[KH3 diary.2] 38.6/2 hrs: Intention

in which kieran is fooled, and the truth, revealed

Kieran T. Newton
Feb 1 · 5 min read

[back to entry 1: Commitment]

(incredibly, absurdly light spoilers. jsyk.)

after the latest expedition to yet another of the Disney-themed empty shells that Kingdom Hearts 3 calls “worlds”, Sora decides to give Mickey and Riku a video call on his new smartphone. they update each other on some plot elements before Sora, Donald and Goofy start arguing playfully and jockeying for position in front of the tiny camera.

after they hang up, Mickey and Riku chuckle to themselves. “they don’t change, do they?” Riku asks, a note of warmth in his raspy edgelord timbre. “nope,” replies Mickey. “that’s what’s so special about them.”

i have now played 19 hours and 19 minutes of Kingdom Hearts 3. among hours upon hours of cutscenes, ranging from dizzying exposition dumps to shot-for-shot film remakes, this is the exchange that has lodged itself in my mind. so far, it’s the only way i am gaining any sort of understanding of what this game is about.

the “three half-pints”, locked in time (source: Reddit)

in my first entry in this diary series, i wrote about how Kingdom Hearts 3 both embraces and complicates nostalgia. i would like to clarify that i have no idea how much it does any of that on purpose.

some of this game’s incongruities feel like brilliant responses to the series’ reputation for convolution. here’s one conversation with one of the game’s many villains:
Sora: i don’t understand what you’re saying!
Villain: nor should you. nor will you ever, for that matter.

the villain’s line is not delivered directly to camera, but…isn’t it?

other things feel less intentional, like the fact that the entirety (?) of the Hundred Acre Wood section is three nigh-identical minigames. the minigames are not good. there is no plot (even just for that world!) conveyed between them. i do not know why they exist, like many pieces of this game.

but here we are, at the core of the question: intent. how many of these incongruities are active choices by the Square Enix team? do they want the worlds to feel hollow and dead, due to the presence of the Heartless, Nobodies, and Unversed? are they trying to make the game feel outdated? is there a reason the cutscenes are so slow, the pauses so weighty, the translation so shaky? this team had, ostensibly, all the time and money in the world to perfect the piece of work that is Kingdom Hearts 3. is everything as it should be?

i’m just a fan, so i’m probably never going to get my many questions answered by the development team. so to a degree, intent can’t matter. all i can do is look at the pieces they’ve given us and decide, regardless of what they set out to make, whether or not it works.

pusha-t_if-you-know-you-know.mp3 (source: Powdump on YouTube)

for lots of games, this is an easy calculus to perform. my broad questions usually boil down to some combination of: what is the game trying to do/say/evoke? is that thing compelling? do the various pieces of the game work together to produce that effect?

most games don’t do all (or any) of these. Kingdom Hearts, on the other hand, is fraught with meaning, on a plethora of topics, with varying degrees of success.

i think it’s a pretty straightforward reading that the series is deeply interested in how memory works, the extent to which memory defines us, and how losing memories is deeply traumatic. i think this investigation of trauma is complicated through the Nobodies — bodies whose hearts have been literally ripped out of them — and the fact that they have been abused and/or manipulated through their involvement with Organization XIII, while simultaneously being codified as villains. i think the series tries to discuss cults of personality, they way they can subsume the self in service of the collective, and the lingering damage that remains even after that control is gone.

what’s more, with the possible exception of “losing memories=bad”, i don’t think Kingdom Hearts has just one thing to say about any of these things. it certainly isn’t didactic, beyond your bargain-barrel “don’t be a dick” sentiments. there are a dozen heroes who have made wildly different choices and followed varied and compelling paths. Ansem the Wise is wracked by guilt. Axel treads carefully, aware of the hurt he has caused. Aqua’s loneliness gives rise to doubt. Riku wonders whether his intent justifies the darkness he has used to see it through.

hey look it’s Aqua, regular old Aqua. (source: Disney, via Inverse)

because previous games have all been obsessed with memory, Kingdom Hearts 3, for much of the first 19+ hours, is thus obsessed with the past. i think the narrative surrounding the game and its (charitably) static or (realistically) stale mechanics heighten this retrospection. because it feels as though nothing has changed, with you battling as you always have in between cutscenes where characters rehash and explain what has already happened, it feels as though nothing will happen.

but it’s a trick. a beautiful trick.

because of this recursive presentation, as the narrative actually started Popping The Fuck Off, i was blown away. despite being the triumphant jewel in the series’ crown, the culmination of a half dozen different plot lines spread across twice as many games, i’d come to assume that literally nothing would happen, that the story would not progress. Kingdom Hearts 3 had duped me, that clever bastard. i’d thought its legacy would be middling to bad, a well-intentioned but misguided retreading of familiar material. i’d lost hope.

so when i got that hope back, when threads began to converge in baffling and exciting and wonderful ways, i was filled, again, with that childlike sense of wonder i’d had at age 10, sitting in front of my behemoth of a TV and that smug little chunky black rectangle, the PS2. it had done it. it had done it again.

Kingdom Hearts 3 had pulled this trick not by calling back to what i’d once loved, but by overturning it. the game lovingly presented the same types of content, in the same ways, just as it had. it was hollower than ever, more stilted, more off-kilter. all until we — the game, the characters, and i — climbed out of that dark pit of the past and looked forward.

that’s the thing about memories. it’s easy to get lost in them, in their security. but they are best when you bring them with you, build on top of them, forge new ones. they should inform your joy, not be the joy itself.

this game is absolutely about nostalgia — its perils and its strengths. i think it still has a lot to say.

let’s go see. together.

[continue to entry 3, part 1: Impact]
[continue to entry 3, part 2: Consequence]

Kieran T. Newton

Written by

this is where i write way too many words about video games & language i guess (he/him)