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Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation discusses tonal dissonance in video games...using Sonic Frontiers.


Kuzu

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I know this topic has been done to death, but I believe this is the first time someone outside of the fandom has actually addressed it. So I feel its a topic worth making. 

One point that stuck out to me however is how he feels Sonic is trying to cling to the hardcore fans of old by intentionally throwing in the serious storylines despite the narrative dissonance he feels inherent to Sonic's design, compared directly to Mario which has always appealed to kids and has never strayed from that. But I feel like Mario never tried appealing specifically to kids, but rather general audiences as a whole so that's an interesting perspective for him to take on it. 

 

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I think my big take is, is if this narrative dissonance is such a big deal... Then Frontiers is the best selling game we've had in years. Clearly something is resonating here, just look at how much attention the Super Sonic fights draw on their own. Frontiers is very clearly appealing to people that are even outside of the fanbase.

I definitely think he's making a surface level observation, and you can apply it to any number of media. I mean, why would anyone get emotionally invested in a guy that dresses in a bat suit to fight clowns at night? There's something kind of deeper going on there, and you can't make that just by judging a book by its cover.

That's probably why there should be more discussion as to what Sonic actually is. Judy Totoya was recently on Twitter and shared a lot of the inspiration for a lot of the major elements for Sonic 2, and what was brought up was things like Dragonball, Ghibli films, and various aspects of Japanese culture... And not stuff like Mickey Mouse or Bug's Bunny. Sonic, as a character in the games proper, has never functioned as just some rubber hose slapstick character.

That's why I feel like Yahtzee's critique pretty lacking and even a bit arrogant in the face what's actually going on in the greater scope of the Sonic franchise as it's appealing outside of just its older fanbase, and it bothers me even more when he gives a greater deep dive into God of War's and other AAA games narrative dissonant issues in the next beat.

tl;dr Yahtzee's critique feels super shallow and disingenuous in the face that clearly the game is doing well and lots of people not just Sonic fans are clearly enjoying it.

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40 minutes ago, Kuzu said:

One point that stuck out to me however is how he feels Sonic is trying to cling to the hardcore fans of old by intentionally throwing in the serious storylines despite the narrative dissonance he feels inherent to Sonic's design, compared directly to Mario which has always appealed to kids and has never strayed from that. But I feel like Mario never tried appealing specifically to kids, but rather general audiences as a whole so that's an interesting perspective for him to take on it. 

It's not "interesting", it's just wrong. Sonic taking on mature themes was their way of appealing to kids who, in 2005, wanted that from their cartoon animal games. it's why those games had remarkable younger followings but never went over well with the older audiences that made up critics and content creators. It's also why a lot of people just straight up age out of liking those games so they don't have much of a shelf life.

There's also the whole "He's a cartoon animal" bit that gets me pause. It's true that Sonic's design isn't grounded in any sort of reality but that hasn't stopped other cartoon characters from existing in grounded worlds and setting. He uses Mickey Mouse as an example, but if I remember correctly Donald and his extended family starred in a lot of comics with grounded premises, right?

I disagree with a lot of the specific points of the video even though I agree with the overall sentiment. He seems to think that gameplay loops should concede to narrative when I think it should be the other way around. Your tone and story should match what the player is actually doing, since that's the part of the experience that's the most important. Sonic Frontiers's gameplay can be over the top, high octane and intense in ways that sometimes clash with every other cutscene being a therapy session. It's loose, cartoony characters don't really mesh well with the environment they're in in a way that feels cheap. Sonic is a character who's movement is inherently joyful so the atmosphere of the game should feed off on those feelings. He's a character that isn't grounded in any sort of reality so his world should reflect that. It's stuff you've heard before, but it's worth thinking about as the series pivots from Frontiers's success. How can you hit harder next time?

It's a little silly, but I actually think God of War is a much better example of this problem and he should have lead with that. Sonic Frontiers isn't so confused as to set the very core an action game's narrative about how violence is bad without letting any of that come through mechanically. It wants to be Shadow of the Colossus and Devil May Cry, which is never going to mix. Sonic just kind of being another kids cartoon that thinks it's a little cooler than it actually is doesn't seem all that egregious in comparison to me.


 

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Yahtz mentioned it in his ZP review of Sonic Frontiers but he was surprisingly nice compared to what he's said about Sonic has in the past. I love ya Yahtz but I don't agree with you all the time and this is one of the times. I'll admit Sonic does have issues with tone, even with the same game like Lost World, but the notation that a work featuring a cartoon mouse cannot be a serious work is kind of baffling. It does reek of "animation is only for babies" mindset and you have to watch actual TV shows and documentary to be "manly". There's a lot of works out there that sound completely silly, especially out of context, but are serious works never the less. I guess Sonic will forever be singled out due to his reputation and that's the unfortunate state of affairs, something his detractors won't ever let go.

For the record I value Yahztee's opinions on things because he does often point out all the negatives, something most game journalists wouldn't do, and I honestly like seeing a different perspective on things because its an interesting thought exercise. That and I don't think people should live in echo chambers all the time. But again I don't agree with him all the time; He's often really down on JRPGs because "anime" (his review of Ys IX kind of ticked me off for example but he oddly loves Persona 5) and of course he doesn't like Sonic at all. Heck he's kind of inciting a flame war in the comments section in that video too with cheerful glee on top of being condensing towards Sonic fans. I do feel like he does have a point, even if he's wrong about somethings because tonal clash is a thing but I don't think he's using the best of examples here.

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12 minutes ago, Wraith said:

It's not "interesting", it's just wrong. Sonic taking on mature themes was their way of appealing to kids who, in 2005, wanted that from their cartoon animal games. it's why those games had remarkable younger followings but never went over well with the older audiences that made up critics and content creators. It's also why a lot of people just straight up age out of liking those games so they don't have much of a shelf life.

There's also the whole "He's a cartoon animal" bit that gets me pause. It's true that Sonic's design isn't grounded in any sort of reality but that hasn't stopped other cartoon characters from existing in grounded worlds and setting. He uses Mickey Mouse as an example, but if I remember correctly Donald and his extended family starred in a lot of comics with grounded premises, right?

I disagree with a lot of the specific points of the video even though I agree with the overall sentiment. He seems to think that gameplay loops should concede to narrative when I think it should be the other way around. Your tone and story should match what the player is actually doing, since that's the part of the experience that's the most important. Sonic Frontiers's gameplay can be over the top, high octane and intense in ways that sometimes clash with every other cutscene being a therapy session. It's loose, cartoony characters don't really mesh well with the environment they're in in a way that feels cheap.

It's a little silly, but I actually think God of War is a much better example of this problem and he should have lead with that. Sonic Frontiers isn't so confused as to set the very core an action game's narrative about how violence is bad without letting any of that come through mechanically. It wants to be Shadow of the Colossus and Devil May Cry, which is never going to mix. Sonic just kind of being another kids cartoon that thinks it's a little cooler than it actually is doesn't seem all that egregious in comparison to me.


 

See the Donald example is funny because yea; the stuff specifically with Scrooge McDuck has more edge to it compared to the usual Mickey Mouse antics. But when they brought over to the animated medium with Ducktales, I recall some fans feeling like they..."Disneyfied" it so to speak, probably because they didn't have confidence in the tone.

And when it got rebooted 20 years later and actually embraced those darker and mature tones of the comics, the series only lasted a few seasons before it was cancelled after flipping around cable tv for a few years. 

 


But yea, games like the Last of Us that get praise for their narratives about non-violence...while having violence as a gameplay element do stick out way more in that regard. 

3 minutes ago, Diogenes said:

I would say Mario has always been designed to appeal to kids, but it does so in a way that appeals to the kid inside adults, as well. It's not infantile or condescending, it's a light, charming fantasy world. As long as you're not completely dead inside, it's easy to see the appeal of slipping back into that kind of world for a good few hours even as an adult who's gained an appreciation for deeper stories and more grounded settings.

But didn't Nintendo not want Mario to specifically be seen as "a kids" franchise?

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14 hours ago, Wraith said:

It's a little silly, but I actually think God of War is a much better example of this problem and he should have lead with that. Sonic Frontiers isn't so confused as to set the very core an action game's narrative about how violence is bad without letting any of that come through mechanically. It wants to be Shadow of the Colossus and Devil May Cry, which is never going to mix. Sonic just kind of being another kids cartoon that thinks it's a little cooler than it actually is doesn't seem all that egregious in comparison to me.

Getting away from Sonic a bit but “violence is bad” isn’t even the theme of either GOW game, considering 95% are mindless creatures or monsters and the other 5% that actively make things worse for everyone, no one was really preaching non violence besides

Spoiler

a intentional pacifist caricature via Odin disguising as Tyr

The lesson was more about making your own destiny, self actualization, and setting a good example for future successors, none of these really contradict what you do in game and it feels reductive to just assume a game that has some themes of non-aggression ( but definitely not THE theme) shouldn’t have any combat or else it’s contradictory 

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11 minutes ago, Kuzu said:

But didn't Nintendo not want Mario to specifically be seen as "a kids" franchise?

IDK. I wouldn't doubt they've said that; money's money no matter who's playing, they wouldn't benefit from Mario being seen as exclusively for kids. But I don't think that's a contradiction; they make games designed to appeal to kids, that also successfully appeal to other people. They've found the sweet spot where they can keep bringing in the younger generation and making new fans of them, and manage to keep older fans' interest without it needing to "grow up" and deliberately chase them down.

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41 minutes ago, shdowhunt60 said:

I think my big take is, is if this narrative dissonance is such a big deal... Then Frontiers is the best selling game we've had in years. Clearly something is resonating here, just look at how much attention the Super Sonic fights draw on their own. Frontiers is very clearly appealing to people that are even outside of the fanbase.

That's not indicative of the tone being successful though; keep in mind that the game still only got middling review scores and currently sits in the "Mixed/Average" range on most aggregate websites. 

It selling well just means Sega marketed the game so that many more people were aware of it, nothing more and nothing less.

5 minutes ago, Diogenes said:

IDK. I wouldn't doubt they've said that; money's money no matter who's playing, they wouldn't benefit from Mario being seen as exclusively for kids. But I don't think that's a contradiction; they make games designed to appeal to kids, that also successfully appeal to other people. They've found the sweet spot where they can keep bringing in the younger generation and making new fans of them, and manage to keep older fans' interest without it needing to "grow up" and deliberately chase them down.

It feels to me because Mario never really made any hard commitments to anything; its never tried to chase trends like Sonic has and just stayed true to itself and only saved the crazy experimentation for side material that never affected the main games. You wanted crazy over the top storylines in Mario? You can play the RPGs. You just want a platformer, stick with the main series. 

That's something Sonic never had the luxury of mostly, so most of its experimentation came in the main games themselves. 

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2 minutes ago, Kuzu said:

That's not indicative of the tone being successful though; keep in mind that the game still only got middling review scores and currently sits in the "Mixed/Average" range on most aggregate websites.

Actually,  that's only really looking at a broad average. In actuality, the majority of reviews were positive and despite what some may think, it got quite a few scores above 7's too.

Not that just simple numbers should matter, since quite a few reviews did go into depth on the stuff the game did right.

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7 minutes ago, Jovahexeon Jax Joranvexeon said:

Actually,  that's only really looking at a broad average. In actuality, the majority of reviews were positive and despite what some may think, it got quite a few scores above 7's too.

Not that just simple numbers should matter, since quite a few reviews did go into depth on the stuff the game did right.

I'm specifically talking about the surface level stuff here, the things people are going to immediately notice, which are the numbers. 

The game still got middling reviews; that's not saying the game itself is bad or that people didn't have nice things to say about it. It's just calling a spade a spade, the game got middling review scores. 

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The most mind numbing annoying thing with this is people assume cause hes a blue hedgehog he can not have serious stories and that whenever they try some just can not get into it. And that he needs to be set in some kid friendly safety blocks and all storyline. Cause lord knows the past decade and then some stories were top tier award winners. Sonic games can have serious stories. I again just think people are not use to what Frontiers is trying to do in setting up a grander scale going forward story that is internconnected and past games events can have large effects going forward just like say GOW or RE. Instead of the typical saturday morning cartoon plot that is resolved in one story and never really links to anything further outside the wisp popping up which actually I am glad they were not in this game.

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2 minutes ago, Kuzu said:

I'm specifically talking about the surface level stuff here, the things people are going to immediately notice, which are the numbers. 

The game still got middling reviews; that's not saying the game itself is bad or that people didn't have nice things to say about it. It's just calling a spade a spade, the game got middling review scores. 

Eh, a more accurate thing would be that it got a middling average. AN average which can be influenced by an odd review here or there. It's not enough to really stack up your claim that the one wasn't successful.

And despite how much modern review scores have spoiled us, "7" is still a good score. That's not even taking into account the higher scores the game got.

I mean, one could just as easily point to the massive sales that this game has managed, not to mention, that a lot of the big dogs did have really good things to say about the game. And the only major reviewing site that threw a fit at the narrative was a review widely agreed to to be a bad egg at that.

Maybe like years, from now, people who don't know the context will just think it got middling reviews.....of course, then there's also bouts of critical dissonance, or the views of a thing changing over time. So, we can't necessarily always take the apparent surface level look at it as gospel.

Cause, by that logic, just going off of the Accolades trailer, Frontiers is an all-out master piece.

And on the bigger picture, something definitely clicked well with people overall, cause Sonic's reputation has been on the rise, this entire year. The fact that Frontiers, if anything, just kept the momentum of that going is going to speak bigger volumes than just surface level average takes. Most people aren't that lazy.

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4 minutes ago, Jovahexeon Jax Joranvexeon said:

Eh, a more accurate thing would be that it got a middling average. AN average which can be influenced by an odd review here or there. It's not enough to really stack up your claim that the one wasn't successful.

And despite how much modern review scores have spoiled us, "7" is still a good score. That's not even taking into account the higher scores the game got.

I mean, one could just as easily point to the massive sales that this game has managed, not to mention, that a lot of the big dogs did have really good things to say about the game. And the only major reviewing site that threw a fit at the narrative was a review widely agreed to to be a bad egg at that.

Maybe like years, from now, people who don't know the context will just think it got middling reviews.....of course, then there's also bouts of critical dissonance, or the views of a thing changing over time. So, we can't necessarily always take the apparent surface level look at it as gospel.

Cause, by that logic, just going off of the Accolades trailer, Frontiers is an all-out master piece.

And on the bigger picture, something definitely clicked well with people overall, cause Sonic's reputation has been on the rise, this entire year. The fact that Frontiers, if anything, just kept the momentum of that going is going to speak bigger volumes than just surface level average takes. Most people aren't that lazy.

The original point was Frontiers was a success in spite of Yahtzee's claim because it sold well, not that the game wasn't well-received. 

I was illustrating a point, you don't need to be pedantic to tell me Frontiers was a success.

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Yeah, gonna be honest, this was a pretty much another crap take from Yahtzee. Especially since it runs into the narrative that a cartoon character can't have anything serious or whatnot.

There's already been decades of animation that shows that such a notion is bullcrap.

And honestly, I feel it's much more a strength than a weakness, that the Sonic series can have such a good range of tone, from silly situations to more serious and epic stories here and there. The variety helps.

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The only things I care about regarding tone are whether the story is sincere in its efforts to be serious, and whether the overall writing quality is any good or not. Visual elements and the gameplay loop can heighten that story, but I don't think it's necessary in making it compelling or good. 

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I love Yahtzee, but his attitude towards Sonic is... frustrating. He keeps complaining when it's silly, when it's edgy, when it's written by Ian Flynn. Normally I write it off as "his internet persona means he must complain" which doesn't change the fact he seems to see Sonic as an "acceptable target". I feel like he's less fair for us than to Call of Duty and stuff, but maybe I'm projecting. Either way, I can swallow it, not a deal breaker.

This video (which is much closer to his real opinion, not jokes for jokes sake)... well still isn't a deal breaker, but I disagree with him.
 

I don't see why Undertale can tell a serious story with talking animals but Sonic can't. Or what about cartoons aimed at kids but tackling serious topics like like Steven Universe or Infinity Train or dozen of Pixar movies?

A fun light-heated setting can tell something more thoughtful or even somber. I think it can enhance the experience since cute innocent cartoon characters feel more threatened when something really awful happens. It creates juxtaposition, something Yahtzee complained many times when games lacked it. 

Sonic 06 and Shadow were BAD examples of how to do it. But Sonic Frontiers mostly does it right. In my opinion, the only (major) mistake is that the game starts with a somber tone, when shifting from fun to sad would have a bigger punch and feel more natural.

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7 hours ago, Soniman said:

Getting away from Sonic a bit but “violence is bad” isn’t even the theme of either GOW game, considering 95% are mindless creatures or monsters and the other 5% that actively make things worse for everyone, no one was really reaching acts of non violence besides

  Reveal hidden contents

a intentional pacifist caricature via Odin disguising as Tyr

The lesson was more about making your own destiny, self actualization, and setting a good example for future successors, none of these really contradict what you do in game and it feels reductive to just assume a game that has some themes of non-aggression ( but definitely not THE theme) shouldn’t have any combat or else it’s contradictory 

"Setting a good example for future successors" IE Kratos pivoting from the violent rampages of past games, to teach his son that there's a better way, which he straight up explicitly states multiple times. The arc of the first game revolves around Atreus working up a bloodlust for the gods and Kratos being concerned because it's a reflection of him. These games are about violence, because they're sequels to the original games which were about violence. 

 

I disliked the first game so much that I didn't bother with Ragnarok so my perception isn't based on whatever happened in the new game, but I genuinely think it's silly to fill a god of war game with throwaway monsters  and enemies for Kratos to still get his over the top kill animations going on with no commentary, while also trying to balance the idea that Kratos's violent tendencies are corrosive in the narrative. It tries to have it's cake and eat it too in a way that made me check out. Either you want to actually be an action game or not. 

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I feel like part of the issue about these takes about Sonic is that as mentioned, Sonic appeals to a very specific demographic.

Sonic isn't for kids, but he's not for adults either. So you have this awkward middle ground where kids only love Sonic for a set amount of time before they become adults and move on to something else...or just become haters of the series when it reinvents itself into something less appealing to said adults.

We've this is happen many times with Sonic; its why we have these stupid ass Classic and Modern debates to begin with.

 

 

Games like God of War tend to be bad at this too, but they sell the idea of this being a "big boy" game better than Sonic does, so people tend to gloss over it.

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25 minutes ago, Rabbitearsblog said:

So, I was wondering.  Will this Yahtzee person's opinions about how Sonic stories can't be serious will be looked over by SEGA since his channel seems to be big?

Doubt it. Yahtzee himself says that 1) He really has little impact on game industry 2) He's not the target audience for Sonic.

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1 hour ago, Rabbitearsblog said:

So, I was wondering.  Will this Yahtzee person's opinions about how Sonic stories can't be serious will be looked over by SEGA since his channel seems to be big?

He's literally not in the demographic.

3 hours ago, MetalSkulkBane said:

I love Yahtzee, but his attitude towards Sonic is... frustrating. He keeps complaining when it's silly, when it's edgy, when it's written by Ian Flynn. Normally I write it off as "his internet persona means he must complain" which doesn't change the fact he seems to see Sonic as an "acceptable target". I feel like he's less fair for us than to Call of Duty and stuff, but maybe I'm projecting. Either way, I can swallow it, not a deal breaker.

This video (which is much closer to his real opinion, not jokes for jokes sake)... well still isn't a deal breaker, but I disagree with him.
 

I don't see why Undertale can tell a serious story with talking animals but Sonic can't. Or what about cartoons aimed at kids but tackling serious topics like like Steven Universe or Infinity Train or dozen of Pixar movies?

A fun light-heated setting can tell something more thoughtful or even somber. I think it can enhance the experience since cute innocent cartoon characters feel more threatened when something really awful happens. It creates juxtaposition, something Yahtzee complained many times when games lacked it. 

Sonic 06 and Shadow were BAD examples of how to do it. But Sonic Frontiers mostly does it right. In my opinion, the only (major) mistake is that the game starts with a somber tone, when shifting from fun to sad would have a bigger punch and feel more natural.

Keep in mind how contentious Steven Universe is itself. Not too dissimilar from Sonic.

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3 minutes ago, Kuzu said:

Keep in mind how contentious Steven Universe is itself. Not too dissimilar from Sonic.

Really? I was under the impression Steven Universe is considered one of the best cartoons of the last decade, if not all of time.

I just googled "best cartoons 2010s" and he was in the 7 lists in the row, almost always in the top 5.

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