Fan vs. franchise
Whenever a new iteration of a beloved franchise comes out, its fan base is put through a wide range of emotions. This is never truer than in the case of Hollywood adaptations, when fans are forced to watch their favorite characters be redesigned and rewritten by multimillion-dollar companies and people who aren’t them.
Most recently, the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog film has rattled the cages of the beloved games’ players, subjecting them to hints of a redesign that appears to include furry spikes, non-conjoined eyes, and weird muscular leggies.
It’s a recurring issue, and one that we don’t often look into as deeply as we might. How much of a stake do fans have in a property, and how much does their opinion matter when it comes time to make changes or adaptations? At the same time, how much of fan opinion is simply nostalgia or resistance to change, and how much is a genuine desire to see our fave done right by?
Indie game studio Arcane Kids delved into this delicate, complex relationship between entertainment and its fan base with 2015’s Sonic Dreams Collection. The four-part game package includes a character designer, a mock-MMO, a movie-maker, and a VR experience. While the four are technically stand-alone experiences—minus some hidden clues to let players enter the MMO—they tell a cohesive—albeit slightly disturbing—story of the Sonic fandom’s love for and view of their favorite hedgehog.
Players enter the game with Make My Sonic ‘96, a character creator which ultimately forms the basis for the following game but which can be played with on its own. From the very beginning, players are challenged, as the “OK” button is simply labeled “Let Go.” But what is it we’re being challenged to let go of?
The concept of original character creation is intrinsic to the Sonic fanbase, which will become readily apparent if you go to Google Image Search right now and search for “[your name] the Hedgehog.” Creativity when it comes to OCs is encouraged, provided Sonic himself always looks “right.”
Am I arguing that the long-legged bridge sitter on that teaser poster deserves another chance? Probably not—those gams freak me out. But it is worth noting just how vast a level of creativity is exhibited by fans, who then want to see the character himself presented one way and one way only.
Perhaps that’s the message of the intro screen. Perhaps fans are being invited to “let go” of their preconceptions of a perfect Sonic when it comes to new games or adaptations, and embrace degrees of imperfection that would normally be considered borderline sinful.
We move on from Make My Sonic ‘96 to Eggman Origin ‘97, a mock-MMO that requires intel from later parts of the game. Regardless, as it’s next in line and also at least somewhat tied to Make My Sonic ‘96, it feels right to address it second.
Eggman Origin ‘97 pitches itself as a multiplayer experience, but instead houses us on a “local server” where we play a strange, birdlike version of our previously-designed Sonic. Our job is to scour the wasteland for worms, which we then feed to a small, egg-like Dr. Eggman to make him grow. This occurs after we’ve been told to be kind to eggs in return for “an award.” However, despite the many egg-like beings occupying the void with us, we can only feed Eggman.
This game represents the first of two times the Sonic villain will goad us into destroying ourselves—this first time via feeding a source of destruction. The more worms you feed him, the larger he gets; but in the end, he rises to tower over the map and consumes you, your creation now having turned into an accurate depiction of the original Sonic.
What does Eggman represent in this setting? If we look at him in his role in the games proper, he seeks a utopia of his own making that he believes only he can create. In other words, he’s someone striving for a perfection that only he can dictate or enact. On a lesser level, could this be yet another aspect of our interaction with our favorite creations? We believe we know best—but the more we feed that idea, the closer we come to both self-destruction and harming the actual thing we enjoy.
Oddly, repeatedly sacrificing yourself to Eggman in this level earns you “Ascensions” documented on a website, complete with diverse skill sets. I’ve yet to tackle this aspect of the game, though—Arcane Kids have me beat there for now.
The third game, and really the centerpiece of the collection, is Sonic Movie Maker ‘98. Cleverly disguised as movie creation software with licensed assets, the game is in actuality a tour of the stages of fan-created content as related to a franchise.
Early scenes are simple and sweet, involving backyard football and escalating to light shipping via a prom night setting. From there, things escalate quickly. A motel orgy with Tails left in the hall by his lonesome escalates into fetishism, pregnancy, vore, and eventually birthing—all with you holding the camera and arranging the scenery.
The key aspect of this particular game is that you cannot leave without at least six seconds of footage, and the game will rate you on your camera work and use of camera tricks and filters. If you so prefer, you could point the camera at the ground and run it for six seconds to effect your escape.
But Sonic Movie Maker ‘98 implores you to look at every part of derivative fan works and, more than that, to engage with them on a meaningful level. You may only have a handful of speech bubbles to work with, but you ultimately dictate each character’s participation in a given scene.
This vast, varied, and often uncomfortable degree of liberty taken with the franchise reminds us that, in the minds of the fans, going off-book is par for the course. And we must ask ourselves as we look at these scenes, are we holding professional creators to a stricter standard than we hold ourselves? And what does this supposed closeness to the franchise do to us?
The final question is answered in My Roommate Sonic ‘99, a VR experience in which the player is cast as Sonic’s roommate and would-be lover. Egged on—as it were—by Dr. Eggman from a distance, the player makes their move on Sonic. After initially rebuffing you, Sonic eventually concedes. However, the result isn’t so much romantic as eldritch.
Eggman, watching from his room in an adjacent skyscraper, pushes us forward via text, encouraging us to “go in for the kill” after our attempt at a playful tickle is rejected. Most attempts will result in Sonic slapping your arm away with ragdoll-physics results—and in the real world, that would be enough reason to stop trying.
But we, as fans, often do push those boundaries, albeit not with the object of our desire in the room. We adopt the idea that we know best for our favorite characters, and that only we—or someone who thinks like us—can do them justice. Being pushed away and reminded that that closeness doesn’t exist doesn’t stop us. Once again, our mentality that our way is the right way—as represented for a second time by Eggman—takes the lead. And the results are disastrous, throwing us into a mockery of the Sonic universe over which we have no control whatsoever.
Arcane Kids likely had no idea that we would be looking a Sonic the Hedgehog Hollywood film in the eye within three years of their creation. Nonetheless, their warnings to us in Sonic Dreams Collection remain true: creativity within our fandom is a gift, even as we need to cultivate a willingness to “let go” and offer professional creators the same degree of slack we offer our fellow fan artists and fanfic writers.
Still wish they’d do something about that leg poster, though. I’ve been having the weirdest nightmares.