Kingdom Hearts – released on Playstation 2 in 2002, developed by Square Enix
As an example of interactive storytelling, the first Kingdom Hearts game simply should not work.
It is a title that brings together the introspective melodrama of Japanese developer Square’s Final Fantasy series of games with the largely more wholesome, melodic morality tales of Walt Disney’s animated and live action features.
This means forcing the player to battle new and familiar monsters in world’s built around films such as Peter Pan, Tarzan, stop motion fable The Nightmare Before Christmas, as well as undertaking quests based around 101 Dalmations and Winnie the Pooh.
The first game in the series largely succeeds in merging these disparate worlds by not being a story about Disney or Square’s movies and games, but rather the actual characters within those stories, focusing on the sometimes troubling nature of villainy and heroism lurking in fairy tales.
Years and even decades since some of Disney’s most iconic movies were made, children raised on these sometimes sugary, other times primordially terrifying cartoons have come back to them as adults with a sense of hungry nostalgia and a wealth of additional emotional baggage.
In our attempts to grow up, the resulting real world experience we accrue can serve to elevate the simple truths of the film into richer, more complex horrors and heroism.
It is not unusual for the stories and morals we are told in our youth to stick with us for the rest of our lives, sometimes shaping our outlooks on the world indelibly, while the meaning of the films can metamorphose due to the sometimes more complex considerations and compromises of adulthood.
Despite using a heavy amount of fan service from some of the most iconic cartoons and games of all time, Kingdom Hearts’ main characters are unique creations, amalgamating the heroes and villains of Square and Disney’s worlds.
Playing a character called Sora, the game commences in a halcyon desert island setting. Here our hero exists in a blissful environment with an older brother-like figure called Riku and their mutual female friend kiri, living out fantasies of daring adventures and battles enacted using wooden weapons and toys. It is here that the player learns many of the game’s fighting mechanics.
Much like classic Disney, the game’s peaceful introduction is shaken up by a dark tragedy that destroys their peaceful existence and throws the characters into a literal world of darkness, where mysterious and convoluted forces, iconic monsters and a shadowy soulless organisation of assassins – replete with three quarter length cloaks – battle for the cryptic concept of the hearts and minds of the game’s heroes.
From this moment on, the game dispenses of your trusty wooden sword, with Sora granted a mystical, seemingly impractical giant key as a weapon to battle against dragons and Captain Hook, all while facing themes of betrayal, the value of life and whether Donald Duck can be a passable hand to hand combatant.
You’d not be alone in thinking this synopsis, like the game’s title is gibberish. But much like in real life, the mostly clean cut nature of Disney’s story telling, with the more violent, confusing and darker nature of Square’s games is a rather handy metaphor for growing up and failing to entirely leave behind childhood tales.
As a game, the first Kingdom Hearts is a good looking, more than competent adventure that mixed sword combat and magic attacks with team combat in such a successful way that has since gone on to influence the Final Fantasy games themselves.
But Kingdom Heart’s real success is arguably playing on our childlike views of heroism, fantasy and morality as defined by over 80 years of Disney films and their importance in the more uncertain realms of adolescence and growing up – perfectly encapsulated by Square’s often convoluted, highly emotional stories.
That this happens based round a gaming mechanic where the player assaults shadowy creatures, predators and possessed former friends while backed up by The Little Mermaid and a host of other childhood icons shows the changing techniques games have developed to tell stories.
Most audience members are familiar with the concept of Pinocchio, where a magical puppet aspires to become a human being in a quest with a fair share of horror, heroism and songs about whistling. Eventually the puppet earns actual flesh and blood through a very human act of sacrifice.
However, the game’s new characters are forced to question why the existence of a wooden doll should be put over an actual human being. In assuming the hero role of that game, the audience understands the complexities of the notion of life and death in Pinocchio – defining the character as a living being. This in turn forces the player to battle for a sentient creature who is deemed to be of lesser worth than a young girl you are also charged with saving.
Elsewhere, a semi-erudite prince consigned to the form of a beast and trapped in a limbo-like dungeon is required to battle as the monster he feels he is to help the game’s hero, now stripped of his in-game powers and returned effectively to the role of a helpless child. Kingdom Hearts switches briefly from an adventure story to a game of cat and mouse where you are made to play as a defenceless boy with a wooden sword that can at best be used to district hideous monsters. This can then allow the beast to embrace its more monstrous side and destroy them.
This dynamic of a boy and man both figuratively and literally lost far from home is played out via gameplay, rather than plot.
In stripping the player of their powers, the game plays with the idea that outside of their heroic posturing, our heroes remain a small child and a monster cursed to exist alone.
The game has been a huge commercial success for Square and Disney, leading to several sequels and spin offs, as well as a seemingly endless number of high definition remakes looking to build on its appeal for more than a decade and a half.
Yet as the story expanded to cover a growing faction of soulless villains and worlds embracing more recent or obscure Disney hits such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Tron Legacy, the inclusion of these films felt more often like fan service, rather than a valid narrative device.
Captain Jack Sparrow’s inclusion in later games was more for the character’s popularity than any exploration of his foibles.
As opposed to the first game’s focus on iconic Disney characters dealing with the aftermath of their most defining battles or adventures struggling to find a new place in their respective worlds, the latter games simply sought to retell these source movies verbatim.
But in its experimental first outing, Kingdom Hearts somehow threw together the brooding staples of Japanese videogame storytelling with even the most saccharine examples of Disney’s output to find the darkness hidden in light and vice versa. Not to mention, it showed that even Donald Duck has the capacity to be a dragon smashing bad-ass.
This isn’t a fairytale, this is Kingdom Hearts.