Sonic Jam - "Shadow The Hedgehog" (2005)
“Critics derided the game's unwelcome sense of maturity for a Sonic game, especially the addition of guns and other weapons.”
This passage is on the Wikipedia page for Shadow the Hedgehog. Released in 2005, Sonic Team’s first and only tryst with not focusing a mainline Sonic title on the Blue Blur himself isn’t looked back on fondly. In fact, it wasn’t exactly a big hit when it came out, either. To a lot of people, this is the point where the series jumped the shark and veered out of control. Both critics and classic fans balked at the direction Sega took its flagship franchise, and on the surface, that’s understandable. To be sure, Shadow the Hedgehog is a game which takes everything that came before it and burns it to the ground – quite literally, in some cases.
Yet I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Despite a lot of people who’ve argued vehemently to the contrary, I still maintain that Shadow the Hedgehog is a good Sonic game. In fact, it’s the only 3D Sonic title, post-Adventure, that I would quantify as being “good” until the release of Sonic Colors in 2010. On a very personal level, I think it’s one of the very best titles in the franchise, and a personal favorite. However, I think my affinity towards it goes beyond it being a “good” or “fun” game. It’s a little deeper than that.
I kind of think Shadow the Hedgehog has one of the better stories in sixth generation gaming?
Hear me out. Yeah, it's a dark story told with cartoon animals, but if you look beyond that, there's some cool stuff going on here that has a lot to do with permeable nature of morality, the cycle of grief, and the inevitability of death. It's bleak stuff, if you poke and prod beneath the kid game surface a little bit, and it frankly makes sense that the writer got kicked off other Sonic games, and the series started veering heavily into bright, happy, saccharine storytelling. Because the logical extreme of the ideas presented in Shadow is that heroism doesn't exist, goodness can't last, and loss is a pain that can't ever truly be healed. When you contrast that with other stories in the medium, which are largely the antithesis to those ideas, it becomes clear (to me, at least,) that Shadow is operating on a very different level from a narrative standpoint. The closest comparison I can think of, thematically, is something by Yoko Taro. Even the bleaker works of Tetsuya Nomura have some semblance of classical "hero's journey" tales, and offer a pretty optimistic view of humanity.
From the outset, you have a protagonist who's defined by watching a child get murdered. Not just a child, though. Maria basically taught Shadow everything he knew about humanity. Created as the ultimate weapon, Shadow's sole purpose and function was to kill. But Maria taught him that humanity was something to be cherished, that earth was a beautiful place worth saving, that life was precious. Despite popular opinion, I'd argue that Maria is much more than a kid getting killed for shock value. She made the protagonist who he is. A figurehead.
And then, in the blink of an eye, she was gunned down in front of him. By soldiers from earth who placed no value on human life; in other words, by living contradictions to everything Shadow had come to accept as truth. Before he could react, he was launched in an escape pod to earth - a talking cartoon animal with a load of PTSD was now stranded on a planet he had mixed feelings on, with a species he had limited interaction with. That makes Sonic Adventure 2 make a lot of sense, really, right? Of course Shadow's susceptible to machinations of Teddy Roosevelt in pajamas. He's angry, hurt, confused, and alone.
At the heart of Shadow, then, is a character who's tortured. Yeah, he has some patently stupid dialogue, like the famous "taking candy from a baby line." This game ain't exactly Pulitzer material when it comes to the dialogue. But metatextually, Shadow represents the very idea of questioning truth, and of embracing the arbitrary nature of "good" and "bad." The game accomplishes this not through black and white choices, however. It does it by making the player go through Shadow's journey on a mechanical level.
But let's dwell on the story a bit more. Shadow the Hedgehog has ten main endings, which operate on a ten-point scale of "very bad" to "very good." Already, this is more nuanced than your average Telltale game, or even something like Grand Theft Auto IV, which was heavily lauded for its choices that ultimately only amounted to binary decisions. There's a big grey area there, and through all of them, players get to see Shadow grow and develop according to the path. What if you help out the good guys, then ultimately decide to go your own way? What if you want to be flat out evil, but start regretting your decisions and decide to work towards the greater good, while still not necessarily being a shining beacon of morality? This game lets you do that in a way that most don't. Not only that, but through each one, you see different sides of Shadow. You see his interactions with different characters shaping who he is, as a human... erm, hedgehog. It's a really cool system, as each route does demonstrate how one is shaped by their environment. When Shadow flatout murders Eggman in one ending, you saw all of the influences that led him to that point. There's nothing forced about it. That's neat.
But what's ultimately the coolest thing about all of the endings is that there's one true one. After beating every single route, players get access the "Last Story." In this, Shadow realizes that he's not only a genetic experiment with sentience, but also has the blood of the game's big bad. Now, it's kind of a cheesy, Saturday morning cartoon-ish realization that a) the bad guy was your sorta-kinda dad and that b) Shadow has fucking demon blood or something. However, what the game does with this revelation is quite clever, I think, and ultimately justifies the existence of all the other endings.
See, in the climax, Shadow sees the earth's impending destruction and decides to prevent it. However, he does this on his own terms. Not because anyone is telling him to. He kills Black Doom because he realizes that his existence ensures nothing but constant warfare. He destroys his home, the place he was born, because he realizes that it being there holds him back from looking forward. As the space colony he once called home is being blown to bits, he looks at a picture of Maria and simply says, "goodbye, 'Shadow the Hedgehog.'"
This, to me, is a pretty powerful scene, and one that ties all of the game's themes together. Throughout the several hours players spent controlling Shadow, they got to see a different variant of him. A hero, a villain, an agent of chaos, an upholder of peace. In each instance, he was defined by his environment, and made decisions based on that. But in Last Story, Shadow rejects all of those versions, and offers a rebuttal in the form of his declaration of autonomy. He ends violence by inflicting violence that Sonic wouldn't. He saves the planet by destroying the only link to his past. He realizes that one's fate is self-determined, while also realizing that with self-determination comes ostracization from certain parties. By making the conscious decision to make his own fate, he also comes to terms with the fact that who he is might not make anyone happy, even if he ultimately succeeds where a more traditional hero like Sonic may fail. In saying "goodbye, Shadow the Hedgehog," he rejects notions good and bad, accepts his place as society's id, and embraces a forward-thinking approach to life. Ev
Of course, there are some fallacies here. Self-determination theory is a relatively recent phenomenon in the world of psychology, and there is still debate as to whether or not one can be truly self-determined. In addition, some of the narrative overtones evoke ties to the concepts of "will to power" and the idea that God is dead - two of Nietzsche's more popular talking points. There's even some stabs at master-slave morality. Because these aren't necessarily agreed upon concepts, and the ramifications of them are still widely discussed today, Shadow trips up in its pretty blatant parroting of them, in a way that this year's Nier: Automata (the only other game I would argue posits similar themes on this level) doesn't. Shadow both embraces ambition and rejects it, and ultimately, the game doesn't really say much about its stance on that. Furthermore, it makes one think a tad on the nature of Shadow's existence, and of the "creator" as a rote concept, but doesn't grapple with it on quite the level I want it to. I would really like to see Shadow deal with the idea that he's a product of man a bit more, and question if something made man in a similar way.
Again, this is something discussed heavily in Nier: Automata, so I eventually got to see these ideas acted out. Still, for Shadow the Hedgehog to make grasps at both self-determination theory and Nietzsche and ultimately say very little about both is a little disheartening. Yet I can't help but be impressed. A look at 2005 in gaming paints a picture of an industry that's still not very interested in particularly complicated stories, with the only real narrative standouts being Shadow of the Colossus, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, killer7 and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The fact that Shadow even attempted any of this is ambitious, and the fact that it managed to turn Shadow into such an interesting, dynamic, and nuanced character is no small feat. This is an industry where we think simplistic as fuck, one-note characters like Nathan Drake, John Marston, and Talion are "complicated." Shadow outdoes them on the simple fact that he has something more to him than macho pain or attitude. He is, in many ways, a deconstruction of both those tropes, and a call to the industry to look beyond the pail when it comes to making memorable characters. A call that's gone half-answered for a while, I think.
In summation, I think Shadow the Hedgehog's story is exceptionally good, and easily the best in the entire series. That said, I have to wonder why it's even in said series to begin with. It very much feels like a project that the writer intended to be its own game, but was kind of forced to work within the confines of Sonic Team. The result is a complex narrative in a series that isn't particularly known for its complexity. Indeed, the same writer would be ousted from writing duties following this game. In following years, Sonic would steer into straight-up comedy and simple morals more befitting of a kids game.
That writer, by the way? Takashi Iizuka. Post-Shadow, Iizuka would take on roles in game design and supervision. To date, this is his only writing credit. Frankly, that makes me sad. It makes me sad that a guy who clearly has a lot to say has found himself shackled to a children's video game franchise, and that the public didn't receive his ambition well because it was part of said franchise. Mark my words - if Shadow's plot were scrubbed of all talking animals and told with humans, I firmly believe it would be one of the most fondly remembered games of its generation, or a cult classic at the very least. But it's not. And that's disheartening.
I hope Iizuka gets to do something more one day. Put him on one of Nagoshi's projects or something, if he's still working with Sega.
But I digress. I think this game has an exceptional narrative. The gameplay, though? It's... pretty alright.
Sonic Team hadn't quite figured out the whole 3D Sonic thing after Adventure, and while Shadow is a step up from the trainwreck that was Sonic Heroes, it still has problems. There's weird hit detection and a general floatiness to it. Everything works and nothing ever really breaks, which is both a plus and an anomaly for a franchise that was gradually becoming defined by jank. I also think the gunplay is decent, because it doesn't ever break the speed of the game and works as intended - outside of the abhorrent turret sequences. Still, "it works" is a far cry from being great, especially in a year that gave us innovations on mechanics in Resident Evil 4, God of War, Indigo Prophecy, and the aforementioned Shadow of the Colossus.
One thing I do enjoy, however, is way both difficulty and narrative progression work. Player choice is determined by actions accomplished in the level, and if you want to do a pure good run, you have to work for it. Collect an insane amount of rings, eradicate an obsessive amount of enemies, et cetera, et cetera. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it's easy to succumb to evil, and a moderate challenge to stay on your own path. Even in its mechanics, then, Shadow has something to say about traditional morality. Pretty neato, I think.
Also worth mentioning is that, for its time, this game has excellent visuals. Up until Unleashed, the characters never looked better, and the game's use of several different color palettes makes the whole experience a varied mix of aesthetics. The primary antagonists also have really interesting designs, and the character models look really nice. It's a sharp-looking game still holds up, having recently played it on the GameCube with component cables. I would recommend skipping out on the PS2 and Xbox versions, however - they're uglier and way more prone to glitching out, especially the former.
Oh, also, the score is fucking great, and has some of Crush 40's work. That was par for the course at this point, though, wasn't it? The running joke that Sonic's music is better than most of the games is a running joke for a reason.
I could probably talk about Shadow the Hedgehog for hours, so I'll wrap it up. This is a game that's a personal favorite, in both the series and in general. There's an ambition to it that you don't see very often, and to me, it feels like one of the last gasps Sonic had at storytelling ambition before turning into a tonally inconsistent, incongruent mess of a series. It's a flawed but admirable toying with the fallacies of morality. It's an argument for self-determination. It's a tragedy of coping with loss in all the wrong ways. And while held back by some mechanics that aren't terrible but aren't great, it's ultimately a work of art that I count among one of the more admirable narratives in mid-2000's gaming.
Or maybe it's a game about talking hedgehogs that takes itself too seriously. You decide! I'm sure you will. And will let me know. Loudly.
Next time, though, we'll talk about a game that even I can't defend... or can I?
Kissing her is fucking optional, okay?