Our modern culture of reproducable media has engendered an environment in which what we attach our affection to becomes less our individual stories, or the way they make us feel, but on the symbols and concepts that become avatars for the experiences they give us. Sports fans don’t find themselves loving the actual team, but rather, loving the logo that unites the idea of that team. For gamers, this principle can be demonstrated through two icons in gaming: Mickey Mouse and Sonic The Hedgehog.
Since the 1960s, Mickey Mouse went through a deliberate period of cultural starvation. It was perhaps in direct consequence to the shifting of Disney from a focus on art to a focus on business, but marketing concerns took a hold of Disney’s outlook. Once upon a time, Mickey Mouse was the centerpiece of a comic series, then was central to a handful of cinema shorts, but as he rose in prominence, he diminished in his actual appearance in any kind of media that has a plot and characterisation. Or, to put it another way, the more Mickey became a symbol, the less he became a character.
Disney was therefore bound to this path, where Mickey remained prominent in cultural consciousness, but nobody could really point to why. There weren’t Mickey movies or Mickey comics or Mickey stories – there was just Mickey, this sort of eternally envisioned thing. They could slap him on anything and it’d help it sell, but in many ways, that power came with the sacrifice of meaning.
Then, on the other hand, we have Sega’s own tween Mickey Mouse, the hedgehog we call Sonic. Now, Sonic is a character whose history is thoroughly tormented, but let’s not dwell too much on why he’s such a broken image and instead focus on the side effect this has.
Right now Steam is advertising a videogame which is a brightly coloured cartoon-character racing game, where the terrain changes and with it, your vehicle. You get a boat on water, a plane for air, and a car for ground. This game sounds kind of interesting from that description.
There’s another game they advertised at me, where you play a cartoonish character traipsing through a post-apocalyptic wilderness full of old symbols that you can reconstruct into something or choose to abandon to the wild.
Of course, if you’re savvy about these games, you’d know where I’m going with, but neither of these games has remarkably better advertising copy than the other, and I actually think, based on what I know of them, that they’re both bad games… but because of the symbols they wear, I feel confident declaring the first game to be terrible on sight. The second game? I’d at least look into it.
This is what Disney wanted to avoid. Sonic has been the face of many, many bad ideas and bad projects. Many of his projects have been the result of a developer wanting to create a game, and then Sonic Team’s name being attached to it, and subsequently shoehorning in the Sonic branding. Sonic is eternally visible he’s always there on your shelves, and, thanks to the steady degradation and desolation of that concept, Sonic has become shorthand for dogshit.
What’s better? Being well known for who you are, or being well known despite barely existing?