“A scattered dream that's like a far-off memory. A far-off memory that's like a scattered dream. I wanna line the pieces up—yours and mine.” – Sora, Kingdom Hearts II
2. PART TWO: The Disney Loop
“So, suppose you get to another world. What would you do there?” – Kairi, Kingdom Hearts
Each entry in the Kingdom Hearts series follows a fairly simple loop. Players travel from world to world, fighting alongside classic characters and protecting the universe from a plethora of monstrous creatures. While fairly rote, it’s a solid structure that keeps the player progressing through a variety of Disney-based locations and events – content that is likely to be the main draw for a significant portion of the series’ audience. It could be argued that Kingdom Hearts III’s Disney content is the most impressive and ambitious in the series, yet this portion of the game has drawn significant criticism. I believe this is for three specific reasons: poor pacing, a lack of direction, and a dearth of meaningful narrative and character progression.
Simply put, the Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts III have no tangible impact on the game’s core narrative. While past Kingdom Hearts games have also struggled with this balance, Sora has always had some kind of goal which he achieves in each world. In Kingdom Hearts I, it was to seal the keyholes; in Kingdom Hearts II, it was to find and defeat Organization XIII. In Kingdom Hearts III, Sora seemingly has no reason to travel to the places that he does; and when he gets there, he has no goal. He is told to master the extremely vague “Power of Waking”, but little in his journey contributes to (or addresses) this plot point. Sometimes the game even admits its lack of purpose; the Tangled world literally opening with Donald asking why they’re here, to which Sora replies “I’m sure we were brought to this world for some good reason, but can’t we sweat it later?” Of course, they do end up helping Rapunzel - who they are told is important - but these actions have no bearing on the main story whatsoever.
Every Disney world boils down to the same basic progression. While the gameplay remains varied and enjoyable, the narrative structure of these worlds is always identical: Meet new/old friends and help them achieve their personal goals – a task often achieved with minimal input from Sora. This is certainly not ideal, but in practice it’s a relatively minor issue. As the Disney worlds are based on existing films, it’s difficult to make the player feel like a truly meaningful participant. What you would hope to do, though, is make the events both entertaining and thematically relevant to the game’s larger narrative, while peppering in original Kingdom Hearts characters and concepts along the way – so as to make everything feel like part of a somewhat cohesive whole.
There are some clever connections made between Kingdom Hearts lore and the Disney worlds (for example, tying the Unversed – enemies born from negative emotions – into Monsters Inc., where fear was used a power source). But the problem is that these original elements don’t ever progress the larger story – thematically or tangibly. Despite major villains such as Young Xehanort, Vanitas, and Marluxia making multiple appearances in their respective worlds, they generally just spout off trite exposition and then either disappear or summon a boss fight. Some villains don’t even know why they’re there, while others introduce plot points (such as the Black Box or the new Princesses of Heart) that are never utilised or expanded upon. As the game features at least thirteen main antagonists, these early appearances should have been integral in establishing their personalities, motivations, and the threat they pose to the player (as well as our heroes). In execution, though, they seem like little more than after-thoughts that offer hints of personality, but never go beyond the superficial – and certainly contribute nothing to the main narrative. This, I believe, is because Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t have a story to tell, but was instead content with treading water until its grand conclusion.
Now, to be completely fair to Square Enix, the inclusion of such gargantuan licenses as Toy Story and Frozen requires many approvals from various parties, and writing an interesting story that fully satisfies every group would be incredibly challenging. In an interview in the Kingdom Hearts III Ultimania, Nomura described how initial negotiations with Pixar required him to provide a narrative for the Toy Story world very early in development. He stated that “…without a plot no progress could be made, so without even a main plot yet, I wrote the plot for Toy Box.” In a situation like that, it’s no surprise that the world feels so removed from the core narrative. Planning out your story ahead of time (themes, goals, key events) and being flexible enough to make changes as challenges arise are essential skills for crafting the overall pace and flow of your game. The problem in Kingdom Hearts III’s case is that every Disney world features the same disconnect as the Toy Box; it’s not a unique case. To some degree, it feels like the “main plot” that Nomura referred to never actually developed beyond a basic outline.
To the game’s credit, there’s no shortage of charming interactions and fun moments with Disney icons – many of which get their time to shine. But these brief distractions can only add so much to Sora’s aimless wanderings. Without a genuine sense of purpose, direction, or progression, it’s very difficult for the narrative to engage the player in any meaningful way. Whether this outcome was due to company constraints or poor execution, it makes the majority of the game’s runtime feel like a pleasant but disparate mess, lacking any clear sense of identity or themes.
So let’s consider a different Square game. One of the main reasons that Chrono Trigger is so highly regarded is due to its expert pacing. While the player visits several unique time periods (roughly equivalent to Kingdom Hearts’ individual worlds), none of these adventures are superfluous to the core narrative. Every epoch reveals new information about the game’s ultimate antagonist, and actively brings the party closer to their goal of defeating it. Consequently, the player never feels like the game is wasting their time or doing something ‘just for the sake of doing it’; the experience feels like a cohesive whole, wherein every part contributes something to the larger narrative.
By contrast, Kingdom Hearts III’s approach to the integration of location and story is more like someone sitting down and planning out a game in their head for the first time. “Well, I’ve got to have a Fire Level. Oh, and I have this really cool idea for an Ice Level. I’ll skip the Water Level though…” While these might sound like solid ideas in a vacuum, it’s important to consider where they fit in the flow of the narrative. For example, what is the player’s reason for going to the Fire Level? Does it contribute something to the story, or does it merely interrupt the pace? Finding a balance between gameplay and narrative needs is always a difficult tug-of-war, but some degree of equilibrium is necessary to deliver a cohesive experience.
In an interview, Scenario Director Masaru Oka stated that: “For the Disney worlds and Twilight Town, the plot was decided including ideas from the level design team, Nomura confirmed it, and Disney and Pixar did their own checks to create the scenarios.” This was also mentioned by Nomura: “In the end, although I had a hand in it as well, the flow of the dialogue and the stories of each world were largely handled by the level design team.” While I very much appreciate this standpoint of ‘gameplay first’, as well as the act of involving multiple teams in the execution of the story, these statements do prove my point. Set-pieces and events are one thing, but if there was a specific story to tell – with outlined themes to be explored, character conflicts to evolve, and goals to be achieved; all developed evenly throughout the entire game (Disney worlds included) - you would imagine the scenario would be built around balancing those narrative elements with the individual tales of each level.
As an example, let’s consider one way in which the Disney worlds’ relationship to the main narrative could have been strengthened. In order to further develop the main villain, the reason Sora travels to each of these Disney worlds could be because he’s following Master Xehanort’s trail; specifically the worlds that Xehanort visited when he first left his home as a young Keyblade wielder. Players could discover evidence of his past actions in these worlds; why he became the man that he did, hints of his true goal, and consequently how our heroes might be able to stop him – almost like a mystery that’s unravelled by visiting various crime scenes. Of course, Sora can never resist helping others, so the party invariably get caught up in the affairs of the specific world. But there would at least be some direction for the game – a genuine reason for Sora to visit these specific locations, while also establishing Xehanort as a more complex, layered villain.
When planning your game’s narrative and considering the progression of content – the loop - you want the player to feel like everything they do has a purpose. A good story shouldn’t feel like it’s opposed to the game’s other elements or that it’s weighing down the overall experience; the goal is to provide a sense of balance and cohesion. Making a game is about combining various, sometimes disparate elements into a united whole. There’s a reason that the pacing of Kingdom Hearts III’s story has been one of the most commonly discussed topics in fan communities. If something feels out of place in your game – if there’s a break in the flow of progression - it stands out to players, even if they don’t know exactly why.
So how can we avoid this pitfall? Well, it really comes down to the way that you approach content. Every sequence you develop should accomplish two things:
- Contribute something; be it to the player, the characters, the world, or the overall narrative.
- Engage the player.
These goals can be achieved through a variety of means – interesting level design, exciting plot twists, earnest character development, a challenging boss battle, and so on. But whatever your approach, a sense of worth and cohesion is essential. Essentially, why would you want to put something in your game that doesn’t engage the player? Ask yourself: Is this sequence necessary? Is it consistently enjoyable? Does it have a purpose and place within my game? Does it contribute something to my game as a whole? These are the sorts of questions that help to perfect your game’s pacing – and they can be difficult to answer! But analysing your work in this way can help to provide a fresh perspective, and result in a much smoother, more polished experience.
Kingdom Hearts III’s meandering and vapid progression during ‘the Disney loop’ supports my argument that the game lacks a complete narrative and was merely concerned with reaching its final act. I believe this is most evident by the way in which the player is made to jump from world to world without any direction or purpose. Consequently, the majority of Kingdom Hearts III feels content to aimlessly ‘go through the motions’, setting a repetitive, humdrum pace and ultimately lacking the sense of narrative depth and genuine value that is integral to a great RPG.
I think Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy, said it best: “One of the…key aspects for me is "density," how well the content is spread throughout the game. I don’t want people to feel they are doing the same thing again and again. It’s about having an experience from start to end that is entirely engaging.” And ultimately, despite a wealth of variety in the gameplay and level design, that is what Kingdom Hearts III's aimless story and repetitive structure fails to achieve.
 The sole exception to this being Vanitas’ revelation that Ventus’ heart is inside Sora.
 Tetsuya Nomura, in the Kingdom Hearts III Ultimania, released on February 28th 2019, and published by Square Enix. Translated by @lunesacree - https://www.kh13.com/news/spoilers-the-big-tetsuya-nomura-interview-from-kingdom-hearts-iii-ultimania-has-been-translated-in-full-r2953/
 Masaru Oka, Kingdom Hearts III Ultimania – Translated by @lunesacree - https://www.kh13.com/news/kingdom-hearts-iii-ultimania-interview-with-kingdom-hearts-iii-scenario-cutscene-director-masaru-oka-r2951/
 Hironobu Sakaguchi, in an interview with Glixel, released on the 1st of December 2016 - https://web.archive.org/web/20161202011553/http://www.glixel.com/interviews/final-fantasy-creator-sakaguchi-on-remakes-xv-and-square-w452889
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