The Laws of Physics in an Animation Universe (Sonic the Hedgehog)
The Sonic the Hedgehog video game series has a 20+ year history, and when your main character is a guy (the titular Sonic) who can run faster than the speed of sound, you know the laws of physics are going to get bent. A lot. The aesthetic of Sonic games has its roots in the look of classic rubberhose animation and the early Mickey Mouse cartoons. This fanciful take on physics extends into gameplay and story. Over the long history of the series an internal narrative has been built up (intentionally and accidentally) which suggests an in-universe explanation for the extreme physics displayed, allowing them to mesh with the physical rules which we know from our world.
When beginning to look at how traditional “toon” physics elements that are applied in gameplay and story (beyond being used for sight gags), the use of “hammerspace” is a good place to start. Often seen in video games, “hammerspace” is the colloquial term for an instance when a character will pull an object out of seemingly nowhere, or hide it away in a similarly inexplicable fashion. First used as a sight gag in Western animation of the 1920’s and 30’s, it’s common in video games today but often for more practical reasons (characters needs to carry a lot of stuff sometimes!). In the Sonic series, it’s used for both. Amy Rose, a supporting character in the franchise, is famous for her oversized mallet the “Piko-Piko Hammer” which she will pull out of nowhere to deal with whatever’s in her way (boulders, killer robots, Sonic himself…). The main health mechanic of the series, gold rings also works on hammerspace; rings are collected throughout a level, and seemingly disappear. But if your character is hit, instead of being injured all the rings they have collected are dropped and strewn around the area. They must then scrabble around snatching up as many as they can, for if you’re hit without rings on hand you lose a life. These examples show hammerspace being used not only as a visual gag, but as an active element of gameplay.
Beyond hammerspace, the Sonic series takes full advantage of fanciful Felix the Cat-esque abstractions of cartoons in its characters. Two notable and recurring examples are Tails and Knuckles, Sonic’s best friends, and how they can fly. Being a fox and an echidna (respectively), you wouldn’t expect flight to be within their skill-sets but they manage. Tails, as the name suggests, has two tails and can spin them like helicopter blades to propel himself skyward. Naturally, this ability completely disregards facts like that spines are physical objects and are not known for simultaneously occupying the same space. Knuckles fans out his… dreadlocks (Quills? Nobody’s quite sure what they are) into a makeshift wing. This allows him to glide great distances, though one glance would tell you that there’s no way this arrangement could possibly produce enough lift in the universe’s most likely Earthlike atmosphere (an argument could be made for it being more dense than ours as falling speeds are sometimes slower, but it’s inconsistent). Last but not least, Sonic may not fly but he makes up for it with super-speedy running, reaching speeds that would be made impossible by simple friction if nothing else.
These and many more cartoon elements are consistently used in the main games of the series. But as the series’ tone changes from a the fanciful style of the early 90’s installments to something much more grounded in our reality in the early 2000’s 3-D SEGA Dreamcast titles, the line between fantastic and realistic physics becomes blurry. Also, the narrative lends us some clues as to a concrete explanation for how all this is working within the Sonic game universe. The Dreamcast games were a drastic tonal shift; not only where they fully 3D platformers as opposed to the mostly 2-D and isometric 3-D that had came before, but they established a consistent and surprisingly realistic world for Sonic and Co. to inhabit. The world was populated by comparatively-normal humans who did not display the same outlandish powers as the series’ protagonists, and a high level of naturalistic detail was injected into the world. The designers went as far as to use actual photographs for many of the textures of the environments created. All of this heavily suggests that this is a universe which operates under physical laws which reflect those of our world. This created an odd disconnect between the series’ main characters and the world they were inhabiting. That’s where a previously-underdeveloped element of the series comes to the fore: the Chaos Emeralds and the concept of Chaos Control.
The Chaos Emeralds have been part of the Sonic series since the first game (the Master Emerald first appeared in Sonic the Hedgehog 3), but their importance skyrocketed in the Dreamcast games. Before that, the Emeralds were primarily used as a gameplay element– collect all seven, and you can unlock a secret super-form. But in the Dreamcast era, they became central to the plot, and in doing so provide us with some answers about the physics of this universe. It is revealed that the Chaos Emeralds are more than shiny McGuffins– they are the source of a unique form of energy– Chaos Energy– which has reality-warping powers, and can be channeled by an individual’s willpower. The most dramatic example of this the power of Chaos Control, harnessed by several characters in the series. This is used for “big stuff” like teleportation, time travel, flashy energy attacks, etc. It’s not addressed directly, but there is evidence to suggest that Chaos Control could be used in more subtle ways as well, and could explain the cartoonish physics seen throughout the series.
First, let’s bring it back to hammerspace: The Emeralds are constantly being pulled out of nowhere, and that’s also where there’re found; in gameplay, Chaos Emeralds are found the “Special Zone”– this place is accessed through portals which appear to be entrances a pocket universe (or universes). This could be the actual hammerspace of this fictional universe, it’s interior laid bare. Also, it’s worth noting that the entrances to the Special Zone is a giant ring, another object closely associated with hammerspace in this universe. Onto the next point of contention, the cartoonishly impossible abilities of many characters. In the Dreamcast games, it’s shown that the Chaos Emeralds can transmute between a solid form (appearing as gemstones) and becoming nothing but concentrated energy (balls of light), as well as having changing weight and mass. The Chaos Emeralds’ power can be harnessed by individual for directed purposes– perhaps their physical properties could also be applied, which would give an in-universe practical explanation for how such impossible feats can be achieved. It’s also established that not everyone can harness Chaos Control, especially not the mostly realistically rendered human characters. Also, the main “toon” characters have been shown learning new moves from game to game, and improving their super-powered techniques. Sonic in particular developed what began as a simple somersault in Sonic the Hedgehog 1 into a gravity-defying “homing attack”– but chronologically, that part only came after he learned of the greater import of the Chaos Emeralds.
Why do I say that Chaos Control is the magic bullet that solves the inconsistencies of the physics of this fictional universe? If by the physics of our universe it is true that at its basest form, matter is energy, than adding the X-factor of the Chaos Emeralds which can transmute energy– and therefore matter– with specific direction and goal, then the results seen in the situations cited above could be made possible within the physics of a universe the same or very similar to ours. Also, the anecdotal evidence found within plot and gameplay adds to the likelihood of this solution. Do I think this was the intent of the creators of the Sonic video game franchise? Unlikely. But through the imaginations of its fans a fictional universe can take on a life of its own, and amazing things can happen there.
(Note: Most information for this paper was taken from Sonic the Hedgehog 1-3, Sonic and Knuckles, and Sonic Adventure 1-2, but it should mesh with other games in the franchise.)