Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Loneliness Of The Middle Distance Hedgehog

Some video game characters have a timeless quality rooted in classic character archetypes, the hero, the villain and so forth. These characters are malleable, easily inserted where needed and effective when used. Mario, while a hero, is a vague enough character that he can be used as a doctor, go-kart racer and brawler without raising too many eyebrows.

Then there are characters who are so tied to their original description that they almost feel like anachronisms to their date of creation. They are fixed and any changes to the formula feel awkward, if not downright forced.

In short: Sonic The Hedgehog.

He is as fast and as rebellious as a corporate mascot can afford to be. His aim is to save the forest and its creatures from Dr. Robotnik. The nobility of this goal is not in question. Sega managed to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of the early 1990's environmentalist movement whose primary aim at the time was saving the rainforest. Couple that with timing of the grunge movement in popular music calling for its own rebellion against modern day social and corporate structures. Wonder Boy, Sega's mascot up until that point, had barely registered a blip in recognition for Sega beyond its name. In fact, Sega's name was more prevalent than any of its characters due to its aggressive advertising purposes. Still, it lacked a character that was instantly relatable on par with rival Nintendo's golden plumber.

Sonic The Hedgehog could not have come at a better time for the company or the video game industry in general. Mario was synonymous with the 8 bit era and as a classicist hero appeared to be out of step with general North American culture at the time. In creating a character whose Character Bible reflected the prevailing tone of times Sonic was positioned by Sega and considered by many to be iconic of the 16 bit era. His place, along with Mario and Link, on the video game character walk of fame is well deserved.

The question though is whether or not Sonic is a valid example of gaming as literature. To his credit, he was created with a semblance of a personality. He was identifiable with the generation that came of age at the right time. To his detriment, however, the character of Sonic itself, has remained ironically stuck if not stagnant. He still runs fast and still has an attitude and despite his original biography touting him as a loner, he has an ever expanding set of co-stars to lend or add depth. The best is arguably Amy-Rose whose affection is nestled between sweetly charming and obsessively creepy. The worst, then, is Grand Theft Auto reject Shadow The Hedgehog, a motorcycle riding, gun toting, black hedgehog who shares a haircut with Sonic.

Sonic, meanwhile, is still fast and still has an attitude.

And a kart racing game.

The problem then is that Sonic Team has pumped out a new Sonic game every single year since the Hedgehog's inception. And if they haven't, then Bio-Ware has donated their time and energy to make an RPG for the Nintendo DS, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. For the most part, these games are based on a formula. The extra characters are present to add a story that the lead character is unable to carry due to the specific nature of his biography.

And that is the problem. Sonic was created with a full biography easily found and read on his wikipedia entry. This consistency has been applied since day 1 and used in each game until they blend into one another. Actually, as a gamer who played the first three back to back, they have very few distinguishing features. If all of the games were leading to a specific series in which the character has some sort of turning point or epiphany and each of the elements used from day 1 are reviewed, finishing a tapestry of an epic, single game then that game would finalize the series with an astronomical literary value. It would show that all of the games were connected beyond the title character and that the character would be able to grow and change and evolve past its 1990s shell.

Until that game comes out and reveals that there was more than a single blue thread between the games, Sonic will be fast and he will have an attitude, red sneakers and a biography long in need of a rewrite.

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