Sonic Adventure 1+2: Paradigm Shift

I've long felt Sonic Adventure and its sequel were something of a turning point in the series' storytelling, that decisions they made could be fairly directly pointed to as the root of problems with the games that followed, but it's only with replaying the games just recently that I was able to put my finger on why I thought that, and particularly the why of particular elements.

But before I get into that, I need to get into some aspects of the prior games.

Green Story

The classic Sonic games have baked into them a strong pro-environmentalism narrative. Not a lot is done with it explicitly, but it's there nonetheless: our villain is the only human in the setting, and is an extreme technophile, constructing legions of robots and replacing vast parts of the landscape with environments loosely reminiscent of modern industrial influence. Sonic 2 has a Zone that is literally based on oil runoff into the ocean, for example. Sonic 3's first Zone involves a forest being set on fire, very likely as an allusion to slash-and-burn farming. (And even if it's not, this is still massive environmental damage)

Meanwhile, our protagonist and the people he's allied with are animals, some humanoid, but many of them just... wild animals, albeit often of a somewhat wild color range. Animals Robotnik exploits to his own ends, using as the power source or AI foundation or something for his robots, such that his robotic legions means he's kidnapping equally huge numbers of wild animals with no concern for sustainability or the like.

Inherent in this context is the subtext that what makes Robotnik the villain of the series is that he's opposed to the green message. This is important. It's what anchors him, and it's what anchors the games themselves. The Chaos Emeralds, for instance, would just be very powerful magic rocks if the green message wasn't baked into the story. With the green message, Sonic tapping them for power is like being backed by the forces of nature, and Robotnik doing things like trying to take the Master Emerald to power his giant battlesuit is yet another example of him disrespecting and exploiting a natural resource that normally benefits everyone.

And then Sonic Adventure gives us Station Square and things go sideways.

Standards Change

There's things I like about Sonic Adventure, but its plot is very wonky. It's putting its explicit focus on a war vs peace storyline, but the nature vs technology elements are still an intrinsic part of the setting design. Robotnik is still an evil technologist exploiting wildlife -his robots still release animals when destroyed, and in fact Gamma's story explores that concept very explicitly- and in fact some of the elements introduced by Sonic Adventure very much extend this undertone, such as Chaos being some primordial nature god thing where making it angry is a violation of the natural world.

All while the game has shifted the larger context of the world to a clear analogue of the real world. One where humans build and live in skyscraper-dominated urban landscapes. One where humans drive cars and ride trains. One with a hilariously massive casino that can't possibly be eco-friendly. And, critically, the game doesn't keep to its larger message in regard to these people: if Robotnik's cardinal sin is that he operates with a callous disregard for the natural world, then the majority of regular human citizens are also bad guys, if of individually smaller impact. Or run that the other way: if it's fine for ordinary citizens to displace the natural world with technological trappings for their own benefit, why is it not okay for Robotnik to do the same, if the only real difference is one of scale?

Sonic Adventure doesn't have an answer, because there isn't one to give that isn't some manner of double-standard.

Even worse, Tails has turned unambiguously into a big fan of technology. He's got a transforming runway for some ungodly reason, he's got a transforming plane, and he uses a Chaos Emerald as the power source for his plane! You can't really try to argue that Robotnik is a bad guy for abusing sacred artifacts or for using the latest greatest coolest technology without worrying about the impact on the environment, not unless you want to accept that Sonic's innocent sidekick is the same kind of villain! (One of lesser degree, but still villainous by such a metric)

Sonic Adventure tries to pull attention away from this point. Gamma's story sells Robotnik as a villain by telling a story that shows us what Robotnik does with his own creations, with very clear and deliberate parallels drawn to a parent and their children. (Such as when Robotnik describes E-101 Beta and 102 Gamma as 'brothers' near the beginning of Gamma's story) In that framework, Robotnik is a terrible, abusive parent, pitting his children against each other and doing horrific things to whoever doesn't win the contest. Notably, when he sends four E-series robots out to retrieve Froggy, a task only one of them can possibly succeed at, he punishes the three that didn't succeed. This can be rationalized to an extent if one wants -the three E-series that failed brought back frogs, convinced they were the right ones, so one could imagine that Robotnik is punishing them for being so stupid as to think they had succeeded when they hadn't, and theorize he wouldn't have punished them if they'd simply showed up empty-handed- but the interpretation more consistent with what he does with Gamma and Beta is that he was always going to punish whoever all didn't succeed. That's pretty awful, setting up a minimum of three-quarters of them to be gruesomely punished no matter how competent they might actually be!

But outside Gamma's story, where Robotnik's villainy is fairly personal, it's not so clear what is supposed to make Robotnik a villain.

Like yes he wants to destroy Station Square using Chaos but... well. We never find out what his larger goal is. We never find out why he wanted to use Chaos to destroy Station Square, given he has an unending legion of robots that are mostly mindlessly loyal, multiple vast airships, etc. In fact, the story draws your attention to this question in that after Chaos 6 is defeated Robotnik spitefully launches a missile at Station Square. It ends up failing to detonate, but the clear implication is that Robotnik didn't need Chaos to tear apart the city, making it a bit baffling why he wanted Chaos at all.

Worse, it's not clear what his larger goal is at all. In the larger story, Robotnik doesn't really stand for anything in the way he does in the prior games. He's the villain of our story because this is a Sonic game and so he's the bad guy by default, simple as that.

So Sonic Adventure 1 directly undermines the foundation of what made Robotnik The Villain of prior games, and it just... doesn't have anything to replace it. This is a pretty big problem, especially if the series builds on Sonic Adventure 1 as canon.

Which it did.


Sonic Adventure 2 does seem to recognize this error, and work to resolve it even as it retains the shifted context. Since the ordinary citizenry isn't villains for being part and parcel of an environmentally unfriendly paradigm, neither is Robotnik being a technologist an inherently bad thing. By extension, Sonic Adventure 2 is comfortable fully embracing Tails The Technologist, with his own fighting battlesuit with guns and whatnot, since it's no longer thematically inconsistent. Robotnik is still not a good person -there's a reason the routes are 'Team Hero' and 'Team Dark'- but he's not presented as being the face of evil in this story. In Sonic Adventure 2, the underlying theme is fairly technology-agnostic, being about 'treating people like they're tools is bad'. This makes G.U.N. (Who authorized and funded the 'ultimate lifeform' research on the idea of making an ultimate weapon. Not even an ultimate soldier) and/or Gerald Robotnik (Who went ahead with said research without considering the implications) the closest thing the story has to a Core Villainous Figure.

(You might expect Biolizard is the prime bad guy, what with being the final boss and all, but it's in the exact same position as Shadow: an artificial being not really treated as a real person. Only where Shadow is a fully functional organism, Biolizard is blind and dependent on a gruesome life support system to function at all, so it's really a pretty sad figure)

And really, Sonic Adventure 2 is actually quite successful at resolving the issue! The worst I could say about the new situation is that the new model really ought to still place Robotnik as pretty firmly A Bad Guy when we combine it with what we saw of how he treats his creations in Sonic Adventure 1 -particularly since Sonic Adventure 2 makes a point of having Actual Continuity with Sonic Adventure 1, as opposed to the usual Sonic series thing of the games sort of vaguely fitting together in a manner where you're honestly probably meant to assume something like this prior game is canon to this newer game rather than this prior game is fully canon to this newer game. And even that's a minor niggle, since a later game could always come back to it properly.

The problem is what came after.

Villain Wanted, Apply Within

So okay, Robotnik is no longer the villain of the series on the basis of being an anti-environmental technologist. In fact, he's no longer the villain of the series at all, just someone the story is willing to label as 'dark'. But the Sonic series doesn't have other bad guys to fall back on, so... now what?

Well, the series can try to invent new villains, such as Sonic '06 trying make the narrative focus about Iblis and all, with Robotnik as more a patsy than a primary villain.

These attempts didn't work out very well.

Okay, it can also pull from the handful of non-Robotnik villains it's already established, such as Sonic Heroes faking the player out by presenting the story as if Robonik is the villain again, and it ultimately turns out Metal Sonic is a shapeshifter now and is pretending to be Robotnik. And cool, Sonic Heroes worked out pretty okay with its 'being a loner isn't better than being part of a group of friends or at least allies' memo, but it's not a very Sonic sort of villain, not something that can really sustain a series of games that are very different from Heroes. Sonic marches to his own beat and makes light of series situations; he's a Hero With Attitude, and he kind of needs a dark and serious villain to play off of with snark and attitude. He's actually a pretty odd choice to use as the hero of a Power Of Teamwork/Friendship plot.

Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sonic and the Black Knight both try to jump into another context entirely, abandoning almost everything familiar to make that work. And Secret Rings is a really good game, but its plot wasn't very memorable. Black Knight had a much stronger plot, but it had much weaker gameplay. Neither of them seems to have done all that great commercially, because the sub-series they were part of has been dead for years... and even if they had done well, they suffer some when it comes to narrative strength from their one-off natures. Sonic as a series can't develop a strong core message by bouncing from one random story to the next with no real continuity between them.

So after a bit of flailing, the Sonic games have thrown their hands in the air and just... gone back to Robonik being The Bad Guy, and not tried terribly hard to make his bad-guy-ness have anything deeper to it. Sonic Colors, for example, leans hard into the old environmental thing, with Robotnik kidnapping amazing aliens so he can exploit their basically-magical powers for his purposes, and makes a giant theme park to... lure Sonic into a trap to Get That Hedgehog?

Like, okay, Colors is funny as heck and this is broadly coherent thematically, but it really doesn't hold up to scrutiny. If Robotnik can do the things he does in Colors, why not just go gallivanting off to conquer the entire galaxy? Kidnap some regular human citizens so he can start his empire on another planet and then nuke everything from orbit before abandoning the resulting hellscape to rot? If Sonic survives the nuking (Somehow), he won't survive the resulting nuclear winter, and he certainly won't be able to chase Robotnik to another planet. The Sonic series has always been fantastical, but so long as you accepted some basic oddities of the setting (Such as not questioning too hard how Robotnik's robot legions got started, given the kind of industrial base that would be realistically needed) Robotnik's actions pretty consistently made a kind of sense in classic games. Colors is... well, the theme park version of a Sonic game. Enjoyable, but in a fairly superficial way. Generations had similar problems, for that matter.

So yeah. All because Sonic Adventure 1 decided to suddenly introduce regular human civilization, the series has lost its footing, thematically.

And it's showing no sign of regaining its footing, unfortunately.


Popular Posts