Game Pile: Kingdom Hearts (But So Not Really)

I guess as a disclaimer up front: I haven’t played Kingdom Hearts. The research for this video kinda means I wound up wanting to, even though it would be a kind of hate-play. But it’s about games, it’s about using Kingdom Hearts to talk about something in games, and it’s a chance to put forward some work I like.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. I know when I say this I’m going to be giving voice to some academic idea that someone in my circle either knows better than I do or that I’m going to come across sometime months from now and I’ll finally have it crystallised by people who are more focused on, more marinated in the field. Or maybe I’ll relisten to a podcast and find the quote – probably by Michael Lutz – explaining it.

For now, I want to get this out.

Recently, I watched this video about Kingdom Hearts, by Jacqueline Merritt.

A Dive into the Heart of Kingdom Hearts I

This is a good video, and I liked it a lot.

Something I liked about it was the way it mixed up its formula; there was a little singing bit, there was use of classic youtube style subtitle slides, and there was also a deliberate attempt to wield rhetoric, to be convincing as well as clear. It’s also coming at this game from the perspective of overwhelming love, love that nonetheless has not blinded Merritt to the problems present in the game. It’s thorough, it’s thoughtful, and it’s all rendered by love. It’s a really good video.

None of that that is to say, however, that I agreed with the video in its entirety. I livetweeted my watch and kept returning to a point the essay positioned in its opening: That Kingdom Hearts is unfairly criticised as having a convoluted or confusing story. Here, to quote:

One of the things that surprised me the most when revisiting Kingdom Hearts was just how simple and straightforward the story was. If you’re not familiar with it already, the game series has garnered a reputation of convoluted, overly complicated storytelling, a reputation that is, for the most part, pretty unfair. (12:26)

In my tweet thread, I then proceeded to point out how the story as this video presents it includes a number of narrative cul-de-sacs, inconsistent characterisation, needless ideas, rushed ideas, ideas that come out of nowhere, an entirely superfluous main character, and you know, just a bunch of small bad storytelling decisions. Basically, the essay leads with the point that this story isn’t that complicated, and then runs in on making the point that yes it really is very complicated.

There are two things to address here: One, the reason I kept returning to this point is that it’s the only real point of contention I have. It’s not that it’s the primary thesis of the work is that Kingdom Hearts isn’t complicated, and then spends an hour explaining it – that’s a joke that Picross Picross Gilbert, Safety Fan & Beaurocratic Wunderkind has already done. It’s just that it was the main thing from the introduction that I found wasn’t being supported by the rest of the essay. As an example, the video describes Kingdom Hearts as passable genre fiction (3:50), a point that it then supports well and doesn’t ever need to be re-addressed. The idea of it being good genre fiction is a really good way to look at the Kingdom Hearts story (and I’ll be revisiting that as I look at other games in the franchise).

It does mean that I was highlighting my criticism, which does run the risk of being mean, but it’s not coming at this from a space of cruelty. I hate that I have to be so overloaded with this sort of disclaimer, that ‘I disagree with this point, but that doesn’t mean I think the person making it is foolish asshole.’ It’s worse here because I think Kingdom Hearts is extremely silly. I guess I am being a dinghole about this, since even in the context of this small pond, she’s a bigger fish than me, and yet I still feel like I’m the one who needs to apologise for disagreeing. Boy, the internet sure has been great for engaging conversations, hasn’t it??

The second thing to address is that it’s entirely, 100% true for both the public opinion of Kingdom Hearts (which I keep typoing as Kongdom Hearts for some reason, and we know KongDom is just a specific forum about loving gorilla themed BDSM until it got shut down for racism-related reasons) to be about it being extremely complicated and for Kingdom Hearts 1 to be extremely simple by comparison, because there are fifteen of these games and by all known information, they get very, very silly.

Anyway, with this criticism aside, I spoke later to Jacqueline about it a bit where I brought up something that was on my mind about the distinction between narrative, plot, and story. It was a thought borne out of a phrase I heard on a podcast once:

The narrative is the sequence of events the audience experiences; the plot is what gives that sequence meaning. So the narrative is the king died, then the queen died; the plot is the king died, then the queen died of grief (paraphrased, source unknown).

My supervisor is right, I need to take way better notes for attribution later.

I think I need this tool when I talk about videogames. I think about it especially in the context of big games. Videogames have a lot of stuff in them! And I’ve talked about how hard it is to talk about the ‘story’ of games that take hundreds of hours to finish. After all, is it fair to describe the plot of Far Cry 3 as just a handful of story events in a row, which are largely self-contained little incidents? Is it fair to describe the plot of Metal Gear Solid 5 as basically its start, its end and one or two beats in the middle when a large part of that game can be incidents of sitting still and waiting for sniper shots to line up?

Here’s the tool; it’s a way of looking at videogames in terms of the whole groupings of things in different ways.

  • Narrative is a literal accounting of the sequences of events in the game from start to finish. This can include optional events but does not have to. Narrative is very nuts-and-bolts, and focuses on what is presented.
  • Plot is the core points of a narrative broken down into meaningful, specific points. This is trying to represent as much as possible of the narrative in a way that connects the events meaningfully.
  • Story is the summary of the above into the most crucial details in terms of what the whole experience is trying to be about. This is sort of your highest-level lens.

What’s this tool let me do? Well, it means that I can say the following:

  • The Narrative of Kingdom Hearts features lot of cul de sacs and out-of-character behaviour, composed of a lot of bad fanfiction reiterations of other, more familiar stories.
  • The Plot of Kingdom Hearts is a ‘call for adventure’ story where Sora and Riku leave their home to try and save the day in different ways, and how they wind up fighting one another because of a failure of communication.
  • The Story of Kingdom Hearts is a story about friendship between two boys and how far one of them will go to save the other.

That last one is really simple. If you cook Kingdom Hearts down to just that point, it is simple and that’s approachable as hell. Then, with that in mind, if you use that story to look at the rest of the narrative, it means that that every last detour on the way between A and B is just another thing that’s ‘about’ the friendship between Riku and Sora. If it does a bad job of following through on that Story idea, then it’s to be discarded; if it does a good job, then it’s reinforcing the theme. We’re helped by Kingdom Hearts even making a clear, explicit statement of how it’s about the friendship between Riku and Sora, right at the end! There’s a speech and everything!

That’s one way to approach this story, and it makes it simpler and easier to approach. On the other hand, you could take things the other way around and approach it from the narrative side of it to try to tease out the themes and ideas of the story. If you do that, you might get, and I say this as someone who hasn’t played it, a pile of incoherent nonsense with no clear theme standing out amongst it until a character stands up and says ‘This is about friendship,’ which may sound very silly at that point.

One side effect of all of this is I kind of do want to go play Kingdom Hearts sometime, maybe with cheats or hax to make sure that I don’t have to struggle with any part of it I’m finding tedious, because I think that I’d have a lot of fun looking at how it tries or fails to deliver on its stated themes. I say that because my assumption is that Kingdom Hearts is, much like Homestuck, media that is primarily about already loving an existing piece of media. It even makes a clear explanation for what follows in the other games, where loving Kingdom Hearts became the primary motivator in a story that endlessly reiterates on itself with midquels and prequels.

When you’re dealing with a property that’s made up of three things like this – Disney nostalgia, Square Nostalgia, and its own mythology – it doesn’t seem like it’s hard to find one thing that you can really connect to hard.

In the end, I want to be familiar with Kingdom Hearts. I want to know about it and really, I’d like to like it, because gosh there’s a lot of it and there aren’t a lot of action RPGs of its type that I see these days, and the actual core question of a relationship between two boys, one of whom falls into toxicity and the other resists it through optimism seems appealing to me. I say that, though, knowing 100%, that I will almost certainly never be able to like Kingdom Hearts, because I don’t imagine I’ll ever be able to see Donald Duck and Goofy as anything but branding exercises, the phylacteries of a monstrous lich-company that demands our love and devotion and money.


It’s an intriguing mystery, really.

What, it leaves me wondering, is Kingdom Hearts all about? is it a modern fable, the 05’s generational turning point, a sort of first epic for a generation of queer creators seeking a massive creative space like Ranma 1/2 was for mine? Or is it a cynical exercise in brand maintenance with no central guiding philosophy but that which is put there by people who overwhelmingly want to love it?

This video gives you one answer.

Maybe I’ll find the same thing some day.