Dive Into the Heart
In our popular media, the heart has somehow become acquainted with emotion. We experience a broken heart, we wish with all our hearts, we trust our hearts to guide us. This sentiment, primarily encouraged by Disney films, is far from what the actual heart is as the organ that pumps blood and keeps us alive. The idea of this “heart” as a source of wish fulfillment is overused and misguided, despite the countless films I love and adore that rely on its trope (i.e. most Disney movies). The trope has moved so far into the cliché that anytime it is used now-a-days there is a collective eye roll from the audience. What is quite unique about Kingdom Hearts 1 is its attempt to recontextualize this language we use to talk about the supposed “heart” by actually making it a third component of the body – the body, the soul, and the heart. Although this idea is often not built upon very well within the narrative, coming off as cliché as the Disney films it seeks to reimagine, it often presents an entirely new premise that has never been seen in fantasy stories. The cliché idea of the heart is repurposed as a tangible thing. This is very good.
Kingdom Hearts 1 roots itself in these new ideas though it is unclear if it has an understanding of said ideas. Many critics like to point at the Kingdom Hearts series as an example in convoluted storytelling due to the overwhelming amount of plot points and ideas being presented. While there is something to be said about this, it should be noted that a story is not automatically bad when it presents a lot of ideas. Rather the pitfalls that often occur in stories like Kingdom Hearts have to do with execution. Kingdom Hearts 1 presents ideas so vaguely and without narrative focus that there is much less of an understanding of how it all truly works. This becomes overwhelming and hence why people complain.
It is important that the person or people telling the story have a firm understanding of their own narrative universe. If the plot and story elements such as characters and setting are the bricks, then the rules of the universe are the structural plans. Another way to think about it is that the rules provide a map to navigate the story as you would navigate a large structure. Having a solid understanding of the universe will help you navigate the narrative rooms more efficiently. A great example of this is Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. When a new idea or character is introduced, it remains consistent. When Finn grows a grass sword on his arm, it stays like that in the next episode. The key to good world building is consistency. Even if it is a minor detail that may go unnoticed, if you plant the seed then you should follow through and water it.
I don’t claim to have a PHD in Kingdom Hearts studies, but I love these games and have worked hard to try and understand its moving parts. In this piece I want to explore the construction of this first game. What ideas are established and are they presented well? Do the rules of the Kingdom Hearts Universe as presented in Kingdom Hearts 1 hold up, crash, or land somewhere in between?
How Kingdom Hearts Tackles World Building
Kingdom Hearts 1 does most of its world building through cut scene dialogue. Characters discuss certain elements of the world such as the stars being other worlds and that worlds are being swallowed by darkness, hence why so many stars are blinking out. These scenes range from well done to…what just happened? Some scenes hardly give players any substance to work with while some provide an overwhelming amount of information. It is difficult to pinpoint what is at fault though a large amount can be attributed to the state of video games at the time. Cut scenes as we know them were not the norm and Kingdom Hearts 1 was one of a handful at the time of its release. This is why scenes may appear awkward or not well paced. Still, what the audience is given to work with isn’t terrible.
The more crucial bits of world building exist in the Ansem reports, optional reading segments that are not required of the player to complete the game. The fact that much of the world building exists in optional text is not a good thing. A good use of the reports would be to make them appear on the screen to read after collecting them, or not allowing the player to progress in the game without reading said reports. Regardless, with everything the game gives us, let’s break down the rules of Kingdom Hearts 1.
The heart as referenced in the game is referring to a third entity of a person. A person is made up of three parts – the body, the soul, and the heart. The heart is something which is linked to emotions and memory. When Kairi loses her heart, she has no emotion and is basically comatose for a big chunk of the game. Most hearts are made up of light and darkness. It is only in rare cases that a person can be all light or all darkness. An example of this is the princesses of heart who are made up entirely of light. A heart is represented by a stained glass pillar unique to the hearts owner. When a heart is exposed to more and more darkness, it will eventually transform into a creature called a Heartless.
The Heartless are described by Leon as “those without hearts.” There are two types of Heartless. The first is a Pureblood Heartless, born from the darkness in a person’s heart. The second is the Emblem Heartless which is the result of a person’s heart becoming corrupted and releasing from their body. Sora becomes a Pureblood Heartless after stabbing himself to free Kairi’s heart, his darkness forming into a Shadow. The man seen being attacked in the first moments of Traverse Town has his heart corrupted by the Heartless and thus he becomes an Emblem Heartless.
There is very little explanation given to where the Heartless our heroes fight are coming from besides the worlds are being corrupted by darkness and Heartless come with that. The weight of this isn’t totally felt in the game except arguably toward the end. Heartless also appear in ship form when the trio travel from world to world in the Gummi Ship. They also manifest in the Olympus Coliseum to fight tournaments with Sora, Donald, and Goofy. While certainly good gameplay fodder, from a story perspective these last two bits feel a bit silly. The Heartless reside in the realm of the ridiculous rather than a literal threat that is supposed to be felt throughout the narrative.
The Heart of Worlds
The heart is not an entity exclusive to people but exists in worlds. Worlds have hearts, guarded by keyholes that are hidden somewhere safe. In the game, we see Sora finding and locking these keyholes in order to protect the world from being corrupted by darkness and disappearing like Destiny Island. Worlds are not connected but separated from one another by invisible barriers. They appear as stars in the sky. King Mickey is prompted by the disappearing stars to go on his quest and command Donald and Goofy to find “the key.” When a star goes out, it means a world is disappearing and being claimed by the darkness. This is exemplified when Destiny Island is consumed by darkness followed by a scene of Donald and Goofy witnessing a star going out. In Ansem’s reports, he talks of finding a door which leads to the heart of his world.
The reason the worlds are separated is explained by Kairi’s grandmother in a flashback. She explains that the world was once only made of light, but people began to fight over the light and thus darkness entered the world. This resulted in a war which destroyed the world entirely. What brought the world back was the light in the pure hearts of children. The world was then made up of light and darkness, and the worlds were no longer one but separated. Most people in the present timeline do not know that other worlds exist but merely talk of it as a possibility. Not only do Sora, Riku, and Kairi dream of exploring other worlds but characters such as Ariel from Atlantica also wishes to discover what is out there.
The reason Sora, Donald, and Goofy are able to travel between worlds is due to the Gummi Ship. The Gummi Ship is formed from gummi blocks which are pieces of shattered worlds. It is unclear whether King Mickey, Donald, or Goofy had used the ship prior to the games beginnings. It can be assumed they didn’t yet it isn’t presented as something new when Donald and Goofy board the ship. Clearly they have access to information, whether through research or means of a higher power, that allows them to fly from world to world when most do not know that other worlds exist.
The Keyblade / The Keyblade Master
The keyblade is a weapon that chooses its master. The keyblade wielder is then given the responsibility of rescuing the worlds from darkness. King Triton of Atlantica speaks of the keybearer and says all they do is shatter peace with their meddling in the affairs of other worlds. The Ansem reports also bring up the mythical key which Ansem says he has heard brings chaos and ruin.
Originally Riku was chosen to be the bearer of the key. When Riku chose darkness as a means to escape Destiny Island, the key seemingly sensed this darkness within him and so went to Sora who actively fought against the darkness. Riku later earns the keyblade back for a brief time before once again being thwarted by Sora whose heart is stronger and more akin to the light. This comes after Sora gives a grand speech about not needing a weapon when he has his heart and his ties to his friends to protect him and give him power. While this entire exchange gives spice to the story, it makes the keyblade feel a bit fickle. Will it just keep jumping back and forth? Why didn’t it sense Sora’s moral high ground and character from the start? And now that Riku’s heart is moving toward the light, wouldn’t the keyblade return to its rightful owner?
The place referenced in the games title may be the most ambiguous bit of information of all, but clues can help decipher what it is exactly. For starters, Kingdom Hearts is the heart of the entire multiverse. It is presented as a realm guarded by two large white doors. In the game’s opening moments, bits of text speaking directly to Sora says, “The closer you get to light, the greater your shadow becomes.” This can be applied to Kingdom Hearts which when opened shines a bright light but on closer inspection is completely filled with darkness. Depending on your perspective, this is either unclear or nuanced. I find that anything that has to do with Kingdom Hearts has a little bit of both. The idea is that light cannot exist without darkness. Bright light will cast a shadow.
Do You Know the Rules?
Now that we have a good chunk of Kingdom Hearts 1’s ideas spread out before us, it is prudent to talk about how the game exhibits said ideas. On close examination we are able to break things down with a bit of clarity, but does the story actually lay things out for us in a way that flows well with the narrative while also staying consistent? For many Kingdom Hearts fans who know where the series goes in later entries, the answer would most likely be yes, simply due to the later game’s doing a far lesser job. Kingdom Hearts 1 does it best and so criticism is reluctant. This isn’t wrong, but it isn’t right either. The sins of the later games certainly weigh heavy on the series and present this first entry in a much brighter light. But it should be said that from the beginning, Kingdom Hearts 1 struggles with world building.
As mentioned, the heart is a third component that creates a whole person. This is extremely significant but it isn’t emphasized in a way that feels separate from the way the heart is talked about when we turn our game consoles off. “The heart may be weak…”, “your heart? What good will that do?”, “My heart has been touched by those I’ve met and my experiences.” None of these statements vary from the cliché way the heart is talked about in everyday life. Statements meant to carry weight because of the lore being set up often fall into language used by the Disney films that many are so well acquainted with. Sora can say “heart” as many times as he wants, but this doesn’t do the work of setting up believable ideologies and rules. The result is that things happen and we might have an idea as to why but when trying to explain it, your brain turns into scrambled eggs.
The biggest issue with how the game talks about hearts is when it comes to hearts being connected versus how this relates to the plot point of Kairi’s heart residing in Sora’s for most of the game. Kairi’s heart literally leaves her body and takes refuge in Sora’s heart. This is juxtaposed with the idea of hearts being connected due to forming relationships with one another. Sora forms bonds with the people he meets on his journey and they become part of his memories, his heart. The game tries to equate this to being the same as how Sora is connected to Kairi. But it is not the same.
Aladdin’s heart is not inside Sora’s heart, but their bond makes them apart of each other. They are figuratively connected, and this is important. Their connection is not something that is tangible or that can be seen but is felt. Kairi’s connection to Sora on the other hand is literal. Her heart is literally in his heart. It is physically there inside of him. No one else’s heart takes refuge in Sora. This is not to say that Kairi does not have a connection with Sora based on their relationship, but the game does not frame the conversation to be about this. It is framed to be about Kairi always being with him on his journey. The reason he sees her everywhere and has flashbacks about her and recognizes places he has never seen is because her heart is in his. It is not merely a strong connection. The same thing would not happen with Aladdin because Aladdin’s heart is not in Sora’s. These are two totally different things that game doesn’t feel the need to clarify.
Sora talks to Kairi in Traverse Town as if this experience of her heart being in his is proof that she is always with him, and Kairi agrees. But this is entirely false. Kairi’s connection to Sora based on their memories and time based together may make her part of his heart, but for most of the game she was in his heart. He felt her with him because she was with him, not because of the connection formed by their relationship. The game is talking about two very different things and doesn’t bother taking the time to really understand or deal with what is going on, opting for generic language about hearts and flowery statements about always being with one another.
The mythology set up in the game does very little to back up the lore. While characters like Genie talk of the keyhole and Triton of the keybearer, these occurrences often appear too few and far between to mark any significant meaning beyond the close study. The ambiguity is not done for creative or purposeful effect, but rather a lack of world building. Instead, the game opts to say the words light, darkness, and heart as much as possible but does little to truly map out the rules of the multiverse.
On top of everything, Kingdom Hearts isn’t mentioned until the very end of the game. The game’s title and everything the plot sets up is built on this realm known as Kingdom Hearts, yet it is not once mentioned before the final moments of the story except in a one off text box in toward the final area. This is a huge misstep by the writers, particularly when looking at the game as a whole and recognizing the intense amount of meandering and padding that exists instead of building blocks to create a well rounded story and environment. The pieces are there, and some sections work better than others, but it overall fails to really give the audience something to latch onto besides seeing their favorite Disney or Final Fantasy characters.
Perhaps this is a bit overly negative and doesn’t give the game enough credit for what it does right. In the long game, Kingdom Hearts 1 does a fairly good job of pacing itself and giving us a competent story to follow. It is only when you examine the short game, scene to scene, that cracks begin to appear. The game sets up a lot of clever ideas but fails to follow through with said ideas. Many concepts are left ambiguous due to lack of explanation or lack of understanding of world mechanics.
Far too many plot points are explained away by, well the game said so. Why are Sora, Donald, and Goofy exempt from returning to their respective worlds at the end of the game? Why is the keyblade so fickle with its decision making and why is this not explored? How do Sora, Donald, and Goofy escape the endless abyss and end up in an open field? Why does Sora only change his appearance in certain worlds when their concern is keeping the world order? If Sora was a Heartless and could return from that state, then shouldn’t that say something about how the trio fight Heartless and set their hearts free? Could there be a larger commentary here about how they save people and allowing them to come back from the darkness rather than simply letting them perish?
While these are small nitpicks, they become much larger when talking about consistency and world building. The takeaway is that the rules set up in this game only work at one time or another, and are either dropped or forgotten for narrative convenience. The fact that these rules are so loose is not an automatic dismissal of the story being told. But when a story does not have a firm grasp of their own created narrative rules, than it is challenging to take it as seriously as it desires.
- Square Enix. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. Square Enix. PS2/PS3/PS4/XBox One/Windows/Nintendo Switch. 2002.