hamfisted into the main canon of the series. Each storybook game exists in its own little pocket canon, and allows Sega to explore story and game mechanics that the StH characters — and vicariously, the players — would not have otherwise had the opportunity to experience. It’s a fun reimagining of classic stories with a Sonic twist. All I can say is, I hope we eventually see StH‘s version of The Wizard of Oz or Through the Looking Glass.
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