Kingdom Hearts 3 has been out for a while now. I think we’ve all had time to get acclimated to its majesty, and I want to have an extensive discussion about just how insane this series is. This ostensible “trilogy” came out over the course of 17 years. Children younger than that have been shot in American public schools. So much of the franchise identity is tied into our long-running relationship with it, so I want to recap and analyze the entire series from the top.
Why are we talking about this now?
I think it’s important to revisit aspects of pop culture after they’ve had time to ferment. Putting aside the broader question of using pop cultural analysis as a means to challenge the status quo, the consequences of having a pop culture attention span shorter than the memory of a goldfish is that we move on so fast that we don’t get a chance to think about what it is, exactly, that we’re consuming, beyond a surface level. For example, how many of you guys didn’t realize that Titanfall 2 was brilliant, because nobody played it because it dropped against CoD and Battlefield? So often our assessment of games goes no further than week 1 review scores, which are often themselves affected by reviewers’ deadlines and fear of getting inordinate amounts of hate-mail from fans if they score it 89 instead of 90.
I recently went back on the internet archive to read DM of the Rings, a delightful screencap webcomic by Shamus Young. Then I discovered that he did a novel-length retrospective on the Mass Effect series, read it, and found it both entertaining and thoughtful. I think this kind of in-depth analysis is fun to read and I’ve been wanting to do something similar, and I also think this format is a really good way to talk seriously about games.
So I’m going to try my hand at doing my own longform retrospective analyses, starting with the Kingdom Hearts series. It won’t be as detailed or in-depth as Shamus’s work, but I hope you will find it entertaining and informative while it lasts. And who knows, if it’s popular or if I like doing it I may look into some other games and series as well. It’s a handy way to go over games in their entirety without the in-the-moment slog of Let’s Play.
So let’s talk about Kingdom Hearts.
DCEU: Disney Classics Extended Universe
It’s kind of alarming how close the premise of these games is to the later-generation Assassin’s Creed games. AC3 in particular took a lot of flak for being, like, an episode of The Magic School Bus. The protagonist just had to meet every important person in the Revolutionary War and somehow he managed to be involved in every important event. Similarly, the mainline games of the Kingdom Hearts franchise (that is, I, II, and III) market themselves on this concept of putting an anime boy and also Donald Duck and Goofy into the plot of Every Disney Movie, and maybe they were secretly there the whole time using a giant key and magic to beat the crap out of a bunch of cuddly shadow monsters themed around the Disney movies that the heroes happen to be in at any given time.
But… it’s just so fun. Which is just so important. These games are so fun that we forgive a lot of bad design and odd story choices. And that’s what this series is going to be all about. I’m hoping that we can all take this walk through the series together, and we can come out the other side with a new appreciation of the series, while also being able to acknowledge the games’ faults. I find that a more nuanced view of the entertainment we consume is always far superior to a binary “it’s good” or “it’s bad” defense. My non-critic friends know not to talk to me about movies, because I like to go in-depth on this stuff. But the conversations I have about movies with fellow critics are more interesting than trying to talk movies with plebs because we can talk about stuff like this.
So, to start off, a disclaimer; I will be talking a LOT of shit about these games. It all comes from a place of love. I hope that you will continue to read this series and recognize that if I’m endlessly criticizing, overanalyzing, or mocking a particular bit of the game, it’s not indicative of my opinion as a whole. If you can’t handle that, then this is not the series for you.
Let’s start with the following thesis in bold, which I hope I will be able to make a strong argument for by the end of this series.
The original content story of these games is not and has never been the point, and this is why said original content story gets weirder and more nonsensical and distances itself from the Disney stuff further and further with every game. People who say “you need to play all of them in order to really GET IT” are misunderstanding these games, because “it” is not to be “got.” These are games that are, first and foremost, about having fun in Disney movies and making friends with Disney characters, and increasingly amazingly animated action RPG gameplay.
Mandatory Historical Context
It’s kind of horrendously pretentious and also a little terrifying to think of the late-90’s/early-2000’s as “historic,” but before we can dive into the games themselves I think we need to talk a little bit about whose idea it was to make these things to begin with and why.
According to Wikipedia, which cites this Iwata Asks with Tetsuya Nomura, the whole idea for Kingdom Hearts came about when Square wanted to make a game that played like Super Mario 64. The Disney crossover was surprisingly easy to make happen, because Disney Japan and Square were in the same building at the time, and development began in 2000. There was a concerted effort by producer Shinji Hashimoto to tell a story with an original character, rather than making, say, Mickey the protagonist. And I think that was an excellent choice.
Out of all the games in this series, I think the story of Kingdom Hearts 1 holds up the best out of all these games because it’s self-contained. Sure, there’s a sequel-hook planted at the end, but this hook sets up its own goal and all the threads that KH1 sets up are wrapped up. The story, at least, still holds up, despite most of the gameplay not doing so.
I think it’s clear to see that the original story stuff becomes nonsense to a greater degree with every single entry in the series. Lore is fun, and Nomura is probably the best person to create these strange, metaphysical universes (see: The World Ends With You, which I think does a better job with the bizarre and slightly incomprehensible world-building than KH, also because it’s self-contained).
What doesn’t get weirder are the themes, drama, and characters, which are all in service of a very emotionally-focused style of storytelling that doesn’t particularly care about “rules” in the way that a more serious RPG like, say, Mass Effect, or Persona 5, does. You don’t need to know the rules to understand the important stuff, because so much of that runs on character beats and emotions; in fact, you can make an argument that the emotions ARE the rules in this universe (much like in Disney movies themselves).
At the end of the day, this is a game series that allows you to beat the shit out of Disney villains with the help of those villains’ respective protagonists. This has never changed, no matter how weird things got on the original story side of things, because this is what’s most important about the series.
Next week, we’ll talk about the tutorial and introduction of Kingdom Hearts.