Alex J. Tunney is interested in video game geography and the art of fighting game super moves. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. His writing has been published in Lambda Literary Review, The Rumpus, The Billfold, The Inquisitive Eater, Pine Hills Review, and Complete Sentence.
I was led to believe that Station Square would be bigger. It purports to be a bustling metropolis, but it’s a much smaller city where coastline and skyline are equal in size. Much of Sonic Adventure’s size is suggested or exaggerated by skybox. After playing through the game enough times, it seems to shrink. The supposed spaciousness is mostly sped through. Its grand tale is simply six stories that intersect to varying degrees and meet at the end. Despite this, I found the game has a sense of charm and quirk once I slowed down enough to pay attention to the reality of my surroundings. But instead of embracing its small scale and slower moments, the game attempts bravado to the detriment of its engaging environments.
We’re the exploration party searching for the ruins.
Our motto is “Go anywhere. Search everywhere. Discover everything.”
To me, earlier Sonic games felt like a series of unique playgrounds to explore or race through. However, the realities of combining three-dimensional platforming with exciting speed meant a change in gameplay and level design going forward. In prior games, I was given a set of abilities to traverse a level as I saw fit.
In Sonic Adventure (Sega 1998), the Sonic and Tails level design dictates possible paths forward through item and enemy placement. Because of this, these levels in Sonic Adventure often feel like rollercoaster rides providing the illusion and stimulation of speed, more spectacle than experience. Amy’s levels are akin to haunted houses, E-102’s levels are like a shooting gallery and Big’s levels are like a frustrating carnival fishing game. So instead of a playground, Sonic Adventure feels like a week-long stay at a small amusement park with outsized ambitions.
Playing through the game, I never feel like I am in control of the speed or have the full freedom to explore. I am either being pushed through, being chased, being presented with a time limit, or dealing with artificial difficulty. When I’m able to roam, I get only limited spaces in levels that are larger for other characters. Adding to this is the odd rhythm to the gameplay, alternating between slow and fast since the environments are divided sharply into adventure fields (hub spaces) and the aptly labelled action stages.
This isn’t to say that the gameplay is fully unenjoyable. It’s that it leans more on things happening to a player than it does on the player doing things. I’ve played it enough times not only for the spectacle to lose some of its luster, but also enough for me to figure out the design behind it.
I’ve been seeing things, like robots, lately.
I’d rather be seeing my wife, though…
For all the bursts of bluster and pizazz, Sonic Adventure’s welcoming idiosyncrasy is what lingers with me. As much as the game rushes me through the action, there are enough little details and minor distractions that it’s easy to assume that developers expect me to take my time and meander around the game’s hub locations.
In the few blocks of city available to me, there’s a hotel that looks over the emerald coast, a casino with pinball games, an amusement park with hover-karts, a burger shop, and a cast of regular residents. (I also enjoyed standing on top of a car and having it drive me around, but I know myself to be easily amused.) A train ride to Mystic Ruins showcases an area less populated, with a few researchers deep in exploration of the maze-like jungle, but still connected to daily events. Even the Egg Carrier, once eventually downed and floating on the coast, becomes a strangely serene place to visit, with not much there but cleaning robots and a whack-a-hedgehog game. Each of these places has a garden to spend many hours in order to raise the small pet-like creatures in the game called Chao.
Not only are there little things to do here and there but there are opportunities to check in with the locals. Among them, there is the hotel manager, a knowledgeable child, transit workers, business owners, fast food employees, explorers, and others. They remark about major events or minor oddities, indirectly guiding me toward another area or helpful items. They are also wrapped in their own personal dramas, like unrequited romances, worker strikes, and gambling problems.
However, they are not too self-consumed and will react to the characters. For instance, Gamma gets mixed reactions to appearance, with some correctly identifying him as a robot and others assuming he’s in a costume, while Sonic is recognized for his past heroic actions. They will also casually reference other characters directly or indirectly. Offhandedly, people will remember Amy as the girl who has an apartment downtown and mention being asked about frog sightings.
Though their implementations seem rudimentary now, the NPCs fleshed out my experience of the game. It was immensely novel at the time of release that they could provide even the faintest sense that they are living lives alongside the events of the game. Older now, I also appreciate that this humor about the idiosyncrasies of adult urban life exists alongside a mostly typical Saturday morning cartoon-like storyline.
For better or worse, it’s a game of little consequence despite the grandiose implications of the game’s title. In the sequel and beyond, there are elements that are echoed and connections implied but very little happens as a direct result of the events of this game. Even within the game itself, there’s a cavalier regard for the urgency of the situations the characters find themselves in. Amy, for example, despite being relentlessly stalked by one of Robotnik’s robots at the time, cannot resist going to an amusement park with Sonic. It’s not too far off from my mindset as I am playing: I’ll save the day as soon as I’m done with this mini-game.
With the story of the game being in less of a rush than its gameplay, I wish the game encouraged players to be flâneurs instead of passers-through. This could be accomplished by integrating the adventure fields and their residents with gameplay, possibly with side missions that made use of both the levels and the hub areas. This is not my own idea though; this is something Sonic Team would realize years later, after trial and error, with Sonic Unleashed (Sega 2008). The NPCs even get names in that game.
Hey! We need some excitement around here!
I wish something would happen to get my blood pumping.
Sonic Adventure makes me feel like the game is often asking me to suspend my disbelief, putting more effort in convincing me of its magnitude than detailing its nuances. It also seems to be asking me to keep my hands inside the ride most of the time, not letting me set my own pace. The game doesn’t seem to trust that I will enjoy it, so it tries to impress me again and again in order to manage my experience of it. Despite the developers’ intended experience, the actual experience is still enjoyable, even if some of that enjoyment is derived from a fascination with pushing up against its borders and boundaries.
I’ve described the game as mildly uneven with its jarring shifts in speed—but that’s only an accurate description of the core of the game. Sonic Adventure’s grand finale, however, goes hard and fast to ensure that it goes out with a bang. Unfortunately, it taints all the affection I had accrued for Station Square and its citizens throughout the game.
One of the major differences of this game is that Dr. Robotnik is not solely relying on his battalion of badniks, but also a watery creature called Chaos who can be powered by the Chaos Emeralds (the series’ resident MacGuffins). The creature’s past with Knuckles’ ancestors is doled out in sporadic visions experienced by the cast. Despite this departure, the stakes of the story are reminiscent to those of prior games and nothing in the game suggests that the final part won’t play out similarly. Dr. Robotnik will be chased to his final stronghold on land, in air, or in space. He’ll be on the defensive and Sonic will be there to prevent any further threats from happening.
Sonic Adventure’s last story beings with the doctor regrouping from defeat but he’s quickly usurped by Chaos. With all the emeralds, it achieves its final form. In the following cutscene, the sole use of pre-rendered animation, Perfect Chaos floods the entirety of Station Square. This time Sonic and friends are too late.
After a deus ex machina is revealed, Super Sonic is cheered on by a smattering of citizens of Station Square who are heard from off-screen. None of the low-polygonal faces I was charmed by can be seen. After the Perfect Chaos is defeated, the last moments of the English ending provide a bizarre tonal dissonance. Tails, with the backdrop of a destroyed city, cheerfully remarks, “All’s well that ends well, right? Sonic?” Sonic, however, is seen chasing after a fleeing Robotnik in the distance.
Sonic Adventure is a game that not only rushes me through it but is also in a rush itself with an ending that feels like the game is done with itself before I am. I understand the attempt to make an epic out of some small stories. It’s very easy to get swept up in the drama of the moment, battling this giant creature amongst the drowned ruins of a city as “Open Your Heart” by Crush 40 plays. It’s one last final burst of bombast and setting of high stakes. Afterward, Sonic is off to start another adventure. With some distance from the moment, however, it comes across as one last case of the game trying to manage my experience and my pace and coming up short.
It’s all too easy to imagine an alternate set of events that would provide the same impact, while still preserving this charming city. Having the final fight take place off the coast, perhaps involving the abandoned Egg Carrier, would provide the same threat without causing unnecessary devastation, one that the game’s story is ill-equipped to handle.
In a game that took care in showing that it moved alongside me, it’s odd that it stops doing so before the finish. The spaces, even the villain’s airship, are inviting to explore and interact with during each step of the game. The ending, in turn, locks me out of the narrative and does so without warning. The destruction only adds to the frustration as it all but removes the idea of a playable epilogue off the table completely. There are no thematic reasons within the game, nor narrative reasons throughout the games, that Station Square must be destroyed. The end result is only an aesthetically interesting setting for an occasionally frustrating final boss fight.
The game does invite me back into these spaces, but in a state of limbo, occurring just before these final moments. It takes away some of my pride in my accomplishment as well as chances to interact with people one last time. Throughout Sonic Adventure, I felt like I could return to every space (except for Sky Deck and Sky Chase levels) at my leisure without pushing too hard on the fiction of the world. Yet, the ending ultimately causes the spaces to feel more like soundstages than existing environments.
Station Square has been destroyed. Its destruction is caused not only by Chaos but an inexplicable need to ratchet up tension, done unconvincingly and with a lack of emotional follow-through. To return would be no different than being in one of Tikal’s flashbacks. I can’t ask the people what they thought of crazy events that just happened to their city. Instead, my stay there has now been shortened, perhaps never to be returned to again.
Do you like the view from the station?
I love the sea. The sea’s always there for me.
Sega (1998). Sonic Adventure (Sega Dreamcast) [Video game]. Shinagawa, TYO: Yuji Naka
Sega (2008). Sonic Unleashed (PlayStation 3) [Video game]. Shinagawa, TYO: Akinori Nishiyama