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June 22, 2012

The Final Mix: A Kingdom Hearts Retrospective (Part 4)

You’ve seen me cry about E3.  You’ve seen me moan about Prometheus.  You’ve endured my constant peddling of an over-the-top love comedy without complaint.  And now, finally, the Kingdom Hearts Retrospective returns with a vengeance -- a vengeance so vengeful, you’ll want to avenge the vengeance.  Vengefully.

I know I’ve made this fairly clear already, but just in case anyone needs to hear it directly, I’ll say it now.  Not only do I like Kingdom Hearts 1, but I prefer it over its mechanically-superior sequel Kingdom Hearts 2.  Why?  Because KH1 has a better story.  Not the most complex story, mind, and likely not the best story ever told in a video game -- but for what it was worth, it succeeded.  Keeping in line with its “simple and clean” veneer, it satisfied from start to finish.

But in spite of that “simple and clean” veneer, it offered its fair share of depth and subtleties.  It was -- and is -- a self-contained story with plenty of themes to explore, unburdened by the need to play its cards close to the chest for sequels.  Whatever the case, it’s certainly a story that leaves you feeling good, and without any complexities weighing you down.  Makes me wonder what happened when the sequel came around -- seriously, what the hell happened, Squeenix? -- but we’ll get there when we get there.

For now, let’s do something that’s been long overdue.  Let’s talk about Kingdom Hearts 1’s story.


Let’s get the basics out of the way.  You play as Sora, a fourteen-year-old kid who hangs with his pals Riku and Kairi on Destiny Islands.  They want to build a raft and head out to explore the world -- but their childish wish ends up getting granted in a way none of them expected.  When the Heartless -- beings from the shadows hungry for the souls of the living -- come a-knocking, the trio gets separated and scattered across the universe as the islands sink into the shadowy depths.  Fortunately, all three of them manage to survive; while the other two are MIA, Sora teams up with Donald Duck and Goofy (sent on order of their missing friend, King Mickey); their mission is to explore the worlds to find their pals, and use the Keyblade entrusted to Sora to stem the Heartless advance, as well as cut down the Disney villains as they come and rescue the Princesses of Heart.

And that’s, for the most part, all there is to it.  Yeah, you get a fair number of twists and turns and developments, but basically it’s just an inter-dimensional “save the princess” story.  Given what essence this game tried to evoke, I wouldn’t ask for anything else.  But in the ten or so years since the game’s release, I’m starting to realize that there are some deeper ideas and themes inlaid within the story. 

So here’s what I’m going to do.  I’ll try and separate the deeper stuff from the main story, and tackle each idea as best I can.  Sometimes it'll be a positive comment.  Sometimes my theorizing.  Sometimes my nitpicking.  Whatever the case, and whatever my interpretations, I think it's important to note that merely having the ability to interpret the story in different ways is a strength -- certainly not something you'd expect from kiddie fare like a half-Disney production.  But that's enough of that.  Let's get to it.

Who is Sora?
He’s our hero, at a base level.  He’s bright, cheery, a little dense and naïve at times, but always has his heart (hurr hurr) in the right place.  He’s about what you’d expect from a JRPG hero, and likewise, what you’d expect from a Disney-styled hero. 

And maybe that’s what makes him so scary.

Heroes are known for their fantastic willpower -- their ability to practically bend reality merely by way of getting psyched up.  They’ll fight their way to the end of the story, and win by virtue of their emerging power (by resolve or raw strength).  But what happens when that willpower is used against him?  What happens when being brave and unflinching and determined actually end up becoming detrimental?

To KH2’s credit, this idea is made into a central plot point when Organization XIII uses Sora’s rampant-yet-noble Heartless-slaying to their advantage.  But that same idea emerged years earlier in KH1 more subtly.  Late in the game, when Sora’s stripped of his Keyblade and his comrades, he decides to keep on traveling, partnering up with Beast to infiltrate the baddies’ sanctum.  Bear in mind that without the Keyblade, Sora can’t attack the Heartless (though in a bit of a gameplay oversight, he can still hurt them with magic).  What’s so special about that, you ask?  It’s because at that moment, you start to realize that Sora and Beast -- the goddamned Beast, of all people -- have a lot in common.  They’re both untrained but ferocious and deadly fighters.  They’re both determined to keep moving forward, even when there’s no hope of success.  They’re both campaigning to save the Princesses of Heart from their respective worlds…both of which, mind, are their love interests.  They’ve both traveled a huge distance to reach their loved ones (especially the Beast, since he didn’t even have a Gummi Ship), and both have had their worlds swallowed by darkness.  It’s a stark reminder of what Sora COULD be if he devotes himself to this idea of being a hero -- and given that he’s something of a chosen one, it’s very possible that we could see him crack before the series’ end.    He’s even proven himself to put on a brave face throughout the story.  From an early scene where Sora puts on a big, goofy grin as a test for powering the Gummi Ship, all the way to a late-game scene where (after letting a comatose Kairi slip through his fingers), he remains optimistic and hopes to tell her about the fun he had flying.  Okay, that bit is up for interpretation, but still…

Probably the biggest question is why Sora ended up getting the Keyblade.  Or, to be more precise…

What if Riku was the hero?
I think it’s a law somewhere that half of all heroes in fiction have to be good at heart, but inherently stupid.  That’s likely why Riku, who is supposed to be the Keyblade wielder, ends up getting shafted.  Apparently, having ambition in the KH universe automatically makes you evil and prone to corruption by darkness.  What a positive life lesson!

I guess Riku’s cockiness gets the best of him.  In the opening hours of the game, he asserts that he’s not afraid of the darkness, and is promptly swallowed by it.  When we meet him next, he’s more than capable of handling himself via his Keybla…actually, no.  It’s more of a real sword, which is an important distinction given that there’s THE Keyblade and no others.  (At least there would be if not for Squeenix deciding to arse up a good thing…but I digress.)  Even though Riku’s something of a douche, I can’t help but like him as a character; ambitious, intelligent, driven, and far more aware of his surroundings and circumstances than Sora, when the silver-haired punk calls Sora out it’s hard to disagree.  

Several of Sora’s adventures are only tangentially related to helping Kairi.  For example, even though he heads to Olympus Coliseum where Disney villain (and evil alliance member) Hades resides, Sora’s more interested in proving to a goat-man that he’s a real hero…and then proceeds to smash barrels for half an hour.  Even when Hades goes on the attack, finishing off the lord of the underworld comes in an optional event.  Compare that to Riku, who goes right to the damn source to figure out a way to save Kairi -- this, well after he succeeds in finding her soul-stripped body.  What was Sora doing at the time?  I can only wonder; probably looking for Dalmatians or something.

It’s established that Riku is the superior of the two and the one originally planned to wield it; yeah, you could argue that Sora’s got the stronger heart, but given that Riku is still fighting for a noble cause -- the same cause as Sora -- should he really be locked out of his fated heroism just because he used a different means?  Come to think of it, why didn’t the Keyblade immediately come to him when the Heartless attacked the island?  If the object of the game (so to speak) is to stop the Heartless, wouldn’t the Keyblade want to put itself in the hands of someone not only destined, but eager to wield power for a good cause?  Wouldn’t all the problems of his story arc -- and the problems the universe faces -- be relieved if he just held onto the Keyblade?

I’ll come back to this later.  But for now, I’ll switch gears and ask a different question:

Why Kairi?
Alternative title: “Why, Kairi?”

Kairi is…problematic, I think.  In the first part of the game, she looks primed to be a major part of the cast -- something of a balancing act between the Sora’s naiveté and Riku’s tunnel-vision.  She’s certainly spirited enough, and lends a charming air to both Destiny Islands and the game as a whole.  And then she ends up disappearing and spends ninety percent of the game in a coma.  And even beyond that, she’s still a damsel in distress that has to be saved even if she could move under her own power.  And even beyond that she’s utterly alone -- without partners like Donald and Goofy, or cohorts like Maleficent -- and without powers.  Sooooo…I guess another life lesson in the KH universe is to never be a girl.

That seems kind of odd, since as I understand it Kairi may be one of the most powerful characters in the whole series.

In this series, hearts = power.  Stronger hearts = stronger power.  The Princesses of Heart all have the purest, brightest hearts imaginable (except Alice, who IIRC was kind of pissy and lazy).  Therefore, shouldn’t Kairi, by virtue of a 100% percent pure heart, have gotten a Keyblade long before Sora and Riku?  It’s demonstrated that she has some sort of power; I interpret her heart being inside Sora as a failsafe, a measure taken by Kairi to save Kairi.  And I interpret Sora’s resurrection from Heartless -- becoming a creature acting solely on instinct, trying to reunite with Kairi…hmmm -- to human as a result of Kairi’s influence.  And in the ending CG cutscene, how the hell did Kairi suddenly go from Traverse Town to the End of the World?  Okay, you could argue that the world-restructuring temporarily put the two in close contact, bit I like to think that just as Beast made it to Hollow Bastion on willpower alone, Kairi could have made it to the abyss with her pure heart.  A pure heart, I might add, given an impetus via her love of Sora.    

You could argue that this was the only way the game could play out if it wanted to keep that Disney feel.  There had to be a princess to save, and Sora’s tangential relation to the other six would have left the story weaker overall without a major stake -- i.e. Kairi -- in the matter.  It’s a necessary evil for setting the characters’ journeys and developments into motion.  If not for Kairi’s capture, Sora would still be living in Riku’s shadow, wanting her but remaining powerless.  Likewise, Riku wouldn’t have begun his pure-hearted descent into darkness if it wasn’t for Kairi coming under fire.  I guess that for what it’s worth, two out of three interesting characters isn’t bad.  It’s just a shame that we couldn’t have three.

What are the Heartless?

“The Heartless are physical, living manifestations of the darkness within people's hearts. They manifest in two forms; ‘Pureblood’ and ‘Emblem’ (Emblem Heartless being created artificially), and they behave entirely devoid of emotion, hence the name ‘Heartless’.”

Ehhhhhhhhhh…yeah, that sounds about right.  So basically, the Heartless are the enemies you spend 90% of the game bashing.  Some of them look cute and cuddly (in an evil demon sort of way); others look a lot nastier.  Whatever the case, they’re all after the same thing: hearts.  Hearts, of course, is the franchise’s analogy for souls. 

But in spite of that definition, there’s something about the Heartless that intrigues me.  If they’re supposed to be the darkness within people’s hearts, what does that mean about the darkness itself?  If the heart is supposed to be a conglomeration of light, given strength and form by one’s pure emotions, then that would make the darkness the negative emotions around said heart.  Given that the heartless are animalistic creatures, that (by proxy) makes the darkness little more than unformed, base emotions -- the null-space from which rational thought emerges and becomes a heart.  And given that the worlds -- and the universe itself -- have hearts and darkness, you could argue that darkness is just a void from which matter (worlds, hearts, what have you) emerges and takes form.  In other words, the natural state of the universe is chaos, but from within it emerges light -- and with that light, hearts.  Or alternatively, that chaos can take a semi-living shape and act on those primordial instincts.  That is, it becomes a Heartless.

…Ancient Greek metaphysics?  In MY Kingdom Hearts?  It’s more likely than you think.

What role do the Disney heroes play?
What role, indeed.  Given that they’re bound to their particular worlds, their impact on the plot as a whole is debatable.  Their events are isolated incidents for the most part.  They don’t have any bombastic powers; hell, I’m surprised Ariel is even a party member, given how much “help” she was in The Little Mermaid.  Still, they do have at least two important roles to play.

1) They’re mentors.  Ansem’s words at the start of the game are important: “One who knows nothing can understand nothing.”  Sora doesn’t have much to go by in terms of power, skill, or intelligence.  You could even make the argument that he’s motivated by jealousy, desire, and that ever-so-evil ambition at the start of the game.  Basically, he needs to explore the worlds in order to broaden his horizons -- and who better to show him the way than tried-and-true Disney heroes?  Granted, most of them exist in some strange alternate continuity where they’re either in the midst of their movies’ story arc or somewhere beside it (which would make Sora something of an OC-insert in a fan fiction), but just as they go through their strides, so too does Sora.  With each world comes a valuable lesson, and with that knowledge comes newfound strength -- and given the dissection of the universe’s nature from above, committing that knowledge to the heart is vital in order to avoid become a part of the chaos once more.

2) They exist to build the bonds of trust.  In line with the series’ Prime Directive, Sora can’t just build an army out of Disney heroes and go stomping up to the baddies’ doorstep (but man, how sweet would that be?).  So when one baddie’s beaten and it’s time to head out, Sora has to say farewell to his new comrade…but what happens when the mission isn’t quite the success they were hoping for?  In Aladdin’s case, even though Jafar gets taken out, Jasmine (as a Princess of Heart) still ends up kidnapped.  What then?  Naturally, Sora has to go rescue her, but can you imagine what would be going through Aladdin’s mind?  He’s supposed to be the hero of the story, but suddenly he’s left powerless and forced to twiddle his thumbs while a kid does all the work.  He’ll just have to make the best of it; he’ll have to put his faith in Sora, and as a result even with the distance between them, their bond remains incredibly strong.  One begins to suspect that Sora, as well, is aware of that bond -- and with it, the burden of fulfilling the promises made to his friends.  Seriously, it’s only a matter of time before this kid cracks.     

What about the FF crew?
There’s a pretty telling scene in KH2 that I’d like to bring up.  Sora and friends are heading through Hollow Bastion, going about their business and trying to figure out how to deal with the Heartless and Nobodies.  But then, before you can go any further, you have a cutscene that stops you in your tracks.  Cloud (in his Advent Children outfit, so you KNOW it must be important) wants to know where Sephiroth is so they can settle the score.  Ignoring the fact that the player could stamp Seppy out in the previous game -- and that Cloud himself has stamped him out in both Final Fantasy 7 and Advent Children -- the fact that we need to completely stop the plot so we can deal with Cloud, who does jack-all to help the cause besides faffing about and leaning against walls looking surly, is a slap in the face.  And then you get another slap in the face when, in the middle of a Heartless onslaught, Sephiroth shows up out of nowhere, spouts some cryptic nonsense at Cloud, and leaves.  Does their debate impact the plot?  Does it affect Sora?  Does it lead up to a major shift in the story?  Hell no!  It’s just Cloud and Sephiroth going through the motions. 

I wish I could say that Cloud (and to a lesser extent, Sephiroth) fared a little better in KH1, but in retrospect they’re not much better off.  Cloud gets a new outfit straight out of Vincent’s closet, and spends his time looking surly and moaning about darkness and his past failures and looking for his light…and he’s actually trying to prevent the plot from moving.  Sephiroth is just an optional boss.  Their saving grace is that the developers had the sense -- back then, at least -- to keep them out of the way.  “Here’s Cloud and Sephiroth, kiddies!  Say hello!  Now wave bye-bye!”

I think that’s the best thing KH1 can do: keep the Final Fantasy characters out of the way.  Regulating them to cameos and support gives Sora room to breathe and develop.  Even if Squall is technically stronger than Sora is, Sora’s still the one wielding the Keyblade.  It’s his story.  Let a playa play, as they say.  Although…there are some other niggling issues.  If the Keyblade is supposedly the only weapon that can defeat the Heartless, why do things like gunblades and ninja stars work on them?  Since it’s implied that the others -- Disney or FF -- are fighting them off when Sora’s not around, how is it that they can combat them?  Is it only Sora that can’t hurt Heartless?  Does the Keyblade project some kind of aura that lets others attack Heartless? I guess you could argue that it’s because the FF crew comes from Hollow Bastion and maybe picked something up from Ansem the Wise, but that’s a tenuous connection at best.

But that’s enough thinking about that.  Let’s move on.

Is technology inherently evil in the series’ canon?
Rather appropriately, KH1 is decidedly low-tech.  Given the worlds that Sora visits -- the most “modern” of the bunch being Halloween Town -- there’s not much of a showcase for new machinery throughout the game.   As you’d expect from Disney…barring Tron, of course.

Actually, scratch that.  KH1 still has Hollow Bastion, a world that fuses the sensibilities of an evil overlord’s castle with plenty of mechanical bits.  Consider it a synthesis of magic and technology; there are fantastic bits like bubbles and sparks and lights, but there are also elevators, switches, lifts, pipes, and gears whirring in place.  Also of note: Holly Bastion is THE hideout of choice for the villains.  With the exception of the Gummi Ship, the good guys don’t use any technology (and considering that the ships are powered by “smiles” the mechanics are a little suspect).  Meanwhile, the only time a computer appears in the game is in the last hour or so of the game…and its owner is none other than big bad Ansem.  That’s pretty damning evidence right there.
It makes me wonder if there’s a right way to seek knowledge and a wrong way.  Ansem tried to use technology to brute-force his way toward knowing all the world’s secrets, and he ended up turning into an asshole.  Meanwhile, Sora goes on a magical journey -- slow, but even in pace and naturalistic -- and comes out both wiser and stronger as a result.  Also note that even though Ansem and the main trio have a similar goal of using boats to see the world and broaden their horizons, the trio has a plain-old raft.  Ansem, on the other hand…

Technophobia aside, I can see why they’d try to put machines in a lesser position.  We call it “Disney magic,” not “Disney mechanics.”  Technology is powerful and vital, but it takes away some of the mystery and whimsy out of our lives.  It’d be easy to Google the meaning of life, but you won’t get the same result unless you go out and learn for yourself.  I guess it’s good to get off the old laptop every once in a while.

Wait a minute...

…Anyway, let’s move on.

Is the Keyblade alive?
There are a few throwaway lines in the game about how “the Keyblade chooses its master” and they should “let the Keyblade decide.”  Said throwaway lines may change the very fabric of the mythos.

If the Keyblade really is alive, then that means that it enjoys some level of sentience.  It also has some control over its actions and movements; it self-activates to lock keyholes, and moves into the hands of its master (either Sora or Riku), particularly after a wielder proves himself worthy.  It’s not too far-fetched to assume that the narration done at the game’s start during Sora’s Dive into the Heart is actually the then-unrevealed Keyblade speaking to him.  If that’s the case, then maybe the reason why the Keyblade prefers to be in Sora’s hands is because it sees some quality in him that others lack -- well beyond just having a “pure heart.”

What is the Keyblade, really?  Is it the aggregation of pure hearts -- the light emerging from the chaotic depths given form?  Is it a single heart that transcended its human form?  If it IS alive -- or again, capable of thought -- then why would it choose not to tell Sora about incredibly important details (like how Ansem’s behind everything, or even how to use the Keyblade).  It leads me to believe that even though it’s important to follow the ways of light, being pure light isn’t exactly the best option.  If we’re still dark -- that is, we still contain formless chaos within our bodies, then wouldn’t that mean that the darkness isn’t all bad?  Maybe the reason the Keyblade chose Sora is because he is (or has the potential to be) the most balanced of the trio.  Kairi’s too pure by way of being a Princess of Heart, and Riku’s too dark by way of getting his feet wet with the darkness.  Also, the fact that the Keyblade would purposely screw with its potential wielders suggests that it’s riding on a pretty high horse.

It’s a concept inlaid within KH1’s narrative, and explored a bit more in KH2.  Of course, KH2 and BBS had to go and arse everything up by making Keyblades little more than common swords, so…way to be, Squeenix.

What the hell is Kingdom Hearts?

“Kingdom Hearts is one of the major objects in the Kingdom Hearts universe. It is the heart of all worlds, and a source of great power and wisdom. It can be seen as the heart of everything. Due to its great significance, it has repeatedly been sought by the villains of the Kingdom Hearts series, in particular the series' main antagonist, Xehanort.”

Uh…huh.  So essentially, it’s a world…but it’s also pretty much a library with all the information in the universe.  And it can only be accessed through a door to darkness, and resides solely in darkness.  And…the realm of darkness also has a Keyblade, the counterpart to Sora’s Keyblade with inverse colors and wielded by King Mickey at game’s end.  So…Kingdom Hearts is full of darkness…but is also light…but is also darkness as well?

Okay.  I guess that all these points -- depending on how you interpret them -- all tie together if you’re willing to make a few assumptions.  One: Kingdom Hearts is whatever someone with a strong heart wants it to be.  Ansem claimed that Kingdom Hearts was filled with darkness, and for a moment that looked like it was the case; then Sora comes along, and -- because his heart was stronger -- he willed Kingdom Hearts to be light, rewarding the strength he’d gained from his journey.  Two: Kingdom Hearts is transmutable, but is highly dependent on its surroundings.  That is, because it’s surrounded by darkness and Heartless, by nature it’s dark.  Think of it -- whatever it is -- as being covered in mud, and only a strong heart can clean it off and reform it.  Alternatively, it takes a strong heart, one with just the right balance of light and darkness, to bring form to the formless chaos.  In doing so, one can obtain the true answers -- that is, one of those “It was inside you all along” moments.  Given that Kairi’s heart was chilling out inside Sora for most of the game, it’s not TOO far-fetched.   Or as an alternative to that, perhaps Sora himself is Kingdom Hearts.  Or at the very least, the container of Kingdom Hearts.

…I’m starting to wonder if this franchise’s cosmology is kind of bullshit.

Final Thoughts
Kingdom Hearts 1 doesn’t make any sense.

Nobody bats an eye when a talking duck and a talking dog -- both of which are several times their usual size -- strut through the worlds.  The main character, beyond having ridiculous hair and elephant-sized feet, swings around a giant key (ignoring the fact that he was very nearly a lion-boy with a chainsaw).You have spaceships powered by smiles and happiness, and somehow maintained by chipmunks who aren’t even big enough to lift a wrench…and if the villains can use darkness to teleport at will, you’d think that the heroes could use light -- and the very embodiment of divine destiny, the Keyblade -- to move at their leisure.  The heroes’ Prime Directive tells them not to meddle in other worlds’ affairs, and then they do the exact opposite in every world they visit.  And of course, it features Disney and Final Fantasy characters largely coexisting.        

Kingdom Hearts 1 had no reason to be as successful as it was.  But somehow, it managed to exceed everyone’s expectations; snappy gameplay, a satisfying story, and varied worlds to explore helped spark a new franchise.  More importantly, it shut up every last one of the haters.  “It can never work!” they said.  “What were they smoking?” they asked.  But whatever they were on, it worked wonders.

I’d argue that KH is an example that, even though certain sensibilities might be different, Eastern and Western media and storytelling and traditions aren’t entirely dissimilar.  We all know that Final Fantasy and JRPGs like it are weird, but that’s only because we’re outsiders looking in.  Have you ever put any thought into how absurd Disney can be?  Jamaican crabs!  Cheerleading genies!  Ducks that refuse to wear pants!  In fact, I think that the two brands have a mutual weirdness that makes them MORE compatible with each other.  Granted, that balance needs to be maintained very carefully (or you get KH2), but the fact remains that the series has the potential to bridge cultural gaps.  It’s not a matter of “He’s got crazy hair, so it’s weird” or “That mouse isn’t wearing a shirt, it’s weird”; by embracing that weirdness and connecting with others, you get a product that delights in the best of both worlds.

I will admit that the balance I mentioned is debatable; the FF characters don’t have too big of an impact on the plot at large, so you could argue that KH1 is too Disney-heavy.  But then again, is that such a bad thing?  KH1 manages to not only maintain, but successfully sell its whimsical spirit.  It pretty much nails that Disney style that appeals, no matter what your age -- whether you’re a kid just looking to taste the magic, or an adult charmed and reminded of simpler times.  Was it a perfect game?  Nope.  Was it the ultimate be-all and end-all of artistic expression and cross-cultural synergy?  Nope.  But for what it’s worth, Kingdom Hearts 1 is a damn fine game, and worthy of being the game that started a revolution.  There’s a reason why people eagerly await Kingdom Hearts 3; even the most jaded gamer is lying in wait, ready to see the next magical adventure.

So, bottom line?  Thanks for the memories, KH1.  You’ve done well.

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