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Realism in Sonic

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I was wondering how people feel regarding the topic of realism, in the stylistic sense, in the Sonic series. This topic might not feel particularly relevant considering what the series has been going for during the past decade or so, but it certainly used to be a relevant topic since, for a period, Sega seemed to think that realism was the way of the future.

Back during Sonic's golden age the world that Sonic inhabited was as stylized as the character himself (the checkered hills and neon colors being some prime examples of this). This, to me, is obviously the way things should be. It's just the way that makes the most sense.

But then during the Adventure/dark age of the franchise, Sega tried their best to place the Sonic games is the "real" world. Games like Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 might not look photorealistic today, but photorealism was certainly what was intended at the time (most clearly seen in the games' CGI-cutscenes). Sonic Heroes was the odd one out in this regard, but after that game, Sega immediately went back to their inexplicable desire to place Sonic in the real world. This of course reached its unfortunate climax in Sonic 06, which was met with such a hostile reception that, understandably, Sega backtracked on realism, seemingly forever. Over the past decade or so Sega seems to have learned their lesson and instead has tended to look to the golden age games for inspiration.

Well as you can plainly see from what I've said so far, I personally think realism is something that has no place in a series populated by essentially cartoon characters. But I'm genuinly curious to hear if there are any fans out there who actually liked it when Sega tried to place Sonic in our world, and in that case why (I mean, I figure that Sega at least asumed some people liked it, since they kept pushing for it for so long).

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You know how many series with cartoon characters in the real world there are out there? Not including the Movie?

Realism is perfectly fine. It doesn’t stop them from stylizing it or adding fantasy elements to it like they’ve always done anyway.

This really shouldn’t be an issue anymore. You’re not gonna hurt the series identity having Aquatic Ruins and City Escape together.

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6 minutes ago, CrownSlayer’s Shadow said:

This really shouldn’t be an issue anymore. You’re not gonna hurt the series identity having Aquatic Ruins and City Escape together.

I think it does hurt the series identity. Sonic 06 appears to take place in a completely different fictional universe than Sonic 1. The Adventure games aren't as bad as 06, but like I said earlier, that mostly has to do with the graphical limitations of the Dreamcast.

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2 minutes ago, batson said:

I think it does hurt the series identity. Sonic 06 appears to take place in a completely different fictional universe than Sonic 1. The Adventure games aren't as bad as 06, but like I said earlier, that mostly has to do with the graphical limitations of the Dreamcast.

Honestly, Sonic 06’s setting differing from Sonic 1 is the least of the identity problems—especially when it’s takes more cues from the Adventure games than any other before or after it.

 

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37 minutes ago, batson said:

I was wondering how people feel regarding the topic of realism, in the stylistic sense, in the Sonic series.

It's bad!

Sonic is not realistic. He is a 3 foot tall talking blue hedgehog with conjoined eyes and noodle limbs who can run faster than the speed of sound. His world should match him. If I want to see the real world I can play one of a million other games or, y'know, go look at the real world. When I play a Sonic game, I want to see a strange and fantastic world.

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The rendering of Sonic's world has taken on a lot of different shapes depending on the mood the game has tried to convey and that's probably for the best. There's no reason to stick to just one thing when there are a variety of ways for games to express themselves. 

I think it's interesting(read: incredibly fucking lazy) that entire chunks of the series gets dinged for supposed0 realism when we're talking about games that look like this, though:

Pumpkin Hill | Sonic News Network | Fandom
 

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I feel the series should MOSTLY stick to fantasy, but there is definitely space for more realistic settings too.  One of Unleashed's biggest appeals to me was these settings that felt like places I could visit in real life (if I haven't already visited - Spagonia being a mishmash of the UK with other European countries after all) that I got to see:

  • twisted into larger-than-life versions of themselves via the surreal geometry that a Sonic stage necessitates
  • getting experienced through the lens of Sonic's ridiculous acrobatics and speed where I, a lowly human, would be forced to take hours of walking and climbing to cross the same distance

I wouldn't want to see that abandoned entirely - I feel ideally, every game should have a few locations that are very reminscient of down-to-earth locations. However, they need to flesh out their fantasy locations to match that same sort of quality - fortunately Sonic Colours has already proven they're perfectly capable of this.  I'd also like to see the continued idea of making Sonic games look believable even when fantastical - I prefer the likes of Sonic Forces' visuals to the likes of Lost World. Give us colourful, unique colour palettes and interesting lighting and effects as often as possible, avoid cliché, flat, bright colours for every single stage.

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Realism is fine, just don't do whatever the heck they were doing in 06. You can have realistic settings and make them work, you just have to do it well, like Unleashed's fantasy real world settings. 

As for character design realism? Make the characters look good standing next to each other, and not look from two seperate game series. Basically just do what Sonic X did.

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23 minutes ago, Wraith said:

The rendering of Sonic's world has taken on a lot of different shapes depending on the mood the game has tried to convey and that's probably for the best. There's no reason to stick to just one thing when there are a variety of ways for games to express themselves. 

I think it's interesting(read: incredibly fucking lazy) that entire chunks of the series gets dinged for supposed0 realism when we're talking about games that look like this, though:

Pumpkin Hill | Sonic News Network | Fandom
 

To be honest, I do think sometimes people tend to gloss over some stages the other way around too when romanticising the classic games.

Star Light is a beloved zone but it's literally just... a city at night. I guess the green colour scheme for the construction site you're crossing is kind of unique?  To be honest, as long as Sonic Team design their "realistic" levels with one key colour or gimmick like that, there's nothing to fear for settings that are entirely based off a real world location otherwise.

As an example, if Rooftop Run had only ever existed in it's Generations' form, it's pretty easy to imagine it as a stage made with classic design sensibilities "ah yes, the city zone with all the colourful balloons everywhere" is a pretty nice, memorable aesthetic.

 

Of course, I'd definitely also love for them to be throwing in one or two off the wall zones like your Aquarium Parks or Collision Chaoses each game.

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The Adventure Era's gritty realism is as exaggerated as its darkness.

The Sonic proper gameverse was repeatedly shown as a stylized form of Earth (that is, many of the environments are stylized and/or exaggerated versions of things that are actually in our world like forests or pyramids or military bases). Not Doctorsuessland or a post-apocalyptic furry fantasy world in the DiC cartoons.

Designwise, characters like Elise aren't realistic even accounting for technology. They're stylized. You can especially see this looking at the concept art the Adventure games and 06.

30 minutes ago, Wraith said:

The rendering of Sonic's world has taken on a lot of different shapes depending on the mood the game has tried to convey and that's probably for the best. There's no reason to stick to just one thing when there are a variety of ways for games to express themselves. 

I think it's interesting(read: incredibly fucking lazy) that entire chunks of the series gets dinged for supposed0 realism when we're talking about games that look like this, though:

Pumpkin Hill | Sonic News Network | Fandom
 

That's what happens when the discourse on the series has too many e-celebs and memers.

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As already pointed out, I don't mind dipping into more realistic locales because for every more fantastical Sonic level, there's a Sonic level that's just an embellished real-world location. Star Light was already pointed out, but there's also stuff like Chemical Plant; which looks great and keeps the colour and all that going, but it's still largely just a city. Likewise, Carnival Night Zone is Sonic geometry mashed into a traditional hillside carnival. As long as they take the concept and run with it - which they did even with something like the Adventure games - I don't see much issue.

As long as the aesthetics don't get as bleak as something like Shadow the Hedgehog and to a greater extent, 06 does (imo 06 is just... extremely bland looking whereas even Shadow has a few things I think still suit the series fine), I'm not really arsed. I have my preferences, sure; Sonic Heroes is aesthetically a very strong game to me, but I'm also perfectly fine with something like Sonic Adventure. If anything, focusing squarely on fantastical risks something like Lost World, which I find just as off-putting as 06. 

tl;dr Most Sonic stages have some kind of realistic base, such as Press Garden being a press mill and, well, cherry blossom garden; it's how they run with the concept that matters more to me. Gimme a mix of Wacky Workbench Good Futures and Carnival Nights and Aquarium Parks and Mission Streets and we're fine. 


FWIW, I did use to have the same perspective - that all realism in Sonic was inherently Bad:tm:, but I've moved past it now. That more applies to my thoughts on a given game's narrative than its aesthetics, and I used to conflate the two for some reason. 

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12 minutes ago, JezMM said:

To be honest, I do think sometimes people tend to gloss over some stages the other way around too when romanticising the classic games.

Star Light is a beloved zone but it's literally just... a city at night. I guess the green colour scheme for the construction site you're crossing is kind of unique?  To be honest, as long as Sonic Team design their "realistic" levels with one key colour or gimmick like that, there's nothing to fear for settings that are entirely based off a real world location otherwise.

As an example, if Rooftop Run had only ever existed in it's Generations' form, it's pretty easy to imagine it as a stage made with classic design sensibilities "ah yes, the city zone with all the colourful balloons everywhere" is a pretty nice, memorable aesthetic.

 

Of course, I definitely love for them to be throwing in one or two off the wall zones like your Aquarium Parks or Collision Chaoses each game.

There are also stylistic differences between the old Sonic games themselves to consider.

Sonic The Hedgehog CD | Mega CD | Palm Tree Panic


Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sega Genesis) - online game | RetroGames.cz

More detailed texturing of the ground, the grass and the foliage.  The artificiality of the terrain and the trees has been reigned in to look more natural. Floating platforms are kept to more of a minimum, with Sonic using crumbling cliffsides, bridges, and ridges peaking out from waterfalls to gain height. "Iconic" stylistic staples like checkerboards have been put aside in favor of something that more closely resembles the real thing.

Collision Chaos - Good Future - Sonic CD 2011 - Gallery - Sonic SCANF

Sonic 3'Mixed (Cancelled) on Twitter: "You all clearly wanted to ...

The bright colors and dreamlike backgrounds have been reigned all the way in for something more warm and natural looking. Buildings and structures that are really easy to define are out in the distance. Sonic 3 has more in line with Sonic Adventure than it does Sonic CD, but people continue to ignore the actual games and draw lines arbitrarily.

Despite all the debates on stylizing Sonic on this board and all over the Sonic fandom I see nobody commenting on stuff like this. 

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I think the Sonic 1/CD and 2/3 divide was just down to the different teams more than anything - Ohshima's influence is very obvious in much of 1 and CD's aesthetic. It rings similar bells as something fantastical as NiGHTS into Dreams, and it's an aesthetic I do hold dear. Especially given Palmtree Panic is much nicer for me to look at than Angel Island, which is a hot mess of greens. 

...but I don't think the type of style Sonic 1 and CD has to be totally at odds with the more grounded aesthetic either. Green Hill may have the Virtua Racing inspired palmtrees, but it's still ultimately just a tropical resort kind of thing, and Marble's most drastic oddity (the UFOs) got left on the cutting room floor, reigning it into being a fairly standard ruin not too far from Marble Garden. And though I just dunked on Angel Island for being ugly, that's not to say Sonic 3's devoid of good looking levels, because I greatly enjoy how Ice Cap and Carnival Night look. 

To go back to NiGHTS, even the most breathtaking segment of that game is breathtaking because of how it works in a realistic, relatable backdrop - in Twin Seeds, when you jump off the cliff into the city below, and then start soaring across it, nothing's lost just because of the realistic skybox used for the city. It's a genuinely magical moment because of how it embellishes that realism with doing something fantastical. And Burning Rangers grounded things further, with aquariums and mall-style areas to explore, but still embellished enough to give it that sense of originality, that this isn't just something you could see in The Last of Us or something where realism is a focus. 

I'm mostly just rambling now but the gist is - yeah the Classics and Adventure games are fairly consistent in terms of their stage aesthetic, and I do wonder if some folks make the same mistake I did of conflating a game's aesthetic with its narrative. I maintain that Sonic Adventure 2's plot isn't my favourite for feeling pretty damn tonally dissonant from the previous games, regardless of whether you take it seriously or read it as some B-Movie shlock, but the game's surrounding aesthetics are mostly fine. Even Security Hall, which is a just a giant military base, still has you clambering over brightly coloured, oversized safes for treasure. There's certainly levels that are more boring to look at than others - SA2's desert levels don't do much for me - but I don't think they're so much out of place. I don't like Oil Ocean's aesthetic much either, but I'd still say it's fairly in line with the rest of Sonic 2. 

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I think one of the most recurrent issues with the more 'realistic' takes is that they fail to make Sonic feel like a natural part of its universe.

Notice many don't tend to categorise SA1 as often in the realistic games, and I think that's because, in spite of similar aesthetics to those, Sonic's cartoony elements from before still feel like a natural belonging there, anthros and other things still have lore in SA1's backstory. The later more realistic games start to feel more like Sonic X's premise but without any really contextual explanation, a universe dominated and lore driven by photo realistic humans and animals, and about a dozen or so candy coloured anthros that just exist there for some reason. They stick out like a sore thumb because they are the clear outliers.

I think the uncompromising translation between old and new and nothing to really merge them together is what exacerbates the issues with using more realistic cosmetics and worlds. Hell sometimes it doesn't even have to be realism and just a cartoony concept that is different from the original Sonic ones like some of the earlier cartoons and comics. There has to be some substance to mesh it all altogether otherwise it will just give the feel of 'this is these new guys' world, not Sonic's, he doesn't fit in here'.

Notice Forces brought back semi realistic cities and architecture again, but the presence of cartoon anthros as the main populace managed to merge it better with Sonic himself.

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7 minutes ago, E-122-Psi said:

I think one of the most recurrent issues with the more 'realistic' takes is that they fail to make Sonic feel like a natural part of its universe.

Notice many don't tend to categorise SA1 as often in the realistic games, and I think that's because, in spite of similar aesthetics to those, Sonic's cartoony elements from before still feel like a natural belonging there, anthros and other things still have lore in SA1's backstory. The later more realistic games start to feel more like Sonic X's premise but without any really contextual explanation, a universe dominated by photo realistic humans and animals, and about a dozen or so candy coloured anthros that just exist there for some reason. They stick out like a sore thumb.

Sonic Adventure 3: Pt.4 Chao Garden/World | Sonic the Hedgehog! Amino

I'd agree with this for 06, but outside of that... I don't really see it. I'd really stretch to call the humans and animals in say, SA2, 'photo-realistic'. Hell, even in Shadow!

President | Sonic News Network | Fandom

This isn't photo-realistic to me. It doesn't go as far as Unleashed or something like Classic's 'Man of the Year' short in terms of 'cartoony,' perhaps, but these designs still strike me as exaggerated significantly beyond the much more bland, photo-realistic takes of Sonic 06. They're honestly not much further from Sonic Adventure's own NPCs, who were the epitome of generic anime humans. In fact in a way, the young GUN Commander model, with his big, terrifying eyes, reminds me of some of the human characters found in NiGHTS! 

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I think a mix of both works fine. I think people tend to paint it as "Classic era is all fantasy and Adventure era is all realistic" when it's not so black and white.

Pumpkin Hill is one of my favorites and it's a great example of blending the two.

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All the same those humans do not mesh brilliantly with Sonic and Eggman compared to say, the small animal civilians of old games or the Mobians in comics or Forces. And it's weird that we have about a dozen or so of these cartoony anthros while the humans are a fully fledged civilisation in those titles.

Unleashed I will admit did sort of suffer a similar issue, in that while its humans were at least cartoony, Sonic's anthros were still the outlier. Same for STC which used anthros but didn't remotely try to make any of them akin to the SEGA ones. There were these handful of characters that looked like aliens against the main population. (Archie had similar clashing designs, though I suppose its extensive families and civilisations at least gave the SEGA designed cast some bigger footing so they didn't look shoehorned into that universe, echidnas especially).

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I'd honestly say that they mesh no less well than the Mobians of the comics, or rather, the cartoons. It really took some considerable redesigns for me to see the SatAM crew, as an example, as being in-line with the other designs. And honestly, the bulk of Forces' anthro NPCs look like bootleg Sonic characters moreso than a natural part of Sonic's world, thanks to it being so reliant on using the OC creator.

Game Grumps: Mr. President - YouTube

This isn't to say that anthro background characters can't work, because later Archie and particularly IDW was great in this regard, but I don't find the humans extra out of place either. In terms of the Modern designs, the President isn't that far removed from the likes of Eggman in proportions; he's got chunkier, almost Popeye-style limbs compared to an actually photo-realistic human. And it's not like Classic material never played with having human characters either; I already mentioned Man of the Year, but in the Sonic 1 manga, Sonic's got his very own 'Sonic Bodyguard Platoon' of... bunny outfit girls.

...alright maybe that's my certain biases leaking through there, but my point is I'm not seeing how something like SA1/SA2's humans are 'too realistic'. I also don't find them out of place based on something like the comics, because at the end of the day the game is the baseline - it's the cartoons and comics that diverged with Sonic's universe, not the other way around. 

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The point I'm making here is that even if these humans WEREN'T realistic, they're still a clashing style that UTTERLY DOMINATES Sonic's world way more than the anthro cast of that time, which for some reason consisted of about ten or so random main characters. Of course they are going to look like outliers against them if they are far from the norm and the rest of the universe seems better designed around the humans than them.

Say if the SA era had many NPC anthros in the style of Sonic and what not, it would still be an odd blend of artistic styles, but it would give some sense to how Sonic and the humans co-exist. As it was however, it was pretty much just Sonic X but with no explanation WHY a small bunch of cartoon anthros are placed in the middle of these normal humans.

Man of the Year I could argue isn't much better, it's basically Tiny Toons/Animaniacs humans, but while both shows had LOADS of anthros to add some consistency to the whole thing, here we just had the very different Sonic and Eggman against an otherwise completely uniform population.

 

Again, we have a population that is ALL THE EXACT SAME SPECIES AND DESIGN STYLE.......and then just a dozen Sonic-y characters placed in there for some reason. Of course it's gonna look jarring, especially if the latter make all the main characters.

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I don't think the world looks necessarily more designed around the humans than them, though. The likes of Speed Highway or Twinkle Park don't look anymore designed around humans than Carnival Night or Chemical Plant. They're ultimately fantastical embellishments of things that are founded in reality, such as a carnival, a city highway, a... chemical plant, etc. 

It would be like me asking why there weren't any humans in Mario's worlds beyond the staple characters until Odyssey gave us the Metro Kingdom; it's just the world they live in. Mario lives in a world of Toads and Yoshis and what have you, and Sonic lives in a world of humans, as well as a world of anthros. It's just not much of a stretch to me, or at the very least not something I need to think too hard on. 

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Regarding the "but game x has level y"-type comments: it's not just about individual levels, but the range and balance across each game. The wildest level in SA2 may be more fantastic than the most mundane level in Sonic 1, but SA2 is still overall more realistic in its setting. When I say fuck realism in Sonic, it's not that every single level has to be a wild fantasy world, but that it should overall trend towards the fantastic end of the scale, more in the range that the classic games covered than the SA2/ShtH/06 kind of range.

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3 minutes ago, E-122-Psi said:

The point I'm making here is that even if these humans WEREN'T realistic, they're still a clashing style that UTTERLY DOMINATES Sonic's world way more than the anthro cast of that time, which for some reason consisted of about ten or so random main characters. Of course they are going to look like outliers against them if they are far from the norm and the rest of the universe seems better designed around the humans than them.

So I guess classic cartoons that did this should have never had humans either then?

As usual this is probably just a fan theory, so take it with a grain of salt, but one idea I saw was that anthros like Sonic lived on islands, while humans lived in their own areas. This is why a lot of the Classic games took place on islands, and why the human based ones don't. Probably doesn't explain every example, but it'd allow for both types of stories to exist without that "two world" nonsense.

It didn't help the NPCs in Forces looked so bad either. I get they wanted Sonic's cast to stand out as cooler, but doing it that far just makes them unpleasant to look at.

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8 minutes ago, DryLagoon said:

So I guess classic cartoons that did this should have never had humans either then?

As usual this is probably just a fan theory, so take it with a grain of salt, but one idea I saw was that anthros like Sonic lived on islands, while humans lived in their own areas. This is why a lot of the Classic games took place on islands, and why the human based ones don't. Probably doesn't explain every example, but it'd allow for both types of stories to exist without that "two world" nonsense.

It didn't help the NPCs in Forces looked so bad either. I get they wanted Sonic's cast to stand out as cooler, but doing it that far just makes them unpleasant to look at.

I know Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons had human populations, but I guess the thing there is that, not only were they cartoony and fit the aesthetic better, but there were plenty one shot anthros there as well. They made a point that there's loads of cartoon rabbits and ducks like Bugs and Daffy in their universe for example, they weren't these weird one of a kind 'special' animals that just existed in this universe for no explanation (besides odd gags where a more realistic one would be placed next to them, but again, that's just for an oddball gag, not the main lore). Humans meanwhile are if anything the exception in the Disney universe compared to the 'dogfaces'.

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13 minutes ago, Diogenes said:

Regarding the "but game x has level y"-type comments: it's not just about individual levels, but the range and balance across each game. The wildest level in SA2 may be more fantastic than the most mundane level in Sonic 1, but SA2 is still overall more realistic in its setting. When I say fuck realism in Sonic, it's not that every single level has to be a wild fantasy world, but that it should overall trend towards the fantastic end of the scale, more in the range that the classic games covered than the SA2/ShtH/06 kind of range.

According to what rule? Because that sounds more like personal preference than what it “should” be.

The fact that Sonic has gone the entire spectrum and has shown that these aesthetics can still be unified in Generations shows that it shouldn’t matter where the aesthetics go so long as they match the character going through them and not something like GTA or CoD.

There shouldn’t be any problem with Sonic going through his version of New York City or China in Unleashed anymore than him going through Green Hill or Mushroom Hill, so long as they look like Sonic could fit in their settings.

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