Freedom Planet

Whenever I think of the discourse surrounding this game, one point comes to mind: “Freedom Planet (finally) got the Sonic formula right.” The idea is that after years of failure from Sega as they slowly forgot the hedgehog’s appeal, a group of Sonic’s fans returned the series to its roots and restored its lost spirit. It’s an enticing narrative – the passionate individuals come out victorious over the profit-driven corporate powers – but it’s far from airtight. For example, in light of the many Sonic games that did get the formula right (the Advance games, the Rush games), it becomes clear that the problem isn’t so much that Sega couldn’t make a good Sonic game as much as it is that the community values certain video game experiences above other, regardless of their quality. However, this is a symptom of a much larger problem that’s far beyond the scope of what I’m discussing.

What I want to address is the main thrust of this argument: that Freedom Planet stays true to the Sonic ethos where Sonic itself has faltered. Already we’re implying a certain truths about the situation: that the older Sonic games have a clearly identifiable ethos and that this ethos can be perfectly understood and replicated in the present. It’s this second premise that I take issue with the most. In practice, many understandings of how games were in the past paint a somewhat romantic image, one that’s no doubt interpreted through a nostalgic lens. While studying these games for a significant length of time (as the developers of Freedom Planet certainly had to) helps remind one of the mundane reality such an image covers up, we run into another problem: how does one understand older games without letting the present day affect that understanding? It may well be impossible to avoid this issue, much less bring past design trends into the present completely intact.

wvw69kbogekxtzwb1jIn any case, Freedom Planet is a much more modern game than it lets on. It’s impossible to deny the role nostalgia plays in its creation, given the litany of games from the 1980s/1990s it takes influence from. But strip those influences away, and what’s left is a game that has little to do with the past. Its artistic approach belongs in the present, and it makes little if any effort to hide that. This is both Freedom Planet’s greatest asset and the source of much frustration.

To a certain extent the game’s relationship with the past is adversarial. Never content to say within the bounds it’s drawn for itself, Freedom Planet is constantly looking for ways to exceed those limitations. In fact, the only reason it holds onto those limitations at all is because transcending them wouldn’t be an option otherwise. The visual aesthetic provides a good example of this strategy in action – sometimes Neo Geo, sometimes modern day sprite work, but never fully Sega Genesis – but the narrative and how it’s conveyed provides a stronger example. If older video games were defined by how much they left unstated (as I’ve implied before), then Freedom Planet represents an abundance of narrative. The story overwhelms players with information and spells out quite clearly how that information should be received. Exposition ensures the plot is just as explicitly detailed as the art. The story lingers on social interaction between the characters partly for its own sake, but also because those interactions firmly establish the characters’ presence.

However, the irony is that for all the game does to inundate us with information, it’s not particularly interested in saying all that much with it. Very broadly speaking, Freedom Planet empties itself of a lot of substance. It’s the performance of motifs for their own sake; personalities without histories; ideas without foundation; the purposeful absence of meaning. So far, at least, things are going according to plan. By emptying itself of meaning, the game becomes a blank canvas onto which the player can project their own ideas. It’s a popular mode of engagement and one that speaks to a context at least somewhat removed from the game itself, and it’s at that level that this engagement works best.

wvw69kbfawsgmerr_qThat’s because within the game itself, that kind of engagement starts to break down. It risks turning into a false bravado that claims to face reality head-on but in truth eschews it altogether. Let’s take a closer look at the story to demonstrate this. In the background, we see a political skirmish unfold: the three polities of Shang Mu, Shang Tu, and Shuigang are at war with each other, the latter of them being manipulated by an alien invader (Brevon) so he can steal an ancient artifact in the ensuing chaos and fuel his own conquest. Meanwhile, we see nothing more in the foreground than the three heroines (Lilac, Carol, and Milla) being friends and living their lives together.

Although these two plot threads quickly converge, the hierarchy remains: the personal is given preference over the political. Moreover, the former is represented as a space in which conflict doesn’t exist, and the latter as a space in which conflict is all too easily identifiable. While this kind of representation makes the conflicts the characters face easier to overcome, it can only accomplish this by underselling the complexity of the issues at hand. Accidentally or not, the game construes these spaces as completely separate spheres whose overlap within the story is incidental.

But then if this is the case, then we’re forced to rethink how Lilac, Carol, and Milla interact with the background conflict. Yes, they fight against Brevon, but that fight can only be motivated in part by a disconnect from the world around them. They’re not driven by an innate sense of justice (at least not at first), as we’re led to believe, but by a desire to restore the world to an amenable status quo. A new friend Torque has been displaced by the alien army’s actions, so Lilac and company help him return to his home planet. While Lilac and company are right to oppose Brevon for stealing their world’s only energy source, that source is both very close to depletion and the cause of pre-existing political conflicts that won’t end with Brevon’s defeat.

wvw69kb_2wus-gimtoI don’t mean to paint the game as optimistically naive, though. All the points I’ve criticized thus far stem from a youthful optimism at the game’s heart, and as willing as I am to recognize the faults that leads to, I’m just as quick to recognize its value. In fact, as strange as this is going to sound, if I were to personify Freedom Planet, I’d imagine it being a teenage girl. The gender is easy enough, given the clear feminine ethos (I’m meant to see myself in the protagonists). As for the age, I see the game as standing on a precipice. It’s just emerged from childhood, and while it’s not quite an adult yet, it’s acutely aware of how necessary the transition into adulthood is. Hence adolescence.

Anyway, this approach forces us to rethink our understanding of the game. While we can still say the main characters’ idealism is naive, we can’t say it’s naive in the sense that it willfully retreats from reality. Quite the opposite, actually: this is their method of engaging with reality. Because the game’s perspective has just emerged from childhood, it approaches the world with a desire to hold onto the innocent self it’s always known from childhood. But because that perspective is also aware of the imminent transition into adulthood, it yearns for an opportunity to participate in that world of adults, even if it doesn’t know how yet. This is why we see main characters who both express an immediate readiness to fight Brevon’s armies and only engage in that fight to maintain a way of life (friendships) they believe will emerge out of it fundamentally unchanged.

This is also why we see the characters struggle so hard to enact either of these goals. After all, the world of adulthood is a morally and epistemologically ambiguous one. Adults appear to the protagonists as alien Others, either limited in their ability to help the new generation or a threat they’re powerless to fight. Likewise, the world itself sometimes appears so complex as to have no place for the heroines’ brand of idealism (as characters like Spade are so quick to remind them). What we see now is more akin to a tragedy than a straightforward uplifting story. We see characters who realize their own impotence in the grand scheme of things and rebel against it, all the while knowing just how little that rebellion will matter in the end. Knowing that the world’s problems are too complicated for any one individual to solve once and for all; knowing that reconciling certain personalities may be impossible; knowing that they aren’t immune to this, and that they may grow apart over time.

wvw69kboccm2a-jvnxUnfortunately, it’s a story made all the more tragic by its inability to resolve these problems in a satisfying manner. The way it resolves its conflicts is still too optimistic: Brevon has been defeated, the Kingdoms enjoy (an uneasy) peace, and the ancient artifact whose energy was slowly dwindling as those Kingdoms squabbled spreads the last of its energy across all three of them equally.  Long term issues like how the Kingdoms will maintain that peace are addressed, true, but by ending the story shortly after Brevon’s defeat, the game can side-step the consequences that would logically entail from those issues.

Perhaps Freedom Planet’s youthful energies will be better realized during play. There’s a reason why people are so quick to compare this game to Sonic the Hedgehog, and it’s not just because of the obvious visual parallels. All the superficial similarities are there: a Knuckles for climbing walls (Carol), a Tails for flying short distances (Milla), protective bubbles with unique effects on the world around you, curving loops and runways to sprint through, and a continual emphasis on going forward. We can even identify the specific Sonic game Freedom Planet takes inspiration from: Sonic CD, with maybe a hint of Knuckles Chaotix.

Of course, if we’re only identifying the game as a copy of Sonic games before it, then we’re forced to conclude its youthful energies misfire. To be more specific, those energies go well beyond the limits of what they’re capable of managing. In an attempt to pay homage to the intricate level design of Sonic CD, the game ends up creating these sprawling, bloated odes to the classics. Where it should only develop a few core ideas per level, each level is stuffed with a dozen ideas competing for attention. No one idea is given the room it needs to breathe. Levels drag themselves on for far longer than they should. Even later in the game, when these ideas have some semblance of structure to organize them, it feels like the bloat remains.

wvw69kbem7c9h5vzagThis is why I take issue with any interpretation of Freedom Planet that treats it like a Sonic game: because such an interpretation overlooks how the game relates to Sonic through its own self, rather than simply modeling that self after Sonic. To illustrate this, consider why it is we play the two games in question. As I detailed long ago in my Billy Hatcher blog, Sega games tend to emphasize movement for its own sake. For them, movement isn’t simply a means of getting from point A to point B like it is in most games, or something that can be instrumentalized like racing games do, but an object worthy of study in its own right. They’ll cut away any elements they believe impede your aesthetic appreciation of movement, whether that’s control in Billy Hatcher or explicit goals in NiGHTS into Dreams…

Clearly Freedom Planet doesn’t belong to this tradition; at least not entirely. I didn’t choose the earlier Sonic CD example lightly. In contrast to its peers, which emphasize continually moving forward, CD encourages its players to stop, explore every nook and cranny, and get to know the world on a personal level. This is the thread that Freedom Planet latches onto. The game is at its strongest when it lends the world a tangibility beyond its immediate relevance to the story. Locations often feel like they have a history behind them, like they’re places where people could live and do business (or at least did so in the past) rather than merely stages for the characters to perform on. Granted, this isn’t something the game consistently nails – in practice, it wavers between the locale and stage approaches – but I feel like the former is frequent enough throughout the game that it’s worth mentioning.

And just as Sonic’s mechanical structure lends itself to movement for its own sake, so too does Freedom Planet’s layout suit its own purposes. Playing through these levels, I always felt like I was looking at the world for the first time. My own experiences were irrelevant; it seemed to be an innate quality in how the world was presented to me. This, in turn, instilled in me an innate curiosity to explore these spaces for their own sake in a way I’d never think of doing with a Sonic game. Through this fusion of world-as-actual-location and the innate curiosity to explore that world, we see the gameplay solve the puzzle the story never could.

In addition, this fusion better allows us to approach the game on its own terms. The levels don’t feel bloated (well, as bloated) if your goal is to pour every nook and cranny rather than blast to the end as quick as possible. Something similar happens with the mechanics of play, most of which I haven’t commented on until now. Looked at through the Sonic lens, we’d be forced to conclude that we’re given clumsy implements for building up speed. Lilac launching herself through the air (as opposed to Sonic spin-dashing along the ground) turns her into an unreliable bullet, and Carol’s motorcycle is an unwieldy mess. Looked at on Freedom Planet’s own terms, though, they begin to make more sense. Lilac’s abilities expand the game’s horizons by stressing upward mobility, as do Carol’s wall climbing and her motorcycle (which can also climb up walls, somehow).

So Freedom Planet was never in a position to “get the Sonic formula right”, but that’s OK; it never put itself in that position in the first place. More interesting to me, the position it does put itself in is one that can speak directly to the nostalgia underpinning that claim. This worry about preparing one’s self for an inevitable future while still holding onto what one values from the past applies just as well to nostalgic media as it does Lilac and her friends’ struggle. What, if anything, can we salvage from the the artifacts of childhood? Will our own understanding of those artifacts survive the process of salvaging what we can from them? Will the world still value what we have to offer? And most importantly, does it even matter if what we’re left with in the end isn’t a perfect reproduction of those halcyon days?

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