Why Storytelling in Videogames is So Powerful

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Videogames are an unmatched medium in terms of immersing and connecting us with fictional characters. Being able to control what happens makes us feel everything in a game much more strongly than if we just watched a game’s events unfold on their own.

So  that makes a well-told story in a videogame that much more powerful. One of the coolest things with retrogames is that there was so little in-game story, we had to rely on the manual, magazine articles, comics, graphics, sound — and most importantly, our imagination — to connect us with that world’s story. One of the my favorite examples of this in retrogaming is the world of Sonic the Hedgehog.

All due respect to Mario, but I really never felt a great attachment to the Mushroom Kingdom; I simply just love playing the games. It’s so fun to collect coins, find secrets, and control Mario, that the story of “Oh, the Princess got kidnapped again” is hardly central to why we love Mario games.

Sonic was different. SEGA knew they had to create not just a cool mascot of their own, but give people a reason people should care about their weird, new, blue creation. And SEGA of America’s new president, Tom Kalinske, was a master storyteller.

If you haven’t read the book Console Wars by Blake Harris, and you remotely care about ’80s and ’90s videogames, you absolutely need to. It’s Videogame History 101, and it’s also an incredibly fun, well-written story of how the games we loved and love today came to be.

So Sonic’s world of Mobius is a bit more serious and darker than the whimsical Mushroom Kingdom. Sonic’s planet used to be a green paradise for him and his friends, until the evil Dr. Robotnik warped it through tyranny and technology, turning its lush landscape into smoky, foul factories, and Sonic’s friend Roboticized into mindless robots. Sonic, being the world’s fastest (and snarkiest) hedgehog hero, is the only one who can rescue Mobius’ free citizens and stop Robotnik’s machinations for good!

That gets me pretty hype. When I was a kid,, not only did Sonic 1 look fast and awesome, but Sonic was a character any kid would look up to and help save the world. With Sonic 2 inevitable, SEGA of Japan invented a new fox friend who could fly to be Sonic’s sidekick.

The only problem was, his name was set to become one of gaming’s all-time-worst puns: Miles Prower (MILES-PER-HOUR, GET IT LOLOL.).

SEGA of America was pretty sure “Miles” was not the best match for “Sonic”. Miles is the kid who picks his nose in the back of class, and to couple that with a pretty lame pun was not the connection SEGA of America wanted to make with its newfound Sonic fans.

So they did what they did best: they told Miles’s story for the Japanese executives in a last-ditch effort to change their minds. Madeline Schroeder and Al Nilsen, SEGA employees instrumental in SEGA’s success with Sonic, wrote the most simple but compelling little tale I’ve seen in gaming, exerpted below from Console Wars (with permission of the author, Schroeder and Nilsen):

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… the last time the developers had become committed to a name, Sonic’s archenemy suffered from a case of multiple personality disorder. In the character bible for Sonic The Hedgehog, SEGA of America named his main adversary Doctor Ivo Robotnik. SEGA of Japan, however, had taken to calling the evil scientist Doctor Eggman. Both sides were unwilling to compromise, so Sonic’s foe ended up with one name in the East and another in the West, creating an international nomenclature incident that took years to be resolved. [SEGA of America Director of Marketing Al] Nilsen refused to let that happen again. “Miles Power” had to go. “Then I guess it’s up to us to show them why they’re wrong.”

His first stop was [SEGA of America President Tom] Kalinske, who agreed that they could and should do better (though there was admittedly some sweet relief in the fact that this time around the biggest development controversy was a matter of names and not personality, aesthetics, fangs, or rock bands [which they dealt with when co-creating Sonic with the Japanese office]). Still, this wasn’t an ego contest between SOA and SOJ; rather, it was about doing what was best for SEGA and the fictional Sonic universe. SEGA of America decided upon the name Tails, and [Maria] Schroeder[, product manager for Sonic the Hedgehog,] took this to the developers, who were unwilling to budge. [SEGA Executive Vice President and unofficial international SEGA mediator Shinobu] Toyoda then tried to mend fences, perhaps even find a compromise, but there was no progress to be made. With common sense and politics failing them, Nilsen and Schroeder resorted to Kalinske’s favorite asset of all: story. After they finished crafting a compelling backstory, Nilsen drove out to Palo Alto so he could share the tale.

Toyoda joined him at the SEGA Technical Institute, where it was clear that the Sonic Team was less than thrilled to see them. In their minds, this was another case of the Americans imposing their will purely for its own sake. Nilsen knew they felt this way, and he was aware that there was little he could do to prove to them that this wasn’t the case. All he had was his short story, which he hoped would be enough. He cleared his throat, ignored the glares, and began reading from “The Renaming of Miles Monotail.”

This is the story of Miles Monotail. Miles was your average four-year-old fox. He loved to play with his friends, but his friends weren’t really his friends. Whenever they saw Miles they laughed and made fun of him.

Why? Well, Miles wasn’t like all the other foxes. Miles Monotail had two tails. And as kids tend to do when someone is different, they make fun of him. It didn’t help that Miles sometimes tripped over his second tail and went rolling down the hill. Coordination was not one of Miles’s virtues.

Because of the rough time that his friends gave him, Miles became very depressed.

One day he was walking along with his head hanging down when a blur and a whoosh crossed his path. There’s only one person who could be moving that fast, and that is Sonic the Hedgehog.

Miles thought Sonic was the greatest person in the world. Miles wished that he could be as cool and coorindated as Sonic was. And most of all, he wanted to meet Sonic.

This was his big chance. Miles took a deep, deep breath and at the top of his lunges yelled out, “Sonic!”

The blur that was Sonic turned around and stopped in front of Miles. “You called?” said Sonic.

“Oh, Sonic, you’re my hero,” exclaimed Miles as he ran around and around Sonic. Well, you can guess what happened next – Miles tripped over his second tail and fell down. Tears came to his eyes.

“Hey, cheer up, little fellow. What’s the matter?” said Sonic.

“Sonic, I want to be just like you, but I’m a freak. I’ve got two tails.”

Sonic leaned over to Miles and said kindly, “You’re no freak. You’re more special than anyone because you have something that everyone else doesn’t have. And you can do things that they can’t. If anything, your friends should be jealous of you.”

“But I can’t do anything special,” cried Miles.

“Oh yes you can,” Sonic said. “I’ll show you. You’re about to enter Sonic’s special training camp.”

Well, Miles couldn’t be happier. His hero took him under his wing and started teaching Miles how to use his two tails to their best advantage. He shows Miles how to curl up his tails up under his body so that he was like a very aerodynamic ball and could do Sonic’s famous Supersonic Spin.

Sonic then taught Miles how to use his two tails as a helicopter rotor so that Miles could fly around. Even Sonic couldn’t do that.

Needless to say, Miles was ecstatic. He was special, and when his friends saw what Miles could do that they couldn’t do, they became very jealous, but also every single one of them wanted to be Miles’ best friend.

But Miles had a new best friend. Someone who believed in him. Someone who was his hero. And that friend was Sonic.

Sonic was happy that he could help his buddy gain new confidence and new abilities. “See, Miles, you are special because you have two tails. And because of that, I’m going to give you a special new nickname. From now on I’m going to call you Tails because you should always be reminded that you are special, because you have two tails.”

So from that day forward Miles Monotail became known as Tails.

When Nilsen finished, he folded the paper and slid it into his pocket. The members of Sonic Team, who’d been planning on hating every word out of Nilsen’s mouth, found themselves entranced by the story. One developer was even moved to tears.

After a allowing a moment to let it sink in, [Sonic co-creator Yuji] Naka walked up to Nilsen and said, “You may call him Tails.”

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I was wholly touched by this story when I first read it in the book. It gives us feelings we can all relate to: feeling left out; like everyone is better than us; like we don’t have anything to offer; like everyone is laughing at us. Think of how videogames have made you feel over the years, and how you’ve seen them make others feel: empowered, capable, smart, and worthy.

With or without words, I’m amazed at these pixel bitmapped creations have made me feel over the years. And I have a feeling that no matter how big an industry gaming continues to become, these simple stories and simple characters will continue to affect and resonate with me for years to come — and I hope future game developers won’t forget what made videogaming so fun and relateable in this special era, either.

What characters do you relate most to in gaming? What stories continue to affect you and inspire you even today?

Leave a comment, or share your story with me on Twitter (@GamesDoneLegit)

 

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