Okay listen up, because I have something really important that I’ve wanted to share with you guys for a long time.
It will take some time to explain, but, this is just really important to me, so if you would take the time to read through this I would really appreciate it. I know it’s a lot, but please, just give it a chance.
While Sonic Adventure 2 may seem, from the outside, to be just another middling 3D action game with a tacked on story, this is hardly the case. In fact, it is just a shell whose hard candy center is one of the best kept secrets in gaming. If the Sonic Adventure series, if it can really be called that, is remembered for anything it is its ridiculous music, and voice acting, and really pretty much everything about it is. Few people, however, know that some of that music, namely the themes accompanying the Knuckles levels, were written by long time Sega audio producer Tomoya Ohtani in association with rapper Hunnid P. Even fewer are aware that, right under Sega's nose, he penned a veritable opera for the little monotreme. Hidden within each of these seemingly incomprehensible songs is the tale of a very confused soul, lost in a reality of its own design, that is struggling to come to terms with the profound realization of its utter powerlessness in the world. It is, in a word, beautiful. Perhaps this is somewhat unbelievable claim, but let me assure you of its authenticity.
I've created a write up delving into, in detail, this tale of epic proportions. But first, some explanation.
Before I begin, I'd like to establish a few things so that we are all clear on what this actually is.
First off, you have to realize that this is not, completely, Ohtani's original vision. Because he had to make his true intentions as unnoticeable as possible in order to get his songs approved, and since Sega ultimately had the final word on everything, his work has been obscured to some degree. Everything had to be contextual to the levels in the game, which had already been finalized before Ohtani was brought in, but thankfully Ohtani left behind song titles to serve as additional clues the original meaning of each piece. I will be examining these as well, and as such I have included them alongside the name of each level.
With that out of the way, let me clarify one more pressing issue that is most likely at the forefront of your mind. I'd imagine that, right now, some of you are thinking "Why haven't I heard of this before?" That's a very good question, and one that deserves an answer. Honestly, I do not know and would very much like to know why this is so rarely discussed as well. It was in 2007 that I first stumbled upon a MySpace post by Ohtani, linked to me through an IRC chatroom, nearly six years after the game's original Dreamcast release. I assume Sega must have ordered the post taken down before it caught mainstream attention as I have yet to find the original or a duplicate copy. Perhaps it was simply out of a fear that they would appear (more) ignorant to their customers, but I can think of no other reason as to why this sudden information would suddenly disappear from the net without a trace.
I was quite shocked to find that there is virtually no information left on the net regarding this astonishing, and admittedly hilarious, misappropriation of resources. So, naturally, I decided that I should chronicle this story somewhere before it was lost forever.
I hope it was worth the effort.
Ohtani's story was basically that of a man torn to pieces by the realization that his entire life is a self-fabricated monstrosity. Basically, Ohtani is implying through his lyrics that the world of Sonic the Hedgehog is actually an illusion, formed under the aide of hallucinogens, that Knuckles has created to shelter himself from the harsh realities of the real world. It's basically story of utter defeat by one’s own self and a glorious revelation and rebirth. The classic tale of a man becoming more than himself only when he is at his lowest. It's quite a remarkable story, and one made all the more so by the medium through which it is told. There are a few things essential to understanding this story to the fullest.
1. This is a monologue. Every song is quick to remind us that this is an account of Knuckle's thoughts in the first person in the beginning of every song. This is a tale told by its narrator, and as such there are things to consider. Is Knuckles being completely truthful to the audience? Is he even being completely truthful to himself? There are implications made by the narrative style, and it is best to keep these in mind before continuing.
2. Ohtani never had the final say on the music for each song. Although he did have a generally idea of what the music would be like for each track before he composed the lyrics, he never actually had any influence on the final pieces of music his words were performed over. He would often be forced by Sega to completely redo a song, giving him very little time to fix the lyrics for each new master. As such, the meaning of the lyrics and the context the music places into hem may seem to clash at times, but keep in mind that in most cases these are two separate bodies of work.
3. The final level in which all the characters team up is not canon to Ohtani's story. He had no creative control over the music in this part, and thus, it should not be considered part of his work. I should be quite easy to dismiss this considering that there are no actual lyrics to the music in this section of the game, but it is worth noting all the same.
4. There was a song cut from the game. Early in development there was going to be one more Knuckles level in the game, a snow level. This was actually the last Knuckles only section, and thus it was originally the final act of Ohtani's epic. I do not, as previously stated, have a copy of the original blog post in which Ohtani revealed the true meaning behind his lyrics, however I will attempt to recount the final chapter's general overview as best I can. With that out of the way, let's get on to the part you've all been waiting for.
Chapter 1 - Kick the Rock (Wild Canyon)
Kick the Rock is the first and most unassuming of the Ohtani tracks. It's a very light-hearted, very fun song. It is meant as a reintroduction to the world of Sonic the Hedgehog and what it, and Knuckles, is all about. Basically, it is a set up for things to come. However, don't be fooled by the upbeat rhythm, there is darker subtext work here. The first thing we notice is the use of the word "Echidona" in the line 1 of the second stanza. Not only is Knuckles not an "Echidona," but Echidona is not actually a word. Knuckles is an Echidna, and for Sega to have made such a slip up with their own character would normally be inexcusable. However, this was no slip up, this was intentional.
Here we see Ohtani begin to play with the idea that Knuckles is beginning to realize that he isn't sure who he is anymore. This is further implied by the line "Never seen a mic hog spit like a menace" as Knuckles is also not a hedgehog. This line, specifically, may be one of the early warning signs that Sonic, and the rest of the cast, are all actually Knuckles himself, drug fueled personas created by a desperate imagination trying to hang on to the illusion. There are also some other mature themes briefly glanced over in this song like sex, Knuckles's often rash and violent nature, and of course drug references.
Although Ohtani never specified what, exactly, Knuckles may have been consuming in reality, the popular consensus at the time was crack cocaine. This is implied by the title "Kick the Rock," as well as Knuckles's constant paranoia regarding the safety of his "Master Emerald.” Although this would not explain the extreme level of hallucination he is experience throughout the story, it is never implied that Knuckles is only taking one type of drug so he could, in fact, be partaking of multiple substances.
Chapter 2 - A Ghost's Pumpkin Soup (Pumpkin Hill)
Here we begin to see Knuckles slowly begin to succumb to his paranoia as the once wistful valleys of the Wild Canyon are twisted and contorted into the nightmare realm now known only as Pumpkin Hill. The important things to recognize are the metaphors Ohtani is using with the ghosts and pumpkins. Basically, the ghosts represent the few remaining scraps of Knuckles's conscious, waking mind that realize the truth of his situation where as the pumpkins are the hallucinations, created by his subconscious in self-defense against recognizing reality. As Knuckles comes closer to the truth of his dream world's fabrication, they begin to transform into horrifying abominations in an attempt to ward him away back into their comforting embrace.
This is further expounded upon in the title, "A Ghost's Pumpkin Soup," that denotes the fact that this wretched dream scape in which Knuckles now resides was, originally, a creation of his waking mind attempting to escape its frustrations with the world. This is also the first song in which the true nature of the Master Emerald is revealed. The Master Emerald is, in actuality, Knuckles's mind. Every time it comes close to completion it is broken apart as he suffers yet another mental break down, further isolating him from the reality which he so feverishly denies.
The two most interesting lines here are those of 8 and 9 in the second stanza. Knuckles explains that his "graveyard theory" is that a ghost tried to approach him but "got leery." Let's look it at from the perspective of the ghost as a metaphor for Knuckles's waking mind. Knuckles's conscious mind, the one that is aware of the falsity of the illusion, approaches him attempting to bring him back into reality. However, it gets "leery" before it is able to do so. Now what does leery mean? Well the traditional definition is a caution brought about by completely rational fears, realistic fears. Think about that, realistic fears. This is just another example of the masterful word play at work here. The ghost is not afraid of being harmed by the corporeal Knuckles, it is afraid that he is not capable of handling reality without doing irreversible harm to himself.
Knuckles then begins frantically climbing, the menacing anecdotes issuing forth from the pumpkins corrupting his every thought, trying to find any semblance of rational behind the events that are beginning to tear his world apart. He then jumps off and begins flying deeper. Deeper not into darkness, but into his own consciousness, desperately searching for answers.
Chapter 3 - Dive Into the Mellow (Aquatic Mine)
This is the first track whose music really detracts from Ohtani's lyrics, although that may not initially seem to be the case. The problem with the song, and really even the title "Dive Into the Mellow", is that it implies that Knuckles has lapsed back into hallucination and is farther from the truth than ever. In actuality, that is not the case, at least not yet. The use of "mellow" in the title is meant to invoke a feeling of almost reaching that point of clarity. Basically, this is the point in the story where Knuckles reaches out towards reality, almost manages to finally, after so long, touch it, but inevitably falling back into darkness as is evident by the next song, "Deeper."
The music here is meant to be a bit more erratic, to convey the idea that Knuckles is frantically searching but also very much confused with the concept of who he actually is and why the world around him is shifting into a dark, antagonistic nightmare realm.
This is when we begin to see Knuckles questioning the world around him. He begins to question why things are the way they are, even somewhat resenting it as is evident in the lines:
Makes you wanna sit back, enjoy the life
And do the things you like doin', get to shine
It sure beats fighting with the foes all the time
But I gotta do it, they always stay out of line
But there is also a profound confusion ailing Knuckles. He feels lost in his own home, in his own mind, and he is still plagued by demonic visions, his subconscious still mangling itself into an ever-darker form. He feels trapped, like he is drowning in it all with no hope left of finding a way out. But there is still one light left, miniscule though it may be. He remains determined. He has no goal, or even any way of knowing exactly what it is that he is searching, but he refuses to back down. It is that trait that defines Knuckles, but also leads him to his eventual downfall.
Chapter 4 – Deeper (Death Chamber)
And here is where we finally arrive, the breaking point. This is the climax of the story and where everything starts to fall apart for Knuckles. This is where Knuckle’s darkest fears finally take over and drop him into a terrifying realm known as Death Chamber. He breaks, almost instantly. The visions he is confronted with prove to much for him to handle and his mind finally snaps.
It is in this piece that the construction of the Sonic Universe as a lucid hallucination is brought to bear and the truth of Knuckle’s situation is exposed in full force. The lyrical aspect of this song is actually incredible minimal, and as such almost every single line is packed with meaning.
From front to back all I see is stones
I'm glad that I don't call this home
This is the beginning of the song when Knuckles starts to panic. He knows that what he is seeing isn’t right, but he is still apprehensive. He is actually starting to realize what has been going on, but he doesn’t want to accept it. We can see this apprehension specifically in “I don’t call this home.” This statement wasn’t prompted; in fact he had no reason to say it at all. Except it IS his home, it is his mind, but he wants to believe above all hope that this is just another horrible hole in the earth that his emerald somehow fell into.
Eggman wants to steal our soul, keep the Emeralds and build a throne
Now this is very interesting and really brings to bear the crux of the story. Eggman wants to steal our soul? I’m pretty sure that has never been Eggman’s MO, and notice the wording. He wants to steal “our” “soul.” Not “Our souls” or “My soul”, “our soul.” This is further confirmed by the reemergence of the idea of the Master Emerald. Once again the idea of the emerald as the pieces of Knuckle’s mind is brought up again, with Eggman, who we can only assume at this point is the ultimate manifestation of Knuckle’s damaged psyche, wants to build a throne out of the emerald so that he can gain control of the Echidna and keep him safe from reality once and for all.
Not if I can help at all
I will not let him take it over
Need I say more?
And it is then that we come to what may be one of the most simultaneously beautiful and terrifying pieces of music every created. The Argument.
"Sonic, what are you doing here?"
"I heard you were on a quest for the Master Emerald"
"You know me and you don't get along"
"I don't think that's the point right now, Knuckles
I know how much that emerald means to you and I wanna help get it back
Stop bein' stubborn and think"
"Well, I guess you're right"
"Ya damn right Knuckles"
"I know Eggman's secret station's here somewhere All we have to do is find it"
"I know we'll need a key to get inside
That's our only way to find it So let's go"
It is here that Ohtani really shines as both a lyricist and a storyteller. So much struggle, so much anguish, and then that release.
This part can be a little difficult to follow, so allow me to break it down.
Just as Knuckles is about to give in, perhaps even opting to commit suicide, Sonic appears out of nowhere and urges him to go on, to not give up and keep charging ahead. Obviously, if there was any doubt, this pretty much seals the fact that Sonic is just another personality created by Knuckles, but there is more to it than that. It was generally a consensus at the time that, much like Eggman, Sonic is the avatar of the remaining pieces of Knuckle’s waking mind and most likely always has been. It is in this time of need that Knuckle’s conscious mind finally refuses to obey the rules of this warped reality and sends a messenger in the guise of one of Knuckle’s own creations to guide him to the truth, to guide him to the key to escape his self created prison.
And it is with this that the final battle commences.
Chapter 5 – Space Trip Steps (Meteor Herd)
There is, surprisingly very little to this track in terms of narrative. There is certainly a little development here, but the main focus was to be on the music carrying the flow of the battle with Eggman. Sadly both the story and music of this level were changed rather late in the development of Sonic Adventure 2 when it was decided that the final section of the game would feature all the characters rather than just Sonic and Shadow. This was a major blow to Ohtani’s work, but it was so late in the game’s life that he could neither alter or abandon his magnum opus even if he wanted to.
While the original brilliance of this track may be lost to the ages, we can still at least garner some info of the final confrontation between Knuckle’s and Eggman from the song’s lyrics.
Obviously the first thing most listeners will notice that Knuckles and Sonic are now in space and, as Knuckles puts it, they “left from our home.” This is not to imply that they have physically left home, as I’m sure you are all already aware, but they have left the realm of Knuckles’s subconscious completely. They have ascended to a new plane, perhaps even some kind of spirit dimension, to finally confront and kill Eggman.
As they dodge meteors to reach Eggman, it was speculated that the meteors were probably the subconscious finally resorting to physical violence against Knuckles, perhaps even causing him to harm himself in real life, Knuckles notes that he has a crazy look in his face. This is not actually because Eggman looks weird, but because he is no longer Eggman at all. He has adopted a new nightmarish form that is the true avatar of Knuckles’s delusional state, but Knuckles himself fails to notice has he has become overwhelmed completely with determination.
The rest of the song consists of consists of a repeated chorus that was most likely added after the fact to fill up space as the original track was, as previously mentioned, supposed to be almost entirely instrumental.
It really is a shame.
Finale – Find Myself (Snow Bank Mountain)
In the original version of Sonic Adventure 2, Knuckles would defeat Eggman only to fall to earth, landing a top a gigantic snow covered mountain, which he would then snowboard down, much akin to the first Sonic level of the game. This was intended to be a reward for the player and a break from the normal gameplay of the Knuckles levels; it is assumed there were to be more than 6 levels in early development. Further into development it was going to serve as an interactive overlay for the credits, this was when Ohtani got a hold of it.
Snow Bank Mountain was cut relatively early, so while Ohtani never was able to complete a finished lyrics sheet for this section of the game, he did in fact have a finale written out.
Ohtani did give some idea of what he had intended to do with the ending in his MySpace post, but he was never explicitly clear about some major details, hoping that each individual could draw their own conclusions to the story that would satisfy them.
The two most popular theories at the time were as follows.
A majority of people believed that Snow Bank mountain was, in fact, a mountain of drugs and that having been exhausted in the final battle with Eggman that his subconscious took the opportunity to take back control of Knuckles and send him, quite literally, spiraling down into oblivion. It is assumed that the ride down the mountain is paranoid Knuckles who has lost all control on a deranged drug spree and that the final black out to credits is, in actuality, meant to represent his death.
In this version of the ending the title could be considered black humor or even ironic as Knuckles’s true self turns out to be the animalistic, impulse driven drug fiend he had been all along and there never was truly any hope for a release for him other than death.
Many were unsatisfied, including myself, with such an obvious and, quite frankly, disappointing twist to what had otherwise been a masterful crafted tale. Many believed that Ohtani was far better than this and sent out to dig deeper into the previous entries to derive the true meaning of Find Myself.
The biggest clue was when Ohtani mentioned that he had made a major revision to Find Myself upon learning that it would become a credits stage. Now why would that be? Ohtani had, up to now, made no concessions for Sega’s bull shit. He had kept true to his story and refused to let his superior get in the way of telling it.
And that’s just it, it wasn’t in the way at all. In fact, it was just what he needed.
The credits themselves would be the multiple personalities of Knuckles, the friends he had come to love and cherish over the years he spent with them, slowly disappearing from him as he slipped more and more back into reality as he cruised down the mountain. Knuckles would never face the camera, he would never look back until the game was over. There, in fact, most likely were NEVER to be any lyrics, an eerie silence juxtaposed next to nearly two hours of nonstop monologue.
The game would end with a cut to black and complete silence as the Sonic Team logo came up for one last time and simply hung there, waiting for the player to provide input for the game to continue.
The player themselves would have to cast away Sonic, not only a character that gamers around the world have known and loved for decades, but also the last and only true friend Knuckles had ever had, even if he was imaginary.
The player themselves would have to pull the final plug on Knuckles’s warped reality and finally set him free.
Truly a masterpiece of modern media.