Why Kingdom Hearts Fails at Storytelling

“Meh.”

Kingdom Hearts storytelling is a disastrous mess.

With that sentence, I have made countless enemies within Kingdom Hearts’ questionably diehard fanbase, who seem to hold Kingdom Hearts storytelling capabilities on a pedestal. But I’m sorry, Kingdom Hearts is simply a failure at its narrative, which is more often than not little more than gobbledygook.

I know, Square-Enix fans often seem to be quick to deride those who criticize the studio’s storytelling of just “not understanding complicated stories,” but that’s just the thing, Kingdom Hearts’ storytelling isn’t complicated, it’s just convoluted nonsense. It seems many people within the gaming community these days believe that more story automatically equates to good storytelling, but that’s just not the case (after all, the Sonic the Hedgehog series began to go off-the-rails once it started emphasizing cheesy cutscenes over polished gameplay).

There are plenty of well-written, complicated stories in video games, just as there are great, complicated stories in movies and TV shows. But thinly-veiled insults towards the intelligence of anyone who dares question the narrative abilities of Kingdom Hearts as simply “not being able to understand something complex” just shows off a great deal of immaturity, which is perhaps not all that surprising, since Kingdom Hearts’ supposed complexity is little more than a faux-complexity.

Admittedly, Kindgom Hearts isn’t alone in this, as the Final Fantasy series began to add layers upon layers of convolution to its plots once Tetsuya Nomura got heavily involved. Seeing as Nomura is also behind the Kingdom Hearts series, well, I’m guessing its no coincidence that they share many similarities in such nonsensical storytelling.

By nonsense, I’m not simply writing off the more weird fantasy elements of Kingdon Hearts (if anything, those are its good points). But Kingdom Hearts is a series whose idea of storytelling depth is to simply cake on as many needless details as possible, fill it with numerous cop-outs and deus ex machinas, and make retcons whenever it’s convenient.

A good example of this can be found in the series’ primary villain, Xehanort (or Xemnas or whatever the Hell his name actually is). In the first (and most playable) entry in the series, he went by the name of Ansem, But then in Kingdom Hearts 2, we discover that Ansem is actually an entirely different character, and that the Ansem from the first game was actually Xehanort. Or at least his Heartless (more on that in a moment). But actually, that’s not even the case, as the Xehanort who was Ansem in the first game is actually the Heartless form of Terra-Xehanort, which in itself was created when the original Xehanort forced his heart into a character named Terra. Terra-Xehanort is a hybrid of two humans, and it splits its heart to create the “Nobody” Xemnas and the Heartless called Ansem from the original game.

“Yes, please explain these details to me in an obnoxiously long cutscene, only to alter/retcon these details later because reasons.”

Geez, how many retcons does that description alone reveal? That’s not “complicated storytelling,” that’s just Square-Enix pulling a bunch of details out of their ass and then rewriting them in an attempt to make things complicated. So many details about that one character are so needlessly tacked on, and the series is full of such things.

Going back to the Heartless and the Nobodies (one of the series’ better world-building elements), they are entities that are created by the splitting of one’s heart. When the heart is split from the body, the heart becomes the Heartless, and the body becomes the Nobody (you’d think it’d be the opposite, given their names). That’s all well and fine, but the series often uses this element to create duplicate characters who, frankly, only make the series more convoluted.

For example, Kingdom Hearts 2 introduced the villainous Organization XIII, a group consisting of thirteen Nobodies, some of which were established (and later to be established) characters. One of them, Roxas, even turns out to be the Nobody of the series protagonist, Sora. I don’t immediately dislike the idea of Organization XIII, but the inclusion of Roxas really just adds another unnecessary element to the series, as he’s essentially a second main character.  By that, I don’t mean he’s a deuteragonist, but an additional main character with a story of his own. That could work, if Kingdom Hearts decided to dedicate a series of off-shoots to the character, but all too often the franchise likes to keep all these different narratives going on in the same game. It lacks any shred of focus.

But wait, things don’t end there. Organization XIII itself isn’t even the real Organization XIII. Though Organization XIII served as the main antagonists for Kingdom Hearts 2, they were later retconned to being a secondary Organization XIII, and the Real Organization XIII (yes, adding the word “real” is what differentiates its title) is a group consisting of (wait for it) thirteen different incarnations of Xehanort?! 

Geez, certainly getting a lot of mileage out of that Xehanort character, aren’t they?

I haven’t even mentioned the worst aspect of this convoluted disaster yet: every Kingdom Hearts game is integral to understanding the overall story. Now, that may seem like a no-brainer in many cases, but we’re talking about a series that has released on several different platforms over the years. It would be one thing if the titles released on handhelds were some kind of spinoffs, but nope. They play into the main story as well (which makes the impending Kingdom Hearts 3 actually the twelfth game in the series, not the third).

So, in order to understanding everything that’s going on in this overbloated narrative, you’d have to play the games on PS2, GBA, DS, PSP, 3DS, the upcoming PS4 game, and an episodic mobile game! That’s asking a whole lot of players to delve time and money into all that just to have a semblance as to what’s going on.

Now, Kingdom Hearts fans try to justify this by saying you can now purchase the collections that include the various different games in the series, but that’s an incredibly poor justification, considering these bundles were released years after the fact. If anyone wanted to follow the series in all those years in between, they’d have to own all those different platforms. It’s one thing when a series gets a new entry on a subsequent console of the same brand, since you would assume you’d have the same audience moving on to the next system in that line. And it would be fine if, again, most of these entries were spinoffs. But spreading things out to so many different platforms just to get the full story is ridiculous, especially when the story is as convoluted as it is.

Kingdom Hearts (or, perhaps more accurately, Tetsuya Nomura) simply doesn’t understand how to tell a story in any coherent manner, nor does it (or him) know how to tell a story within the video game medium. It’s bad enough that most Final Fantasy titles these days feel so narratively confused, but at least they’re (mostly) self-contained. But Kingdom Hearts takes the negative aspects of modern Final Fantasy storytelling, and spreads it across an entire series, making what little it does have to tell become thinner and thinner, and then trying to add depth by adding in a bunch of fat and retcons.

This isn’t even taking into account it’s lack of emotion. Now, Kingdom Hearts makes an attempt at pulling at the heartstrings from time to time, but it fails miserably because it seems to not have any understanding of the emotions it’s trying to convey.

Again, this isn’t something that’s exclusive to Kingdom Hearts, as I’ve seen a number of other video games, as well as anime, that seem to have a computer’s understanding of human emotion. Some might say it’s a cultural thing, but considering there have been plenty of Japanese video games and anime that have touched me emotionally, I don’t think that’s it.

A few years ago, Hayao Miyazaki famously (or infamously, depending on how you like your anime) said that he believes modern anime is suffering, due to their creators having a lack of understanding of human emotion and behavior; claiming that many such creators are “otaku” who liked anime and such growing up, and try to emulate it, but without understanding that something extra that gave them meaning. I can say I agree with his sentiment, and I even think this lack of understanding of depth has found its way to video games. It isn’t strictly Japanese games, mind you, but I do feel Kingdom Hearts has become a prime example of a game trying to be deep, but without any knowledge of how to do so.

“Between all these classic Disney villains like Hades, or the cardboard personalities of Tetsuya Nomura villains, guess which ones Kingdom Hearts emphasizes?”

This makes things all the more sour for me personally, because I am a Disney fan. With all the Disney characters and worlds that appear in the Kingdom Hearts series, and being produced by one of the most acclaimed game developers in history, I really wish the series lived up to its potential. But the Disney material that is present isn’t even utilized very well, always playing second fiddle to the (pretty generic) original characters (and the Final Fantasy characters end up getting an even shorter end of the stick). The inclusions of the Disney and Final Fantasy characters almost feel entirely cosmetic, and don’t add anything meaningful to the narrative.

I can’t help but feel that Kingdom Hearts would be insurmountably better – at least narratively – if they actually got some of Disney’s people to do the stories for the games. At least that way, the narrative wouldn’t be so muddled, and it may actually be able to resonate. I would hope that Square-Enix could fix things up themselves, but seeing as the series’ narrative continues to implode in its own convolution, I don’t see things picking up for Kingdom Hearts without a little outside help.

Frankly, I don’t know how anyone but the most diehard of Kingdom Hearts fans could be looking forward to Kingdom Hearts 3 at this point (if it ever resurfaces, that is). Sure, I’m curious to see what other Disney worlds make the cut, seeing as they seem to be focusing more on recent Disney films as well as those of Pixar (instead of recycling Halloweentown for the umpteenth time). But then I think of all the baggage that’s going to come with it, and I don’t think even Arendelle could save it for me. And boy, is that saying something.

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3 thoughts on “Why Kingdom Hearts Fails at Storytelling

  1. Justacommenter

    I think we can agree that, at this point, any sane person only plays the series for its gameplay, and even then it has faltered so many times with the gimmicky ideas they try out on handheld games that just kill any sort of pacing the game could have had. 1 and 2 are still fundamentally fine games with pretty fun combat, but their stories? Really couldn’t care enough to not skip their cutscenes. It tries too hard to be deep, and it just comes out as shallow and sort of embarassing when you read some of the dialogue in the game.

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  2. Red Metal

    I feel Square is similar to Naughty Dog in that both companies tend to have major flaws in their writing and haven’t really made any significant steps towards working on their weaknesses. Ironically, though they have similar problems, they kind of arrived in the same place using mirror opposite methods. While Naughty Dog could do with a little more innovation and leaving their safe zone, a reoccurring problem with Square is that they think outside of the box when it’s not a good idea – usually failing to stick the landing in the process. It’s like two chefs making the same dish and one refuses to use any spices while the other makes a perfect meal with the ideal variety of spices only to then drench the entire thing in habanero sauce.

    I haven’t played any of the Kingdom Hearts games to completion, but I heard that it’s something of a trainwreck when it comes to storytelling due to its lack of focus and overreliance on retcons. Gameplay oftentimes takes precedent over the story, but after putting a lot of effort into the latter, that can only get you so far.

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  3. dylan417

    I would consider myself more than a casual Kingdom Hearts fan but wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m a die hard fan. At least not anymore and the reasoning is exactly what you said here. Nice post, I enjoyed reading it even though it frustrated me at some points. Your argument is fair game. I’ve played every Kingdom Hearts game except for Coded and saw each one through its end even if I had to watch the cutscenes on YouTube because I couldn’t beat the game (damn you, Chain of Memories). That said, even I have no idea what the hell is going on. Every time I feel like I have a handle on the story, six months pass, and I’ve forgotten. I can’t imagine what a casual fan who has only played the first two games will make of Kingdom Hearts III. Some of the spin-off games are so essential to the main story.

    There was a time when I would have died to play Kingdom Hearts III. But at this point, with all the years waiting and the story so convoluted, my excitement for it is minimal. It just stinks because the concept of the series is such a jackpot of an idea.

    As a side note, I’m in the minority that loves the start of KH2. It’s my favorite part of the game. I think Roxas is a better character than Sora.

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