It’s wild how much of a template a PS2 game from 2002 set. A weird experiment of mashing two very distinct franchises together hit big and spawned a long lasting video game franchise and a dedicated fan base. Playing the game it’s not hard to see why; it’s a Shonen anime that balances on a fine tightrope of suspense and mystery. The Disney worlds bring you in but the focus on the series’ metaphysics and mythology is Kingdom Hearts true staying power. The story in the first game, revolving around forces attempting to control people by accessing the power that creates souls, completely caught me off guard when I was young. It was fascinating replaying it and finding where my memory had filled in gaps or placed higher importance on things in the 15 years since I first played (the unreliable nature of memory is a very apropos way to start the series). Kingdom Hearts is very story light leaving the back ¼ to do all the heavy lifting. The majority of it is traipsing through Disney movies and barely seeds some of the big back half reveals. This exact storytelling method continues to run through all the rest of the series. It’s amazing too that the gameplay loop is almost identical with each new iteration getting mostly nips and tucks on the battle system (save for Chain of Memories). It’s a strange and imperfect game but one that’s effective at establishing characters and reasons for investment.
In a way, Kingdom Hearts predates some of what would follow the megahit Lost. The audience’s fervor over the next reveal and mystery drove the popularity of that show and that idea of storytelling disseminated out into other media. Kingdom Hearts does something similar; it gives you just enough breadcrumbs to gather an idea of what some of the wider ideas might mean. The significance of Hearts for example are pretty clearly explained as an analogue for souls and the Heartless the monster result of what happens when someone loses their soul. You also get a good idea of how the universe is set up, with individual worlds living blissfully unaware of each other. The Gummi Ship does a good idea of conveying these worlds as individual planets existing in a solar system. Moving from one to the next is akin to interstellar travel and the party of protagonists are visiting aliens. These ideas are established relatively early in the runtime and are clearly laid out. It’s the acceleration of the back half and the way it dishes out complicated subjects that fuels the audience’s imagination.
I didn’t realize how late in the game Hollow Bastion is given how important it is to the story in this game and the series going forward. We learn that the Princesses of Heart have been captured to open a door to darkness, thus granting Maleficent unimaginable power. Riku becomes possessed by a being named Ansem, the cloaked figure we see at the beginning of the game, and someone who has been casually referenced as an important figure. Ansem, as we know him through the collected reports and mentions by the transposed people of Traverse Town, is responsible for a lot of the knowledge surrounding the Heartless. In the end he takes over Riku completely, fights Sora at the End of the World and opens what is assumed to be Kingdom Hearts, a doorway to the darkness where all Hearts originate from. It’s all delivered so fast that it can’t help but get your brain going asking how it all works. How are these individuals marked as the Princesses of Heart and how does Kairi play into that? How did her Heart become part of Sora and why was he able to regain his true form? How did Ansem become a dispossessed figure and find Riku? Was he the one who triggered the collapsing and destruction of Worlds? Just what is Kingdom Hearts and why did it hold light? And just how the hell did Mickey appear in the Darkness?
All of this is told to us over a relatively compressed amount of time. Kingdom Hearts lulls you into a false idea of what the game actually becomes in its ending moments. Emily and I playing through were relatively relaxed replaying through old Disney movies until the gas pedal was pushed all the way to the floor. The fact that the ideas are left relatively mysterious is a canny move and one the series will continue to return to. The full Ansem reports don’t offer much meaningful conclusions other than defining how Heartless and Nobodies (more to come on that one) are made. They’re also full of hints at what transpired in the past and things we may see in the future. References to mass experiments on people and a specific “girl” (maybe Kairi?) add to a puzzle that begs to be solved. Here you are fans, get guessing! The addition of the “Secret Movie” is a great move as well. It’s a fun short that takes the ideas of the Kingdom Hearts universe deadly serious, providing action and mysterious characters. The Secret Movie is designed to be pulled apart, slowed down and each individual shot studied meticulously. This type of fan behavior is commonplace now. The easiest example is the fervor around Marvel movies and their trailers, with fan created videos running down all the Easter Eggs hinting at what’s to come. It also has this in common with the big web comic hit Homestuck (you should listen to the incredible Homestuck Made This World Podcast for more on that) and I would assume shares a big overlap with that comics fan community. It becomes a perpetual machine of forecasting the next big reveal of the next big mystery and the individual works themselves become backgrounded. They’re encouraging the fan behavior to dissect and parse out the vague mystery they placed before them. The events in the games that precede those plot relevant story bits are secondary.
I will note that this is only one part of the fandom and there’s an entire piece dedicated to high level play. The action game elements are rewarding for people to play and challenge themselves on the highest difficulty. Tough as nails bosses like Sepiroth are also important to engaging fans. Kingdom Hearts provides a rewarding experience to players looking for that intense action gameplay. There is a reason there’s a vibrant community built around speedrunning Kingdom Hearts 2 (you should definitely watch this co-op race through the randomized game). Kingdom Hearts offers the opportunity for players to challenge themselves against bosses with high damage, fast and erratic attack patterns and even new wrinkles to the mechanics. The fact that this is part of a Disney mashup game is truly astounding.
The longer the series goes on, the mystery seeding becomes more pronounced and along with the more tangled the explanatory pieces of lore. I’m eager to see how the series hits now that I have a relatively good idea of where everything goes. The present lore of Kingdom Hearts is by no means resolved but it’ll be interesting to see how things land when I know certain bits will get backtracked or re-explained. It’s also interesting seeing how much of Kingdom Hearts mysterious storytelling arrives before this becomes more commonplace and how it’ll inform other media. In many ways, Kingdom Hearts helps establish the template for the widespread fandom interaction we see today. For now though, you can watch our full playthrough of Kingdom Hearts with more Let’s Plays to come in the future.