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Kingdom Hearts III: A Conclusion without a Story - Part 4

by Joshua Hallaran on 01/22/20 04:58:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s 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


CONTENTS

1. PART ONE: A New Beginning

2. PART TWO: The Disney Loop

3. PART THREE: Missing the Mid-Point

4. PART FOUR: Motivation, Meaning and the Key Question: Why?

5. PART FIVE: Missing Ingredients - What made Final Fantasy & Disney a Perfect Match?

6. PART SIX: Dreaming of the Future, Neglecting the Present


Xehanort. Foolish apprentice of a foolish man…I'm afraid that any world you try to create... Any world of yours... would be an empire of ignorance.– Ansem the Wise, Kingdom Hearts II

This essay began with the assertion that Kingdom Hearts III is a conclusion in search of a story; a game without a tale of its own to tell. So far, we’ve examined the material impact; the effect this has on the game’s pacing, its sense of player progression, engagement, and character development. So in this topic, I want to consider the conceptual side of things; the motivations that drive our heroes and villains, the purpose of the events that take place, and finally the meaning intended to be conveyed by the story. Put simply, does the narrative of Kingdom Hearts III have something to say?

While certainly not a series concerned with pondering big questions, Kingdom Hearts has traditionally featured interesting concepts and core themes with a degree of depth. It’s generally known for touting the importance of friendship and working together with others to overcome challenges, but the series has also broached far more complex ideas. For example, Kingdom Hearts II’s core themes examined identity (what defines a person), what it means to be complete (and how you go about obtaining your sense of completeness), regret (and the forms that redemption can take), obsession (to the cost of all else), and so on. It used these concepts to give its villains a sense of intrigue and grey morality; unlike the Heartless, they weren’t simply evil by nature.

With all of that in mind, I think the most appropriate way to begin examining this question is via a recent interview with Kazushige Nojima, the writer of Kingdom Hearts I and II (among many other Square titles, such as Final Fantasy VII). Here, he explained his approach to starting a new project:

First, several essential pieces of information require focus: graphics, main plot, characters bonds, music, etc…Then, I put information in my imaginary ideas’ sack…I manage to find a meaning to my ideas.

…I appreciate worlds that are ruled by different laws from the real world. So I begin to imagine a system and structure, whereafter I address the inhabitants of those fictional universes. And obviously [from this comes] the main character. Because they’ve got a rebellious mind, one that questions the established order. They struggle to fit in, to conform to it... And thus the story happens.”[1]

From this quote, we get a sense of his approach to storytelling. First, he finds a meaning to his ideas, and then creates characters to express that meaning. He defines the laws and structure of the fictional universe that he’s writing about, and then uses that as a basis to tell the story; to inform the characters’ struggles and motivations. He goes on to say that he:

“…identified the different events, triggers, feelings, and the main atmosphere that they wished to reveal in the game [Kingdom Hearts]. Whereafter, I grabbed my pencils and I lay out on paper the most important scene, the one that would magnify everything they desired. This aside, I was also responsible for the story’s consistency. I was making sure that it didn’t go in every direction, and took the wrong turn.”

Now, while Nojima only had limited involvement with this newest game (as a supervisor/consultant, and draft writer for the final battles[2]), I think his approach to writing serves as an excellent foundation for analysing Kingdom Hearts III - especially given his prior involvement with the series. So as we go forward, in this topic and the next, please keep these concepts in your mind – “character bonds”, “laws”, “struggles”, “triggers”, “feelings”, and “meaning”.

Kingdom Hearts III’s story struggles with many of these ideas. Even the series’ core theme of friendship is paid only lip service – with the exception of the main trio of Sora, Donald, and Goofy, who receive some genuinely meaningful moments; especially near the end of the game. The big problem is that Kingdom Hearts III’s narrative is built upon a desire to reach the big battle at the Keyblade Graveyard. Outside of our main trio, this encroaching confrontation is just about the only topic of discussion for the characters – despite the game having such a wide and varied cast. Because the story is designed around getting everyone to the battlefield, it rarely takes the time to do anything more with its characters; they don’t have distinct journeys or arcs, let alone interactions.

I think the character of Riku is a perfect example of this. In Kingdom Hearts I, he was Sora’s rival – someone who always seemed to be better at everything - the perfect foil for our protagonist to overcome. As Sora begins to get more of the spotlight, Riku’s sense of abandonment and jealousy is manipulated by the villains, and he becomes consumed by his own darkness – until Sora saves him. From then on, Riku’s character arc is focused on overcoming his inner darkness, as he struggles to find redemption and decide who exactly he wants to be going forward. 

By the time of Kingdom Hearts III, Riku has overcome all of these challenges and been granted the title of Keyblade Master, so it was important to present him as a more mature, capable character, having regained his confidence and developed a clear identity. But ultimately, he just feels bland and stoic in this game. He has no new narrative arc, relatively few interactions with Sora, predominantly serves as a mouthpiece for exposition, and is more devoid of a distinct personality than ever. And for a game which serves as a conclusion to the story so far, it’s essential that our core group of characters, such as Riku and Kairi, reach a satisfying crescendo. The narrative should organically involve them in significant ways, and the challenges they face should provide natural opportunities for growth and exploration. 

But while underdeveloping previously central characters is a problem (especially when you examine Kingdom Hearts III as a finale to the series so far), this is only the tip of the iceberg. Where this issue becomes detrimental is when these same problems – a lack of clear motivation and meaning – apply to our antagonist and, yes, even our protagonist as well.

Examining Sora in this way is a very large task, and so I’ll cover him in the next part. But for now, let’s discuss the main villain: Master Xehanort. In one form or another, he has been the antagonist in almost every Kingdom Hearts game to date, but his true form – the twisted old man – has only appeared twice prior. Kingdom Hearts III should have been his game; the perfect opportunity to take a deep dive into who he is, where he came from, and exactly why he’s so hell-bent on starting the Keyblade War. While you can infer some of the details from his scenes in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, as well as by reading the series’ various hidden reports, the fact of the matter is that the main antagonist of Kingdom Hearts III is never clearly established.

As stated in a previous topic, the game opens on a scene with Xehanort as a young man, playing chess with his fellow Keyblade Master in-training Eraqus. This sequence implies that we may learn something about the character’s origins and motivations; but they never move beyond the chess match. That’s a great framing device for Kingdom Hearts III’s narrative, but it also limits this look at Xehanort’s youth. We see that even then he had a fondness for the power of darkness, and a desire to learn about the past, but these elements are vaguely defined and ultimately unexplored. It’s nice to see this twisted old man as a teenager, having fun with his friend, as it implies some tipping point that lead to his downfall. But that tipping point is never seen, and we never gain any insight into how he became the man he is today.

This doesn’t necessarily matter – not every villain has to have a tragic back-story to set them on the dark path. So long as the villain’s personality and goals are well-established, and a tangible connection is developed between the protagonist and antagonist, that can be enough. But this is unfortunately not the case. One of the big detriments to Kingdom Hearts III’s story is that Master Xehanort does not appear at all until the game’s final act; and even at that late stage spends most of his time acting as a shadowy overseer of the events that unfold. Neither Sora nor the player are given much time with him as a character, and at no point are his reasons and intentions clearly defined beyond a superficial desire to re-enact the ancient Keyblade War.

Now, even with that structure, there are still numerous ways that this could have worked. The original Kingdom Hearts described Ansem numerous times in cutscenes, regularly fed the player excerpts from his writings, and even had him interact with Sora at the beginning of the game in disguise; so when he does appear in the final act, he felt well-established. He was a seeker of knowledge whose discoveries made him lose his mind, and – believing darkness to be the true nature of all things – unleashed the Heartless upon his own people. It was a pretty standard ‘villain wants to destroy the world’ plot, but given a more interesting context that fit within the laws and themes of the universe. Kingdom Hearts II’s Xemnas is similarly defined; both personally, and through the game’s exploration of Nobodies (creatures without hearts). He’s an emotionless mastermind, desperately gathering the lost hearts of others to try and regain his own humanity; to become complete. But as Sora interacts with him, we learn that he has forgotten what that really means, remembering only his feelings of hatred, rage, and envy towards the teacher he loathed.

As much as I’ve tried to understand it, I cannot summarise Master Xehanort’s motivation in that same, concise way. His initial speech in Kingdom Hearts III implies idle curiosity; he speculates that “If ruin brings about creation, what, then, would another Keyblade War bring?” followed by statements that he wants to re-enact the conflict and simply see what happens. He also wonders if they will “…be found worthy of the precious light the legend speaks of”, implying that his goal is to test humanity; or at least the current generation of Keyblade wielders. But that’s a pretty flimsy motivation, and it’s lacking any context or logic. So let’s dig a little deeper.

Through the conflict between heroes and villains – the clash of light and dark – he forges the X-Blade (the ultimate Keyblade which appeared in Birth by Sleep), and uses it to unlock Kingdom Hearts (the heart-shaped moon for which the series is named, which has varying, vaguely defined powers). Xehanort then calls upon Kingdom Hearts’ “…true form. Open now and show me the World to come.” This then implies that Xehanort is attempting to create a new world, but all this does is cause Kingdom Hearts to rain dark energy onto the Keyblade Graveyard.

Our last glimpse at his motivation only comes after the final boss battle. Kingdom Hearts begins to radiate like the sun, and Sora asks what’s going to happen. Xehanort replies “A purge… The World will be returned whence it started.” He then tells a story about how the World began in darkness, and from that darkness came light and humanity. But people’s hearts became filled with darkness; a darkness which spread across the World like a plague,

“Leaving nothing but ruin…An utter failure. But, the first light – the light of Kingdom Hearts – it can give us a new start. An empty World, pure and bright…The World needs someone to stand up and lead. Someone strong, to stop the weak from polluting the World with their endless darkness. Someone to dictate their destiny.”

While this definition does indeed provide Xehanort with a motivation, it’s completely incongruent with both his past actions and the way the Kingdom Hearts world has been presented to the player. We never really see much in the way of ruin or the influence of darkness – aside from that which Xehanort himself has caused. His actions spread the Heartless across dozens of worlds; created the first (known) Nobodies; formed Vanitas and the Unversed. Aside from the Disney villains, Xehanort has caused the only ‘plagues’ we’ve ever seen, and Kingdom Hearts III does nothing to change this view. He’s also spent more than a decade possessing teenagers; even transforming Terra into a monstrous guardian after usurping the boy’s body.

But if we can manage to put all of that to one side, there was an opportunity here. Kingdom Hearts III’s story could have explored the notion that the world is already poisoned; that darkness has indeed spread throughout the universe, and that the only fix may be starting over. That would be very difficult to do while re-enacting Disney films, but at least broaching this concept would have provided Xehanort with some semblance of a reasonable argument. As it stands, not only is his motivation explained far too late in the story, but it just doesn’t track within the series - or even this individual game.

Your villain’s motivation has to make sense within the story that’s being told, and within the world that they exist in. And strangely, I do believe Kingdom Hearts III has some mechanisms with which this could have been achieved. For example, the final boss encounters take place in a new world called Scala ad Caelum, which Xehanort describes as “Once a seat of power for all Keyblade wielders.” It’s also where we see him playing chess with Eraqus during those flashbacks. But now, it lies silent and empty, and there are certainly no other Keyblade wielders we know of – implying that something terrible occurred here. That “something” could form the basis of Xehanort’s disenchantment with the world; especially if he was one of the only survivors of a tragedy which cost him his home.

Kingdom Hearts 3D also revealed that Master Xehanort was born on the Destiny Islands, just like Sora and Riku. But this is never brought up in Kingdom Hearts III, and never explored in any way. Xehanort could be used as a dark reflection of what Sora could become; their origins in some way paralleling each other. The closest the series ever gets to this is a line in the original Kingdom Hearts where Ansem (one of Xehanort’s incarnations) comments on the Destiny Islands, saying “Take a look at this tiny place. To the heart seeking freedom this island is a prison surrounded by water.” Obviously this wasn’t the original intention, but we can re-contextualise that line as being Xehanort’s own feelings about his first home.

And this notion presents another way in which Master Xehanort could have been explored in Kingdom Hearts III, while still leaving the old man for the final act. The main villains from Kingdom Hearts I, II, and 3D are all featured as antagonists in this game – and all of them are various incarnations of Xehanort. This could’ve afforded a unique opportunity to explore different facets of the man - the different people that he’s been throughout his life – and establish his history and motivation gradually over the course of the story. It would almost be like writing a Doctor Who crossover special, wherein you have multiple actors playing the same character in different bodies. But while all of Xehanort’s forms appear to Sora multiple times during the game, their only purpose is to spout exposition; they never grant any insight into their own personalities or characters. Obviously they have all been established in previous games, but because those portrayals are completely at odds with Master Xehanort himself, we end up with an inconsistent mess rather than a compelling villain – one which could have been conveyed in a very unique way.

I think the most fascinating example of this is seen when comparing Xehanort’s death sequence to those of Ansem and Xemnas. Even though they are all technically the same character, they’re never written or treated as such. But because the latter two were already established in their own games, their scenes are given so much more weight and emotion. Their deaths are written based on themes (Ansem being a seeker of knowledge, and Xemnas having lived for so long without emotion). Sora and Riku’s shared history and struggles with these twisted men culminate in a grudging respect and a sense of legacy. Ansem states explicitly “What a journey you and I have had…” and these scenes feel genuinely conclusive; like the story, in some small way, has come full circle.

The contrast to Master Xehanort’s own death is quite stark. While it is an effective scene in its own right, there are two key problems. Firstly, Sora has only a limited connection to this version of Xehanort. Seeing as the game never tangibly treats him as a culmination of his other forms, their personal conflict is really only built on him killing Kairi – and Sora’s anger doesn’t last for long. Xehanort’s final scene is really just an attempt to justify himself, before finally relenting and telling Sora “Very well done.” He’s a man whose presence has only made the world worse, and so it’s hard to feel much for him. But there’s also no real sense of triumph or victory, as the game struggles desperately to present him as a sympathetic character. Ultimately, he just gives up, and Eraqus escorts his old friend to the after life. There’s no real comeuppance for Xehanort, and certainly no reward for Sora.

What I’m really trying to get at with all of this is the importance of laying foundations for your characters, and communicating their desires and goals in a clear way to the player – ideally over time, in fragments that the player can piece together, rather than all at once. This is especially important for a villain, as your antagonist’s goal forms the basis of the protagonist’s motivation. Whatever the villain’s doing, it needs to be something that the player wants to prevent or overcome; and that means they need to understand it. To go back to Nojima’s statement, the main character needs something to question; something to rebel and struggle against. Generally, a confrontation like this should be as much a battle of ideas as it is of raw power; and these competing ideas give your story its meaning and ultimate message.

It’s also important to stand firm on who your villain is. Are they sympathetic? Then write them that way from the start; convey their argument to the audience in a way that makes the player consider their point of view, even if they don’t agree with it (ala Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War). Are they mad or just pure evil? Then consistently portray them like this. That doesn’t mean there can’t be any nuance or variance, but staying true to these traits can make your villain enjoyably unpredictable; especially when they go further than the audience expects. Make the player desperately want to defeat them, and make that victory feel satisfying – like a great deed has been accomplished! You never want the defeat of your main antagonist to feel anticlimactic, and while one final conversation with the protagonist can be very effective, you don’t want to backtrack your villain’s character or introduce a lot of exposition. It should be an opportunity for concluding the character in a meaningful way, not for a belated attempt to re-contextualise your entire story.

But putting Xehanort aside, let’s re-examine that story and ask the most essential question – a question that every writer should be able to answer – “Why?” It’s a query that Kingdom Hearts III refrains from answering many times, but the most egregious example is in regards to the Keyblade War. Simply put, why are we fighting this war? Why did the war need to happen?

Obviously Xehanort wanted to re-enact this legendary conflict, as I previously stated, but Kingdom Hearts III never truly addresses or explains that within its own plot. *I* know about the war from the mobile game and Birth by Sleep, but Sora himself doesn't receive an explanation – let alone new players. The game fails to put the notion of a Keyblade War into context, and our heroes never learn anything about it. This is an especially strange omission considering that the ancient Keyblade wielders from the mobile game actually play a role in the final act, their old weapons coming to life and helping Sora defeat the Heartless tornado. It’s a spectacular moment, but Kingdom Hearts III affords neither the protagonists nor the players any meaningful context; it just comes and goes, with Aqua commenting that it was Keyblade wielders from long ago.

From a development perspective, the War is really just a framework that brings all the characters together in a single location, to settle old conflicts. To quote Nomura, it was a way for the various characters tied to each other to fight and “…put an end to everything…”[3] In that way, it serves its purpose well, staging several vignettes that effectively (albeit abruptly) cap off the stories of the portable games.

But from the player’s perspective – and that of the story – it’s really just a bunch of people who have been told they have to turn up at a specific spot at a certain “fated” time – with little reason given apart from ‘stopping Xehanort’.

And it's not just the heroes that have this problem. During their death scenes, several of the Organisation’s members (Luxord, Marluxia, Larxene, Xigbar, Xion, Saix, and Ansem) either encourage Sora or imply that they didn’t care about the outcome; or didn’t even want to battle in the first place. Some have their reasons, but if even one of them had chosen not to fight, Xehanort’s re-enactment could have failed. Much like I described earlier, it doesn’t feel satisfying to overcome a foe who didn’t want to fight, and a war with the potential to destroy the universe should be motivated by much more powerful convictions.

Similarly, Kingdom Hearts III fails to firmly establish – or at least, clearly communicate - its stakes. What will happen if our heroes fail? At the ground level, what will the outcome be? How will it affect all of our characters – original cast and Disney classics alike? It’s not enough to say that ‘the universe will be remade’ or ‘darkness will consume all’ – the player needs a material comprehension of what they’re up against, and why they need to overcome it. They need a reason to fight; a desire to win; and a tangible sense that this is the series’ most desperate and important hour.

I think this final point is the most damning. The second great Keyblade War is the final clash of light and darkness that the series has spent the past decade building up to - the thing that Kingdom Hearts III forsakes most of its narrative for. And yet, the game never truly takes the time to consider why we’re fighting it, or what’s at stake. Narrative convenience aside, the simplest explanation is that the war was a concept hinted at in Kingdom Hearts II’s secret ending; something the fandom immediately latched onto. It was an idea to escalate the series’ conflicts to yet great heights, while putting a focus on the weapon at the heart of this entire franchise – the Keyblade.

In that way, it reminds me of a quote from the BBC comedy series Blackadder, when the main character tries to explain the origins of World War I, and says “…the real reason for the whole thing was that it was just too much effort *not* to have a war.” And jokes aside, that really is how it seems to be. While it fulfils its role as a framing device for character conflicts, an event given so much pomp and circumstance should be more than that. It doesn’t add anything new to the mythology; it doesn’t feel necessary or well-explained; it fails to raise the stakes because the stakes aren’t established; and despite being a “Keyblade” War we never learn anything new about the weapon – it’s not a focus at all.

Finally, this takes us back to the topic of meaning. As previously stated, a narrative conflict between heroes and villains is more about ideas than anything else; two different world views challenging each other, clashing, and gaining allies that share similar perspectives, until one idea finally emerges victorious. Hope over despair; love over hate; joy over sorrow; good over evil; light over darkness. There are levels of nuance and complexity that are layered over this framework, but at its core, every story is a fictional contest of ideas. And so it’s essential that you establish these ideas; the things that drive your characters, and make the narrative unfold.

Ironically, this viewpoint both highlights the chess game as a brilliant framing device, while also explaining why Kingdom Hearts III’s story is so flawed. Its antagonist’s actions have no deeper meanings to explore or build upon; and this in turn weakens our protagonist’s convictions and motivations, because for so much of the story he’s never challenged. And this once again reinforces my original hypothesis. If Kingdom Hearts III had its own story to tell, the motivation of the antagonist would be fleshed out and communicated throughout the narrative. But as it stands, the conclusion needed something to happen, and so Xehanort was warped and twisted to fit that need. In a way, the same manipulations that he wrought upon the cast of Kingdom Hearts were ultimately inflicted upon him; and in the end, when put at the mercy of ‘greater powers’, he proved to be just another pawn.


[1] Kazushige Nojima, interviewed in Hommage à Kingdom Hearts: à la croisée des mondes, a book published by Ynnins Editions on January 30th, 2019. Translated by Mio-chan for KH13.com  - https://www.kh13.com/news/interviews-with-yoko-shimomura-takeshi-arakawa-and-kazushige-nojima-featured-in-hommage-%C3%A0-kingdom-hearts-%C3%A0-la-croisee-des-mondes-r2977/

[2] According to Tetsuya Nomura, in an interview with Famitsu, released on the 24th of January 2019, translated by Siliconera - https://www.siliconera.com/tetsuya-nomura-talks-about-doing-most-of-kingdom-hearts-writing-after-kingdom-hearts-ii/

[3] Tetsuya Nomura, in the Kingdom Hearts III Ultimania, released on February 28th 2019, and published by Square Enix. Translated by @lunesacree - https://www.kh13.com/news/spoilers-the-big-tetsuya-nomura-interview-from-kingdom-hearts-iii-ultimania-has-been-translated-in-full-r2953/


Thanks for reading! If you want to contact me for any reason (and please feel free), you can find me on Twitter @CriticalGamesAU, email me at [email protected], or visit the website for my upcoming project: https://www.8bitadventures2.com/

Click here to continue reading 'Part 5 - Missing Ingredients - What made Final Fantasy & Disney a Perfect Match?'


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