Sonic, the Most Sincere Hedgehog in the World
A story about returning to old joys, and the power of unabashed sincerity
Years later, and there’s now a video version of this essay for your viewing pleasure:
Have you ever loved something dearly as a child? Maybe you carried it with you everywhere, drew upon it for comfort. Then it came time to grow up, to put childish things away, to put that blanket down.
As a kid, I loved Sonic the Hedgehog. The games came to me digital secondhand, through budget computer collections and imperfect emulation, but that never dampened its appeal. As a teenager, Sonic became my intro to music — I’d hold audio recorders to the TV speakers to record a copy of the Hang Castle music, and amassed a sizable collection of vocal themes before I owned a single CD.
Sonic defined what games were to me, my relationship to fandom, and even my sense of personal aesthetics. And despite holding onto plenty of other “childish” affects, I discarded Sonic in my attempts to become an adult.
Sonic, I was told, was garbage. A childish series that had failed to make the transition to 3D. Its attempts at storytelling were juvenile, it played poorly, and it might have even never been good.
It was time to grow up and play games for adults, games about bipedal nuclear weapons, terrorism and geopolitics. It was time for real art games about your immigrant cousin who won’t stop asking to go bowling. Games where you stab rock monsters in the head to save your girlfriend, or where you protect your surrogate daughter, or even ones where you protect your surrogate daughter who is actually your real daughter, then feel the pain of the White Man’s Burden and open some portals to alternate realities where slave uprisings are just as bad as slavery.
And for a while, I was that person. I was the evangelist for the medium, telling anyone who would listen — and plenty who wouldn’t — about videogames’ artistic achievements. I marveled at the idea that you could even think about games at a level beyond quantified scores for graphics/gameplay/story/sound. At some point I was thinking so hard that I thought myself into a corner. Then I turned around and wondered what room I was even in.
A few years ago I started writing about games. I’d been writing about them for a long time, but I’d started again in earnest, eager to treat it seriously and get my name out. A side effect of being a writer is that you begin to mine everything in your life for a story. Every encounter, every memory. I began to think more about not just games, but the spaces they invoked and my place within them.
I read more. I found Zolani Stewart’s writing on Sonic Adventure, and wondered if, in my haste to grow a critic, I’d written off something much more interesting than I’d given credit to. I wondered if I’d discarded something important to me.
All of this gave me an appreciation of both the series and the character. Ironically, returning to Sonic taught me to slow down. To appreciate the scenery and to become familiar with the strange ways its places connected.
Learning a Sonic game meant playing a game that’s part pinball table, part driving game. There are basics to expect, but each time I needed to become familiar with what the rules are and what exactly it expected from me. From there I could learn the stage, then practice it until I’d perfected my racing line through it.
Aside from its unassailable pop aesthetics and killer soundtracks, there is nothing consistent about Sonic. This is both a source of wonder and eternal frustration. Sonic might be doomed to forever be compared to Nintendo’s mustachioed mascot, but the series itself has more in common with the Kirby games, if anything. Both Kirby and Sonic have a history of radical experimentation, thanks in part to their rounded shapes.
Unlike Kirby, Sonic doesn’t have a stable foundation to return to and iterate upon. There’s few core ideas to build upon, and because the series has run so long and appealed to so many disparate generations of people it often means that nobody can agree on what makes a good entry in the series.
Sonic is an ideological discussion, not a quantifiable one. This isn’t an inherent problem, but it’s hard to have a discussion when nobody will agree on what the terms are. So people will react not critically, but reflexively. New games will be dismissed outright and defenders will show up, with their defensiveness taken as proof that anyone who enjoys the games must be incapable of critical thought.
It’s a special kind of recursive discourse favored by videogames. Unexamined arguments are brought out so frequently they’re taken as objective knowledge, muddied by accusations of corporate tribalism that can only come from a culture so deeply tied to consumerist identity.
But even with that aside, Sonic has one overriding major flaw: Sonic is stupidly, and blissfully, unaware.
Not necessarily the games, or the people who make them, but the character himself. Sonic’s first words in Sonic Adventure are “Aw yeah this is happening!” and as Zolani points out in his pieces on Adventure and Sonic ’06, Sonic frequently dissipates any gravitas or seriousness of a situation. It’s often up to the other characters to display awareness, and remind him of the gravity of events. And even then, Sonic tends to continue on regardless, with the same confidence and bravado only a teenager could have.
This is his best quality.
In a world dominated by post-modern thought, irony has become one of our most valuable tools for new media. Whether that’s in a painting, comedy, online headline or endless memes, the modern world has trained us to engage everything with an ironic stance. We mask vulnerability with it, perform an affect of detachment to show that we’re free of naivety. In an environment like that it becomes dangerous to show sincerity. To engage openly and wholeheartedly is a good way to put a target on yourself.
Sonic the Hedgehog is painfully, wonderfully sincere.
Sonic is earnest in the way only a teenager can be — where novelty is king and your expectations haven’t yet been weighed down by the cynicism of adulthood.
Sonic is an emotional reality where every feeling exists at its maximum expression.
Sonic is exactly the type of character who we’d be told has been tortured for months, only for him to show up making jokes in the next scene.
Sonic is so earnest it only feels right that his box art has messages telling you to live for the moment, live a life of power — or else you’ll carry regret and watch the Sun laugh at you.
Bring any cynicism or irony to Sonic and it falls apart. Sonic refuses to be anything but earnest or positive in the worst of times. That’s not something we often have time for today. It comes off as shallow, or empty. But when I put that cynicism aside, engaged with the character openly and earnestly, I found that there was a lot I loved, that I’d forgotten. Even more, I found that there was plenty that I’d never seen before, and found fresh things to appreciate.
There is something deeply comforting about running around in Sonic’s world. Something full of joyous, infinite energy. Finding it just required me to be honest, and let myself care again. I guess what I’m trying to say is:
Open your heart and you will see.
You’re Too Show: Act 1:ART- by Nick Splendorr, Caleb Zane Huett, Zolani Stewart
On the Beautiful and Tragic Weirdness of Sonic Adventure- by Zolani Stewart
On Sonic ‘06- by Zolani Stewart
The Making of Sonic the Hedgehog: Inspirations- by Splash Wave
Sonic the Hedgehog turns 25- Retrogamer
Sonic the Hedgehog’s Surprising Influence on Fashion- Gita Jackson
Sonic, o Ouriço Mais Sincero do Mundo (Brazilian Portuguese translation of this article)