09 December 2010

Baww Green Eyes!

When "Project Needlemouse" was revealed to be Sonic 4, and the first trailer was shown, it immediately became clear that Sega wasn't going to use Sonic's classic design. This was disappointing to many fans, and not just because the hype had promised a return to classic form. It also hurt because it had a ring of finality to it - if Sega didn't bring back classic Sonic for Sonic 4, they're probably never going to do it.

This perceived betrayal caused what's called a "shitstorm" by indelicate people. I did my bit with this post, angrily complaining about Sonic's modern design. Of course, to any backlash there is always another backlash, and people began to complain about the complainers: "It's just his design! It's not a very important detail! Just shut up!" And so, the "Baww Green Eyes!" meme was born. (I like to think that my post is at least partly responsible, but I'd probably be over-inflating its impact.)

When it comes to any argument - for example, "Black Eyes VS Green Eyes" - I can respect the two opposite views. Those arguing for one design over the other are both passionately defending something that matters. It's the third group, those who say "shut up!" that I can't stand. Telling someone that their argument doesn't matter and that they should desist is doubly toothless: first, it's antagonistic - it opposes their viewpoint and will be seen as just as disagreeable as their opponents; second, unlike their opponents, it contributes nothing to the argument.

This is why I dislike the "Baww Green Eyes!" meme so much. It seeks to delegitimise an entire conversation, a conversation that I feel is worth having. Suddenly any discussion of Sonic's design and its strengths and weaknesses can be hijacked by any fool who brays "Baww Green Eyes!" like it's the most brilliant possible rejoinder. "This subject doesn't matter! You're all whiny bitches!"

If it's such a minor detail that it truly doesn't matter, then why does this third group of "shut-uppers" seem to care so much? If they aren't interested in the details of Sonic's design, why don't they leave the discussion altogether? They aren't contributing anything, and by their own admission they wouldn't care whatever the outcome.

Argue for black eyes. Argue for green eyes. (Or peach/blue eyelids, or short/long spines, etc). But don't say it doesn't matter at all.

I've been accused of nerdrage and bitching enough to know that it stings. I'll probably be accused once more, because of this post. God knows I'm painfully aware of how pathetic it sounds to talk about Sonic's eye-colour as though the future of mankind depends on it. But I will not have it said that it doesn't matter, for a very good reason. That mentality dismisses the work of talented people to whom it very much does matter - the game designers themselves.

You may be a layperson who only plays the games, and to you the details are just that - details. Many of them you won't remember, or ever be consciously aware of. But the developers and designers sweat blood to get these details right, so there actually is a quarter of the world wherein Sonic's design does supremely matter - in the mind and the workplace of his designers.

Do you really think that Naoto Ohshima or Yuji Uekawa just slapped their Sonic designs together with an "anything goes" attitude? "It doesn't matter what our character looks like. He'll be appealing anyway, because he can jump!"

Because I'm interested in designing Sonic games myself, these details are of interest and importance to me. This doesn't make me a whiner - it just means I'm not a passive player in the Sonic experience. Being invested doesn't make me any weirder than the people who took care to create Sonic in the first place. No one would dare think to fault them for caring about their own designs, upon which their careers may even hinge. Obsession isn't automatically a bad thing.

Methinks I doth protest too much. Perhaps it's time I make a stab at outlining why I dislike the green eyes on Sonic. It's not a knee-jerk hatred of "Modern Sonic" (though rest assured I do hate the design), it's got a rational basis. As such, I could be argued out of my position if this basis were shown to be silly.

There are two major reasons why they don't work. First, it's a bad colour choice. Sonic's red, white, and blue design is iconic, partly inspired by the emblematic flags of the UK and US.

The reason why these colours work is because they are complementary. If you introduce another colour from a wildly different band of the spectrum, things go terribly wrong. That's why you'll often see American flags with gold tassels or edging, but never anything like this:

Simply, having all of the primary colours present in the same scheme looks totally wrong. This is why Sonic's peach muzzle and tummy, or golden shoe buckle, look alright. They share the "red" aspect of the scheme, and don't conflict. The minute green is introduced, though, it all goes wrong.

You may say, "yes, but it's such a small amount of green, nothing like the treasonous vandalism you visited upon those flags." You'd be right, of course (also, the eyes are very far away from the red of the shoes, mitigating the conflict somewhat) - but the eyes are the part of the design you're supposed to be drawn to. They're the most important part; they aren't described as "windows to the soul" for nothing. Everything else can change, but if the eyes don't look right, the whole picture is ruined. For example:

These are not faces.

A minor change, in the grand scheme of things, but an enormous change in the character of the "face".

So, would changing the colour of Sonic's eyes help matters? If I'm complaining about the green, would I be happy with blue or cyan? Well, let's find out:

A small improvement; less violence is done to the colour scheme, certainly. But I find I still don't like it. So what is my complaint with the "green eyes" if not the "green" part? Let's take a look at my favourite picture of classic Sonic:

Sonic doesn't just have black (or very dark brown) eyes, but there is an obvious "shine" to them. The little white circle does wonders. Without it, he looks like this:

There's a reason why, in anime and manga, characters are often depicted without a shine in their eyes to make them look dead or mind-controlled. There's an eerie lifelessness to it. So Sonic has shiny eyes in all his classic forms:

CD Sonic goes really far. Practically the top half of each pupil is white!

But it's not just the shine or lack thereof that makes the eyes, it's the position. If we move the shine to the dead centre of Sonic's pupils, he starts to look weird:


It makes him look less like he's looking at you, and connecting with you, and more like he's just a drawing. It's a subtle detail, but for designers, it's details like these that make or break a design.

The trouble is, the way they shade Sonic's eyes these days, with the green iris, the shine ends up being almost dead centre in his pupil. Examples:

If this looks familiar, it's because Mario has been doing it forever:

Sonic's has Mario's eyes! And overall shading style, to boot. (What was Sega thinking, if you can't beat 'em join 'em?)

So it's not so much that Sonic has green eyes as it is that he has green irises that force his pupil to be much smaller, putting the shine closer to centre. If the eye, both pupil and iris, were treated as a single unit with one large shine, I think it'd be improved a lot:

To be fair, many of the more recent renderings of Modern Sonic are gravitating toward looking like this, and I think that's helping him look better. But they need to do it consciously and consistently to bring back his "cute" look.

Klonoa has had irises for years and still looks cute and appealing because the artists did just that:

To close, I'll also give props to Sonic Battle's bold design, which looks great despite the green:

I think Sega should take a hint from Sonic Battle and use flagrantly different designs for their games more often. The plain vanilla "Modern Sonic" has been with us for over a decade and we could do with some artistic licence. Hey, if Disney can make a dark, intelligent platformer about Mickey Mouse (a Mickey Mouse that reverts to his classic design, no less) to critical acclaim, so can Sega do with Sonic.

1 comment:

  1. Your blog is awesome, that's all I gotta say.

    Great article man.