Well here we are. After more than a decade of waiting, we’ve gotten Kingdom Hearts III. It’s out there in the world, writhing and communicating, retconning some stuff and adding more complications and generally just being the mess that everyone thinks it is. The Kingdom Hearts franchise, after all, is one that is marked with complication. There’s time travel, the war to end all wars, multiple versions of every important character, and Goofy. I mean, gawrsh.
I’ve dipped in and out of Kingdom Hearts quite a bit over the years, but I’ve always got one ear perked up for interesting things about it. No matter how you really feel about the series, you’ve gotta admit that it is interesting, and for me “interesting” means “worth paying attention to.” To some degree, any casual relationship to Kingdom Hearts is a paradox: I am not committed to knowing every intricate detail, but I am committed to knowing, which means I can never know what’s truly going on (if you trust the hardcore fans on this one).
And all of this is to say that my investment in Kingdom Hearts is very similar to my investment in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. It is also complicated and messy and strange and full of retcons, robots, reboots, characters who are two people, and two people who are the same person. For these reasons, it is often pointed to as a videogame fan contradiction by dedicated Kingdom Hearts fans who are tired of being lambasted for loving a series with complicated lore. “You’re hypocrites!” they cry. “The tale of Big Boss, his two sons, and all the evil science nerds they meet along the way is just as complicated as the tale of key swords.” I don’t know that I agree.
My reason for disagreement emerges from wanting to get some better handles on “complicated.” In videogames, we already have a hard time with the word “difficulty.” We praise it when it pops up in arbitrary-yet-overcomable ways (Dark Souls) and we trash it when it doesn’t fit into our precise framework of what makes for good difficulty (controlling that RC plane in Vice City). Yet we still collapse the whole discussion, that whole universe of the friction generated between the design of a game and a player, down into whether something is difficult or not. And in our rush to contextualize Kingdom Hearts and make it yet-one-more game in a wide field of them, we do its actual complexity a disservice.
Here’s my pitch for how to make our discussion of game narratives a little more specific and productive: Kingdom Hearts is implosive, Metal Gear Solid is explosive. These are metaphors, sure, but I’m trying to get at a position or a mode through which these complicated games do their complicated stuff.
Kingdom Hearts is implosive because everything complicated or weird or strange about it is internal to it. Everything that makes you scratch your head about these games comes about because there is this great, roiling mass of story content that only interacts with itself. Sora’s body contains his own heart, the heart of his Nobody named Roxas, and that of a keyblade master named Ventus. Somehow all of those people have to get out, but that’s all happening at the same time that a time-traveling villain named Xehanort is running around obtaining a dual degree in personnel organization and kicking ass. There’s an older generation and an original one and a younger generation and some of them have keyblades and others are simply support and it’s hard to draw a clear line the really separates the important characters from the rest. All of this is smashed together in order to create a throughline plot for Disney characters to interact with Final Fantasy-ish heroes and villains.
It is all internal. You can approach Kingdom Hearts as a complete blank slate and, if you pay attention, you can pick up all of the appropriate information that you might need to understand everything that’s going on. There is nothing you can take from your real-world experiences that will help elucidate Kingdom Hearts for you, and to take it a step further, any pre-existing knowledge of either the series or basic ideas of philosophy might harm your ability to understand what is going on. It is a 100% closed narrative system, hermetically sealed so that the most extreme fans can get in there and really breathe the atmosphere. It’s directed inwards, like an implosion.
Metal Gear Solid, and most other big series, are explosive. They have lore that actively reaches out into the world and asks you to consider how the narrative pieces fit into the weird competing narratives and fictions that we call the real world. Sure, Metal Gear Solid V has a one-eyed man with a holographic iPod and a military base country, but he’s also operating in the dead middle of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, which puts some conceptual bounds on where and what these characters can do. Explosive narratives have to worry about what their shrapnel hits; they have to be concerned that they do not punch through the walls of the expanded version of our reality that they have constructed. They have to be worried about narrative fallout and coherence with reality. They need to be aware of what they might smash into.
The Fallout games and the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises are all explosive narrative worlds. They are doing their own thing, but they have responsibilities beyond themselves. They are complicated, and that complication often emerges from having some kind of responsibility to being coherent with the world that you and I live in. That coherence needs to stretch out, touch things outside of the game, and feel like it has a place in the material world.
The gleeful power of series like Kingdom Hearts or The Elder Scrolls or Gears of War is that their only responsibility is to internal consistency. You don’t need to know anything about the Cold War or the START treaties or the major battles of the Second World War to get the full narrative juice out of the game. You just have to pay attention. You just have to commit yourself. I call these kinds of games implosive, as opposed to “full fiction” or something of that sort, because it asks us to think not just about the events of the narrative but where they go, what they ping off of, and what kind of responsibility that narrative has. The fully sealed, nonresonating Kingdom Hearts strangely has no narrative responsibility to anything outside of itself despite being part of a massive and multifaceted intellectual property machine. As long as those stories stay on their rails, the stories of Ansem and Aqua and Sora and Kairi and all the rest can go as far off the rails as they want. Infinite freedom.
So when comparisons between Kingdom Hearts and other franchises come up as a way of giving some cover to the keyblade game, I bristle. The power of Kingdom Hearts and all of its weirdness is contained in its implosive capability, its ability to be totally separated from all narrative responsibility. And as far as I can tell, that’s the greatest power in videogames.