Lessons In Gaming: Sonic the Hedgehog and Non-Vocal Storytelling
There was once a time in which video games were simple. A time when real storytelling was quite the challenge due to limited hardware capabilities. There were three ways that I can think of in which a story was told in game. The easiest way was to not include story elements within the game itself, forcing the player to read a manual, so the developers could focus on the gameplay rather than take time to tell a story. Another way was to have characters speak through dialogue boxes that appeared on screen. This gave characters a voice, which was mostly common in JRPG's or intros in platformers. The last way, was to rely on stereotypical plot elements that pretty much everyone knew at the time; the classic hero saving the princess from a bad guy scenario, which was most famous during the 80's and early 90's. This was one way to make the game simple enough for everyone to understand without reading a manual. But then here comes Sonic the Hedgehog for the SEGA Genesis; it was a game unlike anything seen before at least when concerning the plot. What's so great about Sonic the Hedgehog though, is that it still manages to make this strange premise easy to understand even without the manual. The question is, how does Sonic Team manage to do this in their very first game, Sonic the Hedgehog?
Lessons In Gaming: Sonic The Hedgehog and Non-Verbal Storytelling
Reason 1: Enemy Deaths: In platformers, there were enemies that made very little sense to the plot. Some enemies would make players question, just how were they made and why? Sometimes they would ask; just what is the purpose in destroying them? Sonic the Hedgehog actually shows you why, brilliantly in fact. It's quite simple, the enemies are comprised of these strange bug-like robots, and when you jump on them (the way to destroy them) an animal would pop out, flying or scurrying away. That is when the reason for destroying the robots makes perfect sense; your destroying them to free the animals inside, not to mention they were probably made by using the animals as a power source (that's actually the reason why, but it still doesn't make sense to me). You see, they didn't need to stop the game and tell you through text, or make you lug your way through a manual (not to mention that manuals are rare nowadays if you want to collect), they showed you in game as you still control Sonic. The only question left is who is behind all this? Well....
Reason 2: A Consistent Villain: As you probably know, after you beat two stages in a "Zone" you fight a boss. In most games, you would fight multiple bosses that were different entities, the last boss being the villain of the game. But Sonic Team breaks this convention. So players get to the first boss; a chubby scientist in a floating egg-like...THING...named Dr. Eggman (Or Robotnik if you prefer his older American name). After fighting this boss, you'd think he would be done for good right? WRONG! He escapes, giving the player an idea that he is the main villain, which of course is right, he appears as every boss in this game. This is great non-verbal storytelling because again, it is simple and easy to understand, but also its subtle, not having to tell you information, the game allows you to figure it out yourself.
So you may be wondering why all this stuff matters, or why these simple things are relevant in game design. It's because not everyone wants to read a manual, or have to go through text (at least in a platformer). The majority of people when playing a platformer just want to have some fun; be in constant euphoria of gameplay. Sonic Team really understood their consumers, but they also knew the game would be confusing for those who didn't want to actively find the information themselves (like the manual of course). They employed these strategies so that everyone can enjoy the game, This is a really good design choice, and I wish more developers would make use of these clever strategies. Now we are in an age to where video games are becoming more like movies, and the power of cutscenes are often misused. There are good examples of cutscenes being properly implemented, but most of the time, they just break the gameplay way too often, giving less game time and more time to develop a story.
Show don't tell. Games like Sonic the Hedgehog for the SEGA Genesis, do this really well.