Kingdom Hearts Month – Can gameplay ever be existential?

KH3 keyblade batlle

By Neil Merrett

Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for Kingdom Hearts 3…

From a technical and philosophical perspective, Kingdom Hearts 3 seeks to do big things in its closing act by attempting to tackle the nature of a human soul and what may lie in store for it after death. Unfortunately, it still relies on admittedly fun gameplay based around hitting things with a magical key sword, in order to try and convey this somewhat complex narrative.

Despite aspirations to create an almost metaphysical examination of memories, dreams and the afterlife in KH3, the game highlights how existing gameplay styles such as hack and slash mechanics may not always gel with more complex storytelling.

Efforts to create more esoteric, out of body and psychological digital experiences are possible in games, but they require bold new approaches to gameplay, level design and overall objectives to be truly transcendental

Perhaps fittingly for a series renowned for convoluted storytelling about the literal nature of darkness and what lies in the hearts of our favourite and not so favourite Disney characters, the final battle and boss fight of Kingdom Hearts 3 is very much a long-form experience.

Over what seems like a number of hours, the player confronts a digital avatar of famous Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, as well different iterations of the character throughout his timeline and over a dozen of his powerful minions. This battle, which takes the form of a series of confrontations across the air and seas, as well as numerous dimensions and the afterlife itself, seems to defy gravity and time.

It is a technically sophisticated final act of the game, albeit one where the visuals and storytelling arguably take precedence over gameplay itself. It is all very cinematic, mimicking the surreal visuals of Christopher Nolan’s 2011 blockbuster Inception, with villains reshaping and twisting entire worlds in on themselves.

KH3 existential gameplay

Take the limbo-like realm of the ‘Final World’, where part of the finale takes place. The game’s attempts to create an almost idyllic place that exists between life and death has resulted in one of the most visually arresting worlds within gaming. All at once, it has the player crossing an endless ocean, as if walking on water and running into an infinitesimal blue sky. The level then evolves and shifts into structures that twist and turn as the player attempts to navigate them.

It is a unique and ambitious piece of game design that is somewhat compromised by limitations required as part of the series long-established gameplay based on jumping and swordplay.

With the player still bound to a rigid set of controls, the idea of undergoing some kind of out of body experience in an endless purgatory in the game never quite sticks.

At other points in Kingdom Hearts 3, the player is battling a giant worm-like entity, made of the bodies of what seems likes thousands of lost souls each seeking to escape their twisted prison.

It is once again all visually arresting, with the conclusion ending in the playing hurling the abandoned weapons of thousands long dead warriors into the mass of shadowy bodies. This technically impressive visual is controlled almost as if a shooter, rather than some terrifying existential experience that the story wants to create.

In the end, the cinematic visuals and complex bosses seem to come at the expense of gameplay, rather than combining both elements to tell an interactive story as a satisfying whole.

Films, literature and art of all kinds, which includes a growing number of videogames, have attempted to convey big existential concepts in thought provoking and accessible ways.

But the emerging possibility for new kinds of digital interaction and experiences afforded by VR, as well as larger, open-world settings now possible with increasingly powerful hardware will need new ways for the player to interact with the world and overcome problems.

Whether in Kingdom Hearts or other recent major releases such as Anthem, saving the world still boils down to beating the bad guys with blunt weapons or blowing them to smithereens, it’s a mechanic that hasn’t really evolved from Space Invaders in a psychological sense.

KH3 mainii

Even in Kingdom Hearts 3, the player ultimately restores the souls of the game’s mysterious henchman villains by beating them with a key sword until their souls dissipate back into their original bodies.

That scope of this more existential storytelling will sometimes require something new and more complex than push a button and shoot, and programming will have to evolve to match these ambitions and find a new approach to conflict resolution.

In the battle for hearts and minds, what happens when killing is not a viable option?

Agree, disagree, or want to hurl your excrement at us while telling us how Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube disproves this thesis? Hit us up in the comments or send us a message on Twitter at @squareblind and we’d be happy to discuss.

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