Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Story where it's least expected, or not: Sonic 2

at 7:06 PM
Continuing my recent blue streak, I completed Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for Genesis for the first time this past weekend. It's an excellent platformer with memorable stages and deep mechanics, the kind - and sorry, I hate this phrase, but it's really applicable here - the kind they just don't make anymore. Each of Sonic 2's stages is its very own game worth mastering, employing unique interaction, structure, and pacing. As much as I believed the opposite five years ago, Sonic 2 is a classic for a reason. Yet the game's greatest shortcoming parallels this strength: narratively, it is irreconcilably fragmented. 

I realize the first reaction to this is: "you're gonna complain about Sonic 2's story? While you're at it, why not ask for the back-story to Beethoven's Fifth?" We'll get to the latter point in a moment, but first I should clarify that I am not complaining about the actual substance of the plot. I don't care if Sonic is a space alien sent to destroy the Badniks as a way of harvesting Flickies that he can feed to his starving home planet. What I'm discussing is the necessity for story itself in order to fulfill the potential of a narrative medium. Sonic 2 has great platforming, great music, and great visuals, but - for me - where it falls short of being a great game is in connecting these elements with a story. 

What the game does provide for story - if you've somehow managed to get to this video game blog without ever having played Sonic 2, or perhaps don't remember - is a collection of untethered elements. We have Sonic, we have random robots, we have all kinds of colorful locales, but there is zero dialogue, zero exposition, and zero cut-scenes (unless you're counting the miniscule Tails-flying-a-plane moments in Sky Chase and Winged Fortress Zones). When Sonic completes a zone, the screen fades to black and immediately fades back in at the next zone. There is no communication of where he is, how he got there, or why he is there. We could assume each stage is next to the surrounding ones, but this creates some implicitly humorous notions of Sonic's world - like that there's a giant casino in the middle of an aquatic ruin. Worse yet, we don't know who Sonic is, we certainly don't know anything about this Tails asshole, and Robotnik is an enigma as well - though clearly he has it in for our hero. The one clue we do get is the animals - whenever Sonic destroys a Badnik or unlocks an end-of-zone capsule, tiny animals are set free. So apparently Sonic is a tiny animal rescuer?

By comparison, Super Mario Bros. has an equally primitive but more effectively woven story. We may not get that Mario is a plumber (not like that matters), but the "Your princess is in another castle" scenes are just enough to tell us what Mario's quest is and where it will take him. We learn he's rescuing a princess who has been imprisoned in a castle, and we know that he doesn't know where this princess is. So Mario is methodically combing through hostile castles. Fine. It gives him a reason to be where he is. We can also garner some understanding of who he's fighting just through visual design - the Koopas are obviously related to King Koopa, while the Toads are clearly the good guys / victims, so Mario must be up against some kind of occupying army. It's tiny stuff, but enough to bring together the game as a story.

But Sonic doesn't need a story just cuz Mario had one, or cuz I said so. Every work of art sets its own terms for success - there are no universal objective end criteria that always hold true. Yet a single criterion can act sufficiently as a point of evaluation: the work should live up to its own standards to accomplish what it set out to accomplish. Sonic 2 creates the expectation of narrative - it presents the player with a sequence of concrete scenes, a protagonist and antagonist, and consistent forces of conflict. It has story elements. For it to lack connective tissue is a failure to live up to its own promise, a setup without a payoff, and is in that sense a shortcoming. 
Miles "Tails" Per Hour: a setup without a payoff
Let's return to the music analogy. Greg L. brought this up, arguing that cut-scenes for Sonic would be as extraneous as a written program for a symphony - that they could add clarification, but wouldn't inherently alter or improve the audience experience of the composition. I contend that cut-scenes in a game are not the equivalent of verbal back-story to a symphony. A game is a multimedia presentation. Any presentation of story - from stage titles to cinematics to atmosphere and audio/visuals - is as much a part of the game as are the interactive mechanics. You can't play the game without experiencing it. That is to say, it is as much a part of the game as a composer's overture and interludes are a part of his symphony. A written program for a symphony would be the equivalent of a manual, which I am obviously excluding from the text of the game.

In truth, symphonies almost never have these "verbal back-stories", despite the fact that they usually do contain some kind of plot. They are either abstract or representative through musical terms alone - the story is meant to be received through impression, not dictation. Games can accomplish this level of storytelling through mechanics, in that gameplay functions identically removed from context. Nonetheless, they (or at least the Sonic games) pair concrete presentation with this abstract interaction. Were we to consider mechanics the abstract element of Sonic 2's delivery, even acknowledging that they tell a story of their own, there is still an excess of concrete data presented to the player. To experience the mechanics, the player has to look at Emerald Hill Zone, has to control Sonic, and has to fight robots and Robotniks - all concrete experiences. A symphony does not present this pairing of abstract and concrete. There's no need for verbal explanation because there's no verbal data to link. Thus, for Sonic to successfully emulate a symphony still leaves it an incomplete experience on its own terms. 

Interestingly, Richard Wagner maintained that symphonies were a limited format, unable to match the expressive capacity of a multimedia work (Gesamtkunstwerk).
Wagner's favorite game was, of course, Odin Sphere
Oddly enough, Sonic 2 stands alone among the Genesis trilogy in failing to tell a story. Sonic 3 & Knuckles introduces interstitial cut-scenes to fill the player in on character motives and scene sequencing. The levels and enemies themselves are still a bit of an arbitrary batch, but we have the general sense that time is progressing and a plot is taking place. Just check out the cut-scene where Sonic/Knuckles is thrown from the Flying Battery (Zone) into the desert of Sandopolis Zone. That's connectivity - it doesn't leave it to my imagination to figure out if there's an oilfield at the bottom of a crystal cave. Btw, to whomever named Sandopolis Zone: bravo. I admire your work.

Admirably, Sonic 1 accomplishes a similar effect passively without any explicit narration. Its progression of zones (story-wise) makes far more sense than Sonic 2's, to the point where it eludes any sensation of arbitrariness. Marble Zone looks kinda like what lies beneath Green Hill, then the forest remains in view (in the background) from Spring Yard, like Sonic is at the very foot of industrialization. Labyrinth admittedly I don't get, but Star Light works as a continuation of Spring Yard, like Sonic is crossing from the edge of the urban region to the center, where he discovers the polluted techno-futuristic metropolis of Scrap Brain. There's a steady progression from nature to civilization, delineating a clear journey for Sonic. He has left his forest home to seek out and destroy Robotnik's industrial haven. The story also appears to take place over the course of one day, the sky getting darker as the game progresses. The player can feel Sonic getting closer to Robotnik's lair, the [reverse] heart of darkness, clarifying that this is indeed a story of nature vs. artifice. 

That is to say, over time, the original series essentially inverts its story presentation. In Sonic 1, the plot is told passively with environmental progression and no explicit narration. Sonic 2 drops the logical progression and adds nothing, essentially making it The Game Without a Story. Sonic 3&K gets us back on track, but instead of returning to Sonic 1's sensibilities, it goes for active narration to link otherwise unrelated sequences. Without making a comment on overall quality, this makes 1 and 3 more complete, fulfilling experiences that live up to their own aspirations. 

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