Simple & Clean
The Kingdom Hearts series is notorious for being labeled convoluted when it comes to its narrative. The label is both fair and unfair and is something to be explored once the magazine approaches later games. But what stands out about Kingdom Hearts 1 is that despite the poor exposition and world-building, the narrative is the most compact and concise of the series. While later games do a lot of telling and explaining, the first game does a little less and allows the story to unfold naturally. It has rightly become a meme to call the first game simple and clean in reference to the game’s opening cinematic song by Utada Hikaru. The game has an intense focus on moving swiftly, if a bit uncoordinated, to the plot resolution. While there is a good deal of padding and useless meandering from world to world, there is a strong sense that all of this ties together and matters to the end goal. Kingdom Hearts 1’s plot is simple and clean and this is due to how the game builds itself up, good pacing, and how it integrates its source material.
When experiencing a new story, audiences always start out with a relatively blank slate. They have to be introduced to characters, get to know the locations the characters visit, and have a decent understanding of how the world works. How a story introduces itself is crucial to the audience sticking with the story. Audiences shouldn’t be weighed down with too much at one time but should be given enough information for the plot to make sense and given more and more as time passes. This practice is known as Bricks in the Backpack. 3 The idea is that each element of a story holds a significant amount of weight. For this example, let’s say that each character, plot element, and setting weighs as much as one brick, and the audience experiencing the story is wearing a backpack. Each time something new is introduced, you add a brick to the backpack. Things can get heavy pretty fast. The key is that once a brick is added, the audience should then be given the tools to begin to build a house. The bricks should not stay in the backpack.
Kingdom Hearts 1 adds a lot of bricks into the backpack in the beginning of the game. Fortunately, it also allows the audience to begin building a sturdy structure. The game does a fantastic job of establishing our characters, their goals and motivations, and moving the plot steadily forward. The Dive into the Heart segment sets up some basic ideas but doesn’t do much to push the plot forward or really help us understand what is happening. Destiny Island as a tutorial level is, dare I say, perfect. It begins the story with low stakes and really allows the player to explore and get a feel not only for how the game plays but who these characters are as people. It manages to lay out a lot in an efficient way.
The lore of the paopu fruit is introduced and manages to not only develop Sora’s relationship to Kairi but his relationship to Riku. Riku explains why sharing the paopu fruit is significant, and later makes sharing one with Kairi a prize for himself should he win in a race against Sora. This is a great example of interactions showing the audience the themes of the story. Riku and Sora will have a continuous rivalry throughout the game and it is first exemplified here, among a few other examples we will get to shortly. The paopu fruit is a seed planted to heighten Sora’s connection to Kairi. While it does the work of showing how strong their connection is, it also plants the idea that Sora and Kairi are connected through deeper means than we understand. This is in reference to Kairi’s heart residing in Sora’s for much of the game.
The secret place is where Sora finds childhood cave drawings and draws himself sharing the paopu fruit with Kairi. Yet this is also the place where the mysterious door resides, with no lock or anything indicating it can be opened. The door clearly can’t be opened by a normal person. When Sora meets the strange hooded figure, who totally doesn’t look like a sack of potatoes, he is told that he understands nothing of other worlds and what lies beyond the door. This scene basically tells the audience, yes you will discover what lies beyond the door and Sora will gain that knowledge as the game continues.
As touched on earlier, Destiny Island is a perfect nesting ground to build the relationships between our three friends, Sora, Riku, and Kairi. Their scenes together not only manage to build their connections but tell us a lot about them as characters. They feel like real kids with real problems and real desires. In a scene at sunset, the trio look off into the horizon and establish their goal to see other worlds. Through their dialogue we learn of their distinct characteristics – Riku wants to escape and see what is out there, Sora is easy going and immature, and Kairi is fun, loving, and determined.
Three Final Fantasy characters also vacate the island – Selphie, Wakka, and Tidas. Despite their roles being kept to the minimum, they each offer something unique and important to the story at large. Not only can you battle with them and come to understand the gameplay a bit better, but you can speak with them. What they reveal is quite in depth for NPC’s. If Sora talks to them on Day 2, they each tell him something different that adds to the plot. Selphie talks of the paopu fruit and how sharing it with someone you really care for makes you connected for all eternity. Wakka talks about the secret place being fun to explore. Tidas tells Sora that he has gotten stronger, but he is still no match for Riku. All of these comments work with what the narrative is setting up, establishing the paopu fruit connection, the mysterious door, and Riku and Sora’s rivalry.
Meanwhile, scenes from Disney Castle are also intertwined with the Destiny Island story-line. This choice to show these scenes side by side versus in large chunks at once is a very smart decision, allowing the audience to digest and better build with the bricks they are adding to their backpacks. Where Destiny Island is a low stakes tale for the majority of its screen time, Disney Castle is high stakes, establishing that the worlds are in danger and that Donald and Goofy have to find someone with a key. This not only confirms that our trio will be visiting other worlds but that Sora is destined for something much greater than he can ever imagine.
The two stories merge at Traverse Town. Just as Destiny Island is claimed by darkness, Donald and Goofy look up in the sky and see a star disappear. Though our characters do not meet up right away, they both learn crucial information on their quest to find one another. Traverse Town is where much of the exposition happens. We learn about Ansem and his reports. We learn about the Heartless. We learn about the chosen keyblade wielder and Sora’s new responsibility thrust upon him. By the end of Traverse Town everything comes to a head. Sora’s goal is to find his friends. Donald and Goofy’s goal is to find the King. Together, their goal is to save the world by sealing the keyholes.
Shortly after this, we have our first villains scene that shows a collection of villains teaming together. For what purpose it is not yet clear, offering some welcomed suspense. The villains are all in shadow, not offering the audience too much but just enough to establish that they have evil plans ahead.
Now, that was a lot of information I just went over. Handled poorly, this would all be way too much to take in. Even reading this condensed account of events can feel overwhelming. But Kingdom Hearts 1 does an excellent job of establishing an idea and then laying it down to begin building. Nothing in these beginning scenes remains stagnant. The bricks are collected and are used to build the narrative and it is wonderfully done.
What keeps the story working so efficiently after everything is introduced is the expert pacing. Though the story can sometimes meander or pad itself, it mostly sticks to the narrative at hand. The beginning of the game saw some of this pacing. As discussed, Sora’s story on Destiny Island is intertwined with Donald and Goofy’s at Disney Castle. These stories converge in Traverse Town. Had these been handled one at a time, the pacing would feel very slow and would not have transitioned so well as the narratives meeting one another in the middle.
Sora’s relationship with Riku is also well paced in the story. It would have been easy to just include scenes where Sora misses his friends, only to find out that Riku turned to the dark side at some point off screen and now Sora must fight him. But the game goes out of its way to establish this friendship and what it means. It creates tension between the two boys and puts something at stake. Sora sees Riku frequently on his quest. We get to see how they are moving apart and this provides the narrative room to breathe and change. The relationship is built up and the final clash does not appear out of nowhere.
The villain scenes offer a very nice taste of good pacing. They are quick and to the point while leaving just enough open that there is still a mystery. One thing Kingdom Hearts 1 does really well is integrating the Disney worlds with the main plotline. Disney worlds don’t feel separate from the story but are actively part of the narrative. While some Disney worlds succeed at this better than others, they all at least contribute something to forwarding the plot. Whether it be tackling the relationship between Riku and Sora in Monstro or reminding us that our friends are in our hearts in Deep Jungle, each world ties back to the main narrative in some fashion. The same can be said of the villains. Though some villains may appear to carry more significance than others, they all lead Sora to the big baddie, Maleficent.
Speaking of Disney, Kingdom Hearts 1 clearly has a deep love and respect for its source material. Disney and Final Fantasy are given a lot to do and this is extremely important, especially when looking forward to future titles in the series. YouTuber KingK says in his video about the game,
“[The game] managers to capture the grandiose world ending stakes of a Final Fantasy story with the universal theming of a Disney movie.” 2
Not only are characters and places given love on screen, but their very nature is being represented in this game. Kingdom Hearts 1 sandwiches itself nicely between these two different entities.
Although not crucial to the plot, Final Fantasy characters play a large roll in the narrative and bring a lot to the table. Leon, Yuffie, Cid, and Aerith are all key to helping Sora and friends digest the plot in Traverse Town. They act as adult role models for Sora. As mentioned earlier, Tidas, Wakka, and Selphie all work to contextualize what the game wants us to know is important in the beginning game. Even Cloud helps Sora in his quest to learn what it means to be a true hero.
But it is Disney that is given much more to do in this game. All of the villains are stand out and interesting. Each world offers unique traversal and something to the plot. Donald and Goofy themselves are given a lot to do, being Sora’s sidekicks. I would even go as far to say that Donald is a driving force at many points in the game, lying to Sora that he will definitely find his friends even though he has no clue, and later telling Riku he can’t come with them on the Gummi Ship. He and Goofy’s personalities are embraced to the maximum and are great silly foils to Sora’s more somber and serious moods.
What may be the best example of how well the developer’s handled Disney is how Mickey is portrayed. When Square Enix (then Square Soft) were given the okay to use Disney properties in their game, it was explicit that Mickey could only appear on screen once. There is no solid reasoning behind this that we know of but the best guess is that Disney didn’t want its most prominent and recognizable character to be caught up in a game that could possibly tamper with their image. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Square, who later will overuse Mickey in future titles. Mickey is a King and his reputation is very built up throughout this game. When we finally encounter him, it is at the very end of the game when he helps Sora seal the door to Kingdom Hearts. This restriction allowed Square to make a creative choice and it paid off. As discussed in the last issue with Firewatch, restrictions are not a bad thing.
While Kingdom Hearts 1 is far from a perfect game, it has a firm grasp on its plot and themes. It understands what beats need to be hit in order to tell a compelling story and this sense of direction is very good. What is set up at the beginning pays off in the end. Most of the necessary questions receive answers. It presents the most coherent plot of the series – a young boy goes on an adventure, exploring worlds, and eventually defeats the bad guy. While this story can feel stale, Kingdom Hearts 1 manages to do something unique and interesting with the formula. It truly is simple and clean.
- Square Enix. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. Square Enix. PS2/PS3/PS4/XBox One/Windows/Nintendo Switch. 2002.
- “Kingdom Hearts Retrospective.” YouTube video, 7:19. “KingK,” 2018. https://youtu.be/jvK7l-Ivl1U.
- This idea comes from story expert Lani Diane Rich. She originally touched on the topic in her podcast “Storywonk Sessions.” Her current show is called, “How Story Works” and is a great resource for understanding story.