I’m a huge fan of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, if that wasn’t clear to anyone who has read my work. For the most part, I enjoy the games, the comics, the movies, pretty much anything they produce. But, admittedly, time hasn’t been good to the franchise. Given that the series has gone on as long as it has, there is no shortage of criticism towards the blue hedgehog and his pals. However, most of these arguments take place in the space of the games, and I think the comics deserve some place in the discussion.
The Sonic franchise as a whole has been criticized for having lackluster stories. The plot of Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), for example, is a complicated time travel story that explicitly retcons itself, and seemingly unintentionally and implicitly muddies the plot points of previous games. Beyond the stories, these games have been particularly criticized for thin characterization; Sonic is the 90’s-too-cool-for-school fast guy, Tails is the gadgeteer sidekick, Amy Rose is the pink girly love interest, etc. If I were to simply look at the games, I’d have to agree with these criticisms. The characters are often as flat as people say, which does become frustrating for fans who still cling to the series.
While we enjoyed the characters at first, the mechanics were what sold the games. But now with so many more developers popping up due to the indie scene, it’s easy to find games that do Sonic better than Sonic can anymore. Without strong characters backing up that gameplay, it’s hard to want to stay. I’ll get back to that in bit.
Sonic, being a 90’s mascot, was shopped around to different media including a few cartoons, an Anime OVA, and a long (ongoing) run of comics. These comics have the benefit of being completely non-interactive. Many of the issues that have plagued modern Sonic games, such as poor controls and poor camera angles, disappear in an inactive medium such as this. Already, the series is freed from some of the clumsiness that holds it back. Sonic is a character who is all about speed and flow, and nothing breaks this image down worse than failing to get him to maneuver in this way. However, with static pictures, the image can be maintained. These images can contain blur lines, show Sonic in multiple places at one time, and other things that maintain the illusion of speed.
Back to the point of characters and stories, though, this is where the comics shine the most. Besides being able to actually dedicate more nuance and time to the story, the comics seem to have keyed in on how to really write the characters. For example, Sonic has always been the type of character considered cool by 90’s standards. Now, he’s sort of cheesy, and that’s part of his appeal. But the games don’t really explore this or how other characters deal with it, as most of the dialogue relates directly to the plot rather than incidentals. Additionally, he has a bit of the Iron Man complex going on, in that he’s sort of a jerk, but a world-saving jerk. In the comics universe, the other characters actually call Sonic out on how cheesy he is and get annoyed by his flippancy. In similar ways, other characters are fleshed out to actually be multi-dimensional and interesting. Tails’s intelligence is explored more, showing that he is more than just being able to create machines; he’s skilled at various types of technology which often gives him the role of explaining things. In the games, he ends up stating fairly simple observations. In the case of the comics and the Sonic and Megaman crossover, without Tails, all the good guys would be completely in the dark about how to stop the bad guys.
Another story-related strength that the comics get right is balance. The Sonic universe inherently hinges between humorous and serious: it is about a blue hedgehog and other woodland pals stopping a human scientist from controlling nature to destroy the world. The characters are large personalities, and can theoretically be multi-faceted. But with a limited amount of time to tell stories in games (a point to I’ll get to in a minute), showing all of a character’s shades, or specific ones, too close together can create jarring situations. In the games, Sonic spends most of his time being cheery, jokey, and sarcastic in the face of dark and scary times. In the comics, time can actually be spent to show that he does in fact get scared and care for his friends, often through use of comic specific tropes such as thought bubbles and narration boxes.
The Sonic comics exemplify an interesting narrative point, especially when compared to their video game counterparts. In the same way that books carry a lot of charm and information that movies often lose, the same can be true in video games when it comes to storytelling. With games, there is a different issue going on. Movies tend to be around two hours and need to pack entire stories into them. A book can take many more hours to reach its points. A video game, as an interactive medium, should spend the most time possible being played rather than watched, which makes creating a meaningful narrative tricky unless the mechanics inform the story. The main mechanics in the Sonic franchise include moving quickly and destroying robots programmed to stage a world takeoever; there isn’t a wildly large amount of stories possible based strictly from this. So with this dynamic, story is often relegated to cutscenes. While these can help with exposition, relying on them too much takes away from some of the magic that makes games stand out. Games like the Metal Gear Solid franchise are criticized for containing too high a ratio of watching to playing. If a player spends more time watching characters do cool things, than actually controlling them, it creates a larger dissonance between the player feeling like they have control over what happens in the story.
It is for these reasons that I must stress the importance of creators choosing the best medium for their art. A while back, I praised Depression Quest for its use of game-like elements to create a powerful feeling of empathy and understanding that wouldn’t have been delivered in a more passive medium such as a book or movie. In this way, I think the different mediums have their various strengths. Books have the advantage of being able to go into any desired amount of detail over any given period of time. The consumer can work their way through it at their own pace. For better or worse, there is a level of interpretation involved with reading. A reader can imagine the characters to look how they choose and sound how they choose. Comics share the time and detail aspect of books, while also carrying the extra benefit of being visual and specifying what things look like. But they do require a different level of work to create, and typically come out in chunks. And as I said, games give the player a chance to put themselves more directly into experiences. However, when making a game, strong mechanics should be at the core, even if the intention is to tell a story.
I think these kind of considerations are important to any artist trying to convey a certain message. Choosing the wrong medium can, at best, deliver a weaker version of a particular vision, and at worst, create a very distorted version of whatever the creator set out to do. I don’t think the Sonic series is completely lost as a video game series. I think the games achieve what they set out to do: be fun. But I think the video games can learn from the comic iterations of the character and setting as far as focus. During cutscenes and mid-gameplay dialogue, the writers could focus more on the characters’ personalities than having them make idle observations and give hints. As far as the speed and fluidity concern previously mentioned, comics use their medium for emphasis. If the developers tightened up previously existing mechanics to work better and added momentum-boosting, context-sensitive movements, a truly fluid story could be experienced. Simply using blurring and camera tricks might work well in a passive medium like a comic, but it mostly makes gaming unclear. To sum it up, understanding how to use the specific strengths of a medium, rather than assuming all tactics work for all mediums. will create more unique and focused works.