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November 23, 2017

What’s the Deal with Sonic the Hedgehog?

This is, like, the fourth post on Sonic that I’ve done in the past couple of months.  Does that mean that this is a Sonic blog now?  I hope not.  I’ve still got more bellyaching to do about Squeenix, and my hunger for vengeance shall not be sated.

In the meantime, though, I have to ask.  What’s the deal with Sonic the Hedgehog?  What deal?  Come on.  You know exactly what deal.  The memes; the OCs; the stigma; the scorn thrown the fanbase’s way; there’s so much orbiting around the blue blur that it’s actually overshadowed the character and his franchise at large.  Now that it’s infected the mainline games, there’s no point in even daring to ignore it.  But for the sake of this post -- and my presumably-life-threatening curiosity -- I want to unpack things however I can.

So that’s what I’ll do.  I’ll warn you upfront though: this post won’t be complete without mentioning Sonic Dreams Collection.  If you don’t know what that is…be grateful.  But I’ve been sitting on these thoughts for a while, so we might as well get through them together.

For those unaware: Sonic Forces steered so hard into the skid that it’s basically wearing a layer of blackened asphalt like a zoot suit.  For starters, you can make your own custom character and have him or her take center stage in what can charitably be called the story.  For another, the new villain Infinite is touted as the edgiest of edgelords.  The whole “story” reads like wish fulfillment -- and “story” is in quotes because everything feels like a mash of half-baked ideas. 

It’s all just a bunch of tropes with high meanings and heavy weight, but are thrown in haphazardly to pretend like things are more serious or legitimate than they actually are.  I’m not saying that you can’t have a story that features goofy stuff like talking cartoon woodland creatures getting tortured for six months (ask me about Yu-Gi-Oh ARC-V and the sheer insanity that happens in that), but if you’re going to do it, you’d better be damn sure you’ve got a plan for it.  Explore tropes and plot beats.  Develop them.  Use every tool as effectively as possible.  As easy as it is to throw shade at fanfics, I’d bet there are tons out there that could do Sonic proud -- to say nothing of the official comics.  So Sonic Forces and its bumbles -- especially when the story got hyped up pre-release -- are all the more baffling.

Well, in a sense.  This is Sonic Team we’re talking about here; it was always a coin flip on whether or not the game would be good.

Still, there is one consistent through line that I noticed.  As you’d expect, Sonic is more than just the star player of the game (and franchise) that shares his name.  Knuckles may take on the role of the resistance commander and the de facto leader -- which in hindsight is something I appreciate as a Knuckles fan -- but Sonic plays a much bigger role.  Even if he is the group’s ace unit, he strikes me as someone that’s much more important as a symbol than as a soldier.  That’s the rookie’s job.  Granted it does beg the question of what future Sonic games will do now that Sega pulled the trigger on OC inserts, but I guess we’ll cross that bridge (and burn another) when we get to it.

For us outsiders looking in, it’s hard to take the canon seriously.  Even as a little baby Voltech, I still couldn’t get over the mere suggestion that a brilliant scientist would model “the ultimate life form” after a spiky woodland creature and considered it a stroke of genius to give him rocket shoes.  But in-universe, the struggle is real.  It matters.  Eggman is destroying everything on a whim, and those woodland creatures need someone to give them hope.  So in that sense, Sonic is more than a fighter, a hero, or even a friend.  He’s an idol.

I don’t think this is something that was just invented for Forces, or Generations, or Colors, or anything past -- and including -- the Adventure games.  It’s been implied since dialogue was added, and games like Forces have made it more explicit, but I’d still say that Sonic’s role and presence have been made implicit since his first game.  We just didn’t think too hard about it.  But now that we’ve had this hedgehog on our backs for actual decades, we can start to decode the meaning behind him and understand why he’s still a gaming icon -- for better or worse.

My understanding of Sonic is that he was perfectly suited for the times -- carrying what my brother would call ‘tude.  Sonic was, and still is, emblematic of the 90’s (especially if you accept his cartoon incarnations as law).  Cracking wise, acting tough but cool, flashing cocky smirks, disrespecting authority -- it’s that attitude that corporations tried to sell to kids so that they’d convince their parents to buy stuff and thus be cool by proxy.  Sega’s PR didn’t exactly help matters, what with the whole “Sega does what Nintendon’t” campaign.  Even though that barely makes grammatical sense, but whatever.  Attitude!  That fatass Mario’s got nothing on Sonic!

It’s more than just marketing gimmicks and greed-powered commercialism that gave Sonic the Hedgehog meaning (well, your mileage may vary).  Sonic did plenty for himself.  His games offered speed and momentum that probably blew the minds of millions of children, to the point where everyone believed that Sonic = speed.  These days, gamers are having discussions about the proper makeup of a good Sonic game, which means that exploration and content mastery figure into each talk.  Given that, it’s fair to say the games and the character worked together, so they could a feeling even without an overt narrative.

Prior to his first spoken words, Sonic was all about freedom.  Once he actually had a voice actor, guess what?  That didn’t change.  Sonic is still about freedom, even now.  He goes where he wants at whatever speed he wants.  Outside of his friends (and/or the resistance on occasion), he doesn’t have anything anchoring him down.  Jails can’t hold him forever, and the police could never catch him -- but he’s so blithe about it that the law has no meaning for him.  He’ll stick his neck out if it means doing the right thing, but remember the lyrics to his theme song: it doesn’t matter who is wrong or who is right.  Freedom trumps all.

Not to go off-topic, but this is part of what makes Eggman a natural rival to Sonic.  Our hero is a character that espouses freedom for all living beings.  Since day one, Eggman has been stealing away the freedom of innocent creatures so that he can shove them inside his robots, to say nothing of the destruction he’s wrought across god knows how many habitats.  In-universe, Eggman is a symbol of oppression; it’s a fact that’s obvious to his enemies and victims, but to gamers in the real world, he’s mostly been an opponent we have to beat again, and again, and again.  Even so, that association isn’t lost on any of us; whether gamers know the lore or not, we can grasp on some level that Eggman’s penchant for stealing freedom -- the right to run for all creatures -- is the reason why we have Sonic to stand in his way.

Eggman is oppression.  Sonic is freedom.  But he’s more than that.  Across his games, through gameplay, storytelling, or both, the blue hedgehog takes on all sorts of meanings intrinsically and extrinsically.  He’s freedom.  He’s hope.  He’s courage.  He’s rebellion.  He’s passion.  He’s a hero.  He’s the hero.  There are all of these positive qualities around him, yet it seems like he barely even has to try.  He’s just a guy that does what he wants, and very little seems to weigh him down.  His ability to smile no matter how bleak the situation is pretty noteworthy.  So for that reason and more, I have to say it again: Sonic is an idol. 

He’s an idol to the oppressed people (or animals) around him.  And because of his status, it’s no wonder that Forces’ story -- if one could call it that -- puts him in such a glowing light.  You’re putting a lot of play time into the Avatar, your OC and a rookie in every sense of the word.  At most, he or she is only filling in a hole left by Sonic’s absence, and ends up having to share that role (at best) once the blue blur shows up again.  When Sonic’s back on stage, the Avatar finds the strength and courage to keep fighting by remembering Sonic’s encouraging words.  He believes in the OC -- and by proxy, he believes in you. 

The wish fulfillment strokes of the story mean that receiving praise from Sonic is the greatest reward you or anyone could ever ask for.  And to some extent, it’s not wrong to assume that.  Knowing who Sonic is and what he represents, who wouldn’t want to get a pat on the back by that universe’s greatest hero?  Whether it’s in Forces or his storied history in the gaming canon, Sonic is an enduring, representative figure who -- despite games that have dipped in quality -- stands tall as an aspirational figure.  Because he’s freedom, and attitude, and all of that, everything starts to fall into place.

Why do people take Sonic and friends and use him for their DeviantArt escapades?  Simple.  Because there’s absolutely no one better for the task.

Though to be clear, it’s not as if Sonic is the only one people can use; it wouldn’t be Rule 34 if it only applied to superfast manimals.  But Forces tried to weaponized the stigma surrounding Sonic and the franchise, partly because there is a stigma to weaponize.  Why?  Well, Sonic is easy to glom onto because of his positive qualities, whether they’re spoken out loud or left unspoken.  This is just a theory (much like this post at large), but if I had to guess?  I’d say that Sonic was -- and still is -- an aspirational figure outside of his games.  As a rebellious, unfettered drifter, there’s a romantic element to him that has some pretty strong appeal.  Or, to put it bluntly, people think Sonic is cool.

It’s not hard to imagine kids and teens falling in love with his aesthetic.  Parents, teachers, police, and more -- there are adults in their lives who seemingly live for oppression.  Sonic is there to provide a release, and show them glimpses of a life of freedom.  How many youths out there would love nothing more than to crack wise at their elders like they’re Bart Simpson instead of paying the expected respect?  It’s probably not a small amount, given that adults to this day likely fantasize about lashing out or telling their bosses/managers off.  So Sonic was there as a release valve -- as a way to indulge in freedom and rebellion without fearing the crack of a leather belt atop their asses.

Don’t think about that last part too much.  You’ll be better off.

Here’s a formula for you: Sonic = freedom = power = desirable.  Sonic is the embodiment of freedom, in-universe and out of it.  And while it has more potency in-universe, out-of-universe freedom is a way to show that you have control over your life and circumstances -- in other words, power.  And because I’d bet there aren’t a lot of people who’ll go out of their way to be weak or celebrate weakness, gaining power is desirable.  Young or old, male or female, human or manimal, we all want to have the chance to live the lives we want.  It may not be a lust for revenge (I hope), but it’s still pretty noteworthy.

So leave it to the Sonic canon to provide yet again, maybe at a time when people needed it most.  The existence of Super Sonic; the rise of Shadow; the infamous Shadow the Hedgehog; the birth of Silver; everything even remotely related to Sonic ’06; the groundwork was laid for the canon to start dabbling with power, powerful characters, relationships with power, and of course power fantasies.  It’s no secret that Super Sonic is a dead ringer for a Super Saiyan, so how easy would it be for an impressionable mind at the time to become a fan of anime -- especially the stuff in the Shonen Jump cadre -- then see the same sort of content in a Sonic game and start to conflate them (and their ideas) with quality?  With appeal?  With desirability? 

Sonic didn’t just have to rely on speed to gain and assert his freedom.  With the power of some crystal MacGuffins (whose nature and abilities seem to change from game to game) he or his pals could become unstoppable warriors, drenched in the sort of spectacle that could blow an audience’s -- if not a whole generation’s -- minds.    It’s another way to show that “Sonic is cool”.  And because Sonic is cool, through his embodiment of freedom, power, and everything in between -- or hell, even simplified to the coolness factor -- people want to be cool like him.  No time to be lame.  Only time to be cool.

That might be the lasting legacy of the character and canon.  Maybe that’s why he’s not only stuck around for this long in spite of everything, but why he’s still culturally relevant to us gamers (fandom stigma aside).  In that sense, maybe Sega was the real winner of the console war; Mario may have consistent and better games, and he may embody a bunch of ideal concepts in his own right -- god DAMN, Mario Odyssey puts a smile on my face -- but in terms of image and aesthetics, he can’t beat Sonic.  The ‘tude is too strong.

That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.  A very bad thing.

So.  Let’s talk about Sonic Dreams Collection.

Confession time: I don’t actually know the Sonic fandom and/or the stigma too intimately.  At most, I’ve only seen glimpses of it -- an OC here, a tale there, a joke at the fandom’s expense on occasion.  But if you told me that there were people who used Sonic as a vehicle to indulge in fantasies about sex, vore, impregnation/mpreg, and the like -- on top of the “ow the edge” fanfics -- then I wouldn’t doubt you for a second.  First off: as I said, Rule 34 exists, so there’s no reason why Sonic would stay pure amidst it all.  Second: there’s Sonic Dreams Collection, which includes (but isn’t limited to) torture, inflation, and a borderline-eldritch version of Big the Cat sealed away inside Rouge the Bat’s innards.

As the Eternal Optimist, I hope -- I hope -- that that’s not an accurate representation of what the fandom uses Sonic for.  It’s certainly possible, but I’d like to think that Sonic Dreams Collection just takes things to the extreme as part of a joke.  A roast, if not a takedown, of the fandom, if you will.  But whether it’s true or not, that’s not really the point here.  The point is that Sonic lends himself to those…interpretations…and I want to figure out -- or at least form theories -- why.  As it stands, I have two arguments to make.  The first: no matter how grisly things get, fandom repurposing of Sonic is still ultimately an expression of the freedom baked into the character.

Remember the formula: Sonic = freedom = power = desirability.  But it’s no coincidence that I used the word “lust” earlier or even “desirability just now.  Whether they’re speedy, bizarrely-hued mammals or otherwise, fictional characters (and their stories) are ways to explore ideas from the comfort and safety of your favorite chair.  Sonic’s appeal is hard to shrug off and easy to embrace.  Even if he was real, he wouldn’t be the type to pass judgment or scoff at others.  He would accept anyone’s nature and will -- their efforts to assert their freedom -- as long as they didn’t impose on the will of others.  So given that, is it so farfetched to reason that Sonic is the perfect platform to explore one’s sexual identity without repercussion?

It’s not impossible.  That doesn’t make things probable, of course, but I think that there’s a nugget of truth somewhere.  Sonic as a concept invites explorations and interpretations -- thoughts about how the idol can be used to venture into alternative territories.  As a subtle symbol of strength, he’s there to guide the way for anyone who wants to ponder on things that would otherwise come off as taboo -- things that would lead to being shunned in society at large.  The blue blur isn’t here to judge; he’ll accept whatever comes his way.  He’ll accept others.  He’ll accept you.  You should expect nothing less of an idol.

But the fact that he is an idol leads me to my second argument: that pure-hearted adoration of idols is much, much, much too easy to corrupt.

As strange as it may sound, I think that that’s the real vision and intent behind Sonic Dreams Collection.  No matter how much of a grim light it shines on the fandom, there’s a message underneath the jokey cringe and nightmarish scenarios.  It’s entirely possible to take enjoyment of a character too far.  More importantly, you shouldn’t go out of your way to treat an idol as some sacred object, or some absolute zenith to strive toward.  At the end of the day, those idols can inspire you, but you still have to be you.  You have to live in -- and accept -- reality as it is.  Do what you can to make it better, but don’t expect some fictional character to coddle you like a guardian angel.

In that sense, Sonic Dreams Collection exists as a warning -- a way to show, however satirically, how far a fan can fall.  Even if you can play as Preggo John the Immortal Hedgehog for a couple of the modes, the others have you playing as…well, you.  In “Sonic Movie Maker” you have the “privilege” to play as a voyeuristic cameraman who chronicles the misadventures of Sonic and friends, as someone who desperately wants to be a part of their lives but at most can only play the observer.  The desire gets so extreme that at some point you insert yourself into the scenario under the guise of an observer -- when in reality, you’re someone who’s so desperate for attention and interaction that you torture Sonic and willingly get birthed by Rouge to become a child the Sonic crew can coddle infinitely.  Granted I’m pretty sure you slipped into delusion mode between scenes, but the point stands.  This is what you wanted.

Then you get to “My Roommate Sonic”, and the message hits its apex.  Your mission is…well, just watch this.

You can’t be Sonic.  No one can.  Trying to follow in his countless footsteps is a fool’s errand -- which is exactly what the game is trying to say.  Even if you somehow managed to match his speed point for point, it would still mean sacrificing your identity.  And given the revealed state of the player character once you activate the Sonic Singularity, it’s arguable that you didn’t have much of an identity to begin with.  Just a hollow, insatiable hunger to be like an unreachable idol.  Only the forbidden knowledge that you gotta go fast.

The freedom Sonic espouses is -- or can be -- as pure as a fresh snowfall or as tainted as a vat of crude oil spilled atop a landfill.  Maybe both.  Simultaneously.  The point is that he’s a character that easily slots into alternate takes and explorations.  The official devs can take him one way.  The penmen behind the comics can take him another way.  Fans can go a third way.  And even if Sonic Dreams Collection and its team decided to go all Lorax on the situation and cry “unless”, they’re no different.  They used Sonic for the sake of their message and expression, too.  But all things considered…why wouldn’t you?

Sonic has been around for a long time.  He’s had some highs, and he’s had some lows.  But the fact that he’s still here, to this day, means that there’s still more that can be done with him.  The official developers and companies behind him can do plenty -- but lest we forget, Sonic Mania showed the world what the fans can do not too long ago. 

I’m not going to sit here and say that anyone who uses the blue blur and/or the canon for their own purposes is wrong for doing it.  Some stuff is more appealing to specific audiences than others (or the general public), but it’s not as if we should invalidate them for their choices and modes of expression.  Otherwise, we’d all be a bunch of Eggmen.  And if nothing else?  I think, at the end of the day, we can all celebrate how powerful a mere video game can be.  He’s a character that has captured countless hearts and minds -- and in the end, that’s really the deal with Sonic the Hedgehog.

…Or maybe some people just want to hump him until his pelvis rockets through his skull.  Who can say, really?

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