May 21, 2018

On Kingdom Hearts and Planning Ahead

For the record: yes, I know that there’s new footage of Kingdom Hearts III, yes, I’ve seen it, and yes, I think it’s good.  I thought about doing a post on it immediately, but there was something else I wanted to toss up first.  Also, I don’t want this to become a Kingdom Hearts blog, even though it’s pretty much going to once I start uploading the content from 2.8.

Then again, I’m putting Kingdom Hearts in the title because I have a hunch nobody will read or care about this unless I do so.  Given that?  Have a taste of the ultimate clickbait.

…Featuring [REDACTED] from the Kingdom Hearts series.

Against all reason, I have a deep fondness for Kingdom Hearts -- but its treatment over the years has threatened to teach me that I should never care about anything.  What was once a simple and clean franchise has gone down in history as the most convoluted, impenetrable canon in history.  Or if not that, then close to it; we’re talking about a franchise where the games set to posit answers only widen the hole even further.

That may come off as an exaggeration (I do that sometimes, in case you haven’t noticed), but damned if it doesn’t feel like reality.  Having finished Dream Drop Distance last week -- as of writing -- and then subsequently plowing through 0.2 and Back Cover, it feels like my brain has been wired to a teacup ride trying its hardest to break the sound barrier.  It’s almost as if every ounce of enjoyment I get from KH is met with two ounces of disappointment.  Or confusion.  Mostly confusion.  Partially in the “wait, what?  I don’t understand” sense, but also in the “oh my god, why would you do this?” sense.  

I don’t know how I could have a solid knowledge of so many games in this franchise yet be so baffled at the same time (and as a heads up: SPOILERS ARE COMING IN T-MINUS 20 CHARACTERS).  So 3D reveals that the main villain is not only Xehanort, but all of the different versions of Xehanort across time, including his teenage-ish self, and their goal was/is to have 13 Xehanorts to have the requisite number of seekers of darkness to fight 7 guardians of light and trigger another Keyblade War?  What?  First off, if you have access to time travel and the foresight gained from it, why are you even bothering?  Why not jump straight to the future, or alter events so that you win without a fight, or anything?  Because the current progression of events involves getting your myriad asses kicked by children.  Also, how are you going to start a war with 20 people?  Is it all just a pretense to make the X-Blade?  Because if not, Xehanort is aware that there are online games with more combatants than is ideal second war, right?

And don’t even get me started on Back Cover.  Am I supposed to believe that the first Keyblade War started because none of the people in charge could talk things out or think a single millimeter outside of the Master of Master’s orders?  I mean, yeah, the former issue is consistent with the franchise (thanks, Birth by Sleep!), but why am I being forced to accept that a part of the canon that’s only recently become major was predicated on the dumbest circumstances possible?  And who was the Master of Masters anyway?  Why does he act so much like Braig/Xigbar?  Is he Braig/Xigbar?  What was in that black box, and why is it important?  And if it is important, why has it only just now come up -- and come up X number of years, canonically, before it even matters, and just before this saga is set to end with KHIII?

Also, why did we need to see the secret behind shirtless Mickey at the end of KHI?  Like, if you’re gonna show that, then fine, but don’t try to recreate a scene while simultaneously retconning what he was wearing.  Or is the excuse that the PS2 couldn’t fully render his belt-laden shoes and shorts?

I guess what I’m getting at here --

Also, fuck off with that Recusant’s Sigil horseshit.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that every time something is added to the lore or the canon, it’s a coin flip as to whether it’s passable or the worst thing ever.  Like, at the end of the day, what’s holding this franchise together?  Is it really heading towards a conclusion for its first arc?  Because the way things are looking, there’s just barely a through line here.  All they had to do was use Sora’s adventures as a base and build off of that.  Give him conflicts to help him grow and develop as a character, while gradually expanding the scope of his world given the context of said conflict.  Basic stuff.  Worldbuilding 101.

What do we have instead?  I barely even know anymore.  Thanks to Nomura and crew, it’s as if KH has course corrected half a dozen times -- like it has all these plates spinning atop a broken Lazy Susan.  Multiple threads and threats need to be resolved, and sooner rather than later, but I have severe doubts that KHIII alone will pull it off -- meaning that we’re in for even more plates added shortly after (and we’ll see the payoff from them sometime in 2034).  And with the now-standard pacing problems that have plagued KH since the second console game, there’s always the chance that the story won’t be satisfyingly told.  Things are looking up thanks to that preview, but Squeenix might fall into old habits and cram everything into the very end instead of properly spacing out the plot over 20-40 hours.

So I guess I have to be an asshole and ask that question: are Nomura and the gang actually planning things out, or making it up as they go along?

My gut instinct/answer is yes.  They have to be planning in advance.  If they weren’t, then the earlier games wouldn’t have had those secret endings.  (Then again, the recent ones have eschewed the CG teasers for in-engine scenes filled with often-cryptic conversations, sooooooooooooo…¯\_()_/¯)

But man, it wouldn’t shock me at all if they came out and said that they weren’t planning ahead.  Or if not that, then they’re planning poorly.  Or if not that, then they’re executing their planning poorly.  All they had to do was follow Sora, Donald, and Goofy, and use the pieces they had to proportionately expand on the scope of the franchise.  Instead, it’s as if they got bored.  Like they couldn’t stick with one idea, or concept, or piece of the canon, or whatever, so they thought they could add more to artificially boost the intrigue and mystery.  And to be sure, adding in new stuff over time helps keep things fresh -- as long as you do it well.

They’re not doing it well.  

Every time they add something new, it comes off as a slap in the face by a gorilla wearing diamond-studded gauntlets.  Okay, fine, maybe Young Xehanort -- or any of the Xehanorts -- didn’t bother to stop their losses via time travel because they needed Ansem SoD and Xemnas to die so that Master Xehanort could be revived or whatever.  But first off, that explanation hurt my soul to type.  And second, why add in this level of complexity that hadn’t really been addressed in the canon beforehand?  Even if the time travel aspect was intended from the start -- which I doubt -- why not properly and smoothly integrate it into the canon beforehand with foreshadowing or something?  Now, not only does it distort the canon, but it makes the creators look like a bunch of hacks.  

If you’re going to make that massive reveal to the canon, leave room for it beforehand.  Properly anticipate the impact it could have on the story, the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and your own ability to successfully execute a new concept.  Otherwise it just looks like you’re spewing bullshit.  And because it’s reached a stage where KH looks like it’s spewing bullshit, there’s been even more harm done to the franchise’s shaky image than before.  If Nomura and crew make it seem like anything can happen just for a “cool” twist or reveal, how is anyone supposed to take the story seriously?  How can the rules and stakes even matter when a stroke of the pen can bend the rules in an instant?

I know I’m not an authority on this subject.  Nomura and crew have spearheaded a multimillion-dollar franchise that’s been going for more than a decade; I’m sitting here griping about that franchise like an old man yelling at a cloud.  But as a would-be writing hero and an aspiring novelist (though I prefer the nice ring of the former), I get it.  I get it.  I understand what Squeenix’s usual suspects go through.  Coming up with new ideas for a story is the best part about being a writer.

I know, because I’ve felt it a lot recently.  Wanting to be a writing hero is no joke; setting aside the fact that it’s basically been my dream since I was 11, I’ve actually got a fresh-ish slate of manuscripts ready to go.  On top of that?  I’m waiting to hear responses from some literary agents.  The problem is that the process is excruciatingly slow.  It’s not just about the rejections (of which I assure you I’ve received plenty); it’s about waiting for that email to come in and tell me what’s what.  There’s always the chance that someday that “yes” will come in, and I welcome it.  But at this stage?  I don’t even care if they send a “no” instead.  I just want to know so I can fucking move on.

The waiting is the hardest part.  Logic dictates that I start the submission process fresh so that I can find someone who might give me a “yes” faster than someone else.  At the same time, I’m not opposed to getting another “no” (soul-crushing disappointment aside) if it means the chance (and I stress “chance”) to get some feedback that can help me figure out what I did wrong and prevent another rejection right after.  But that’s MIA.  So in a lot of respects, I’m left on standby.  There’s not much I can do -- nothing but plan.  And plan, and plan, and plan.  So basically, this is me IRL:

I’d bet that my greatest strength as a writer is the ability to come up with new ideas.  Some of those ideas, concepts and elements will never see the light of day (and thank all the gods for that), but if nothing else?  I know how to string things together without going too far off the rails.  It may take me a while to actually do the stringing on virtual paper -- I.e. figuring out just how to put what’s in my head on a page -- but in terms of conceptualizing, I’ve never exactly been plagued by writer’s block.  Part of that, I think, has to do with the fact that before Page 1 of Chapter 1 is even started, I’ve already figured out well in advance how the story will begin, progress, and end, with about 90% commitment to the original plan.  For good or ill.

Planning ahead is a way to generate ideas, but also to refine them almost simultaneously.  It sounds like a hassle to go through that process, and I’d bet that to a lot of people, it is -- which would explain why not everybody in the world wants to be a writing hero, or even a writer in general.  But for me?  It’s fun.  It’s exciting.  It’s gotten to the point where, lately, I would rather grab one of my myriad notebooks or open one of my myriad files and go through the process than cry about barely-coherent JRPGs.

Just last week, my brain pretty much left my body behind so I could rework the arc of one of the main characters.  Days after that, I hurried through my lunch to squeeze in some extra time for jutting down some important notes.  A day after that, I got more hyped than I’ve been in months over the fact that I could revamp and revive a character I’d effectively thrown in the recycling bin.  

Probably my crowning moment (for now) is that after two years of struggling, I may have finally figured out a character I’ve been trying to fully conceptualize.  There are still some minor details left, yes, but I’m closer now than I’ve ever been.  All it took was for me to change her name, her appearance, her setting, her personality, her motivation, her role in the story, her relationships, her morality, and her likes and dislikes, made possible through a novella, a short story, six Word files, 30 sketches, 740 JPEGs, a slew of calculations, and a wealth of Google searches that I hope no one ever finds out about.  All to create a character who could ostensibly be summed up in four words:

I don’t regret it.  Any of it.  If I did, it would be like saying “I hate fun” -- or, alternatively, “I hate good writing.”  Wile everyone’s process is different, I’ve found one that works for me.  The key to a good story is to know what you’re doing before (and as) you’re making it, so that the problems can get ironed out well before anyone’s eyeballs ever touches them.  In a way, it’s a battle between the writer and the reader -- a contest to see who can outplay who with their knowledge, savvy, and foresight.

That’s probably why KH has been grinding my gears lately, even before taking into account my recent deep dive with the canon.  Right now, as harsh as it is to admit, I don’t feel like KH has reached, or is reaching, its full potential.  Is there still time for it to?  Yes.  Can it?  Yes.  I’d think, or at least hope, that the span of time between games has helped Nomura and the funky bunch sort out exactly what they need to do to give this arc a proper sendoff.  It seems…improbable at this point, but my hope is that KHIII will wrap up most of the important stuff, and the leftovers can stick with UX or whatever.

Unless they really are living in a vacuum (provided by Squeenix, as is the standard), Nomura and his pals have to know about the reputation KH has gotten them.  They have to know about the jokes, the confusion, and the scorn thrown their way.  I wouldn’t want them to be ruled by it, but I hope that they’re aware enough to realize it and started the course correction process a long time ago, on both a micro level (giving each individual game focus) and macro level (the franchise as a whole).  This could be the greatest franchise ever with a little work.  Granted that ship has long since sailed, but there’s still plenty that can be salvaged -- and plenty that’s worth getting salvaged.

So yeah.  As long as the course has been charted?  Bring on the next adventure.  I’m ready and waiting.


Shit, this post wasn’t supposed to be about Kingdom Hearts, but it became about it anyway.  I guess this really is a KH blog now…

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