Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
An Excellent Terrible Game
Kingdom Hearts III released last week to much fanfare and anticipation. As the conclusion to a story that began 17 years ago in 2002, many longtime fans of the series (myself included) were excited to play the game. It's not a particularly long game--and thankfully the past week wasn't particularly busy--so I was able to finish it this past Saturday with just under 30 hours logged. As I was playing, and after I finished, I was repeatedly asked the question, "Is it good?" Given how recognizable the series is (especially within the gaming community, but also outside of it to a degree due to the Disney ties), the interest in the game's quality isn't surprising, and I'm usually perfectly willing and able to offer a (hopefully informed) critique of a new game as I'm playing it.
This game, though, stumped me. My answer was always--and still is, in a sense--"I can't answer that yet; I need to think on it." The game is flawed in all the ways people expected it to be flawed. The combat is shallow, the ending feels rushed, the game feels a bit too short, there are some details missing, the plot is contrived, the dialogue is cheesy as heck, the voice acting is spotty, et cetera. And yet, for all of these flaws, it's a fun game. I can count on one hand the number of times I was frustrated or bored while playing it, and again and again the game found ways to surprise me and make me smile or laugh. By most conventional measures, Kingdom Hearts III is a mess, and yet I really loved it all the way through. So what gives?
This brings me to what I tentatively plan on being the theme of all four posts this month (unless something else captures my attention before February's out): how do we decide whether a work of art is good or bad? I've touched on this idea before in the context of Persona 4, but this month I plan to delve into it more directly, through works that, for one reason or another, are frustratingly difficult to evaluate.
Why Kingdom Hearts is Weird
For the uninitiated, Kingdom Hearts started as a crossover between Disney movies and the long-running JRPG series Final Fantasy. The first game's protagonist, a then-new character named Sora, traveled through various Disney worlds, helping out with the plots of different movies, and meeting Disney and Final Fantasy characters. It was a bizarre concept at the time that worked far better than it had any right to, due in large part to Nomura Tetsuya's strong directing work along with a creative narrative that melded the type of story common in JRPGs at the time--with complex interlocking character motives, betrayal, sci-fi and fantasy concepts, and so on--with an earnest message about the value of friendship that would feel at home in a typical Disney movie. The original game has some issues, of course, but the structure worked well, with the thematic ideas of the Disney stories playing into the overall message that was eventually resolved in the game's final story arc. Throw in Disney nostalgia and the silliness of watching the infamously edgy Cloud Strife banter with Disney's Hercules and you have a game with a lot of appeal.
None of that is what makes Kingdom Hearts weird, though. The weirdest thing about the series is actually its overall narrative structure--specifically, the fact that it represents one ongoing story spread across multiple games. Video games tend to be more like movies and plays in that they usually are self-contained narratives (as opposed to, for example, book series). Games can be very long, so developers usually have time to tell an entire story within the space of a single game, even if it would be long enough to fill multiple novels--just look at games like Final Fantasy VIII or Tales of The Abyss which are divided into clearly distinct parts, each with their own plot threads and sub-climaxes. In a series like Final Fantasy, each individual entry represents a complete, separate narrative, and while some series are set in the same world and may have older characters cameo occasionally (see Persona, Fate, or Metal Gear Solid), many place each entry in its own setting or universe, with little overlap beyond general concepts and themes.
Kingdom Hearts, by contrast, is structured more like a book series. Kingdom Hearts III (which is, somewhat confusingly, the eighth full game in the series, and that's not counting the browser or mobile games) is the conclusion of Sora's story, which began in the original Kingdom Hearts and continued in various forms throughout a number of sequels, a prequel, and an interquel. These games share characters and introduce or resolve plot threads that span across multiple games, which is, again, common in books but very rare in gaming. Over the past seventeen years, the series has introduced many more characters--several of whom look identical to others and some of whom are referred to by multiple names depending on context--and what started as a simple light-versus-dark narrative now has pretty much every sci-fi trope you can think of, from clones to time travel. The overall story has developed somewhat of a reputation for being convoluted and hard to follow, which is both true and not true--if you played each game as it released it mostly makes sense, but if you skipped any of them (including the handheld games that are sometimes derogatorily and, I would say, erroneously referred to as spin-offs) you've likely missed important concepts or characters that will be referenced later with no additional explanation.
My younger self loved the series' complex, interweaving narrative--Nomura's work is, I think, largely responsible for my interest in video games as a narrative tool--and while I freely acknowledge the series has somewhat outgrown itself, it still has some very strong character moments scattered throughout. The fourth game in the series, 358/2 Days, stands out to me as an unusual exploration of tragedy in a medium (gaming) and genre (action RPG) that seldom if ever shows the heroes losing in the end. I understand the tendency to mock the plot beats and symbols used--Days's characters wax melodramatic about ice cream, of all things--but the heart (pun intended) of the story is strong, and it's tough to come away from the series's stronger moments not admiring and/or pitying the characters. For all its awkwardness and weirdness, Kingdom Hearts does a great job of making you root for and empathize with its characters.
The point of the above digression is that Kingdom Hearts III was in a tough position narratively, forced to conclude a highly complex, long-running, poorly organized story that despite being deeply flawed had managed to engender an emotional response from many players. Resolving all the lingering plot threads in a way that was both believable and satisfying was a herculean task, and while Kingdom Hearts III is not a well-written game, it did its job about as well as it possibly could have while keeping with the spirit of the series. I have plenty of criticism to offer, of course, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers for those who have yet to finish I'll hold off for now.
In a similar vein, though, the game followed seven games of an iteratively developed battle system, with a fairly vocal section of the fanbase calling for a return to the style of Kingdom Hearts II--the third game in the series, and the favorite entry for many--while some players (including myself) preferred the less-polished-but-more-flexible newer style, introduced in the fifth game, Birth by Sleep, and reused with minor changes in the sixth and seventh. On the surface, the game returns to the style of Kingdom Hearts II, but it incorporates mechanics from other entries in the series and ends up feeling very much like its own thing. The game's battle system is relatively unlikely to win over fans of Kingdom Hearts II's or Birth by Sleep's mechanics, but its hybrid style seems to be mostly acceptable to both camps, which is somewhat of a miracle in and of itself.
If there's a theme here, it's that Kingdom Hearts III is weakened by its need to adhere to earlier entries in the series, but it also could not have been made without doing so. This is part of why the game is hard to evaluate. Imagine, for example, a matchup in the NCAA basketball tournament where one team is missing their three best players due to ill-timed injuries. If the team fights a close game and narrowly loses, do you praise the team for playing well despite its disadvantages, and is that worth anything when the team is eliminated regardless? Kingdom Hearts III had a lot of things working against it, and it still manages to be a fun game despite not being (in the critical sense) a "good" game. How do you reconcile that?
The Difference Between "Deep" and "Fun"
It's generally taken as a given that a book or a film can be strong without being fun, or fun without being a great work of art. Schindler's List, for example, is a brilliant film, but it's pretty far from what I would call "fun." If you make the same assertion about video games, though--that a game that isn't fun might still be good--the sentiment becomes much more controversial. There is a belief in some circles, perhaps due to the tabletop origins of gaming, that a game cannot be a strong work unless it is also fun to play. Even beyond my personal disagreement with that attitude, tethering artistic richness to simple fun can lead to confusion when approaching games that have a lot of one but little of the other.
Such as, for example, Kingdom Hearts III.
Kingdom Hearts III, for all its weaknesses, is an unapologetically fun game. I've seen it described as "joyful," and I think that word is a strong descriptor. The combat is shallow and the game is pathetically easy even on the harder difficulty, but there's always something happening on-screen. One moment Sora, Donald, and Goofy are spinning around on Disneyland's Mad Tea Party attempting to ram into a giant toy dinosaur and then the next Sora's with Buzz Lightyear and Woody riding the rocket from the end of Toy Story. There were many times when I had no idea what was going on and the game (almost) never punished me for it. Kingdom Hearts has somewhat of a reputation, particularly among those who play on lower difficulties, for being a game where you just mindlessly mash buttons to win, and while that hasn't really been true in the past, Kingdom Hearts III embraces that reputation and replaces any semblance of difficulty with pure eye candy. If you can manage to get through the sequence where Sora and company ride the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad around Mount Olympus without smiling, this probably just isn't the series for you.
The game's worlds--and particularly the Disney worlds--are filled with detail, from the scaled-up recreation of Andy's room in the Toy Story world to the folk dance that plays out in the central square of the town of Corona from Tangled. The most impressive world from a detail standpoint is Big Hero 6's San Fransokyo, which is filled with colorful signs and billboards lining its buildings and alleyways, all with gloriously detailed textures that manage to not break the immersion even when viewed from up close. I've commented to a few people that Kingdom Hearts III's gameplay feels like a weird hybrid of Bayonetta and Jet Set Radio Future, in that it's a flashy but simple beat-'em-up with some of the most satisfying free-running platforming I've seen in a long time. Nowhere is that feeling more pronounced than in San Fransokyo, which looks and feels exactly like a stage from JSRF.
The Disney worlds are fun from a story standpoint, too, even if only for the character interactions. Some of the worlds follow the stories of the movies, while some are side stories set after or between movies--the latter are generally weaker than the former, but they all have heart. This is not to say, however, that they are good. Frozen's world, in particular, serves as a strong example of this distinction. While the world follows the story of the movie, Sora, Donald, and Goofy are mostly uninvolved, meeting characters briefly in passing and running back and forth only to watch story beats from the background. This makes the plot of the world somewhat confusing--and I imagine it would be even more so if you hadn't seen the movie--and it struck me as weak writing, as if the developers had struggled to integrate Sora and company naturally into the movie's story. That said, the whole sequence had an almost certainly unintentional Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-are-Dead-esque humor to it, with Sora, Donald, and Goofy bantering confusedly about the events of a story in which they were largely uninvolved and knew little about. The world should not read this way. It's funny for exactly the wrong reasons, and it creates a section of the narrative that's confusing, weak, and mostly pointless. And yet, the fact remains that it is funny. It's a bad stretch of the game, but it's fun regardless.
So is it Good?
It would be very easy to make a long list of all the reasons Kingdom Hearts III is terrible. A critic who hasn't bought in to the series could write a scathing review and be entirely justified in doing so. And yet, the game is unquestionably fun to play. And it's not just kinda fun--it's incredibly fun, so fun that I averaged about six hours of play time per day until I finished it. You can't even write it off by saying something like, "What it does well it does very well and what it does poorly it does very poorly," because even the things the game does well are pretty terrible in a vacuum and even the things that should suck are usually fun or amusing. (I should offer a caveat here, though, that the game looks incredibly good and some of the music is quite strong as well--no need to hedge on those two counts).
So this leads to my response to the question I've been asked several times over the course of the past week. Is the game good? No, but I loved playing it.
Part of me wonders, as I look back on this game, if there's something I missed about it, some unifying strength that justifies all the flaws--if I'm subconsciously picking up on something that ties the game together and lets it be fun in spite of its weakness. Really, though, I don't think there is. I think Kingdom Hearts III is an oxymoron: a terrible game that's excellent nonetheless.
Essentially, Kingdom Hearts III is fluff. It's like a comedy you watch once, thoroughly enjoy, and then forget about. And yet, it's lovingly, painstakingly crafted fluff. It's the fluff you wish all other fluff would be. The more you analyze this game--the more you try to break it down and find out what makes it tick--the less satisfied I think you're going to be. It's intriguing to me that such truly incredible craftsmanship can be paired with such a weak foundation. It's a hollow wooden globe with a beautifully-painted exterior but without the durability or the satisfying weight its appearance leads you to expect.
You can make an argument, I think, that the game being detailed and fun is enough, that asking for depth beyond that is a sort of snobbery or entitlement. It's entirely fair, I think, to ask, "If you liked this, how can you say it's not good?"
My answer would be that video games as a medium are capable of so much more. If you look at games with similar levels of care and craftsmanship and love but that are built on top of cohesive narratives and strong thematic ideas, you find the absolute best works the medium has to offer. You get games like Persona 5 and Jet Set Radio--and The World Ends With You, which was made by the same people as Kingdom Hearts III! Those games have both fun and depth, and while you can have one without the other, the very best works are those that do both.
This, I think, is at the heart of the ambivalence towards Kingdom Hearts III. It has "fun" nailed, and in exchange it almost completely sacrifices "depth." The game feels hollow--not in the sense of a lack of honesty or belief, but in that there's nothing supporting the game's message and shiny veneer. It's a very pretty game that's constantly shouting at you to be positive and to be friends with literally everyone, even the bad guys. Maybe that's enough. I don't think it is.
And at the point the question you're asking yourself is not "Is this great?" but rather "Is this good enough?", you already have your answer.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition