Director’s Cuts: An insight into the NVM

Sonic’s Birthday

Some advice… If you ever find yourself in the lucky position of running a videogame festival or museum, one of the constant challenges you’re going to have is developing a constant, varied programme. It’s a useful exercise to look toward forthcoming videogame anniversaries or birthdays as a starting point. These can not only provide you with a helpful “free” focus for building programming around, but are supplied with the added benefit of generally attracting people predisposed into wanting to have a good time. Even if you throw a birthday party for a character people hate, they’re more likely to just not attend than show up and try and ruin it. Mostly.

This year Sonic the Hedgehog reaches his 30th Birthday and I thought it might be interesting to look back over a few of the ways we’ve thought about him with the public over the years.

Despite Sonic being not just an iconic character, but one of the few globally recognised icons of an entire industry, we’ve actually done relatively little playing of the Sonic games at the museum. That’s something you can do at home, right? We’re trying to discover new ways to explore Sonic and what he means to audiences without necessarily demanding that visitors play the game – because games can be HARD! This is one of the things we think about a lot and on of our core questions – do you need to be able to play a game, in order to be able to understand it?

We began our relationship with him at his fifteenth birthday during the very first GameCity Festival. We were first alerted of Sonic’s extraordinary power to convene a crowd when we held a birthday tea-party in his honour at a cafe in Nottingham. An hour before opening an eager queue of fans had already formed, all clamouring to have their photograph taken with this icon of gaming – in this case performed by an intern in an excellent (if sweaty) costume that SEGA lent us. All of this was preface to the main event of the day, a solo piano recital of SEGA classics given by Richard Jacques in a 14th Century Church. Stripped of its synthesised instrumentation and placed in a beautiful venue with a particularly loaded atmosphere, audiences were able to enjoy the soundtrack in a very different way. Jacques played. People cried. It ended up being on of the most emblematic events we did in establishing the early tone of our programming.

At the National Videogame Arcade, we did a lot of work around the original Sonic the Hedgehog game. One of the simplest and most popular exhibits was a simple enlarged printout of the entire Green Hill Zone level. Suddenly able to view the routes through it as a whole, visitors could appreciate the design of it in a whole new way. They would stand and pore over details, identifying particular locations that they found especially difficult, then return to the gallery to play the game itself. Having the printed map placed near the actual game created a fun conversation between the two, inviting people to move between them as they explored. This triggered a new idea, and one we’re returning to very soon.

We built a prototype of something we called a ‘Game Inspector’. The idea was to make an interactive exhibit that would allow people to explore Sonic’s world, without needing to be good at playing. We prototyped an exhibit that let people zoom in and out of the level map whilst exploring, triggering different ‘quotes’ of gameplay elements and revealing concept art and other ephemera as they did.

(We’re returning to think about Sonic again for an update of the ‘Game Inspector’ prototype later this year. This time we’re investigating the fascinating phenomena of Sonic as played in the UK, and the fact that the whole game is 17.5% slower than in Japan… )

Today, Sonic is still very visible in the museum, greeting you as you arrive into the galleries and providing a perfect photo opportunity.  He also features in our ‘Bonus Bundle’, as one of a collection of titles which allow you to directly play JUST the bonus levels (more on that another time) and as the star of one of our favourite arcade cabinets, Sonic All-Stars Racing. Yes, we even have Sonic games you can actually play! Although remember, there are lots of ways to explore games, playing them is just one.

Iain Simons, Creative Director

ps. The Visitor Experience manager has firmly asked me to point out that Sonic is also part of a rich media and product landscape that is expressed in a multitude of different ways in the museum gift shop. She also agrees he is much more than just a game; he’s a plushie, a pencil, a bag and a perfect gift to commemorate your visit to the NVM.