So, Takashi Iizuka recently gave an interview to GamesReactor concerning the future of Sonic the Hedgehog, and I was personally fascinated by the following response:
But we want to reach the widest possible audience. So, you know, we will probably see Sonic going into other genres of games and also seeing Sonic in different media. So we will hopefully be able to have as many people as possible enjoy Sonic.
I am totally down for appealing to as wide an audience as possible, despite the mocking comments I read on that article. Wide appeal is good appeal. My question is this, though: can you appeal to both the three-year-old and six-year-old in all of us?
Seeing as most of my friends have kids, and I’m the “cool friend of Mom/Dad” for most of those kids, I usually wind up hanging out with young kids a lot. You could do worse in life. What has always intrigued me, though, is how differently kids play as they grow and change.
I was talking to my friend’s three-year-old girl about her day a little while back, and as you can imagine, most of it involved playing—there’s not a whole lot else kids do at that point in their life. So, with great enthusiasm, she goes on to tell me all about the adventures she and her friend got up to and oh her friend just got back from the moon and they found some treasure and so they went to be princesses that fight ninjas and on and on and on…
Let’s just say I basically lost track of any coherence about 90 seconds in, but she enjoyed regaling me with her tales of glory. Most three- and four-year-olds you talk to have this same pattern: erratic, off-the-wall play that mashes ideas and colors outside the lines.
That same friend has an older daughter in first grade; her stories of playground fun are much more…dramatic. With all apologies to the six-year-old contingent at Sonic Retro, they are much more obsessed with the rules of a game and fairness than any sane adult would be. Whatever play time they have usually involves a lot of arguing about structure.
“[Scarred Sun], we were playing dodgeball and Jose acted like he didn’t get hit but he was hit and he kept trying to play and IT WASN’T FAIR!!! He kept trying to say that if the ball hit your hands that didn’t count but it totally does count, right?”
The difference in these two play styles is really representative of two larger differences in play-style: inventive play vs. structured play. We can identify all sorts of games in life that fall closer under one of those labels than the other, but the greatest games we have—the ones everyone finds enjoyable—combine both of these elements to make them constantly at odds with each other. Marshall McLuhan neatly sums up this very idea in his opus, Understanding Media: “The uncertainty of the outcomes of our contests makes a rational excuse for the mechanical rigor of the rules and procedures of the game.” That is, both things are needed for the most endearing play experience: inventive uncertainty operating under structured rules.
For instance, one of the most structured games I can think of is tic-tac-toe. There are very set rules and set ways to win; there’s no real deviation from the script. It’s also incredibly boring because it is so simply structured: it’s pretty much impossible for anyone above five to not get a perpetual stalemate. On the converse side of this would be a game like Art Alive: sure, you have unlimited creativity, but without anything to actively build a framework around, most players goof around for 20 minutes and lose interest—after all, the “game” becomes more of an “art project” than anything with a goal.
An example of a game that combines both of these principles would be chess. If you’re an aficionado of the sport (or, like me, just got in a weird phase post-Searching for Bobby Fischer), you’ve probably heard about the chess records library at Moscow Botvinnik Central Chess Club. There, plays of millions of chess games have been recorded over centuries of competition. These plays were studied and memorized by the Grand Masters of Russia in the 20th Century, leading to their dominance in chess. Players can rattle off famous and common plays excitedly to you if you give them a chance. It is quite strange, when you think about it, that a game with nearly infinite possible plays often shows patterns of being the same game, played out with millions of different people over time.
But what happens when someone switches it up and you get a game that has never been recorded before? When the game goes “out of book”? Then you have a creative experience that challenges even the most seasoned masters.
This very same idea of different play types can be brought up with the Sonic series. Many people point to various reasons why classic Sonic games are held in higher regard than newer ones: level design, aesthetics, physics, etc. I would argue the key element of difference—the one thing that makes those games different than newer games, even Sonic Generations—is that there are affordances for both types of play.
A culture of gameplay such as speedrunners are analogous to chess masters memorizing famous game moves. By learning how a level is constructed down to muscle-memory levels, they can shave seconds off a race and perfect a strategy, tool-assisted or non, to play the game in the most pure form of structured play. They see the rules and limits of an environment and perform in the best way possible. However, speedrunners also creatively look for loopholes and deviate from performance to achieve even faster times. Both types of play are perfectly integrated. The thrill of watching a speedrun video comes both from seeing the skill of the player and their imagination in tackling a problem.
If you attack the same question from the other end, you get…hackers. When I was a kid, you were basically only going to get one or two video games per year, so you made it count—and for me, the Sonic 1 and 2 debug and a Game Genie went a long way for that. By essentially making the rules elastic, gameplay becomes infinite: if you alter jump values so they’re super-high, how does this change your route? What if you set up fifty blank monitors in a level and have your friend search for them? What if you and your brother are playing two-player competition and the actual game is trying to stay on the couch and play Sonic while you two try to shove each other off to lose? Those are the parts of the game that stick with me more 20 years later than the actual game itself. It’s probably why there’s a Sonic Retro and not Super Thunder Blade Retro. There’s an underlying framework of Sonic the Hedgehog underneath these types of play, but infinite room to build and expand upon them.
ROM hackers take this very principle and use the subversive play styles they’ve developed to make whole new games. Take Sonic the Hedgehog: OmoChao Edition, recently done by Retro’s Own™ Cinossu. The basic idea is to penalize a number of normal actions in the game: collecting rings, going through loops, etc. By doing this, the player is still essentially playing the same game, but the way they play is fundamentally altered—the paths and muscle memory acquired over time must be disregarded. The game has to be viewed anew, and the outcome of your play is once again uncertain.
Now, in order for this sort of inventive and structured play to work, this puts a great deal of stress on the structured side of things. If something like the physics of a game aren’t accurate and predictable, building a new experience to layer on top of it becomes incredibly difficult. If levels are built solely to encourage going as fast as possible instead of thinking about different paths, the ability of the player to innovate is greatly reduced. It’s why I was frustrated at E3 that I couldn’t run backwards through loops: although a player doesn’t need to be able to do this, not having the option to do so for more creative play experiences dampers my own experience.
This is the root frustration I experience towards most modern Sonic games: the intended gameplay experience is the only one available. I privately said around the time of Sonic 4: Episode 1‘s release that the game is a good game if you play it the exact way the creators wanted it to be played, but if you deviated, it was pretty crap. I still feel that way about it now. Modern Sonic games are very interested in packaging a cool experience for you, but that experience is shown rather than made: whether it’s a scripted path in Sonic Heroes, alliances made in Shadow the Hedgehog that don’t actually change anything about gameplay, or the endless frustration in Sonic Colo(u)rs‘ later levels for not performing jumps in an exact way, it’s punishing the player for wanting to go off-script. People too often think of exploration solely in terms of level design, but exploration is part of every aspect of a game. Even in older games, there was some (albeit buggy) reward to exploration and deviation of play: sure, getting Amy into Casinopolis is fundamentally broken in Sonic Adventure, but didn’t it make you want to try? Didn’t it make you want to test all other boundaries and play around? Even Generations, which everyone still currently loves, suffers from this problem: beyond the few pre-scripted gameplay variations, there’s no room for experimentation. You can play the missions, you can play the main game, and you can race against other people, but will you be able to go back in five years and create some crazy derivative playstyle that will engage you the way the game is engaging you right now? Could you design a Sonic 1 – Return to the Origin with Generations levels?
Just saying. At the end of the day, that’s maybe a little more important than a character’s iris color.
However, solid yet flexible structure is what separates good gameplay experiences from great ones. When you create something truly excellent, something like OmoChao Edition can flourish: the entire game’s rules are changed, yet it still manages to be a great game in a different manner. The “solid yet flexible” thing applies to all facets of game design and not just engine design, though. As much as I deride fan fiction (because it’s pretty uniformly horrible), the same principle applies: a story has to be told with enough room for expansion for a fan to fill in the blanks, yet not be so overly hemmed in that it forces Jurassic Park/Sonic crossovers. Though I suspect those would be there either way. Oh well.
It’s tempting as a creator to want to put your seal on everything and make a pre-packaged experience. I know this first hand. Our wiki, for instance, has some really great articles that we spent lots of time refining and personally polishing up. It also has some real turds. That’s just what comes with sharing things you make with a larger audience. Everyone is going to interpret things differently. Everyone comes away with a different experience and emotion from a game or article or song. I’d go into the John Berger-y specifics, but I’d probably just bore most of you to death. If you want games that appeal to as wide an audience as possible, give as many opportunities for that audience to make the experience their own as possible. This is a fandom that is clearly creative: look at the massive amounts of fanart, music and animation that come out of it. Let players take that same innovation into games themselves.
That’s not to say people who prefer traditional playthroughs of games are wrong or shouldn’t enjoy themselves. Just the opposite. If Generations was supposed to teach us anything, it’s not that one style or the other is good or bad: they’re just different. It’s why reviewers can see the game differently. Let’s just work to get everyone’s views represented, regardless of how they play.