The first Kingdom Hearts no longer exists within a bubble; it exists within the context of the entire series, and is inevitably compared to Kingdom Hearts II and all of the installments thereafter. The game has also been edited and re-released, so it also exists within the context of its own revisions. I love the first game the most, but despite my intellectual argumentative reasons for preferring the world design and the simplicity of the story, I know that my reasoning is rooted in an emotional nostalgia. Kingdom Hearts III is on the horizon with a January 2019 release date, and though within my social circles the conversations about the series have been overwhelmingly positive and hopeful, there is an air of negativity and bitterness that shrouds the series and its fanbase. Being with the series since the beginning has made many of the worldbuilding additions easier to accept, some of which have been positive, and others not. When viewed as a whole, Kingdom Hearts has a reputation of being confusing–the apotheosis of contrived storytelling–a series with an almost cultish dedication from its fanbase as well as its share of contemptuous critics. On one hand, video games are art, and any art form can be deconstructed and interpreted. Many criticisms directed towards the games, i.e., critiquing the release schedule, the contrived, convoluted plot of the games, and the series as a lovechild between two corporations, are not unfounded. On the other hand, I find the nitpicking of the series to be missing the forest for the trees.
So here I am, toeing the line between being a fan and being a critic. I am frustrated by what I deem to be disingenuous criticism (i.e., all the people cashing in by explaining the series very poorly for comedic affect as clickbait). I find dismissing the series out of hand to be symptomatic of an issue with online discourse: pedantic, overly reductive sound bites being preferential (whether monetarily or what have you) over critical analysis. However, I am also too disillusioned to make excuses for egregious mistakes and mishaps on the behalf of Square Enix and Tetsuya Nomura.
It seems impossible to disentangle Kingdom Hearts: the games from Kingdom Hearts: the franchise and subsequently Kingdom Hearts: the fanbase.
The problematic release methodology of the games since the series’ inception leaves a giant blot on Square’s reputation, regardless of the collections being released to introduce new players to the series. Critiquing the lack of consumerism is valid, in my opinion. However, some fans deflect arguments against the corporation’s lack of foresight or their inconsideration towards their customers as completely understandable backpedaling. By contrast, other fans unfairly criticize the release schedule in regards to Kingdom Hearts III being in development. Rumors of delays and game development issues continue to linger over the company as a whole, with Final Fantasy XV being a hot topic of debate after ten years in development and Kingdom Hearts III being, by their estimation, in development for more than a decade with multiple delays. However, there is little evidence to support their conjecture. There has been one true delay, which was moving the release date from 2018 to January 2019.
There are fans that lambaste the way in which the games were released across multiple platforms, myself included, because it was difficult and expensive to keep up with the side games. The side games went from being extra content, unimportant to the overarching plot, to being absolutely essential as they were referenced to in later installments. This principal being set with Birth By Sleep and later Dream Drop Distance, the additional content outside of the number titles can no longer be skipped. The collections made the games more accessible to a larger audience that was not able or motivated to buy them and their separate systems upon initial release. However, the issue here does not dissipate with the games being released into collections for avid fans of the series that purchased them beforehand. As I stated above, it is almost impossible to separate the games from their history, so the problem with how the series is laid out becomes two-fold: first and foremost, the importance of the side games is the major issue. The most reprehensible in my own opinion: Square adding a mobile game to the series’ story canon. There is no differentiation between optional content, which leaks into the issue of the plot being perceived as contrived and difficult to follow. Secondly, people who bought separate consoles to play the games originally were generally excited for the collections that included all of the games to be ported for the PS3 and PS4, but the way in which the games were released and continue to be released upsets people who feel as though they had wasted money by buying the games more than once. So, while the collections make the games easier to play, the importance of the side games in the series’ lore as well as the contentious release methodology of the games is intrinsically linked to the series and a flaw that Square cannot seem to shake, even when they are being helpful to new consumers.
The most talked about aspect of the series after development and structure is the story. From casual and devoted fans to passive observers, the games are known for being confusing. To be clear, I do not blame people who are not willing to overlook the twists and turns of the story that break their narrative immersion. However, I do not think the games are difficult to follow if they are 1) played and 2) played in the order of their release. I view later installments in Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy in a similar vein to the heart-warming, physics-defying Shonen anime, which I realize is not everyone’s cup of tea. The games do not have some comprehensive philosophical or spiritual ontology in their lore. But, counterpoint: they aren’t trying to.
Kingdom Hearts is a crossover whose entire selling point is exploring Disney worlds and playing with Square’s eccentric, lovable characters. If you’re looking for some deep, resounding meditation on the human condition or even a coherent plot, you’re playing the Square Enix game wrong. That doesn’t mean that the games lack value. They’re filled with raw emotion, unadulterated by things that ground the story in reality-like continuity. The characters are sweeter than sugar, unabashedly wholesome, or gritty edgelords that are impossible to take seriously. Think Kingdom Hearts is nonsense? Congratulations, you’ve stumbled onto why people like it so much. Kingdom Hearts is a wonderful spectacle.
The story is abstract, unrefined, and illusory, but the series’ strengths are thematic. Friendship, love, and identity form the foundation of Kingdom Hearts. Characters are endlessly searching for meaning in their lives and looking for the people that they care about, despite that meaning not being readily available to them and despite their hearts, memories, and souls being beyond human comprehension. Personally, even before I came to grips with my identity as an LGBT person, the series resonated with me because, I too, felt like an outsider to my own feelings, and I gravitated towards the friendships and the relationships between these characters. They are compelling and unhindered by gender conventions, especially with how the game portrays boys as capable of emotional depth and range with one another.
Kingdom Hearts‘s fan base suffers from cognitive dissonance, unwilling to take valid criticisms, while simultaneously being unable to find inherent value in their art for its own sake, turning the discourse toxic. This fanbase is not unique within nerd culture as a whole. There’s a frustration and an entitlement that manifests when our beloved franchises, through sequels, prequels, spin-offs, alternative universes, and reboots, suddenly lose their magic. An anger bubbling under the surface, an aggrieved, perceived ownership of how the art we loved should be created. There is a frustration at its inability to ever encapsulate that same lightning in a bottle. The anger can be reasonable, but it is all too often misplaced onto creators. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that media like video games, comics or films are collective projects that are not written, produced, edited, acted, voiced, designed, released, etc. by one person. The intentions of all of the people involved can be pure, yet the result can differ because of poor management or a tight budget. Taylor Neigum, a long-time friend of mine from our early internet days perusing Kingdom Hearts forums, sheds his insight on the series’ fanbase:
As for my own frustration, that stems from seeing and interacting with people spreading misinformation and mistaking their own frustration and apathy toward the series for the series having become “impenetrable” both in understanding the story and experiencing the games, or refusing to accept that some aspects of the series could have been done a lot better. It’s thus sometimes felt nigh impossible to have a balanced discussion of Kingdom Hearts: members of the fan base both casual and devoted often sway so hard into optimism or pessimism that it can be tiring or aggravating just trying to talk about the series. It almost feels to me that so many people want to be unhappy about the series and don’t actually have any intention of trying to enjoy it anymore.
My goal here is to draw attention to some toxicity in the Kingdom Hearts fandom, but more broadly, put into question the way we interact in fandoms on the internet. This topic is not one that I expect to comprehensively cover in a short essay or even in a lifetime, but it is one worth exploring. I owe my life to the Kingdom Hearts online community; I have had friends from forums for more than a decade now–all of those friendships predicated on our mutual love of a game from our childhoods. But it feels like communities being cathartic over their collective nostalgia isn’t enough anymore. It isn’t enough to engage within nerd culture (or geek culture though I think that distinction is inconsequential at this point) because many people within nerd culture hold their formative media to a standard in which it cannot be insulted or changed because they identify with it on a spiritual level.
Kingdom Hearts has made an impact on me that I can never deny or replace by another piece of media. It is a part of who I am and deeply ingrained within me, but I have come to accept that I cannot control the fate of the series or the conversations surrounding it. I hope for people to engage with media in a healthier way–to form bonds with other people in their communities and discuss the positive and negative attributes of their interests. We all want our games to be “good”–I take issue with how fans express their concerns as entitlement and I fervently dislike shallow analysis.
Kingdom Hearts is a feeling to me–a feeling of my childhood, and of sitting in front of a bulky television in my parent’s living room. I love the first game regardless of the faulty camera, clunky battle system, flawed menu designs, and cutscenes you couldn’t skip. I enjoyed exploring entirely different worlds outside of my own very small childhood one. Most likely, Kingdom Hearts III will be unable to live up to the frankly absurd hype. I have faith that the game will be better than Dream Drop or Days, but I also know that it will never capture the magic that was me at seven years old, googly-eyed, playing my PS2. And that’s okay. Like the rest of the series, Kingdom Hearts III will be complicated, divisive, but ultimately, it will still have value. It can’t exist outside of the culture that has been built around it. The game will not encapsulate my entire childhood, but it doesn’t need to.