Retrogamer: This Was Never About Sonic
Michael B. Tager
There’s a feeling, once we achieve a certain speed, of flying, of lifting off from the ground, that flipping of the stomach, that lightheaded glee of gaining mastery of motion and gravity and time. It’s not a sustainable feeling because we are not built for that sort of life, lives of running, running, running. We burn out and fade to black if we sprint too hard and too fast. At least, that’s my experience, with life, with Sonic the Hedgehog, with hurling forward, no brakes within reach.
This essay was supposed to be about mastering Sonic the Hedgehog. I was supposed to play Sonic because I’ve always wanted to play Sonic, I’ve always wanted to be tautological, even before I knew what it meant. When I was young and Sega Genesis younger, I snatched moments to control the hyper-propelled blue hedgehog and thrilled at the zoom, at the woosh, at crisp color lines, at spikes that curled into a frantic ball. I cruised past the first few stages, hurling Sonic-body in circular anger at bees, across chasms, through easily marked rocks, at the mustachioed villain. But I only had those brief snatches in which to play, and the awkward black controller never melded to the hands of Child-me. As a child, I assumed that when my hands grew, when I found the time to play and the money to buy Sonic for myself, I would. And as a child, there was no sense of urgency. But my hands never grew large enough, and time isn’t what it appears.
We all know how time moves, glacial, at first, and then faster and faster until it’s a blitzkrieg rush and suddenly we’re grey and wrinkled and wondering, who on earth is that old man in the mirror? Who is the old woman who can hardly bend to tie shoelaces? Who are we? What happened to the possibilities? What happened to my life to make it so small, to fit it inside boxes and trunks?
Time decides for us. I never had time to develop most of what I wanted to develop, and time has lengthened and what’s ahead of me is still long, but not as long as it once was. I thought that Sonic, which was what this essay was supposed to be about, would be on that road. It’s hard to wax philosophic about video games, about an optional luxury, when there are so many other ways to dip into existentialist crises. There are friendships undeveloped, lovers unloved, skills and hobbies unseeded. I could have learned piano, I could have learned drums, I should have learned one of them to set folks’ feet on fire, caused them to dance and sway in the wind, dripping sweat, screaming smiles, rictus faces. I didn’t learn music; I never learned Sonic. There were too many other developments to pour resources into, a heady nectar into a cup drained from the bottom into an empty ocean.
What magical thinking to imagine future time will be less precious, simple to spare it? Not only time, but interest, intuition, intelligence? That the intense focus we used to spare on whatever catching our interest—look, a bird, look, books on Norse Mythology, look, anything at all—will come when we call it? That when we want to run, when we need afterburners, we’ll be able to concentrate like the days of old? Because it doesn’t work like that anymore. We (or at least I) have too much other shit I don’t like to do, that I have to will iron into my bloodstream in order to force attention to.
There’s lawns to mow, chairs to repair, dust to whisk, endless supplies of dishes to clean and clothes to clean and everything to clean. There’s IRBs to write, DSM-Vs to memorize, reports and audits to conduct because your job isn’t your passion and those acronyms aren’t going to embedded themselves into your brain when the field in which you grow fucks is starved by the lack of rain. Just because you think you want to learn Sonic, your brain doesn’t spark joy when you sprint and twirl into the air. When the mustachioed terror comes down in his little hover car and whips a giant ball and chain at you and you die and start over at the beginning and you think, man, this isn’t that fun. What kind of road is that to force yourself down, when you force yourself down so many highways every day you live?
There’s only so much time for joy these days. Rationing joy is counter-intuitive, so anti-joy, but it’s hard to appreciate rainbows, difficult to encapsulate a moment of inhibition-free dance, challenging to laugh without inhibition, when the weight of necessity bears shoulders to the earth. Joy shouldn’t be forced, not when bulwarks to life need to be pushed against the flood. I’m not going to force fun when there are better alternatives. I can’t force Sonic and I can’t force platforming like a square peg when life has so many round openings. Maybe there’s a reason for that.
I wasn’t ever much of a platformer. Select classics aside, timing jumps and avoiding patterned-enemies didn’t so much bring me pleasure as I aged. Sure, I played them, but they were asides, temporary pleasures. And there were other elements driving me more; the ninja panic in Gaiden, absurdity of magic mushrooms and fireball plumbers in Super Mario. The cannibalistic ingenuity of Mega Man. Sonic, for all its hedgehog oddity, never had that extra. It seemed forced, a sped up, dumbed down, pallette-enhanced non-entity. It had the soul of Bennigan’s, the magic of made-for-TV adaptations. And without that 9th dimension, it was only a rapid platform, an artificial barrier to a journey explored and experienced. And an adventure is not what Sonic is though an adventure is what Sonic wants to be. But this was never really about Sonic, anyway.
Adventuring journeys are the lying name tags platformers wear, a road trip to the far side of imagination. But the journey is broken into digestible portions, moving platforms over open pits. Maybe that’s a perfect metaphor, maybe those disappearing/agitating/frenetic platforms that we slip from are exactly what life is. But maybe I don’t want my platformers to be too perfect, too dependent on skills I don’t have. Maybe I want my games to open my eyes and my heart, those weak, necessary organs that aren’t hard like bone.
After failing to play Sonic, I tried other games on the disc I bought, Sonic Mega Collection, loaded as it was with dozens of the Genesis’ very best. I tried Ecco the Dolphin and I tried Phantasy Star and I tried Altered Beast and I tried, I tried, I tried but all I could think was that this is what’s happened to an entire system, reduced to a novelty that cost me $5 after store credit, during my store’s going out of business sale. We’re all going out of business.
I know it’s all about data and that data is better these days and can hold more, but how can all of these Sonics and Eccos and all these games I’ve wanted to play since forever, how can they fit on a disc so small? It’s only been two decades. How can 20 years change so much? I’m still the same me, even if I’m larger, grayer, objectively older; inside, I’ve hardly budged.
After Sonic didn’t work—and remember, this isn’t about Sonic—and none of Sonic’s brethren struck a spark in me, I tried something else, a game I’ve read about in other, better essay-forms (maybe just more empirical, more data-driven). First I played Journey and then I played Flower, basic games, in the sense that the only goal is to go forward, where life gets more difficult, if not less beautiful. And I walk forward (or fly forward) and the world expands and eventually it contracts and it feels like nothing besides life. And then it slows and it’s all just images, images on a screen. And it was short and then over, but I felt something form. A memory, but not a memory past, memory future, because the second of joy whilst playing Journey, whilst playing Flower mattered, and joy is to be held onto with a light fist.
At the end, all we have of these journeys, these quests through space, dirt beneath toes, are memories and relics. And when we’re gone, those relics are boxed and put away or thrown into dumpsters. What happens to the sunlight we felt on our face when we were twelve? What happens to the castles built with wet sand, dripped from our fingers? Or the first time our lips touched another’s or the first cigarette we smoked, the way lungs burn with fire and ash?
How can a lifetime’s worth of memories fit anywhere except infinity? And when an entire decade’s worth of imagination and hard work can be condensed into one little flimsy disc, it’s a symbol of our own continued obsolescence. Our own endless march to entropy. Our sped-up dash to the future-unknown. The hedgehog runs but gets nowhere, because video games are only ouroboros. Continue? Finish and start over? Continue? Finish and start over. Sonic has only three lives but infinite press-starts. Our own lives don’t work that way, not unless the Hindus are correct (god, I hope they’re correct). Sonic is a microcosm of nothing, only a segment, only a byte, only 1/32 of Sonic’s Mega Collection, but this isn’t about Sonic.
This is about taking a step forward, toward a distant mountain that can never be reached. About striving for excellence because excellence is strived for, because tautology is tautology and that’s enough. It’s about feeling because if there’s no point, the only reason for life is experiential, because moments have to matter. And finding moments of joy, of sublime reason, is starlight in angel wings. Feeling wind and sun and a friend’s palm on skin so that memory is tattooed with moments, endless moments upon moments, a glimpse of immortality.
Video games feel a paltry way to connect with inner thoughts and beauty. And maybe they are. But they evolve as we do. They can be simple as Zork, text and text, and only a few years later, they encompass opera. And not long after that, an odyssey where there is no violence, no death, only flowers bringing life to an empty land. They allow the mind, the endless ego, to connect. They allow us to reach across the void in small ways, as rickety rope bridges, as spiderwebs, they allow us obtuse angles into the greater known. Sonic did that for those who live by whirling dervishes and souped-up nitro engines. Mad Max liked Sonic. Iceman and Goose played Sonic in the mess hall. Usain Bolt is tattooed Sonic.
This isn’t about Sonic but it’s not not about Sonic. It isn’t about Sonic for me, but without Sonic, who knows if I would have felt even a moment of joy, and I don’t discount joy lightly. For a few brief moments I felt pleasure when before, I felt nothing at all except mild discouragement, a scolding from a teacher, an eyeroll from a cashier, a honking horn maybe aimed at me, maybe not. And that’s enough to forgive a lot.
Maybe this isn’t about Sonic, but maybe that burst of speed was enough to get me to where I needed to be. Who cares if I don’t play Sonic? I barely care myself. No, I needed Sonic to remind myself to dedicate myself to what matters. Sonic didn’t matter but very little matters, only what we decide matters for ourselves. And I won’t waste that time.