The Quiet Sincerity of Kingdom Hearts

Kingdom Hearts exists in a unique place in the gaming lexicon. A bizarre mish-mash of eastern and western culture, of spiky-haired pretty boys teaming up with small, round cartoon characters to fight off the forces of darkness. A concept that sounds like the scribblings on a 12 year old’s notebook is actually a beloved franchise, with 10 main games at this point and an almost 20-year history.

With almost the entire franchise being made available on the Epic Games Store, there are people discovering and re-discovering these classics. But, why are these games so beloved? Is it really something as simple as smashing different nostalgic IP together? Does it have value on its own, separated from the worlds and stages it inhabits? And how is that value perceived? Is it something that can be so readily observed from a distance, divorced from its original, playable, medium?

There are plenty of obvious things people love about Kingdom Hearts. From answers that do, indeed, relate to nostalgia, to visit a world from their favorite Disney or Pixar film. To see it, to explore it, to interact with the characters in a new way. To see the hero, Sora, team up with Hercules and fight off Hades or the Hydra. To fight alongside Woody and Buzz Lightyear, fighting evil, possessed toys in a giant mall.

There are some who love the gameplay, the combat. The mix of Action RPG with light character action mechanics, focusing on keeping enemies in long combo strings, while ensuring you can properly handle their retaliation is a solid formula, one that has been refined for years. From the rather slow and clunky combat of the original, to the multitude of tools offered in later entries, it seems there are enough flavors for most fans of the genre.

There is a widespread speedrunning scene for the entire franchise, striving to beat the game quicker than before. To sharpen their skills and master the game’s mechanics. This scene is ever-growing, with better availability of the games on newer devices, such as the 1.5 and 2.5 collections on PS4, Xbox One, and now, PC. They’re even going farther, creating mods for these games to challenge themselves, such as the Kingdom Hearts 2 Randomizer. Randomly moving the location of items, equipment, and abilities every time you play, creating a fresh set of circumstances for the higher-skilled player to find a new challenge.

But there’s one element of Kingdom Hearts that is probably the most widely discussed in the wider fandom, and the internet as a whole: The original story. The multi-game saga of Sora and his friends. His many, many friends. And his enemies. His many, many enemies. The butt of infinite jokes. And for good reason. The plot is silly, unnecessarily complicated, filled with rules that can change from entry to entry, powers undefined and power creep abound.

It is no masterpiece. And in the era of the internet, most popular online media criticism tends to boil down to surface-level readings of text, recounting plot points and pointing out inconsistencies. And for this style of content, Kingdom Hearts has always been ripe for the picking. To call it low-hanging fruit would be an understatement. It isn’t the lowest. You will always have jokes about the mushrooms in Super Mario being a ‘different kind of power-up’, or about how Link from Zelda being rude, breaking pots. But to mock Kingdom Hearts, lovingly or otherwise, comes pretty naturally.

However, the goal here is not to defend the plot of Kingdom Hearts. It is a mess. The majority of critiques about its structure, and how the scope of the story has evolved over the years tend to be fair, if not generally over exaggerated. The point is not to discredit these critiques, or that mocking something you love is somehow disdainful. I believe we are growing past the era of liking a piece of art only ironically.

In 2018, in the months leading up to the release of Kingdom Hearts III, many content creators on YouTube made videos all in a similar vein. “Everything you need to know before KH3”, “KH lore in 10 minutes”, and the like. These videos, while all factually correct, always irked me. I struggled to explain why, back then. They achieved what they set out to do, and often with well-produced execution. They explained concepts well, typically with a light-hearted and comedic tone. But, for me, they communicated more than just a plot synopsis. They helped point out to me one of Kingdom Hearts’ biggest strengths as a story.

There is far more to the story of Kingdom Hearts than just men and women in black leather cloaks looming dangerously over the horizon. People do not fall in love with Kingdom Hearts because of the time travel. To look at a list of bullet points of events misses the effort put into the presentation and representation of these characters.

I unironically love Kingdom Hearts. And the developers do, too.

That’s a bit of a silly statement, isn’t it? Very few people are in the games industry for any other reason. Not for fame, certainly not for money. It is out of creative passion, an intense desire to create, to share with the world. To deal with unfair power structures in the workplace, to face crunch and tight deadlines, what else but passion could explain it? I do not posit that somehow, the developers of Kingdom Hearts are the only developers who love the games they work on, where their passion exists. I do, however, present the notion that the passion the developers of the Kingdom Hearts games have can be easily felt in their body of work.

My favorite example does not involve anything grandiose. Not a massive feature, not some industry-shaking piece of technology. But a cape.

Just a cape.

For context. In the improved re-release of Kingdom Hearts II, known as Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, a large amount of content was added. In it, a secret boss was hidden away, only accessible to players who had completed the game and accessed the Secret Ending. Said ending was a CG-Rendered tease for the next entry in the series.

The mysterious armored warriors from Kingdom Hearts II’s Secret Ending

The scene shows a trio of armor-clad warriors covered in dust and dirt, long capes flapping in the wind. They approach the center of a graveyard, amid a giant, desaturated canyon, surrounded by discarded and rusted weapons of warriors past. Yes, the weapons are giant keys, but that’s not the point. It’s still very serious and foreboding.

In the re-release, you could fight one of these mysterious warriors. In the game, he is known as Lingering Will.

The fight takes place in a similar canyon to the Secret Ending, no living things as far as the eye can see. Where the suit of armor rests, kneeling. Upon seeing our intrepid hero, Sora, it comes to life, attacking him with insane fury. His lightning quick attacks can easily overwhelm an unprepared player. And even a prepared one, at that. All while wearing a nice, beige cape that swooshes as the ghostly suit flies across the map.

The ‘Lingering Will’, as he appears as a secret boss in “Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix”

But, why Lingering Will attacks Sora is not important. The gameplay content of the fight is not important. The key strategies to beat him do not matter. What matters is that he has a cape.

Like the Unknown Figure, the secret boss in Kingdom Hearts 1’s Final Mix before him, Lingering Will is not only a final challenge for a player who has mastered the game, but a hint at what is to come next. However, plans change.

What was originally planned to be the next mainline game, the project depicted in the Secret Ending, which would eventually become Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, was moved from the PS2 to the system’s portable cousin, the PSP. And with different hardware comes different challenges. Primarily, differences in processor power. As a result, many things from the original plans for Birth by Sleep had to change. For the lesser. It has to run well on a handheld. But, development marches on, and in 2010, Birth by Sleep is released.

So, come the final product of Birth By Sleep, you play through the entire story of 3 friends, tragically ripped apart. Each with a set of armor. The same armor we see in the Secret Ending. However, with one critical difference. None of them have capes, much less the one that becomes the Lingering Will. They appear in no cutscenes, no gameplay. An unfortunate sacrifice made.

A cape would be a good idea, in theory. Flowing elements in a character design, be it a cape, scarf, or really any piece of cloth dangling off clothes, can add dynamism to movement. Shows the direction you’re moving from, as well as the direction you’re going. It’s one of those things you’ll never truly un-see once you notice the trick. They’re like built-in speed lines. But, the final product featured no cape, and merely used speedline visual effects to communicate the same idea. But, why were they cut, if the developers were so committed to the design as to use it in a pre-rendered trailer?

Maybe calculating how the cape flaps took up too much memory, better used for other things. Perhaps it cannot look good without taking up too much space on the PSP’s much smaller screen. Caused problems in the game’s multiplayer, perhaps? While the reason has never been formally stated in any interviews that I could find, it makes unfortunate sense for it to be removed.

A few fans lamented the lack of the capes. They had 5 years of time to wait, and speculate on who these characters could be, looking for any hint or clue. And something was missing. An unfortunate failure to meet expectations, but ultimately not a very large one. Time marches on, and Birth by Sleep joins the pantheon that is Kingdom Hearts, another piece of the larger puzzle.

As for the cape? It becomes a footnote. A little detail that belongs in the “Trivia” section on the fandom-specific wiki. Occasionally mentioned by die-hard fans, but largely forgotten. That is until 2014.

As development for Kingdom Hearts 3 struggled, puttering through the years, one way Square-Enix kept the franchise alive was in the form of ports, or remasters. Some of these remasters took substantial effort, as things like the original source code for the first Kingdom Hearts had been lost years prior. They later released these ports in collections. Then, they released collections of multiple collections.

In 2014, we saw an HD port of Birth by Sleep, bringing the game to home consoles for the first time. Like the other remasters in these collections, the HD version of Birth by Sleep kept things as close to the original as possible. The lack of multiplayer functionality meant some content had to be adjusted, and of course the UI needed updating to the controller from later hardware, but that was all.

It was unceremonious. It was subtle. It was not announced on social media, or celebrated. You’d never see it featured on the back of the box. But, on the HD version. After the final boss of Terra’s story, when control of the armor is taken from the player for the last time; as the now-empty armor known as Lingering Will takes a knee, a beige cape flourishes from its back.

Does it affect the game at all? No. You never have the cape at any point where the player has control over Terra or his armor. It changes nothing, but fixes a strange inconsistency between Birth by Sleep, and Lingering Will’s appearance as a secret boss in its predecessor.

This detail is not readily noticed, it did not shake the world of gaming. A video showing it off has about 14,000 views, and all you can find discussing it are the occasional article on a fansite, or on the KH subreddit. I doubt most people are even aware of the strange history of this little fun fact.

Why only add this little detail? Why not just add the capes into gameplay, if you’re on the PS3, a platform far stronger than the original planned hardware, back when the trailer in KH2 was first made. There are a whole bunch of reasons. The HD port is “Birth By Sleep Final Mix HD”, not “Birth By Sleep Final, Final Mix, We Mean It This Time HD”. With the original team working on other projects, do the devs of the 2.5 ReMIX port really have the authority to make a decision that actually changes the game in a meaningful way? Not to mention all the difficulties to add something that would affect a significant chunk of gameplay, and cutscene alike.

Would you have to change camera angles of cutscenes, as something originally visible is now obscured by the cape? What if combat animations are now harder to read in certain lighting conditions, as the cape makes your hero’s silhouette more of an amorphous blob than a distinct shape? All of these things would need to be experimented with, tested for performance, and then playtested. That’s quite the hefty, and expensive, task for a port. Especially for a package that is one of 3 products on the same disk.

But someone, somewhere in the development team, maybe a producer, wanted this small change. A minor change. One that still took many development hours, for something that went largely unnoticed.

So, what is the point of this long-winded story about a cape? A similar question could be asked about the cape itself. Why bother putting in something, and change about 5 seconds of cutscene to fix an inconsistency everyone had accepted, and moved on from years ago?

Because the developers cared, of course. They cared very much.

But they cared about fixing a strange inconsistency. Not fixing the power creep, not coming up with lengthy logical explanations, justifying the game’s stranger plot points. It was not a fix to plug a hole in their flawed system. They remembered something they wanted to do from years back, and found a small way to make it right, however minute.

There are few things more wonderful than that level of care.

It is sincere. It has a strong identity it stands by. So many games, so many franchises enjoy a bit of self-awareness. Enjoy being able to poke fun at themselves a bit. To take a step back and recognize “Yeah, this is all a bit silly, isn’t it.”. To show they’re in on the joke too.

Kingdom Hearts does no such thing. Never does the idea of Mickey Mouse saying under his breath, “They’ll pay for this” be taken with anything less than complete sincerity. It never makes an easy joke about its own absurdity. It believes in itself, wholeheartedly.

Kingdom Hearts does not say ‘no.’ It says “yes, and.” It does not backtrack on itself. It does not reflect on the past like that, it does not cringe at its younger self and go “man, what was I *thinking* back then.” It looks back at those moments and chooses to keep going. To add more layers. Does it make the final result confusing? Perhaps. But there is something wholesome about that. About something unashamed, unabashed.

Not everything needs to be introspective, to be deconstructive or to subvert expectations. Kingdom Hearts does not feel the need to flip the script on itself, and I respect that greatly. It seems like the general consensus is that the ‘smartest’ art in the 21st century is the most genre savvy. That plays with the trends and tropes of their medium and doing something clever with it, but often times, coming at the cost of being familiar with the tropes in the first place. Of being in on the joke. Knowing the untold setup for the punchline, a trap laid on the foundation of that particular cultural reference.

But there is a vulnerability in simplicity. Self-awareness can also be a shield, a protection from critique and ridicule, that there are unappreciated layers of the work. Sincerity holds no such shield. They lay it bare, to be observed, a thin enough material you can see through to the other side, regardless of the number of layers. Which is terrifying. It is scary enough to release something into the world, out of your hands.

Something sincere, something that embraces itself, and can only hope that people get swept up in what you lay for them. That your voice is heard in the way you intend to. That your story’s emotional pathos resonates with your audience. Kingdom Hearts is all emotional pathos. When every character believes in the world as hard as the cast of Kingdom Hearts does, it becomes so much easier to be sucked into that world.

Yes, the setting may be silly, and the rules may be as flexible as they come, but that internal consistency does not always detract from being immersed in the universe, in these characters. The ability to suspend disbelief is a powerful tool for anyone who makes art, and it is one that the developers of Kingdom Hearts have mastered.

That is something that is lost when you watch a 45-minute plot synopsis on YouTube. It is an undeniable part of the intended experience these games set out to deliver that is not communicated by an outside source. To state that a game’s story is only what happens in its cutscenes does the games medium a disservice. Even if you correctly regale the events of the story, that emotional pathos may, and frequently can be, lost. That pathos becomes a lower priority to facts, to lore, to detailed explanations on how the world works.

Kingdom Hearts is not a ludonarrative revolutionary. It does not use gameplay to convey information in a way never seen before, or since. But that does not mean there’s nothing to appreciate, that there is not an artistry in the storytelling of Kingdom Hearts. That there is nothing to be immersed in.

After all, Kingdom Hearts seems to love itself, flaws and all. And I believe that’s something we could all learn from as creators.

Unless it’s to add a cape.

Freelance Game Designer and Voice Actor. Passionate about games and their storytelling potential, and hopes to share insight into the game development process.