So, after a several-weeks-long vacation in which I had nearly zero time to devote to gaming, I finally managed to sit down and polish off Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Once the credits had rolled (for the fourth time, actually, due to the multiple-campaign story structure), I came to a realization about why I continue to be invested in the series despite the fact that I find myself frequently rolling my eyes at its absurd, nonsensical mythos.
Japanese RPGs that are plot-centric have (almost) always operated with a certain structure in the way that they reward their players: the payoff, plot, comes after the player has conquered a certain amount of gameplay (often in the form of one or more dungeons, a couple boss battles, etc.). With the advent (no pun intended) of Final Fantasy VII, these plot rewards were often paired with the promise of a visually-impressive cinematic sequence: Finish this dungeon, beat this boss, watch something awesome happen that totally wouldn’t be possible to communicate within the confines of the game’s engine.
As someone who grew up with JRPGs, Final Fantasies in particular, I don’t agree with those who believe there’s something inherently flawed with this system of rewarding the player. Though I’ll certainly grant that there is a purity, a compactness, an immersive ideal that is possible when the gameplay itself is the reward and plot development never wrests control from the player, I certainly don’t believe that all games need to strive for that ideal.
I don’t mean for this to be a discussion about the merits, or lack thereof, of cutscenes. What I want to point out is the particular quirk that Kingdom Hearts puts into this formula, a unique and engaging (though sometimes frustrating) spin on the idea of rewarding your player with plot.
When I monitor my engagement with games in the Kingdom Hearts series, I don’t find myself more engaged in the story than I do in the gameplay. Whacking on Heartless/Nobodies/Unversed/whatever with a keyblade is an absolute delight, and each new entry into the series has further refined and deepened the game’s core mechanics.
Birth By Sleep, which not only sports smooth and fabulous swordplay but also adds some cool character-progression mechanics swiped from Crisis Core and Final Fantasy IX, is probably the best-playing game in the series. It’s also high-energy enough that when cutscenes come along, they feel like an appropriate breather from the frenetic action of battle.
As in all of the Kingdom Hearts games, though, story sequences are dramatically divided into two different categories: interactions of the protagonists with the characters in various Disney worlds, and developments exclusively concerning the original characters created by Square Enix.
Almost exclusively, the former are boring as all-get-out, while the latter have the potential to be intriguing and dramatically potent. In almost every case, Squeenix uses each protagonist’s encounter with Disney characters as an attempt to hold some mirror up to them in an effort to show them realizing something about themselves or their friends. Such revelations are usually something along the lines of “never stop believing in your dreams” or “remember the importance of your friends.” Occasionally they are even more abstract, like “never give in to the darkness” or “protect your heart,” which… Ugh.
The Disney characters are almost exclusively reduced to flimsy, weak pantomimes of the events of their original stories, which have neither narrative potency nor any real interest to the player. Seldom are they given any kind of depth.
And so in a Kingdom Hearts game, rather than play through partly-engaging gameplay in order to get to the more-engaging story, the player plows through uncompelling Disney narratives they’ve encountered before in order to get to the original material that they might actually care about.
(As a sidenote, there is some pleasure in setting foot in new Disney worlds for the first time, but Kingdom Hearts II does this much better than anything that’s yet followed it. Going into the worlds of Tron, Steamboat Willie, and Pirates of the Caribbean was delightful.)
However absurd the mythos of Kingdom Hearts may be, it’s a series which does have a mythos–and which loves to tantalize with elements of that mythos that are as-yet-unrevealed to its players. Playing the Kingdom Hearts games to completion, sometimes on harder difficulty settings, offers players glimpses of connections between entries in the series, hints at the nature of the cards in the hand that the developers have not yet shown. If you are the least been invested in the world, as I am, then these narrative bridges become the greatest reward of all for playing the games.
This has been going on since the first game, in which, if players had fulfilled certain criteria, they were greeted with this upon the game’s completion:
This, in a game which ended on something of a cliffhanger, from the people who made Final Fantasy (not exactly a series known for direct follow-ups. …Well, not at the time, anyway).
The secret video at the end of the first Kingdom Hearts drove me absolutely bonkers. Was there going to be a sequel? Why was it so aesthetically different from the entirety of the game? Who the heck was that blonde kid?
When Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories came out, I snatched it right up. Tangling with the plot of this one was even more divided than the first game: not only had I already dealt with the Disney plots in the original movies, but I had already seen them through in the first Kingdom Hearts game! Talk about a snooze-fest! The card-based battle system was pretty engaging, though, and enough to keep me interested between scenes that involved the new original characters, Organization XIII, who were not only intriguing but offered some truly spectacular boss fights.
When the game concluded, I was pretty satisfied at having enjoyed some new plot material, though I wasn’t surprised that they employed the trope of having Sora’s memory wiped at the end. It was a handheld game, after all, and I was pretty sure that they weren’t going to expect people to have played it when they dove into the sequel (which, at that point, was definitely on its way).
Imagine my surprise when, upon booting up Kingdom Hearts II, I found all of that narrative information not only pertinent, but perhaps essential. I still didn’t know what was going on, of course, but the first hours of KH2 were replete with tantalizing clues.
I have no idea how many people out there in the world of gaming are as captivated as I am by this meta-game of piecing together the mythos. I’m sure that many, if not most, adult gamers don’t have the time to invest in a series with a younger audience in mind, especially one that’s spread across at least five different systems.
What I do know is that the final epilogue of Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep contains scenes which make no sense if you haven’t played Chain of Memories, the original Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, and 358/2 Days, and it delights me to no end. I’m not sure I can think of another series of games that invests that much time in establishing connections between its different entries, with the possible exception of Metal Gear Solid (you wanna talk about a self-referential mythos, yikes).
Though it’s obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, I think that the Kingdom Hearts series should be applauded for the way it rewards the series-faithful. There is great joy to be found, as a player, in gradually uncovering the pieces to a larger puzzle. I wish more games offered us this pleasure.