There are very few things I would kill another human being to possess. The Tony Hawk framework is one of them.
It’s a brilliant, polished gemstone of a thing, but its invisible perfection is also its downfall. There’s one button to grind, another to do a flip trick, and one more to do a grab trick. Combining this simple set of moves with a few other, seemingly basic tools — like a manual that allows me to extend combos almost infinitely — produces a representation of skateboarding that’s both accessible and deep.
But why come back after you’ve played a few of the games? What’s left after you’ve experienced this arcade-style tornado of poetry and movement, and finished all the challenges?
There was a Tony Hawk video game released every year from 1999 through 2010, and the teams behind those titles struggled with that question with every game. The budget for each entry, the size of the team that was making it, and the polish invested in each one seemed to keep going up, but the recognition of the work that went into each game — from both critics and fans — plummeted. Excellence was expected, and so, taken for granted. An emphasis on novelty gradually took its place until, with the infamous Tony Hawk’s Ride, novelty was all that was left.
One of the most significant innovations in the series was the story mode that developer Neversoft added for Tony Hawk’s Underground, the fifth Tony Hawk game and one of the most beloved entries in the franchise. Underground’s story is a tale about skateboarding for skateboarding’s sake, and ironically — irreversibly — it took the focus off of skateboarding by creating one of gaming’s most memorable villains: Eric Sparrow.
The worst humanity has to offer
This is Eric Sparrow. He is the so-called best friend of my custom player character and, like my player character, he starts the game in New Jersey. Our first skate sessions take place in burned-out crack houses, around open gas mains, and across the rusty skeletons of abandoned playgrounds.
I’ll later end up grinding across the barrel of a tank in Red Square, and vaulting over a helicopter onto the roof of a Hawaiian hotel by sheer force of will.
But I’m not there yet. I’m in New Jersey, carving my moves through empty concrete pools and piles of trash crammed between drab tenements — and it feels fantastic. This is the first Tony Hawk title to allow players to get off their boards, but I feel a greater sense of freedom on a skateboard in this game than I have with any other vehicle in just about any other game.
I also have a say in how I grow my skills as both a player and a character. Completing goals given by NPCs in the area and achieving milestones (such as holding a lip grind for five seconds) upgrades my skills in relevant categories, tying skill systems into the player customization that permeates the rest of the experience. It almost feels like a role-playing game on a skateboard, with New Jersey standing in as my rat-infested starting village.
I want to escape New Jersey — not just for the obvious reasons, but to grow as a skater. I get my in-game chance when a virtual version of real-life skater Chad Muska comes to town. I attract his attention with my skateboarding skills, and finally find the opportunity of a new life earned through my expertise on a board.
Eric Sparrow doesn’t like that.
How do you define hatred?
I’ve had the opportunity to write (and delete) a lot of hyperbole about Eric Sparrow while working on this article. I am not exaggerating when I say that I sometimes lie awake at night and consider the fact that Eric Sparrow will never go to hell, because he is not real and therefore cannot die.
He lives in my memory. I hate him more than any other fictional being I can recall, yet participate in his continued existence by continuing to live myself. Eric Sparrow is a memetic virus that spreads and corrupts, conjuring desperate rage in its wake. I am a carrier, and now I’ve passed it on to you. I’m sorry.
It isn’t even that Eric Sparrow is a bad person; he’s just petty. Petty to the point of cruelty. Every narrowing of his eyes as he resents my character’s opportunity for success is obvious through the more rudimentary character models that come with the game’s launch timing, in 2003.
His straining voice and barking laughter will, eventually, come to haunt me, as will his sense of self-awareness. When he steals my chance to enter a life-changing skate competition in Florida later in the game, or leaves me to rot in a Russian jail because he decided to steal a frigging tank for kicks, I can see it in his blocky animations and the sneering lines of his mouth. He knows what he’s doing. He steals the spotlight, because he knows he can’t earn it.
So when Chad Muska notices my talent, Eric Sparrow sets the car of some local drug dealers on fire. He does this to claim vengeance for a skate shop the dealers robbed, but also because it means I can’t stay here safely anymore. I can’t make a promo video on my own terms; I can’t learn from Chad; and, when Eric gets caught by the drug dealers, I risk my life to free him. I follow him when he demands we escape on a passing train to New York. The game gives me no other choice.
Someone has to pay the consequences for Eric’s crimes. Since it is my character’s misfortune to have befriended the man, it might as well be me.
Eric Sparrow is one of the most brilliant storytelling innovations I have ever seen in game narrative: a cowardly, criminal piece of crap so heinous that he carries the entire game on his shoulders. To see him is to hate him. To know him is to weep, knowing that he will never face the consequences for his crimes against the human spirit. That’s part of the genius of Neversoft, you see. Eric Sparrow’s evil is not just determined by his actions, but by the fact that his continued ability to breathe air on this virtual version of God’s green Earth is a constant reminder that justice is dead.
It’s telling that I struggle to think of Tony Hawk’s Underground outside of Eric Sparrow. Video games have put me up against cruel, traitorous rivals for decades, but Eric Sparrow is different. His presence in an otherwise slightly over-the-top skateboarding environment transforms the material.
From crimes in New Jersey, to stealing the tape that would have made my career in Hawaii, to actually stranding me in Russia, Eric’s driving influence hangs over the entire game. Hell, it overshadows the skating itself. Eric Sparrow is my “best friend” — and he wants to hurt me. Over and over again, every time I dare to seek a better life, Eric shows up to somehow take it away, to sabotage things and make sure no progress in my life is possible.
It’s an emotional connection that still resonates nearly two decades after Underground’s release, and I believe continues to define the game’s identity for a large portion of its audience. Eric doesn’t want anything for himself other than to be better than the people around him, and the more he lowers the player character, the easier that becomes.
I finished the game less than two months ago. I can’t remember several of the levels I played through, or the locations they were set within. I can remember Eric Sparrow’s face, though.
His horrible, horrible face.
Getting what you want isn’t always what you need
The true ending of Tony Hawk’s Underground, unlocked if you’ve beaten the game a few times, lets my character punch Eric Sparrow in the mouth. Blood flies from Eric’s lips as he sprawls unconscious onto the car behind him, jaw ajar, tongue lolling between his teeth as in a cartoon. And you know what? This sequence makes all the sense in the world.
This is a story about vindication. It’s the struggle to be believed while the assholes in your life continue to be rewarded. It’s the pain of being a bullied child and finally pointing an accusing finger at your tormentor, only to find the world doesn’t care.
I’m not a skateboarding enthusiast per se, and I don’t finish many games. But I played through every damn level in Tony Hawk’s Underground, even if I don’t remember them all. I didn’t do it for a high score, or to tick the game off my backlog. I was compelled to put over a dozen hours into a game genre I typically don’t play, because once — just once — I wanted to hurt Eric Sparrow back. It isn’t enough, though I know that now.
It will never be enough.
Give me someone to hate
In conclusion, Eric Sparrow is a pustule on the human genome.
Eric Sparrow is an act of cosmic aggression, set loose in a video game.
Eric Sparrow is the single best argument that we cannot be allowed into a wider universe; that we are damned to destroy ourselves.
Eric Sparrow is a reverse Pandora’s box, all of the evils of the world somehow poured into a single person.
Long after my muscle memory for how to perform an FS 50-50 grind is gone, and I forget that the first Hawaiian chapter of Tony Hawk’s Underground is titled “Get Lei’d,” the memory of Eric Sparrow will remain. We’re both carriers now, you and me. The virus passes from person to person, uniting us through a seething hatred for one smooth-faced digital man-boy.
Fuck Eric Sparrow.
Long live Tony Hawk.