The Room is an independent film released in 2003 by the dubiously-accredited studio "Wiseau Films". It stars Tommy Wiseau, a man of indeterminate origin who also serves as the writer, director, and primary producer. Following its release in a single Los Angeles theater, it gained mainstream attention by way of annual airings during April Fool's Day on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" block. Since gaining infamy, it has been lauded as a masterpiece of Bizarro-World art, and has even been hailed as "The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies".
Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric is the latest entry in the long-running Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. It contains art, technically. Produced as a tie-in for an animated series on Cartoon Network, it has an abundance of characters yet a near-absence of character. It plays like a bargain-bin Jak and Daxter ripoff inexplicably thrown forward in time, and its soundtrack bears a striking resemblance to the royalty-free test music that comes free with editing packages. Roughly two months after its release, it's been almost entirely forgotten by the world at large, aside from obligatory appearances on "Worst Games of 2014" lists.
The videogame community has long been in search of its Citizen Kane--the game that will prove to the world that games are worthy of standing alongside film and literature as a legitimate artform. The validity and necessity of the argument itself are up for debate, to say nothing of the subjectivity inherent in choosing one game to represent the medium's equivalent to Orson Welles's opus. The community may never reach a consensus on this subject. However, one thing is for sure: with Sonic Boom, gaming has definitely found its equivalent of The Room. Below are the reasons that will show you the light.
In The Room, America's Sweetheart Tommy Wiseau plays Johnny, an all-American banker who lives in a condo that looks suspiciously like a bad movie set with his future wife Lisa. After a night of scream-inducing sex (for the audience not the participants), Lisa decides that she's become bored of Johnny and is in love with his best friend Mark. From moment to moment, the "action" of the film is mainly comprised of Johnny sitting around talking to various friends of his about life, relationships, and the sounds that chickens make.
In Sonic Boom, Sonic the Hedgehog plays a newly-rebooted version of himself for which the writers forgot to construct a personality. During a seemingly routine showdown with his arch-nemesis Eggman, Sonic and his friends stumble upon a door that eventually leads them to the resting place of a snake in a metal suit named Lyric, who they accidentally awaken. During the story cutscenes, Sonic and his friends stand around and limply snark at each other while expounding upon the virtues of friendship. Occasionally, they take a break to collect a plot-driving crystal shard that will help them defeat the evil snake somehow. Through the character interactions in each piece, similarities in character personalities are revealed.
Sonic and Johnny are both barely-characterized "protagonist" types. We're informed by way of other characters that they're great, but we never really see their superior abilities demonstrated in any appreciable way during the course of their stories. Meanwhile, Knuckles is the analog to Mark. They're both dim-witted handsome types who have both a strange rivalry and an unbreakable friendship with the hero. Amy is Lisa--not because they're both women, but because they mainly serve to nag the main character. Both characters share the same slightly-ditzy personality, and constantly complain about the actions of others despite offering very little in the way of solutions. Amy even has a hinted bit of romantic tension with Knuckles, despite the fact that she's "supposed" to be paired with Sonic. COINCIDENCE?! Finally, Tails plays the part of Peter, Johnny's psychologist friend. These characters serve to be the "brains" and offer vaguely helpful advice to other characters in complicated language while also getting pushed around and largely ignored.
The casts of each are rounded out with the absolute thinnest of one-dimensional supporting characters. Outside of the main players, very few are given a reason to exist other than to be "quirky" or occasionally spout some exposition. In The Room, a guy named Mike exists solely to receive the most awkward blowjob of all time from his girlfriend Michelle (who herself only exists to demonstrate that Lisa has a friend). He is literally introduced as "Michelle's boyfriend Mike", and has no effect on the story or the other characters despite appearing in several key scenes. In Sonic Boom, Shadow exists solely to show up and have a boss fight against Sonic. After spouting some vaguely villainous words about how the main characters are lame for relying on one another, Shadow gets kicked through a dimensional portal and disappears from the game altogether. Both of these works flood themselves with characters without a drop of personality between them in a misguided attempt to create a vibrant setting for the action.
Speaking of setting...
The Room takes place in San Francisco, which is conveyed unconvincingly by mixing generic shots of the Golden Gate Bridge with the main action in the condominium set. Sonic Boom takes place in... well, I don't remember that ever being stated, but most of it occurs in a series of rural fantasy-style landscapes. At a glance, these two settings could hardly be more different; one is a dire land with dangerous terrain and a uniquely grating populace, and the other is filled with talking animals. However, I propose that, at least spiritually, both works inhabit the same place: that of an empty void.
Sonic Boom's myriad cliffsides and empty fields look dirty and rough while looking sterile and lifeless at the same time. To see something like them in most games, you'd have to travel beyond the boundaries of a level to some sort of unfinished area not present during normal gameplay. Speaking of "unfinished", the sets used in The Room were presumably cobbled together by a lifelong homeless person who had never been inside a building. This is especially true of the "rooftop" set; it consists entirely of a few lawnchairs and styrofoam walls, with the "outdoor" component filled in using some of the worst green screen work in modern cinema. This multimillion(!) dollar production somehow winds up having a less convincing visual style than a student film shot at grandma's house the week before finals.
Thus, both Room and Boom end up with a quality that can only be described as "airless". Even with impeccably-written characters and a gripping story, it's incredibly hard for an audience to meaningfully engage with a piece of fiction set in a complete vacuum. This is why set designers are the unsung heroes of film production, and why level design is the very core principle of making a game. Imagine if The Godfather was filmed entirely in Marlon Brando's unfinished basement, or if Grand Theft Auto V's cityscapes were made entirely of unpainted paper-mache. Would they still be hailed as classics?
Besides, those works are spared the added burden of...
A great game or movie is extremely difficult to create. It requires nearly everyone involved to have a great deal of knowledge of their respective crafts, and the technical know-how to bring their ideas into the realm of reality. As such, one of the easiest ways to doom a production is to make technical decisions that depart wildly from established tradition. This is doubly true for relatively inexperienced studios.
Though both Sonic Boom and The Room were created by teams which contained talented people, each work was their first effort as a unit. Neither Wiseua Films nor Big Red Button had an established pool of work from which to draw inspiration or resources. Rule of thumb would dictate, then, that they should start off learning the ropes by following precedents set by their peers in the field. This would have allowed them to come into their own as a company, and stray from that formula in the future using the lessons they've learned during their first production. Instead, they each attempted to do something unprecedented on a technical level, and it definitely shows.
The Room was shot using a special camera mount which allowed use of a 35mm film camera AND a digital HD camera simultaneously. HD technology was still very new when production began, and very few in the film industry knew how to correctly utilize it. What's worse is that this was made as a choice of pure vanity--Wiseau's given reason was "because nobody has done it"--and added absolutely nothing to the film. None of the HD footage was used in the film's final edit, and many members of the crew have reported that the dual-camera setup made every shot that much harder to compose. Evidence of this can be seen when characters are out of focus for the entire duration of several scenes.
Sonic Boom made the similarly bold decision to be the first game on the Wii U to use the CryEngine 3. This is the powerful new version of Crytek's engine that allows for lofty levels of graphical fidelity, and is intended for use on "next-gen" machines. Using a brand new engine on an unproven platform for which it wasn't designed is a tricky prospect for even the most experienced developers, let alone the fledgling outfit of Big Red Button. Given the final results, which include a glitch that allows the game to be completed in around an hour, it’s clear that even the more seasoned members of the team simply weren’t up to this level of challenge.
Each of these works is a spectacular failure in nearly every conceivable way. When looking back on them, it’s not surprising that they went awry. Each has its own unique story of failure; The Room was sunk by its creator’s ego, whereas it can be safely assumed that Sonic Boom was done in by SEGA’s trademark mismanagement. But the parallels between the two provide a unique glimpse into the fascinating world of creative trainwrecks. There is no formula for the creation of a quality movie or game, but by analyzing cases like these we may be able to prevent future works from making the same mistakes in the same ways.
At least, until SEGA decides that it’s time to reinvent Sonic again. So I give it about three years.