by Daniel Johnson
As is the case in most video games, I am the chosen one. I alone possess the inherent ability to wield a weapon that not only forever banishes the darkness or opens the door to the light, but also spectacularly bashes skulls and brains them into oblivion. In the case of Kingdom Hearts, the cult-classic Square Enix/Disney roleplaying collaboration, which just celebrated its fifteenth anniversary last month, the storytellers went literal: my weapon is a giant, magical key. My character’s name is Sora (a boy in search of his friends); I am accompanied by Donald Duck (a mage) and Goofy (a jankily-armored knight). We three are responsible from saving the Disney and Final Fantasy universes from eternal night by locking the door to Kingdom Hearts, an ambiguous realm of unknown populace, the unleashing of which would cause some kind of apocalyptic consequence.
In the fifteen years since its release, I’m on my umpteenth replay, and I’ve arrived at the moment I consider to be both the most supremely jarring and exhilarating of any in the game. Donald, Goofy, and I have landed at Hollow Bastion—a decimated crystal canyon on the outskirts of Maleficent’s stronghold. We beam down into a ravine, and a on the floating platform beside ours stands a haggard and bloodied Beast (from Beauty and the Beast), somehow still on his feet. He’s flailing himself at Maleficent, demanding she release Belle—one of the Seven Princesses of Heart—from captivity.
Some background: Maleficent is the nefarious general in command of all your favorite Disney villains—Hades, Jafar, Ursula, the Queen of Hearts, etc. Together, with Death Star-like effectiveness, they’ve been consuming and destroying worlds. In this franchise, “worlds” are equivalent to the individual universes of Final Fantasy gameworlds, as well as the individual universes of classic Disney animated films. In destroying them, Maleficent gets ever closer to unlocking Kingdom Hearts and drowning us all in rapture. Our quest, then, is twofold: play through the narratives of Disney movies and “lock” those worlds from Maleficent’s grasp, and save the Seven Princesses of Heart, whom Maleficent has kidnapped in hopes of transforming their cardiovascular purity into a lockpick of sorts that will open the great Kingdom doors. Somewhere within Hollow Bastion, presumably in a damp cellar dungeon, Belle and the other six Princesses sleep.
Now, according to the game logic I’d come to understand, most movie-specific Disney characters reside only within the Kingdom Hearts representation of their filmic universes, save for Maleficent, who is fairly omnipresent. They can’t leave their realms. And yet, here I am, in a landscape unique to the Kingdom Hearts gameworld, standing beside Beast, to whose world I’ve never traveled nor heard mention, and of whose existence in the Kingdom Hearts universe before this moment I was totally unaware.
So just how, I still wonder, did Beast make it to this crystal ravine before we did? I’d spent real-world days, game-world years saving the timelines of other Disney movies, upgrading weapons, hunting scattered Dalmations, flying my ship through the cosmos, all to arrive here, where the three universes—Final Fantasy, Disney, and Kingdom Hearts—collapse. So then what of Beast? Where was his spaceship? Where’s his keyblade? Where are his comrades, sent by King Mickey, who aided him along his journey?
When I was thirteen, it was precisely the unanswerability of these questions that made his appearance such a galvanizing narrative moment: Surely, I am to believe that Beast’s love for Belle was as potent as any preordained, messianic quality bestowed unto Sora. It allowed him to bellow and claw his way out of a reality in which he would be forever without Belle, shred through the previously unshreddable curtains of quantum physics, and materialize, like us, in this moment, prepared to give his life for an outside shot at her safety. It’s as disorienting and heroic a moment as I’ve yet countered in any game since.
Fifteen years removed from my first play-through, however, I wonder if the unanswerability of Beast’s arrival suggests a far more damning conclusion about narrative as it functions within the Kingdom Hearts universe: it might really just be a bloated clusterfuck of content. We’ve seen the previously closed-loop narratives of at least seven animated Disney films disrupted and rewritten; we’ve seen Final Fantasy characters reappropriated from their universes into Disney’s (how and why exactly are Cloud and Sephiroth hanging out at Hercules’s Olympus Coliseum—civilly!—and why aren’t they trying to either kill each other, or band together to restore their world?). Perhaps most egregiously: when Sora, Donald, and Goofy are trying to save a Disney gameworld, the narrative dilemmas are almost exclusively the conflicts from the corresponding films. How is it possible that we celebrated this concept and its story as sophisticated and original, when so much of it is blatantly recycled?
If we’re being forgiving, one of the allures of Kingdom Hearts is this fascinating narrative puzzle. But unfortunately, the answer to all these larger questions—down to the granular, nagging question of Beast’s arrival at Hollow Bastion—likely don’t reside in any analysis of the storytelling and can be resolved only when we consider Kingdom Hearts not as story, but as product: combine the fiercely devoted, global fandom of one of the most iconic video game franchises to ever hit the shelves with the nearly worldwide Disney audience, and it’ll yield enough gold coins to buckle the substructure of Scrooge McDuck’s money tower, even if the story is some cobbled-together franken-narrative that makes little sense under thoughtful scrutiny.
Despite my story-driven-gamer impulses, measuring Kingdom Hearts’s value as a video game solely through an assessment of narrative quality is profoundly reductive. The quality of a video game, like the quality of most works of art, can only be measured in sum. A narrative analysis speaks little to Kingdom Hearts’s fluid battle system, its somewhat radical (for 2002), if slightly cheesy, interpretation of gender and friendship (as wonderfully outlined in the indie press Boss Fight Books’s Kingdom Hearts II volume, written by video game critic Alexa Ray Correia), or its innovations in video game voice-acting. These aspects of the franchise hold up, especially when you consider the game as a technological artifact.
Beast never really explains how he got there, likely because Maleficent beats him down with a disturbing laziness before she retreats to her castle. He just says, “I simply believed. Nothing more to it … So here I am.” He then uses what breath he has left by asking us to help him onward, and we do. How could we not? This magnificent and terrifying creature has broken every rule in the game’s logic. We could ask him questions, but we know why he’s here. Perhaps the how—when it comes to a game founded on a culture of charging players to believe strictly by suspending disbelief—is ultimately irrelevant.
And yet, acknowledging the narrative gap of Beast’s journey to Hollow Bastion remains a thrill simply because I get to bridge it, and reintroducing myself to the texture of my thirteen-year-old imagination capable of doing so is, sometimes, almost necessary. I see him throttling through game-space like a rogue meteor; I see him stalking Maleficent and pouncing into her intergalactic portals at the last second; I see him aboard The Jolly Roger with the lapels of Captain Hook's naval jacket bunched in his claws as he demands answers with fanged desperation; I see him cross-legged by a small fire in the clearing where he fought all those wolves in the original film, one of Belle's hair ribbons clutched in his paw, gazing into the flames and begging—believing—the twilight above would take him either to Belle or to his death.
It’s like Tom Bissell says about the eccentricities of game developers in his essay “The Grammar of Fun” (Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter): “these are boyish affectations, certainly, but boyishness is the realm in which these men seek inspiration, not a code by which they live.”