When I wrote an article about how "gamer culture" was gross, irrelevant and false, a hate mob swarmed our advertisers and I was one of the women who got death threats for months. Still, the most controversial article of my career is actually this one—the one where I said Sonic the Hedgehog is weird and has weird fans.
I love the 1990s; I love grunge and machines and day-glo and attitude, and Sonic was created to embody that, to prove that compared to the family-friendly Super Nintendo, the Sega Genesis was fast, and cool, and rebellious. But unlike the timeless Mario franchise, the Sonic brand has aged poorly, a mascot Sega had to carry on wearing like a millstone around its neck through a succession of increasingly-poor games, even after the company had left the console business.
It's been fascinating to me how a character struck to represent 90's "edge" and rebellion has been reclaimed by his fans so totally: These days, Sonic is now more relevant as the subject of alt sex fanart and fiction or weird MSPaint memes than he is as the face of any game. I'm often told this is a "mean" assertion for me to make; I think the people who think it's "mean" probably objectively take Sonic the Hedgehog too seriously.
A recent, wonderful little series of tribute games by "internet gang" Arcane Kids says what I want to say far better than anything I could write. Their manifesto includes the phrase "make the games you want to see on the Dreamcast", and their recent release, Sonic Dreams is exactly that, posing as a set of prototypes scoured from an old Dreamcast devkit.
The Dreamcast vibe is impeccably conjured: That weird age when the door was about to shut on Sega's console futures, and the "modernization" of Sonic first shimmered into being as an idea. Sonic Dreams lavishes on the wonderful broken-ness of that era and the way it collides with nostalgic, shimmering optimism: The "Make My Sonic" character creator is unsettlingly janky and limited; familiar sound effects and Sega-style tunes pump gleefully over un-anchored physics objects and other oddities.
It's all very plausible, even the idea that Sega might have wanted a "Sonic Movie Maker", in that grand age when suddenly game consoles could be, like, for everything, and abstractly we assumed users unfailingly wanted to make-their-own everything all the time. But the "Sonic Movie Maker" included in Sonic Dreams is alternately hilarious and disturbing; the game eagerly urges you to place speech balloons where Sonic calls you "dad" as he flails brokenly in the front yard of a dream home, his engine revving fruitlessly.
There are further and increasingly explicit tributes to Sonic's role in various fetishes, and importantly you can share your videos on social media. There is a delightful Geocities guestbook at one point, but I refuse to spoil it for you—nor will I ruin "My Roommate Sonic", which starts with some sofa-tickling and ends triumphantly.
The appeal of this work isn't just to marinate in the inherent absurdity of Sonic and his fandom. I think it's actually a fascinating look at the uncanniness of unfinished ideas and where they collide with corporate mandates; the fun, tactile sense that you have cracked into the devkit of a bygone age, and the idea that, stripped of a certain context, video games are little more than a series of weird objects banging around inside our id.
What will people make of Sonic artifacts in a hundred years? How will they understand Sonic the Hedgehog as anything other than a star of increasingly-surreal, psychosexual artwork? Will I have to shut down my Twitter today for even asking this question? From which comment section comes the passionate Sonic-related screed that scrolls by on Sonic Dreams' fictional "boot menu"? I'm telling you, Sonic is weird and Sonic fans are weird and I think it's awesome.
Visit the amazing "Hedgehog Exposed" page to download Sonic Dreams for yourself.
UPDATE: Since we posted this, it's come to our attention that creator Arjun Prakash worked on an allegedly-significant portion of this game without credit. Although Arcane Kids made an apology to Prakash in private, the collective has been asked to do more to address the appropriation of creators' work, specifically that of people of color, and related problems within the group. Offworld reached out to a rep for Arcane Kids, who says the Glitch City collective will soon be issuing a public apology and a list of actions aimed to address structural and communications issues within the group to prevent future problems of this nature.