Hello and welcome to the first article in TSSZ’s newest column, Vertical Slice, with me, Michael Westgarth. There’s a good chance that you don’t know who I am, but don’t worry – you will.
As I assume is the case with essentially all TSSZ readers, I’ve played a lot of Sonic the Hedgehog games and have even enjoyed some of them. As such, I’m aware of the immensely strong and vocal Western “sect” of the Sonic fandom and the so-called hardships they’ve had to endure i.e. ridicule by gamers, ridicule by the gaming press and more shoddy Sonic games than you can shake a stick at.
I would feel bad for my fellow Sonic fans, but on far too many occasions I’ve found myself stepping back and observing the nature and behaviour of the collective Sonic fandom consciousness and concluded that they probably deserve such “plights”.
This month has seen a new addition to the “Sonic’s Most Wanted” list, Sonic Colours, Sonic Generations and Sonic Lost World writer Ken Pontac – a man who had the audacity to contribute to a Sonic game without first familiarising himself with the breadth and depth of Sonic “canon”. Fans gasped in horror as Pontac explained during an informal interview held at Youmacon that he wasn’t even aware of the modern classics that are Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2.
What were Sega thinking? Hiring someone like Ken Pontac to write Sonic games is akin to hiring homeless man to bring back Elmo’s World without said tramp knowing the words to, and the first appearance of, the classic Sesame Street song “If Moon Were Cookie” as performed by the Cookie Monster – a crime that should carry no less than a quadruple death penalty.
Of course, I’m being sarcastic – for one thing, Elmo’s World was an absolute crock of shit – but I have to make jokes of such things for fear of becoming morbidly depressed. While most Sonic fans commenting on the Pontac Story via TSSZ or elsewhere on the internet are engaging in thoughtful discussions over the importance of narrative in Sonic games, a startling proportion are genuinely upset at Pontac’s unfamiliarity with the finer details of Sonic’s past. Some have even gone as far as to insult the man and demand that Sega fire him.
Just to restate that last part – there are those out there that would happily condemn Pontac to a life of unemployment purely because he doesn’t know the ending to Sonic Adventure 2.
Excuse me now while I write my suicide note.
What has become clear to me as a result of this “fiasco” is that many Sonic fans do not fully understand the process of producing a modern videogame. So here’s a few points to consider before you rush to your nearest DIY shop in search of a shiny new pitchfork.
Sega are responsible for Pontac’s Sonic-knowledge: If Sega thought it important for Pontac to know the true origins of Shadow the Hedgehog, they would have provided Pontac with the material required for him to educate himself.
Saying that, I’m not even sure if Sega ever decided on Shadow’s true origin – not that it matters in the slightest.
Pontac cannot make major creative decisions: It’s incredibly unlikely that Pontac has the creative freedom necessary to drastically alter the Sonic games he works on. Basic narrative decisions are likely made higher up in Sega once gameplay mechanics, initial concept art and character design have already been decided upon. For example, Sega’s creation – not Pontac’s – of Sonic Lost World‘s Deadly Six.
Sonic games are aimed at children: Modern Sonic games are not aimed at the 20-30 years olds that grew up with Sonic 2 and a pile of Archie comic books – they’re aimed at children.
Times change, and what appealed to children in 1992 with Sonic 2 and to teenagers in 2000 with Sonic Adventure 2 do not necessarily appeal to the kids of today. Simply put, this decade’s millennials who are getting Sonic Lost World this Christmas don’t know or care about Nack the fucking Weasel, and as such, neither do Sega.
But the thing that has me scratching my head the most about this whole situation is the idea that Sonic “canon” – if it can even be called that – is something worth preserving in future games.
We’re talking about a series of games whose defining entries followed the same basic storyline – a blue talking hedgehog foils the plans of egg-shaped man. It’s a simple premise that offered Sega the flexibility it needed to produce the vast array of Sonic games we have today.
Tell me, dear Sonic-canon apologist, where does Sonic Drift 2 fit into Sonic chronology? Why does the world as depicted in Sonic Heroes look so very different to that of Sonic Adventure 2 before it, and Shadow the Hedgehog after it, even though Shadow’s story-arc runs through all three? Tell me, oh tell me, where the hell did Blaze the cat come from, the future or the Sol Dimension?
There is no Sonic canon, just a whole load of loosely connected videogames – most of which were aimed at children – released over a period of two decades. You’d have an easier time figuring out the Zelda timeline than the Sonic one. Hell, Final Fantasy VIII is easier to explain than Sonic’s clusterfuck of a “back story”.
If anything, Sega’s – not Pontac’s – decision to effectively reboot the series with Sonic Colours and Sonic Lost World was an incredibly wise move. Newcomers to the series – and there most certainly are new comers – aren’t bogged down with annoying, unimportant characters. Long time fans, on the other hand, get to play something fresh and original that holds onto the core “blue hedgehog versus egg shaped man” storyline without drudging up the Sonic series’ several embarrassing, inter-species relationships.
The glaring irony of this whole situation though, is that Ken Pontac’s apparent crimes against humanity were brought to light by an interview conducted by Roger van der Weide a.k.a.“Rogerregorroger” – whose Sonic Dissected series critically and intelligently analyses storytelling in Sonic games while simultaneously lambasting the very breed of over reactive Sonic fan that would get upset by said interview in the first place.
I’d like to end this article with one final thought – not of my own, but of Ken Pontac himself. According to Cloud of Ash over on the official Sega forums, Pontac is aware of the negative reaction his words have generated and has made the following comment on his Facebook page:
I knew as soon as the words left my mouth that the backlash would begin. I didn’t read all the posts, but this one is my favorite. SO GENEROUS in his willingness to help me in the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me in my career! Sonic fans are LOVE.
“Ken Pontac interests me a little. Despite his obvious shortcomings, he seems to show that he’s willing to learn how to write better content for this series. Many writers are egotistical and stubborn, but Ken here seems to have a certain perspective on life. After all, Sonic is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to his career. That’s why I think we should help him out a little.”
Sonic fans are love… I like this Pontac guy – he’s funny.
UPDATE: Roger van der Weide has published his interview in full along with his own commentary. I implore you to watch the entire video, it’s very interesting.