On The Beautiful and Tragic Weirdness of Sonic Adventure, Part 1: An Empty City
Written By Zolani Stewart
[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon!]
It is immediately apparent, from the first moments of its introduction movie to its title screen logo, what Sonic Adventure is trying to prove. It is a game suffixed with the word “Adventure” because it wants to communicate certain things about itself and its goals. “Adventure” is meant to be expansive. “Adventure” is complex, it is non-linear, “Adventure” is beautiful, detailed and peculiar, “Adventure” is long-lasting. Unlike its inferior left-to-right scrolling predecessors, “Adventure” claims to be the literal third dimension of the entertainment experience, something that sprawls in all directions. Adventure can’t be exhausted through a single watch, read, or playthrough. Stored to the brim with secrets, options, and pathways, it is a thing that is near inexhaustible, an experience of immaculate potential.
And why shouldn’t Sonic Adventure be these things? Why can’t it live up to these ideals? After all, it’s running on the most sophisticated hardware of its time. Or it would until the Playstation 2 would release a year later, pushing the Dreamcast into inadequacy, and ending Sega’s history in console market. Its areas are large, although they’re not large enough to feel expansive, and not detailed enough to feel peculiar. It has alternate pathways and options, but they’re too similar and uninteresting to make the space feel complex. And it certainly has secrets and hidden spaces, but there aren’t very many of them, and they feel trite and unrewarding against the insistent effort it takes to uncover them.
After you find the light shoes, an upgrade item Sonic can use to fly across any string of rings, in a sewer, you’re led up to the back door of an antique shop in the back section of Station Square. Sitting behind the window, is a Green Chao Egg on a floor panel switch. When you press Square to lift the egg, a set of bars drop on the glass door, locking you in, and the bars will only retract when you put it back. The point to this section, in addition to being a stupid Easter egg puzzle, is to convince us that Station Square is a complex set of systems, that it’s a real place which reacts authentically to your actions in varied and complicated ways. More than a mere “scripted event,” but a system that can govern and determine itself, the most remarkable kind. But something is wrong; there’s no sound to the locked door, no alarm or signal, and the shopkeeper doesn’t react in any way to reflect what you did; he utters the same line telling you to use the front door, as if nothing has happened.
It’s a very peculiar failure from the game, to communicate a simple idea about its setting, and a moment that’s emblematic of Sonic Adventure’s existential dilemma. As Sonic Adventure works harder to convince us that it is sprawling and expansive, it becomes increasingly insular and recursive. Its attempts to present itself as complex, boundary-pushing entertainment only reveals to us its tragic bareness, how shallow and fruitless of an experience it really is. Sonic Adventure is a surreal mirror rhetoric to Todd Howard’s famous Mountain remark. No, you cannot climb that mountain! As our own is a tiny, mediocre, makeshift replacement. But, God, do we ever want you to act like you can, do we ever want it to mean something.
It’s easy to see how Sonic Adventure is produced from a mess of conflicting expectations, a burden of conditions that come from being a flagship series title of a failing console at the end of a generation market cycle. It wasn’t the spark of a new era, and it isn’t the member of some golden age; it’s the denouement of another story of struggle and failure. The punctuation of another failed market cycle, of another struggling industry, in a struggling economy, it lies on the final pages of another century of tragedy, failure, violence and downturn.
A game produced at what would have seemed like the end of its world, Sonic Adventure is a walking contradiction. It is a living, breathing problem. And what does it have to show for it? For something that seems to have been born out of such dire, tragic conditions, Sonic Adventure is disarmingly naive. It radiates with a starry-eyed bliss, as if completely unaware of itself and the expectations we have imposed onto it. As the game goes on, it becomes less concerned about those expectations, and its failure to meet them. It’s jagged and rough on every corner, yet it never loses its will to be carefree in the face of its insecurities. What makes Sonic Adventure remarkable are the ways it manages to find its beauty under conditions that fight it so aggressively, how it creates a sensibility from what should be its failures. Sonic Adventure is often dismissed and ran over, not excluding the fact that most writing on Sonic is mediocre and badly written. But as we look towards a real Death of Sonic, of what may be the last generation of Sonic games as we know them, and possibly the last few decades of Sega’s existence as a company, perhaps what I can provide here is some time, to really look through, and hopefully learn to appreciate Sonic Adventure, a beautiful and troubled game that deserves, perhaps more than any other sonic title, some real closure.
Sonic Adventure opens properly with a fade-in to the front steps of Station Square’s train station, named the “SS Central Station.” We cut to another slow pan of an adjacent street, then cut to two more streets, sparsely filled with slow-moving cars and pedestrians. All of these streets are actually right next to each other; they’re literally in the same 50sq metres of space, but as far as we know through these very limited shots, Station Square might as well be as large and diverse as it wants us to think it is. What follows is an upward facing shot of a searchlight copter flying through the street, tilted just enough to obscure the train station, still keeping us from joining these cuts together. Our first glance of Sonic comes at the opening of his theme song, as he hops between the buildings, and lands on what looks to be a building top in front of an image of a wide cityscape, a picture that we’re supposed to associate with Station Square. Here is the game attempting to establish a true dramatic scene: Sonic is a hero who watches silently over the city that he has claimed as his own. Then he makes his first line:
“Aww yeah, this is happenin’!”
Which, I mean, is really funny as hell. Like I burst out laughing when I heard that for the first time, and it was probably because Sonic is so glaringly oblivious and incompatible with the dramatic situation the game works so hard to establish. It’s pretty clear at this point that the game is making a serious (and quite competent) attempt at “cinematic storytelling,” and in seconds it’s destroyed by one of the stupidest lines he’s ever made. The first time we hear Sonic speak is the first of Sonic Adventure’s many, many, jarring moments, the points where the thing Sonic Adventure wants to be and what it unavoidably is crash into each other like a beautiful accident. It’s also the first time I realized that Sonic Adventure is a genuinely funny game. Its characters shuffle their lines between awkward pauses and poor edits like you’re watching bad improv. And its voice acting would probably be considered mediocre, but its quirky and static delivery never fails to come off as playful and eased. Its cut scenes, and by extension its characters are truly theatrical, because of how they invest themselves into the weirdness and the artfulness of bodies that exist in its space.
Sonic then looks down onto the street, where police cruisers skitter across the road like toy cars. The SWAT cops find Chaos 0, the freaky water monster thing, and discover pretty quickly that freaky water creatures can’t really be killed with bullets, so they retreat back into their cruisers. The whole scene plays out like it was written by a child scripting a sequence with her action figures. I used to hate it, but when I realized this I started to really appreciate the whole encounter, how clean and succinct it is. The quick retreat of the cops is immediately followed by Sonic’s heroic entrance. “Aw yeah, this could be fun!” His complete disregard for the subtext of the story are what define his character for me. And of course, when we finish the fight, we get the sudden entrance of Dr. Eggman, the final exchange of the game’s opening, where he ends with his tremendously giffable laugh animation, as his head bobbles over his neck like a bowling ball. It is also very funny.
Although it establishes what kind of game Sonic Adventure is and will be as it goes on, what makes this intro peculiar is that it’s the most story-like thing we ever really see in the game. Sonic Adventure doesn’t actually have much of a story. The game is mostly a series of non-events, flat and inconsequential plot complications that never build towards any significant pillar. Sonic Adventure 2, by contrast, spends nearly all its energy building a situation and a subtext to your actions, to bring drama to its setting. But nothing seems to really happen in Sonic Adventure. It rarely feels like we’re doing anything of importance or significance. There’s a curious banality to actions of its characters.
Occasionally, the game will splice in some scenes regarding Tikal and the native Echidna villages, and their history with Chaos that leads to the game’s climax. They’re interesting segments that highlight Echidna culture’s long history of violence and the authoritative, patriarchal politics that often leads to its own misery, a history that extends far into the Sonic lore. But they don’t serve to do much more than provide some backing for Sonic Adventure’s enormously excessive climax scene, where Station Square City is completely destroyed and flooded to the ground in a rapturous water apocalypse. Nothing is happening in Sonic Adventure until everything is happening, all at the same time in loudest and most extreme way possible.
Station Square is one of Sonic Adventure’s “Adventure Fields,” which is another name for a hub world. Hub worlds aren’t as common as they used to be in console games; they can be thought of as structural intermediates placed “between” the sections and spaces that the game contextualizes as essential. But this assumes the path of a straight line, so we’ll instead think of Station Square, and the game’s other two Adventure fields, as more of a central shape with extending paths that relay back to it. We can access different “Action Stages” through Station Square, but like a gravitous object, we’re always pulled back onto its surface.
Hub Worlds are defined by their banality. They’re weird structures that receive more criticism than respect because they’re thought of as boring, empty spaces that serve no meaningful function. Hub Worlds act in stubborn resistance to the intense and measured process of manipulating a game’s conditions and rules to achieve the goals it puts in front of us, a process we associate with “satisfying” “gameplay”. It’s a blobish substance that blocks up the fast and complex circuits of that process. Hub worlds can’t be beaten because there’s simply nothing to beat. There are no obstacles that require overcoming, no game elements to sort and solve into an order, and no feedback that justifies our engagement with the space’s already scarce of set rules and goals. And unlike walking simulators, hub worlds aren’t spaces that build towards anything. They sit in eerie staticness, and we sit in them, feeling idle and useless, without any purpose but to leave them as quickly as we can.
Hub worlds are spaces where the player comes into contact with their own vanity. Not players as in just us, the people engaging with the game, but “player” as in how we’re transformed into an object whose actions are validated and justified through a system of responses. Games like making us feel like our actions have weight, and are important to the world around us. And when they’re not, we always know there’s an avenue to make them so. In hub worlds, we’re closer to mice in an empty box, with nothing to do but to contemplate ourselves, and that makes them frustrating and uncomfortable places. What makes Sonic Adventure’s “Adventure Fields” peculiar is that we can do everything we could in the Action Stages — run at the same speed, jump and homing attack, light dash, spin dash — only now they serve virtually no use but for banal soft-puzzles. The labour we input that is normally converted to satisfying feedback now just reflects back to us like a beam of light.
Station Square fits all of these things. It isn’t immediately apparent, nor is it remarked on by its major characters, but Station Square is actually a resort city. All of its major centres are vacation spots: A Casino, an Amusement Park, a Hotel and its connecting beach area. All of its pillar structures are representations of leisure and comfort. It seems that we’re not meant to see Station Square as a place that is lived in but as a site of nice attractions to be easily consumed and put to the side once we’ve exhausted their function. It is a place defined by its superficiality, its lack of substantive value.
Like many hub worlds, it seems like we’re not doing much at all in Station Square. It doesn’t take a lot of dicking around to really hit its spacial boundaries, which isn’t just about size, but how a space is able to create the illusion of diversity and complexity. Station Square is full of stupid trinkets to find, back areas, and some alternate pathways, yet they don’t allow me to escape its hollowness. Maybe it’s because the sewer behind twinkle park never extends a couple of meters before hitting a wall of steel bars. Or perhaps it’s the shops whose doors we can’t enter, or maybe it’s just Station Square’s tragic smallness. It’s not about a simple size measure, but how nothing in Station Square seems to escape my perspective. Nothing is left to the imagination. The space itself doesn’t seem to aspire towards anything, nor does it ever suggest that anything exists beyond its boundaries.
It’s a tiny, isolated place. While I’m there, I spend a lot of time jumping on anything I can, spin-dashing around, attempting (and failing) to glitch out some wall clipping, trying to find some kind of richness in the place, but I come up feeling empty. It’s an existential epiphany to truly realize the kind of boundaries that exist in your space. When it occurs, your entire behaviour shifts. You never look at it the same way. In Sonic Adventure, Station Square’s artificiality comes full circle.
So why does Station Square feel so fake? It’s possibly because Station Square isn’t meant to be a real place at all. In the Archie ‘sonic comics’, it becomes a literal fake city, an artificial metropolis constructed under a mountain that runs on solar power, built as a safeguard against the eventual extinction of the human race. Sonic and Friends discover this in the 86th issue of the Sonic The Hedgehog comics, published in March of 2000. As I read through this issue for the first time last June, I couldn’t help but wonder if, even a year after Sonic Adventure’s release, there was something about Station Square that didn’t feel right. Something about it that would justify and fit a narrative that canonizes its inherent fakeness. This would mean that Station Square isn’t just weird because it’s old or because it’s “early 3D”, that there’s some level of intention to what Station Square is and what it represents, if not from the “author” then from its text.
Whichever narrative you believe about how it emerged, what’s important is that Station Square is more complicated than a badly designed early 3D level. It’s both too simplistic to assert that Station Square is intentional with how it presents itself, and that it’s merely a failed attempt to replicate a genuine city. For a place that’s so shallow, Station Square is a pleasant and comforting place to exist inside for the same reasons it’s so lacking in aspiration. Every building and piece of road is textured with bright tones, and the hotel area is cast under a wide horizon of a bright sky filled with photogenic clouds. Its main soundtrack, called “Welcome to Station Square,” is a sparkling soft-rock tune with uptempo horns and sunny guitar riffs. It’s a song that’s no longer than three minutes, and repeats endlessly in a really dry and robotic way, but it pulls nearly all the weight of selling this place. Every time I play the track, whether I’m in a crummy mood or I need a motivating song to my morning, I feel like everything is going to be alright. Is it weird to say that? I guess, like any place of leisure, Station Square succeeds in me feel safe and giving me a space which, however lacking, is eased, reliable, and nonthreatening.
But the middle point of this contradiction is where we tap into the weirdness of Station Square, and where we uncover what Sonic Adventure ultimately is: a game that is in constant negotiation with its own artificiality. Its place between the modes of abstraction, representation and simulation make the game’s foundational conflict. In Station’s Square, it seems that ultimate emptiness is the road it takes to create a profound, and affecting space.