The Squandered Potential of Kingdom Hearts

on Monday, April 2, 2012
I've always had very mixed feelings about the Kingdom Hearts series. (Well, the Playstation 2 games, at least; I've never played the ones on other platforms. And Re:Chain of Memories is another story, that I won't get into here.) When I first read about it, I thought the concept sounded wonderful. The marriage of Disney stylings and injections of Square Enix characters and art sounds like an arrangement that could allow a wonderful assortment of tones, ranging from lighthearted humor to over-the-top melancholia. Playing Kingdom Hearts and its sequel, Kingdom Hearts 2, was indeed a fun experience. Something, however, was always lacking. I had fun, but I got nothing more out of it. My frustrations with Kingdom Hearts stem from its squandered potential. The brilliant concept was used to produce a standard game, when it could have been so much more, and, in a medium dying for original ideas, this seems like a bit of a sin. Here I'll examine how Kingdom Hearts failed despite being a fun game and a commercial success. It's unique position with regards to originality of concept, popularity, and high sales make it a great test case for a problem that plagues gaming in general.

Perhaps the first thing to do is to look at why the game was so loved by so many players. Patrick Molloy, in an article originally published on Bitmob, suggests that player identification with familiar ideas is a prime component. He identifies the familiar hero-journey archetype experienced by Sora with that of Odysseus and other mythical figures. I find those specific examples uninformative merely because Sora's quest is so vague and chaotic as to be identifiable with nearly any story if the proper parts are chosen, but, I think, Molloy has the right basic idea. He goes on to point out that the simple and frequent light-vs-dark, good-vs-evil, heart-vs-soullessness themes and symbology used in Kingdom Hearts are culturally conditioned into most Western players and are thus easy touchstones. Further, they are primary themes in nearly all Disney stories (which are themselves re-purposed from older tales), which have become "a new 'epic' history that nearly everyone absorbs," to quote Molloy. I'll take Molloy's premise a step further and point out that the gameplay itself contributes in the same way, by drawing on our collective knowledge of games. We have saved princesses since the first Mario games, the on-rails shooting of the gummi ship recalls early arcade games, and the action-RPG format is much loved on every platform. In short, Molloy's basic premise is that Kingdom Hearts "resonates" with audiences, hence its success.

Where I differ with Molloy is in the choice of the word "resonate." Resonance in media has a positive connotation. The word itself is borrowed from physics and math – a resonance is a phenomenon that creates a sort of amplification by aligning with what's already there. Similarly, the connotation of the word "resonance" in media is that, by creating identification in the minds of the audience with what is presented in the work, the work amplifies the depth of the themes that it presents. I don't think that Kingdom Hearts does this. While it creates identification in the mind of the player, it uses it to no end. Instead, I propose that simple nostalgia – a mere longing for the familiar – is a better, and more negative, term for how Kingdom Hearts functions in the mind of the player.

To see what I mean, we must return to the main themes of Kingdom Hearts. The series is primarily a (dual) Bildungsroman in form. Sora and Riku reach adolescence and must adapt to a life of responsibility while simultaneously evolving their various friendships and world views. They must work out their (perhaps, or perhaps not, platonic) love triangle with Kairi in the midst of new-found responsibility. They take different approaches, with Riku initially favoring a static state of affair while Sora pursues forward, and thus forces evolution within the group. In the midst of these interpersonal explorations, the game uses the characters' responsibilities to the world to assert unambiguously the existence of good and evil. It posits that a harmony of emotions is the only way to deal with this, vaguely arguing that one must listen to one's heart rather than mere logic while maintaining control of the evil aspects of yourself ("darkness").

But do the various forms of audience identification induced by the game actually enhance these explorations of theme? In my mind, not really. The overall planning of the structure of the story seems non-existent, with the various Disney worlds existing merely to function as gameplay levels forced into the narrative whole. The ideas implied in the player's mind by the Disney source material almost never cohere with the current state of character development in the main narrative. The world based on The Lion King, for example, occurs near the end of the series narrative long after Sora has committed to taking the weight of all the world's problems on his shoulders – why do we need to remember that its sometimes hard, but necessary, to accept responsibilities, as Simba's experiences reminded us, at that point at the game rather than when Sora, too, was struggling with such concepts early in the story? The Disney allusions thus induce some nostalgia, but they do nothing to enhance our understanding of the themes that the main narrative focuses upon. As a result, the themes of Kingdom Hearts remain very simplistic, and the work does not function well as a whole.

Now, let's imagine what could have been. What did the art of gaming miss out on when Kingdom Hearts delivered a disorganized, unfocused work despite its spectacular setting and concept?

Perhaps most obviously, the games missed a wonderful opportunity to explore how fiction, and art generally, impacts our lives as part of the collective unconscious. Disney films literally represent a sort of canon for a Western childhood, and, by extension, they figuratively represent a more general art canon for humanity's cultural evolution. The games could have explored the positives and negatives of this scenario. Since the game asserts the existence of good and evil, perhaps it could have looked at how prototypically good or evil characters influence our ideas of good and bad by exploring more depth of character than simple archetypes typically allow. Old Disney films, for example, are often overtly sexist or racist – the game could have gone back and explored these aspects of "good guys." Or perhaps developing how bad guys end up bad would have been interesting. Are these characters that Kingdom Hearts uses with so little thought really the best conveyors of morals? The use of the Disney canon also opens the question of how works are selected (perhaps unintentionally) to be in an art canon. The reliance on archetypes to create meaning also raises the question of fair use in art, so the game could have examined whether Disney's oeuvre is just somewhat derivative or if it is exploitation of a cultural past.

More directly in line with the games' themes, the series could have better explored the relative merits of emotional and rational decision making in our lives. As it stands, Kingdom Hearts celebrates the use of one's heart (i.e., emotional, gut feelings) unconditionally and without justification. It contrasts this with the unfeeling but logical Organization XIII, who are clearly presented as evil in the game. This is essentially the conflict in the Romantic and Enlightenment movements in art and philosophy, which would have been easy to explore in a game built around fictional allusions. Instead, Kingdom Hearts's approach is simplistic and borderline irresponsible, as it almost derides rational thinking when closely examined.

Finally, by using films within a game to create an audience response, Kingdom Hearts encourages a comparison between the two mediums. It suggests the question of how games function as art. The comparison to cinema is apt, as it is another new art medium, and its evolution could have been explored in light of gaming's evolution. The contrast of the old-school, arcade-like, gummi ship segments with the (at the time of release) cutting edge main game provides a perfect moment to call attention to this evolution. Gameplay's connection to narrative could have been explored by re-purposing the films to create new meaning through the gameplay. As it stands, though, Kingdom Hearts fails as art because it fails to ask any of these questions.

There is no doubt that the Kingdom Hearts series is fun and enjoyable, but how it creates that enjoyment raises other questions that it fails to explore. Its numerous allusions are used to induce nostalgic enjoyment rather than to explore the issues they raise. In this way, perhaps Kingdom Hearts is symptomatic of a problem plaguing gaming as a whole when it is considered as a meaningful medium. As much fun as I had with these games, I was unfulfilled, and I believe that that is because Kingdom Hearts was rendered largely meaningless by its choice of nostalgia over thematic purpose.


Unknown said...

Dude, you may wanna take a look at this:
This guy has the exact same views as you about KH

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