The following contains mild spoilers for The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog.
The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog, a murder mystery visual novel starring the core cast of Sega’s long-running platformer-series-turned-multimedia-franchise that debuted as an April Fools surprise, has gone on to become one of the best-reviewed games starring Sonic and his pals. But it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the game’s core team meeting at the premiere of the Sonic the Hedgehog live-action movie in 2020.
Katie Chrzanowski, the social media manager and executive producer for the game, tells Kotaku the seeds for working on some kind of Sonic project were planted a full two years before she pitched the idea for what would eventually become The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog. But in early 2022, Chrzanowski sold a small team made up of Sega employees and key collaborators on the idea of creating something for April Fools’ Day.
“The process for The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog was over a year long,” Chrzanowski says. “I pitched a few ideas to the core group around late February or early March 2022. We then made an official internal pitch at the end of March with our Murder of Sonic direction, and development started from there. Together, we took a couple of months to iron out the story. At the same time, Greg [Batha, lead game designer and programmer] began getting some of our game systems set up, and we managed to get everything done and out in time for April Fools’ 2023.”
Welcome to Amy’s birthday party
The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog focuses on a handful of the series’ main characters as they attend a role-playing murder mystery party on a train for Amy’s birthday. Never one to do things halfway, Amy has everyone dress and play the part, which means each character had to fit their assigned role visually, and the team had to write around different Sonic characters attempting to stay in character. Shadow is assigned the locksmith role and has keys to different cars that no one else has. Espio is a poet and breaks out into his poetry throughout the game. Then there’s Tails, who the player spends the most time with, who plays the role of the detective trying to solve the mystery of Sonic’s “death.” When it came to deciding which characters would fill which roles, Chrzanowski says the team prioritized humor and dealing with the awkwardness of the situation.
“Much of it boiled down to, ‘We think this is funny,’” she says. “We started with the idea of a typical Victorian murder mystery party, and many of our themes and character roles spawned from there. We considered roles that made sense in similar stories and then tweaked them to match the vibe of our characters. Perhaps, a few of them didn’t get roles that perfectly fit what they would have hoped for themselves, but we knew we could write around all those scenarios.”
According to Chrzanowski, the team didn’t have much difficulty nailing down the roles each character would play, though Espio was, at one point, going to be a doctor rather than a poet. However, the poet role was “more fun and engaging” for the writers, so it took precedence. But the core cast did have a different shape in earlier drafts. Amy’s birthday party consists of characters from several in-universe teams in the Sonic series. Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, Shadow, Rouge, Blaze, Vector, and Espio, but other than the original trio, no one team is “complete” in The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog. Though from the sound of it, Amy’s best friend Cream and Charmy, the third member of Chaotix Detective Agency alongside Vector and Espio, were planned to be in the game at one point. However, given the two are both canonically six years old, the team decided against using them.
“We decided they were both too young to dabble in the workings of murder,” Chrzanowski says. “I’m happy with the cast we ended up with, and it was just enough to give each their spotlight without overstaying their welcome or dragging the story on too long.”
Meet Barry, the latest addition to Sonic’s friends
While Sonic and his friends make up the core of Amy’s murder mystery party, you don’t actually play as any of them. Instead, the player inhabits a quokka character you can name but who has become colloquially known as Barry due to marketing materials. The protagonist is a new hire on the train who gets roped into Amy’s birthday. The character uses they/them pronouns, but Sega declined to comment when we asked if they were non-binary.
As for why the team opted to make a new player character rather than starring one of the returning crew, Chrzanowski says it came down to The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog’s visual novel format and how seeing the game primarily through a first-person perspective meant you wouldn’t see the protagonist through much of the game. There were talks of letting the player solve the mystery as one of its returning stars, but the team ultimately went a different direction.
“We know fans are attached to the existing cast, so we felt that we could better build upon all the current characters’ relationships and personalities if everything were being viewed through a third party,” she says. “One idea that we considered was to pick one of the existing characters as the main character. Still, I’m glad we landed on the original plan. Plus, now we have a new character for fans to make fun art of—we’re loving all the Barry art cropping up.”
Inspirations from Ace Attorney to Agatha Christie
As for the actual game side of things, Chrzanowski says the team had several inspirations at play. From a gameplay side, Ace Attorney helped shape the interrogation segments Barry and Tails go through as they try to nail down a culprit among the party, and the murder mystery chapter in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was also cited as a key influence. While the game is primarily a visual novel, the series’ roots as a platformer are still apparent in the mini-games you play to assert a point in arguments. These sequences are reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s special stages, with Sonic running on tracks and collecting rings to progress.
While the game influences are part of The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog’s make-up, the whodunnit genre has a long history to pull from, whether that be classic detective novels from authors like Agatha Christie, or modern entries like the Knives Out series. Though a murder mystery on a train is a well-established trope, Chrzanowski says Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express was “the main” inspiration for the game. All of these elements have come together to create one of the highest-rated Sonic games on Steam and Metacritic. Which Chrzanowski says is “humbling.” But even as the team put a lot of effort and care into shaping a murder mystery game that was befitting of the Sonic cast, the visual novel community has a complicated history with April Fools’ Day.
How The Murder of Sonic tries to respect the visual novel genre
Visual novels, especially dating sims, are often touted as April Fools’ Day jokes. Some examples include Riot teasing a Valorant dating sim in 2021, or Nier and Disgaea getting in on the gag this year. While the teams behind these moves might mean well, the use of the genre as a joke has become so commonplace that fans have turned on the notion, especially considering the genre’s historical trouble gaining mainstream attention and coverage. It doesn’t sit well when people only pay attention when the visual novels is utilized as a joke, even if a lot of work is put into the project in question. No amount of work can overcome the perceived insincerity of releasing something on the designated “joke” holiday.
Chrzanowski says she and the rest of the Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog team were cognizant of this, but points out that relative to an RPG or a platformer, visual novels are more affordable to make, which is how something like the Sonic murder mystery can be listed on storefronts like Steam for free. The low cost was important, as the team members worked on the game alongside their usual day jobs. Members of the team also have a history with the genre, such as Batha’s work on Dream Daddy and art director Ellen Alsop’s work on Goodbye Volcano High. So this wasn’t a silly detour into the visual novel genre they didn’t understand.
“I think our team’s genuine love for the brand and characters—coupled with the fact that we have a few team members who have shipped or are actively working on legitimate visual novel titles—helped make something that the visual novel community could be happy with,” Chrzanowski says. “While we still wanted it to be humorous and make people laugh for the holiday, the team put so much love into the game that it wouldn’t feel right to call it a ‘joke.’”
While Sonic and friends may have solved the crime and are back to their usual adventures, the blue blur is pretty booked and busy these days. Sonic Frontiers launched in November, and Sega is rolling out post-launch content for the game. Sonic Prime is getting new episodes on Netflix later this year. On top of that, the series is part of a wildly successful live-action film franchise that’s getting a Paramount Plus series, too. Sonic may have gotten his start as a fast-running platformer mascot, but Sega’s willingness to delve into other formats, from kart racers to turn-based RPGs, has been part of the character’s longevity. To the Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog team, that longevity is also tied to its cast’s likability, which has helped them persist over the decades and across different media. Even in something as unlikely as a murder mystery.
“They’re relatable, and all the various stories make you feel like a hero that’s part of the action,” Chrzanowski says. “They go through their struggles but always overcome them by working together. I think the fact that we have such a diverse cast of characters with varying personalities, skill sets, and experience means that everyone can see themselves within the characters. The Sonic Team has done a fantastic job creating such likable characters that fans worldwide want to rally around. Regardless of the media, having a front-seat view of their adventures gives the fans a sense of agency to take control of the narrative and save the day.”
The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog is available for free on Steam.