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Level/zone transitions and visual narrative in Sonic games


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You are playing Sonic 3, Angel Island zone; at some point, some odd spherical robots/drones will shoot fire and the jungle will burn, changing the atmosphere of the level. After you defeat the boss, you meet Knuckles, who will break the bridge Sonic is standing on, and make him fall through a waterfall: the next zone begins, and Sonic is still falling through the waterfall from before, into some flooded ancient ruins.


Zone transitions are cutscenes, visual details, or a series of events that happen at the beginning, end or sometimes in the middle of a level, with the purpose of building a more consistent setting for the game: tell part of the story, visualize the connections between locations of levels/zones, make the players feel they are actually travelling instead of just jumping from a level to another, and let them build a mental map of the world where the game happens.

Sonic 3 is the game that's known for introducing this concept, but in fact, in a small part, it existed before. In Sonic 1, at some point you fall into a trap of Eggman, and while exploring his fortress "Scrap Brain", you end into a pit and find yourself in another part of Labyrinth Zone. This tells the player that Scrap Brain is built over the ruins of Labyrinth, which probably extend below all South Islandand and aren't limited to the area that you visited a few levels before. Anyone can make theories and fantasize about those locations by playing with those little bits of informations that are hidden in those transitions. The 8 bit version of Sonic 1 does it even futher and has several small transitions in the game, like at the end of Jungle Zone where you can see the background full of blocks and a blocky ceiling becoming lower as you go right, just before finding yourself into Labyrinth Zone... Eggman uses an elevator in Scrap Brain to reach Sky Base, and a moment later, Sonic takes it as well; there's also Sonic falling into a cave at the beginning of Green Hill act 2.


(the far right part of the level is not visible in the actual game... the screen ends where the ceiling of blocks becomes lower and it feels like Sonic is entering a cave).

In the series there are several examples of this concept: games such as Sonic Advance 1 (mainly Egg Rocket to Cosmic Angel), Sonic Mania, and Sonic Superstars took inspiration from the classics, so they used similar tricks to add depth to the game's world... but there are full-modern games that did it as well.

Sonic Colors attempts it in a very superficial way, but still does it: sometimes in the background of the levels you can see the chain that connects all the planets to the interstellar amusement park, and there are a couple of levels where at the end you can see a section of the beginning of the level that comes after (I remember it happening at least twice, in Sweet Mountain and Asteroid Coaster, but maybe there are more cases). Originally the levels of Colors were planned to be longer, and due to the limitations of the Wii, they were splitted into smaller acts, so maybe some of those "connections" were unintentional and just the result of splitting the level, but still...


Maybe this is more a "connection" than a "transition".

There's another great example, and it's the end of Mystic Mansion from Sonic Heroes. The level is set in a haunted castle, but at the end, you solve a weird dimensional puzzle and, sort of, break the curse: you will spawn in a un-haunted version of the place, where you can see the countryside around the mansion and a sunny sky.


(I hate to link picture from youtube thumbnails because if something happens, the video goes private or google changes the address, the link is broken... but I can't find many pictures of it sadly).

Sonic Superstars did the transitions mostly by showing a level gimmick from the next zone at the end of the former zone... but I think that this solution is not ideal from an artistic point of view... the zones have some specific styles and aesthetics, and the gimmicks are usually designed to fit with those aesthetics: if you mix them in a zone they were not designed for, they look kinda unfitting.

In fact, I think that the biggest challenge in making good level transitions is to connect the art style of one zone to the one of the next one without making them clash... looking at other franchises, Dark Souls also has a few moments where you change location, and the atmosphere becomes different, even if the locations are close to each other (they change the color of the lighting/sky, the visibility, and other stuff, to visually detach a "zone" from another while still keeping them physically connected; in Sonic it might be more complex because often it's not just a matter of lighting and color palette, the zones have a strong visual identity and it's hard to make a credible transition that doesn't feel like teleporting into a completely different world, or an ugly mix of the two styles forced together).

So, what do you think about level transitions and "visual narrative" in Sonic? Do you think it only works in 2D? Can it be done in 3D as well? What are your favorite transitions and your ideas? How could this concept be implemented into an "Open Zone" game?

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It's neat, but I also think it's something that can be a bit overrated, because it's a neat thing that 3&K did.

At its best they contribute to the story of the game; short, unobtrusive cutscenes that add a little more context to what's going on. Eggman dumps Sonic into Labyrinth 4 Scrap Brain 3, Sonic and Tails use the Tornado to reach Wing Fortress and to chase Eggman afterwards, Knuckles uses various traps to try to stop you from exploring Angel Island. In this respect the main strength isn't in being level transitions, but that between levels is the appropriate time to have a cutscene, due to being a natural break point in the action, and they keep them short enough to not feel like interruptions from the gameplay. When there isn't really a story to tell beyond "this place is next to that place, and they kept going that way"...well, it's still nice. It'd probably never be to the game's detriment to blend the end of one area into the start of the next, or have a silly scene where Sonic gets shot out of a cannon to the next area or whatever, if it fits how the game's constructed. But those kinds of transitions are more of a nice bonus, not a necessity.

A lot of "modern" Sonic games don't have much opportunity for these kinds of transitions because they tell their stories more explicitly and/or construct their worlds differently. Sonic doesn't go from City Escape to Metal Harbor because the two areas are close together; he gets arrested, jailed, and broken out, all in fully developed cutscenes. SA has its hubs as the transitional space; you get to Emerald Coast not through a cutscene, but because you start at a beachfront hotel and literally walk yourself to the beach to start the level. "Zone" transitions wouldn't make much sense in Unleashed since they're continents apart from each other, so we get some cutscene explanations, a world map to travel between countries, and hubs to ease you into the individual areas. That said there are some games that could've benefited from some 3&K style transitions; Heroes has a very classic styled progression, going from one arbitrarily-themed level to the next, with no real connective tissue between them but just enough story for that to feel a bit awkward. Tying together such wildly different levels with in-level assets probably would've been tricky, but it could've made the world feel more cohesive. There's a lot of different ways of constructing a game/story and different tools suit different approaches.

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Great thread! This is something I have been thinking about, and I believe it's super important for the game as a whole. I'll go further: the visual narrative is often not only visual. There's a kinesthetic component to the feeling that a game is connected, and it definitely needs more attention.

I threw around the idea that I don't really like the way most 3D boost stages end, and I couldn't really get why. I felt they were jarring and no amount of cinematic storytelling could make up for it. The example of a stage that I think ends super well is in Sonic 1 for the Master System, too:

The map wouldn't be enough to convey how ending Scrap Brain Act 2 feels just right, so here's a gameplay video. The stage starts outside a building, which you enter; you go through all kinds of challenges, then you get out of the building through a point of no return and face a completely empty section ahead. The game even makes a point of giving you an extra second of nothing, so you can release all tension you may have built up before you can even see the goalpost. And then, Scrap Brain Act 3 starts here:


There is the faintest implied spatial congruity between them, and it doesn't matter how Sonic got from one to the other, or even how long it took. There isn't a proper visual transition or connection, but the important part is that tension, a term you'd usually use to refer to gameplay, was kept congruent. No amount of world maps or cutscenes can make up for this neat feeling that a stage ended where it should have ended, or that it started how and why it should have started.

This isn't just nice. I think it's outright crucial for a game to be good at this to keep the player engaged. It makes them feel the adventure they're going through, and even games that I don't like in any other capacity have visual cues, transitions and directing that makes them feel good to go through. Like Forces' Egg Gate:

It's more satisfying to watch than to play, but you can still feel the cycle f tension building and releasing being well directed here, and it's not just visual. More than the visual transition into the place where the next cutscene will take place, the fact that you get to just run for a couple seconds in it is super important. The stage' challenges ended before that, but the playable cooldown period here is super important to feel like it was you who made it.

So the concept can definitely be used in 3D, regardless of how level transitions are mechanically handled, how the story is being told or if there's a story being told cinematically at all.

As for Open Zone games, there's no reason why you couldn't have visual transitions or connections that, coupled with how they are actually being played, can enhance the feeling that you, the player, are changing the environment and going in and out of self-sufficient adventures that feel satisfactory, be they puzzles or stages that happen somewhere else (like the cyberspace levels).

As a matter of fact, there's a whole genre of games that honed this feeling for what? 20 years? I mean, if you've ever played any Need for Speed from Underground on, you know what I'm talking about. They usually take place in the open field of a city where you can do fuck all, but by accepting a mission the whole world sort of changes just to make space for that race or that challenge. The best urban racing games maintain a sense of visual and spatial congruity between "open zone" and "race", as well as all sort of additions that make exiting a challenge into the open zone feel satisfying: races end in long tracks, so you can keep running after you finish them and release the tension. They have to figure this out. It makes the perception of difficulty, story and setting so much smoother.

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