The Art of Nostalgia
Almost anything that I read in the gaming press about the Kingdom Hearts series is almost always prefaced with some quaint comment about the strange marriage of Square's Final Fantasy universe and Disney's cartoon characters. Usually it begins with some observation that no one ever believed that a marriage between the two could possibly work, and ends with something along the lines of: "Who knew that putting Ariel and Cloud Strife in the same game could actually work?"
Personally, the ubiquity of this kind of observation is staggeringly idiotic to me.
Both Square and Disney have mastered, if not mythmaking, then the revisioning of myths, folktales, fairy tales, and, more broadly, the epic and the romance. Disney's repackaging of fairy tales and other legends by contemporizing the images of classic characters and the universal stories that they represent in compelling, animated character dramas has been going on for the better part of a century. That they have done so may seem a cheapening of myth and legend, yet it could also be seen as an extension of traditional mythmaking. The multiplicity of versions of a story like "Cinderella" or even the tale of Hercules make up a part of the inscrutability and universality of myths, and Disney's versions just add to that tradition of retelling the same stories in new ways.
Likewise, Square, while not as overtly mimicking classic stories, has also been romanticizing myths in the worlds represented in the Final Fantasy sequels for a few decades now -- again, by taking mythological and folklorish worlds full of ifrits, sprites, and gods and inserting within archetypal characters and epic quests. Given the narratorial predispositions of both companies, I cannot help but wonder: "Who on earth would not know that putting Ariel and Cloud Strife together in a game would absolutely work?"
Indeed, the first Kingdom Hearts and its current sequel are both masterfully managed marriages of two narrative universes with similar goals: to tell an epic story in the language of contemporary culture which still captures the magic and mystery of a time that's alien to us in its metaphysics, but familiar in its social roles, rules, and customs.
Chiefly, the way in which Square Enix does so in these games is by tapping into nostalgia and our familiarity with the source material. Like the first Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II shapes its larger story -- the simple quest of a boy out to reunite with his lady love and friends -- around the contemporary "myths" of the Disney movie mythos. On his quest to find Kairi and Riku, Sora must travel from world to world (worlds designed in homage to various Disney films like The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Hercules, Aladdin, etc.) while battling enemies such as the Heartless and the Nobodies who seek to gain control of Kingdom Hearts -- a power representative of the strengths (love and friendship) and weaknesses (anger and pain) of the human heart.
There is little need for exposition in these microscopic versions of the films. They play out plot-wise like abridged versions of the films that they are based on, with the Little Mermaid struggling to free herself from her authoritarian father; Simba, the Lion King, attempting to live up to the virtues and memory of his father; and Hercules trying to prove himself a hero. We know these characters like we know their myths: through Disney's movies. So it's not necessary for us to worry over the details of plotting, but to merely play through the inevitable outcomes of stories about children growing up and heroes being made. Popular culture through Disney's animated films has educated us to these myths; Square Enix's job is simply to capture the mood, emotion, environments, and match our sense of nostalgia with an environment that meets our expectations -- expectations made universally accessible through the magic of the theatre and replayability of DVDs.
Elements of Square's own mythology, the Final Fantasy series and its characters, similarly become sketches of larger stories familiar to those who intimately know the dozen or so games which comprise the series. The animosity between Final Fantasy VII's Cloud and Sephiroth is understood by players of the games, as is the tragic conclusion of that rivalry: the death of Aeris (or Aerith). Thus, as characters like Cloud and Aeris emerge throughout this tale, the game expects its player to recognize the context of its mythos and nostalgically continue to play through its tragic struggles and joyous victories.
Thus, the pleasure of playing Kingdom Hearts is really bound up in a sense of nostalgia -- be it for the romances of Disney or Square's past efforts. Gameplay remains fairly simple; a little button mashing during battles and character maintenance between will carry you through most of the challenges. It is, however, a game you play for the pleasure of recognizing its stories and characters. From one world to the next, the chief interest is in seeing how well the developers are able to recreate the mood, plot, and overall feeling of the films and games that you already know.
For the most part, Square remains successful with levels based on the aforementioned films, as well as additional ones like Mulan and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Generally, however, I found the newer "myths" to be the weakest levels, such as levels based on the live action films Pirates of the Carribean and Tron. It may be the more difficult process of bringing live action environments and actors to the video game medium than bringing animated characters to a graphical environment (or it may simply be the lack of a sense of history and mythology to underlie these newer tales), but both worlds seemed to lack the feel of their source material.
Instead, perhaps, the strongest world developed in the game is the black and white world of Disney's first feature starring Mickey Mouse, "Steamboat Willie" -- which is perhaps the most charming piece of nostalgia in the game. With characters appearing in a black and white landscape and "drawn" in retro cartoon fashion (including main character Sora and his companions Donald Duck and Goofy), the overall tone of the world captures the nostalgic influence of its source as well as its aesthetics. From the artistic style to the sound of a film reel running over the soundtrack, the level transports the player to the artistic space and time of the early cartoon.
Such attention to detail and the effort to blend the graphical style of the game with the animated style of various worlds -- by transforming Sora and crew physically in some worlds (as is the case when Sora and crew wear Halloween inspired costumes in The Nightmare Before Christmas's Halloween Town) -- make the rougher edges of fitting the two mediums together a bit easier to swallow. Sora's own character design, though, has done so from the start; his highly stylized outfit is both reminiscent of Square's typical Final Fantasy design and Mickey Mouse -- what with his red, black, and white duds and enormously bulbous shoes.
Reimagining, reengineering, and revisioning seems the heart of Kingdom Hearts, it does so at once dramatically and aesthetically. I am glad that I have not written anything about the previous Kingdom Hearts, as reviewing its sequel seems somehow the most appropriate way of describing a game interested less in change or progress than in its dependence on the stories that we all already know.
3 May 2006