The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
“A scattered dream that’s like a far-off memory. A far-off memory that’s like a scattered dream. I wanna line the pieces up—yours and mine.” – Sora, Kingdom Hearts II
1. PART ONE: A New Beginning
Kingdom Hearts III. From the moment I completed its numbered predecessor in 2006 those words have held unlimited potential. And for the past 13 years, my mind has been brimming with possibilities for every beloved character and thematic thread. The stark reality, however, is that Kingdom Hearts III’s narrative is a meandering mess which knows exactly where it’s going, but has no idea *why* it’s going there – or how to create a satisfying crescendo to the series so far.
The reason for this, I believe, is that Kingdom Hearts III is a conclusion without a story; a game that lacks a complete, evenly-spread, fully-realised narrative, and is instead only concerned with its final few hours – a climactic event called the Keyblade War, which the past decade of games have been leading up to. Specifically, this essay is an examination of Kingdom Hearts III’s approach to storytelling and the issues on display; it is not about lore, consistency, or convolution. While I adore the series, this critique is largely written from a game developer’s perspective, albeit with the insights (and frustrations) of a lifelong fan.
Now, in order to examine this assertion, we need to determine exactly what Kingdom Hearts III is a conclusion to. Players without an extensive knowledge of the series may be surprised to learn just how many narrative threads are introduced in this game – and left completely unresolved. And those threads which are concluded often have their origin in games over a decade old.
To use the official PR, Kingdom Hearts III is the conclusion to the ‘Dark Seeker Saga’ – a long-running narrative which involves our heroes fighting the villainous Xehanort in one of his many incarnations. As such, this latest game is billed as a sort of finale to every prior entry in the series. And this is one of the biggest challenges when attempting to examine Kingdom Hearts III’s narrative – rather than building its own story on top of what’s come before, its purpose is more to wrap up the past 17 years worth of games. That’s a tall order, with a lot of baggage to sift through; but so much build-up and legacy should have provided a solid foundation for a final chapter. And yet, Kingdom Hearts III has very little to say; about its story, about its characters, or about any of the series’ larger themes. Consequently, I believe that Kingdom Hearts III is a conclusion in search of a story; an ending to a series of games, yes, but one lacking a clear identity and without a tale of its own to tell.
But before we begin exploring this, I wanted to address a few general topics.
- This essay has been written over a 9 month period, and predates the release of the Re:Mind downloadable content. While this release may address some of my points, it won’t change the original Kingdom Hearts III experience and so I decided to treat it as a separate product.
- I am a big Kingdom Hearts fan who has beaten every game multiple times (except Re:Coded), knows the lore, and first played the original game in 2002. Sometimes I may not elaborate on a plot point to the level of detail that other fans would like, or I’ll fail to mention some caveat to a statement I’ve made. Generally, this isn’t because I’m unaware of something; it just comes down to a desire to keep my writing as concise and digestible as possible. Unless it was important to the discussion at hand, I tried to cut down on any narrative bloat that was present in my writing.
- I quite enjoyed my time with Kingdom Hearts III and consider it a genuinely great game; one that I would happily recommend to fans of Disney and the Action genre. Even though this article is primarily a critique of the game’s narrative flaws, I am not someone who hates the game or spends his time attacking it. An essay skewed towards writing and game design felt like the most constructive way of conveying my thoughts and feelings about this title.
- This essay was not only written to be an analysis of Kingdom Hearts III, but also to discuss topics and techniques that readers can potentially apply to their own games. My hope is that highlighting the pitfalls of this story will allow other developers to avoid them in future; especially as some of these issues are not always immediately obvious during the writing process.
- Full spoilers will be included for the base Kingdom Hearts III storyline, so if you have not finished the game yourself, please be aware of this.
Finally, I know this essay is quite lengthy, and so to anyone who decides to read through it, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. If you enjoy it – and maybe even gain something from it – then you’ll have made all the weekends I’ve spent writing this worthwhile.
So with all of that out of the way, let’s follow our hearts and see where they lead us.
“There is so very much to learn. You understand so little… One who knows nothing can understand nothing.”
– Ansem (Seeker of Darkness), Kingdom Hearts
Kingdom Hearts III begins with the classic trio of Sora, Donald, and Goofy visiting Olympus (the world of Hercules) in hope of finding some way to restore the spiky-haired hero’s lost abilities. In the words of series creator Tetsuya Nomura, “…Sora has lost all of his powers and needs to get them back, and there was once a hero who regained his own powers in the same way, so it was a perfect fit for the start of the journey.” And Nomura’s absolutely right – this is a set-up with a lot of potential! It:
- Continues the story from the moment where the previous games left off, while also serving as a comfortable jumping in point for new players – especially as it uses the setting of a popular Disney film.
- Uses the characters’ past experience to provide a logical reason for visiting this world (as Hercules had to regain his strength in Kingdom Hearts II).
- Immediately throws the player into the action without much need for exposition, ensuring the game opens with a bang and subverts past games’ slower paced openings.
The problem is that, while these events do get Kingdom Hearts III off to a running start, they amount to very little. By the time you leave Olympus, Sora hasn’t learnt how to restore his powers; and the frustrating part is that he never explicitly does. Even the villains are given no progress – a subplot about Pete and Maleficent looking for a mysterious black box goes nowhere, and Organisation XIII (the primary antagonists) only put in a brief appearance, spouting their usual brand of vaguely ominous dialogue. To compound these issues, the protagonists are ultimately left not knowing where to go or what to do next. Only two hours into the game, and the plot has no sense of momentum or direction.
By comparison, Kingdom Hearts II’s opening was significantly slower paced – to the point that it was a detriment to some players. However, so much more was achieved in a similar space of time; II’s initial hours establish the game’s tone and major themes, as well as introduce a large cast of brand new characters (while simultaneously reintroducing old ones in new contexts). It sets up a wider world, a series of intriguing mysteries, and even tells a self-contained, tragic tale. It’s not perfect, and Kingdom Hearts III deserves praise for immediately engaging the player by comparison. But love it or hate it, by the time Kingdom Hearts II’s logo appears, significant events have taken place and a foundation for the overall narrative has been formed.
Returning to Kingdom Hearts III, we leave Sora behind for a moment in order to catch up with Riku and King Mickey. They’ve ventured to the Realm of Darkness to rescue Aqua – a Keyblade Wielder who has been trapped there for many years. Once again, this is a great set-up that allows two important characters to play a quintessential role in the story – a role that is separate to our main protagonist. Unfortunately, the duo are quickly defeated by a basic group of Heartless and immediately retreat – content to spout exposition via Sora’s Gummiphone for the next 20 hours before making another attempt to reach Aqua. Not only does this callously undermine an interesting side-story, but also Riku and Mickey’s established personas as competent, proactive characters. This, in turn, diminishes the set-up for Sora’s journey in Kingdom Hearts III. In the previous game, Riku was the one who passed his Mark of Mastery exam and was granted the title of ‘Keyblade Master’, while Sora failed and lost all of his powers in the process. What does it say about our lead characters if Riku – the successful one – immediately fails to master even his first challenge – a challenge that Sora later overcomes, without any special powers or training.
And this is one of the core problems with Kingdom Hearts III; even if you look past a threadbare narrative for Sora and company while they adventure through the self-contained Disney worlds, there is nothing going on outside of that either. In Kingdom Hearts II, both Riku and Mickey were operating behind the scenes, aiding Sora from the shadows and setting key events in motion. In III, however, these same characters spend most of their time expositing plot points and passively waiting for the big battle at the end of the game – and that can be said for almost all of our heroes.
In interviews, Nomura discussed the struggle of dealing with so many characters – even citing the cast size as one of the main reasons that Final Fantasy cameos were omitted. The real problem, though, is that nothing is done to mitigate this challenge. One solution would be to introduce characters at a steady pace throughout the narrative – like a traditional RPG. You don’t begin Final Fantasy VII with a full party; members are steadily introduced throughout the first half of that game’s story. Kingdom Hearts III, however, takes the opposite approach, leaving many of its characters to make their first appearance in the game’s final act – sometimes without much explanation or set-up. Even the few characters we meet earlier in the game, such as Kairi and Axel, are largely paid lip service. Until the story needs them, they’re relegated to being static, passive background actors – entirely dependent on Sora, and thus the player.
And this creates a bizarre disconnect in the way Kingdom Hearts III’s story is told. In numerous cutscenes the player is informed that Sora is a goofball, and a bit of a screw-up compared to everyone else; hence why he is sent to visit Hercules in the first place. But as stated, the story never moves forward without him present – or without him doing all the work. If there’s an enemy to face, it cannot be defeated without Sora. If there’s a job to do, it’s up to Sora to do it. With a couple of key exceptions, every character apart from Sora, Donald, and Goofy is presented as almost comically useless – yet our protagonist remains the butt of every joke. While the player should be in control as much as possible – and should indeed be the one to overcome challenges – the story needs to support this, not actively work against the player’s growth and sense of success.
After Riku and Mickey’s futile brush with darkness, we return to Sora – who abruptly decides that he wants to save another character named Roxas (whose heart is essentially trapped inside of Sora’s body). This arguably undermines the themes and events of Kingdom Hearts II, but at least we have some sort of direction and short-term goal now. To find a way of accomplishing this, our protagonists travel to Twilight Town – Roxas’ former home – where they are confronted by two members of Organisation XIII. The villains reveal that the only way Sora can release Roxas is by giving into the darkness, and sacrificing his own heart. Self-sacrifice is nothing new for Sora (he did the same thing in Kingdom Hearts I to save his love interest Kairi), but this had the potential to be an interesting plot point, as it gives him a selfless reason to be tempted by, and potentially give into, the darkness. But it’s never brought up again. In fact, ‘saving Roxas’ is scarcely discussed until the end of the game (King Mickey telling Sora to “let the rest of us worry about Roxas and Naminé for now”, essentially dropping the subject after only the second Disney world). Ultimately, Roxas’ heart just leaves Sora’s body of its own volition in the final act, making the player’s time here, once again, feel largely pointless.
Upon leaving Twilight Town, the player finally begins their true journey – travelling to various worlds based on Disney properties and beating back the forces of darkness. But there’s no real set up for this; no distinct reason *why* we’re visiting these worlds. So around 3-4 hours into Kingdom Hearts III, the story still lacks a clear sense of direction and purpose, and hasn’t yet established any clear themes or deeper meaning. We also haven’t been introduced to our main antagonist (and won’t be until the end of the game), instead treading water with previously explored villains (such as the final bosses of Kingdom Hearts I and II).
Kingdom Hearts III cleverly tries to frame its story through the lens of a chess match between two Keyblade Masters, Eraqus and Xehanort, when they were young. The game even opens on this scene, highlighting its importance. But chess has rules; logic; a clear sense of direction. Kingdom Hearts III’s narrative is akin to two people who don’t know how to play chess. They understand that they have to defeat their opponent’s king, but the rules of how to move their pieces, how to actually reach that coveted checkmate, are completely unknown to them. The characters in this game feel like pieces on a chess board with no rules; aimlessly moving back and forth across a limited space, until both players finally decide enough is enough and agree to bring their match to an end.
To its credit, Kingdom Hearts III features a fun, dynamic opening, and a genuine wealth of good ideas, some of which I haven’t even touched on (such as Kairi and Axel training with Merlin – a context that could have served as a perfect place for tutorialisation, and a fun subversion of Sora’s traditional Dive into the Heart sequence). But it either abandons or neglects all of these, and has little to replace them with. So what can we learn from Kingdom Hearts III’s opening hours? I think there are three salient points.
- Stick to your guns – don’t be afraid to explore a good idea, or to develop the plot outside of your main protagonist. When so many previously proactive characters are in play, the story shouldn’t feel so static, or entirely dependent on the protagonist’s actions. The way your protagonist reacts to events and changing circumstances is just as important as the ones they play an active role in creating.
- It’s important to minimise ludonarrative dissonance (the conflict between story and gameplay) as much as possible, and one way of achieving this is consistency. As I discussed, there’s a distinct separation between Sora’s portrayal in cutscenes and gameplay, and it creates an unnecessary disconnect between the player and their protagonist – all for the sake of a few awkward jokes. Consistency is also essential for the other characters in the story as well; contradictions can feel especially blatant if they seem at odds with past games in your series.
- Every developer knows that the opening hours of their game are important, as this is where many people determine whether or not they wish to continue playing. It’s essential, then, that we respect players’ time. On the one hand, this usually means getting into the action quickly; allowing the player to experience gameplay without a lot of fluff surrounding it – something that Kingdom Hearts III absolutely succeeds in doing. But respecting players’ time also means that everything should have a purpose; everything should be meaningful. You don’t want to frustrate players with things that make them question their use of time – for example, ‘Why am I watching this cutscene if it doesn’t progress the plot, or tell me something about the characters?’ But convincing players to stick with your game is only half of the equation; you also need to be sowing the seeds that will sprout over the course of their journey. This is done by establishing overarching themes (love, identity, sacrifice, the meaning of life – almost anything) and forming the foundations of your characters; clearly defining room for growth and development, and presenting cues that can be explored over the course of the story (for example, a mysterious past or a strange personality quirk). While it doesn’t limit the introduction of new ideas, the rest of your game should build upon the concepts introduced in your opening hours.
With so many good ideas discarded, an awkward separation between cutscenes and gameplay, and a lack of narrative purpose and direction, Kingdom Hearts III’s opening fails to establish a clear thread for the rest of the story to follow. It throws plenty of things at the wall, but none of them are allowed to stick. However, because the Kingdom Hearts formula is so well-established, the game can ultimately follow that template without the need for a larger story; coasting on a by-the-numbers structure from a PS2 game, until it finally arrives at the conclusion it’s so single-mindedly focused on reaching. And despite all of its potential – so many avenues and ideas to explore; so many characters to develop – that’s exactly what it does.