Warning: Major Spoilers for All Kingdom Hearts Games Ahead
It’s an argument as old as time: Story vs Gameplay. Alongside Console vs PC, this is probably the second most argued thing by the gaming community as a whole–and most will probably tell you that it depends on the game–after all, I don’t know anyone who played Bayonetta for the “story” or anyone who plays a Telltale game because they can’t get enough of making decisions that ultimately won’t matter. But on the other side of that, the gameplay in Bayonetta is nothing short of exhilarating and The Wolf Among Us brags a story more interesting than most other games. As far as the gameplay vs story debate, although it does certainly depend on the game (after all, I don’t start a new visual novel game expecting much, if any gameplay–and I don’t play fighting games because I want to know the story) in my opinion, the best games are the games that have both of these 2 factors working together in tandem and with equal force.
What do I mean by this? After all, what separates a game from other means of telling a story is the gameplay–should the gameplay not be the main focus of the game? Not necessarily if the game is a game meaning to tell a story. After all, if the story is good enough, it can outshine any lack of gameplay (or poor gameplay) and keep the player interested anyways–which is the foundation of the visual novel genre. Alternatively, if one’s gameplay is good enough, the player won’t care about the story because they’re having so much fun–which is what a lot of fighting games rely on. There’s no right answer in the story vs gameplay debate, but we can identify which one a game focuses on despite its efforts–and Kingdom Hearts being such a complex case of this is a great series to analyze in this lens.
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I completely understood the story of Kingdom Hearts. And believe me, there was! In my middle school and early high school days (about 10 years ago–when ReChain of Memories wasn’t out in English yet and 358/2 Days was hardly more than a rumor) you could’ve asked me anything about the franchise, no matter how obscure, and I could’ve told you the answer–well, if there was an answer at least. The story of Kingdom Hearts has always been one that’s tried to shroud itself in mystery when it can. That wasn’t enough to stop Kingdom Hearts from being my favorite game series for a few years, though. Needless to say, when a new game would come out, I’d buy it day 1. I wanted those questions that not even I knew the answer for to be answered. And as more games came out and more questions were “answered” it became more and more apparent to me:
The story of Kingdom Hearts has always been vague, and it will stay vague until the end.
Every time a question was seemingly answered, it never came without a catch–another dozen questions arise, the characters don’t know the full story, someone teases that there’s more to it than that and either won’t tell you what you’re missing or at least won’t tell you until much later, people forget about the answer and it becomes irrelevant, or in some cases, it becomes important again later and it’s revealed that the “answer” you thought you’ve had all this time was wrong all along. It’s one thing to do these things once or twice–in fact, it’d be hard to imagine a good story in which everyone knew everything all the time–but it’s another to use them all the time and for every possible conflict and character, as Kingdom Hearts does.
Take for instance the purpose of Organization XIII. In Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2, we’re told it’s a coalition of strong Nobodies who have joined together under Xemnas who seek to open Kingdom Hearts to regain their hearts and become whole again. Nothing too wrong with that, right? Enter Xion in 358/2 Days: Suddenly, it becomes apparent to us that there’s more to their purpose than they say since Xemnas went out of his way to make a (faulty) clone of Roxas in case he “proved useless” but despite the implications that came with that, we weren’t told anything more. Birth By Sleep comes out, we see the origins of Organization XIII: It was originally a research project lead by Ansem the Wise and Xehanort on heartless and memories (particularly the restoration of Xehanort’s memories) gone horribly wrong, ultimately resulting in them becoming Nobodies. Finally, Dream Drop Distance: Xigbar reveals that the true purpose of the Organization was to create vessels for Xehanort–the members, who were on some level, all at least part Xehanort (though only Xigbar and Saix were aware.) Alternatively, they were also possibly meant to be the 13 Seekers of Darkness to fight the 7 Lights in the inevitable keyblade war that would follow.
Organization XIII is just one of the dozens of major elements that make the “everything but the kitchen sink” story that is Kingdom Hears. Sadly, it’s also one of the easier elements to explain since it’s a group, rather than a single character–all of whom are surrounded by clones, vague symbolism, Alzheimer’s symptoms, more clones, cardiology problems, and at least 1 major identity crisis per game. If I had to compare the overall writing in Kingdom Hearts to anything, it’d be an overdramatic soap opera or telenovela with too many twists and turns–to the point where it’s clear to anyone who watches it for more than 10 seconds that it’s trying far too hard.
Actually, comparing Kingdom Hearts to a cheap soap opera or telenovela is still a bit generous since the same soap operas don’t aspire for the same level of symbolism that Kingdom Hearts always is, yet always loses itself in trying so hard, effectively turning any traces of symbolism into the player wondering if anything said in a given conversation is meant to be taken literally. (Read: Any time anyone talks dramatically about the concepts of light and darkness and if it’s supposed to be symbolic of good and evil, or if they’re talking about a literal force, and how wildly inconsistent it is.)So despite how obviously the story has lost itself in its own alleged symbolism, why are there so many people who defend the writing in this game to the death? Two words: Forced Drama.
How do soap operas and telenovela play up a situation, even if it doesn’t entirely make sense to the audience? Editing. Dramatic music and sound effects. Dynamic camera angles. Over-the-top acting. And when one starts making money, the writers come up with a cheap excuse to draw the story on longer than it needs to be. How does Kingdom Hearts do it? Editing. Dramatic music and sound effects. Dynamic camera angles. Try-hard acting. And what has Kingdom Hearts been doing so well these last few years? Cheap excuses that have been drawing out the story longer than it needs to be.By clearly establishing an easily identifiable relationship between the main characters and knowing right when to time the music, Kingdom Hearts has done a stellar job of making you think a moment is dramatic and heart wrenching when in reality, it’s either completely insignificant (or will become insignificant), or just plain makes no sense and is merely happening out of convenience. The best example of this I can give is Axel’s death in Kingdom Hearts 2. Axel was (and still is) my favorite character in Kingdom Hearts–so like most, his death scene, no matter how underwhelming, really upset me. Even back then I knew it was a really underwhelming scene–and frankly, poorly timed as well. Axel has come seemingly out of no where, helps Sora fight off one horde of nobodies, and dies thinking of Roxas.
So to understand this scene, first we got to understand why he died in the first place. Why it was necessary. Was it necessary? Absolutely not. Up to this point, the only things that have killed Organization XIII members was fighting with either Sora or Riku–not a kamikaze attack. Not just any kamikaze attack, but one that not even Axel seems to be aware of. In the cutscene preceeding his death, Axel says, “I think I liked it better when they were on my side.” to which Sora asks, “Feeling a little…regret?” “Nah, I can handle these punks. Watch this!” and then Axel explodes. At least, that what it looks like–he’s still in one piece, somehow completely devoid of burns, yet it still kills him.
So what’s the reasoning in killing the only member of the Organization that isn’t completely against us?
- To reveal that he was the one who kidnapped Kairi and where Sora can find her and a route there–something that also reveals that Axel has had a change of heart (pun intended) and is now on your side, therefore letting you sympathize with him more in his final moments.
- To show us that Axel has been a good guy all this time–that he’s never stopped thinking about Roxas and that all he’s done up to this point was selfless, despite how it may have looked–and thus show some character development for him.
- To rid the game of the biggest nuisance in the Organization since he’s the only one that Sora (or perhaps more accurate to say Roxas, who is a part of Sora) likes and probably would be unable to kill himself because of that friendship.
- To up the sense of drama at the end–the sense of just how many enemies Sora is against and how hard it would be without friends and how powerful the enemy is. Sora couldn’t defeat all these nobodies that Xemnas could control–he needs someone else to help him, and Riku isn’t quite an option yet. So who else could Sora call a friend? At this point in the game, Axel is the only one who fits the bill.
So yes, killing off Axel definitely wasn’t an accident. It was the way it was done that was sloppy. As I mentioned before, it was underwhelming. The attack that killed him didn’t look like something that would kill him. The way he spoke before doing the attack wasn’t how someone who knew they were about to die in a move of self sacrifice would speak. It was the tone and words of a new ally who was confident that he was more powerful than you and that he could prove it–without serious consequences. And when Sora realizes that he’s fading away, Axel still speaks casually–not just unlike someone who’s dying, but unlike anyone who’s even slightly injured. So why is this out-of-the-blue death still so sad? Because they start playing the sad music which this game is so famous for. Because we see Axel talking about his one and only friend, saying “He… was the only one I liked. He made me feel like I had a heart.” So we get sad. Not because Axel is dying, but because the game is giving us the cues to be sad.
Axel’s death was nothing more than a convenient way for the game to give some exposition, character development, and a route to your next destination all in one convenient scene. But what makes a character death emotional is when it’s more than than that, when it’s more than a convenient plot device like this is and nothing more. A truly gripping character death isn’t just looking to be convenient, it’s looking to be meaningful–and due to the underwhelming and too-sudden timing and method of his death next to how convenient his death would be, it’s easy to see that his death was, indeed, just a plot device. It’s not sad, the game just gives us the cues so we think it’s sad. And it’s not hard to play up these cues since they gave him a few redeeming lines at the last minute. Just to further this point, nobody ever looks back on Axel’s death. It’s not something Sora ever looks back on (very surprising, in light of how highly he seems to value his friends) for strength, it’s not a scene anyone goes back to thinking, “We couldn’tve done this without Axel.” Axel is literally never mentioned again by anyone–very surprisingly, since this is supposed to be a sad scene, right? Not surprising at all when you realize that this is just a thinly veiled plot device wrought of convenience because leaving Axel alive would be too problematic at the time (after all, can’t have a member of the Organization running around, can we? Especially one looking for Roxas) and the writer’s inability to write a good death and using the editors as a crutch to make up for it.
If you want to reference a good heroic death scene to compare this to–one that’s not the love child of poor writing and needing some last minute exposition–I’d point you toward another Square Enix game, Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core, in Zack’s death scene. Not only is it clear that he knows he’s going to die saving Cloud, but as we see in Final Fantasy VII, it’s something that stays with him. Something that haunts him. Something that’s formed him into the character he became because he’s tried in many ways to become Zack. Not just him, but Aerith as well. It’s emotionally gripping not just because there’s rain and sad music, but because we already saw so much character development for Zack throughout the whole game and how badly he wanted to be a hero–and seeing that he’s finally come full circle and become one. To drive the point home, it shows you Zack’s life flashing before his eyes. And because, if you’ve played Final Fantasy VII, you’ll realize that his aspirations for Cloud would only be half fulfilled because he was unable to protect Aerith, whom Cloud associates heavily with Zack. It’s emotional, it’s gripping, it’s something that affects the characters.
In short: Axel’s heroic death isn’t sad because it’s just a convenient plot device with sad music and no ramifications.
Zack Fair’s heroic death is sad because it has ramifications. Because by this time we know him incredibly well and how his story has come full circle and now he’s passing it on to Cloud, who’s changed radically by Zack’s death and will ultimately feel failure to protect his legacy by failing to protect Aerith.
If it wasn’t enough that they were insulting Axel’s character so much to only kill him (sloppily) for convenience, they went and did one of what I consider to be cardinal sins of writing a good story:
They brought him back to life in Dream Drop Distance. For no reason. No explanation. He literally just showed up.
And what’s more, like everyone else now, he can wield a keyblade because why the hell not.
The whole game operates under the same formula as Axel’s death: Use the music and camera angles, make people think it’s sad by forcing the emotion, and then BAM! Make it irrelevant somehow–In Axel’s case, by bringing him back to life for no reason. Just when the game makes you think it’s sad, it makes you happy again. You’re feeling a wide range of extreme emotions when you play through this series, so even when you don’t understand what’s going on, you still feel emotionally involved because the game is giving you the cues for when to be happy, sad, etc. And that’s why so many people confuse the fragments of story in Kingdom Hearts with a solid, understandable, well-written story–because they feel emotionally involved.
By now you probably think I hate Kingdom Hearts–and I don’t. Because it’s finally time to look at the other side of Kingdom Hearts: The gameplay. It’s an action RPG with several menus. Gameplay is kept constant in the main games (Kingdom Hearts 1, 2, and Birth By Sleep) and gimmicky in the “in-between” games like Chain of Memories, 358/2, ReCoded, and Dream Drop Distance. In the main games, the gameplay is generally the same–attack with one button, use magic with another, and then use items. Menu is in the bottom right, use it! Personally, I think Birth By Sleep had the best gameplay as it used that simplicity and added special combo attacks and a better way to aim. Regardless, there’s something satisfying about hitting mashing a button and see Sora (or whoever else the protagonist may be) act accordingly, nearly at the same speed as you. And what’s more, the games do require several elements of strategy in some of the battles–they’re not all easy. You can’t just keep mashing attack and win all the time. And it’s fun. It’s satisfying. And they mix up the gameplay (for better and for worse) in just enough games to make it feel all the more diverse and refreshing. From a technical standpoint, Kingdom Hearts is just. Plain. Fun.
In recent games, they’ve especially boosted this with adding more fun to be had than in combat: By adding mechanics with Unversed and training them in Dream Drop Distance, by sliding around in Birth By Sleep (and based on the trailer, we’ll see this again in 2.8 and 3), using the enemies more creatively, and of course, bigger, flashier, more colorful, borderline cinematic looking attacks. It’s fun to watch this happen–it’s fun to make it happen.
It’s hard to play a Kingdom Hearts game and not say you didn’t have at least a little fun. From a technical aspect–visuals, soundtrack, and most importantly, gameplay, Square Enix nailed it with Kingdom Hearts. I think that’s why I care so little about Chain of Memories, which has gameplay that’s the antithesis of all the other Kingdom Hearts games by using deck building based combat–which is significantly slower than the normally fast paced, hot bloodedness of the rest of the series which is so easily and readily fun to play right off the bat. It’s satisfying, it’s not mindless, and there’s different ways you can play the game if you don’t like playing it in a certain way. (EX: Using more magic, or using a certain kind of magic, as opposed to normal attacks–or focusing on abilities rather than regular attacks and magic.)
I don’t hate Kingdom Hearts. In fact, I quite like it. What I don’t like–no, what I don’t understand–is how a series that was the brainchild of the same man who made Final Fantasy 7 (and many other wonderful JRPGs) could’ve also thought of the hot mess story that is Kingdom Hearts. Lost in its own symbolism and the clearest example of what happens when you make a few too many sequels and come up with any excuse you can to force drama and carry the series on far longer than what it should’ve been, Kingdom Hearts fails in every possible department of story telling. I guess that’s what happens when you try to mix Disney charaters, Final Fantasy characters, and a few original characters. It sounds like the beginning of an awful “X and Y walk into a bar” joke, but alas, it’s the unfortunate basis of one of the most well known JRPG series of all time. But for every bit that the storytelling is bad, the gameplay is absolutely wonderful. It’s satisfying, fast, and increasingly diverse and cinematic. Again: It’s just plain fun.
In the story vs gameplay debate, Kingdom Hearts is the clearest example of how if a game’s gameplay is good enough, it can outshine even the worst of stories. If your editing and soundtrack is good enough, you can fake having a good story under the guise of “emotional involvement.” As such, joins the ranks of other convoluted but fun games like Bayonetta and Metal Gear. Not bad games at all–in fact, they’re excellent games. But God forbid movies ever get made about them, removing their gameplay and relying entirely on the overly complex story to entertain the audience.
Kingdom Hearts is what happens when an idea that would work for no more than 3 games gets drawn out far longer than necessary in an attempt to make money. The story becomes cheap, convoluted, and inconsistent, the excuses and reasoning behind character’s actions (and thus the characters themselves) become one-trope caricatures, and the strong emotions you felt in those first few games gradually become forgotten. If Kingdom Hearts didn’t have stellar gameplay to save it, this series likely would’ve died years ago.