Disney and Square

A Failure of Synthesis

by Kris Ligman

12 October 2010

The story that Kingdom Hearts wants to tell is not the story it could ideally tell.
cover art

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

(Square Enix)
US: 7 Sep 2010

Kingdom Hearts. What was once regarded as an ambitious and experimental mixture of East and West animation traditions now seems to have completely separated like oil from water in its latest installment, Birth by Sleep. So what happened?
The problem has its roots as early as the 2002 original on PS2, although it’s been getting progressively more distinct over the years. In this game though, there’s some definite attempt at hybridizing the Disney loaned characters and the then Squaresoft original characers. The last chapter of the game ends up almost totally backsliding, offering up the same unscary plummet into miss the mark body horror as some illbegotten Final Fantasy VII clone. For all the game’s attempts to layer in Disney villains as stage bosses, it’s still a Square foe and a Square ending.

Still, it tried harder. Donald and Goofy had definite reasons for being there and felt like real characters. They had episodes of conflict and resolution, humorous as well as serious moments. Not all of the world-specific Disney characters felt especially necessary at times, but there were several moments when the game’s premise of parallel worlds seemed well integrated with events. Triton from The Little Mermaid is even aware of the existence of other worlds and the law that travelers mustn’t meddle with local affairs, something he alone among all characters finds it necessary to point out.

But meddling is what Kingdom Hearts protagonists inevitably do, usually without any apparent qualms. Sure, there’s the gameplay incentive—if they didn’t interact, how would players proceed? Yet as the series has progressed there has been less and less emphasis on the Disney worlds as in any way proprietary and self-contained, being more like one-dimensional cut-outs that do not exist without a Square Enix catalyst.

Let’s look at Birth by Sleep specifically here, which is set 10 years before the events of the first game. As an overarching narrative, the game is a tragedy chronicling three “doomed from the start” heroes, each in their own way chasing after the source of a new calamity. Of the seven central characters, only one, Mickey, is a Disney creation, and he may as well be an extended cameo since he’s definitely not playable, though he should have been. Virtually everything else of Western descent is kept strictly confined to its own world, places which are passed through briefly by the protagonists and barely interacted with. Whereas in most of the series, your character would be followed by a party of Disney characters, abroad and local, here it’s just you and despairingly limited NPCs, who all seem so oblivious and flat that they are barely aware of the incongruity.

Related to this is the issue of timeline. Of the Disney universes visited in Birth by Sleep, only a few plausibly have reasons for ambiguously relative time progression. Sleeping Beauty doesn’t age while cursed, and no one grows old in Neverland. But explain the ten year dilation for Cinderella. This is a nitpick, granted, but there’s also the generally surreal way in which people behave. Few note the protagonists’ strange appearance or address, and most just vacantly step aside or obliviously answer questions with total disregard for things like context, urgency, class, culture, or anything that would originally have informed the Disney animations on which these worlds are based. They exist, point blank, in static service to a narrative that apparently considers them perfunctory and shallow. While the first game made some attempt to break from strict retellings of the Disney movies to contextualize the worlds, by Birth by Sleep they’ve basically become stageplays.

It isn’t as though synthesis or thoughtful structure is beyond the J-RPG as a genre.After all, the Kingdom Hearts series has just become progressively more interested in a manner and style of storytelling that apparently wants very little to do with Disney. It obviously has to include it, or it wouldn’t be the same franchise commercially. However, even the sheer quantity of new characters that it introduces in each installment that originate from within Square Enix rather than from the Disney canon says all that it needs to about intention. Birth by Sleep especially.

Honestly, this seems like a failure of the series’s original ambition. Some of the best moments in the first game came not from epic gameplay, the anime-styled original characters, or the Final Fantasy cameos, but from relics of childhood suddenly being recontextualized as something capable of unforeseen depth and more nuanced exploration. There is something legitimately tragic about the diasporic Beast still fighting to save his kidnapped Belle even after he’s lost his entire world or Donald Duck witnessing Sora struck down right in front of him. But from Chain of Memories onward, we see these elements systematically replaced with static caricatures while real character dynamism is given to the homegrown cast.

Ultimately, it feels all the more that with each installment of the series that the story that Kingdom Hearts wants to tell is not the story that it could ideally tell. And the story that it wants to tell seems increasingly derivative and a kind of Junior Varsity Final Fantasy VII—exactly the sort of thing an ambitious synthesis could have saved it from.

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