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Part 3: Missing the Mid-Point - This six-part essay analyses Kingdom Hearts III's approach to storytelling, and the lessons that we as developers can learn from it. This critique is written from a developer's perspective, but with the insights of a fan.

Joshua Hallaran, Blogger

January 22, 2020

11 Min Read

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


1. PART ONE: A New Beginning

2. PART TWO: The Disney Loop

3. PART THREE: Missing the Mid-Point

4. PART FOUR: Motivation, Meaning and the Key Question: Why?

5. PART FIVE: Missing Ingredients - What made Final Fantasy & Disney a Perfect Match?

6. PART SIX: Dreaming of the Future, Neglecting the Present

What a small world…”

But part of one that's much bigger.” – Riku & Sora, Kingdom Hearts II

Everyone's heard of the three-act structure; a model that forms the foundation of popular culture’s favourite stories. Act 1 features the setup and exposition; an ‘inciting incident’ to get the narrative moving. Act 2 is the confrontation; a midpoint which challenges the protagonist, pushing them to their limits. And finally, Act 3 is the resolution; concluding the plot, along with any character arcs introduced in the previous acts. While this structure doesn’t necessarily need to be adhered to, I believe it possesses something that Kingdom Hearts III sorely lacked – a midpoint.

It’s debatable whether or not this game’s first act actually has an ‘inciting incident’ (Kingdom Hearts 3D’s ending is really the catalyst for this story), but as I’ve already addressed the opening, let’s go forward with the assumption that Kingdom Hearts III has a functional Act 1 and Act 3. Sora sets out to gain the Power of Waking by travelling through a series of loosely connected Disney worlds. Then, once the power is obtained, he travels to the Realm of Darkness to rescue a long lost Keyblade wielder, in preparation for the impending final battle – the big clash between light and darkness. But something’s missing from that outline. As described in the previous topic, there are no big revelations or exciting events which interrupt the Disney loop, and in practice that means Kingdom Hearts III completely lacks any sort of midpoint – ostensibly, there’s no Act 2.

This is one of the core reasons that the game feels so unevenly paced. Without an effective midpoint, and constrained to the repetitious format of the Disney loop, it’s hard for the player to truly gauge their progress; to feel like they’ve made significant strides and are accomplishing something important. A midpoint that breaks from the standard pace can also serve to reorient the player, bringing their focus back to the main story and conveying important information in an engaging and exciting way - establishing (or re-establishing) the protagonist’s motivation for the next leg of their journey. Furthermore, with Kingdom Hearts III being the latest entry in a long running series, this kind of break can be a great opportunity to take a step back, and help make new players care about these stories and characters.

For comparison, let’s consider Kingdom Hearts II’s midpoint. Early in that game’s story, Sora visits Hollow Bastion – one of the series’ unique locations - and learns that a great number of Heartless are massing on the city’s outskirts; something big is coming, but it's not ready yet. Then halfway through the game, the player returns to find that the Heartless have formed an army. Left unchecked, it will destroy the town and consume the entire world. Thus begins the 1000 Heartless battle; a conflict in which Sora faces his greatest challenge yet (both physically and, to some degree, emotionally), and is accompanied by a wide array of Disney and Final Fantasy characters (such as Cloud, Stitch, Leon and Mickey).

While initially serving as a grand set-piece, it’s not long before Sora comes into contact with the true villains of the story – Organization XIII. After destroying one of their lower-ranked members, the main antagonist – a silver-haired man named Xemnas – finally reveals himself (and his master plan) to the player. Numerous revelations are discovered by our heroes, but more importantly, the stakes of the second half of the game are set. Kairi, Sora’s love interest, has been captured by the Organization. In a dramatic moment, Sora begs on his hands and knees to be reunited with her, but the antagonists merely mock him.

We learn that they want him angry; because every Heartless that Sora destroys gets them one step closer to achieving their goal. And in a brilliant twist, suddenly every enemy that the player’s slain – that ludicrous 1000 Heartless battle that the player has just completed – takes on a new meaning. Not only does this re-contextualise the game’s first act, but it means that the player’s actions directly lead to the creation of Xemnas’ artificial Kingdom Hearts, wherein the conclusion of the story takes place. The whole sequence is consistently exciting, dramatic, and endearing; propelling the narrative forward, while also taking the time to highlight charming character moments and introduce unique gameplay set-pieces.

Kingdom Hearts III simply does not have any equivalent to this midpoint, and that makes it challenging to discuss. While it didn’t need a grand confrontation like that of its predecessor, all of the points that I described above – plot revelations conveyed in exciting ways, endearing character moments, a break in the standard pacing, unique combat scenarios – would have greatly benefited the final product. And I believe this deficiency is yet another example of the way in which Kingdom Hearts III lacks a narrative of its own. If a story arc can be described as having a beginning, a middle, and an end, what does it mean for your arc if one of these three elements is completely absent?

And curiously, the framework almost exists for a solid midpoint in Kingdom Hearts III’s story. As previously mentioned, the final act begins with the player travelling to the Realm of Darkness to rescue a lost Keyblade Master named Aqua. However, all this sequence and its aftermath really amount to is a couple of boss battles. This is especially a shame, as Aqua’s fall into darkness – resulting in a twisted form that externalises all of her loneliest thoughts – is one of the most dramatically compelling aspects of the game. And that’s despite lasting for all of 10 minutes (a decade of solitude and suffering are seemingly erased by a few whacks from Sora’s Keyblade). Players even visit a completely unique world after saving her, but it only amounts to a single room and boss fight. If this sequence was expanded upon (in gameplay terms, but also in narrative scope) and placed earlier in the game, it could have made for an enjoyable, meaningful break in the Disney loop.

Sora having to face another Keyblade wielder, who’d once shared his optimistic views but has since lost hope, is not only a great physical challenge, but an emotional one as well; forcing him to reconcile with a dark vision of what he could potentially become. But as it stands, Aqua is just one of many enjoyable boss fights in the endgame.

And this is ultimately the problem with the lack of a true Act 2 – the characters aren’t explored or challenged when they need to be. The narrative refuses to escalate until its final act, at which point it feels like going from zero to sixty in a matter of moments. But during the heat of battle – at such a late stage, and with so many heroes and villains in play (more than twenty) – it’s hard to develop your characters in a way that feels natural. Kingdom Hearts III’s solution is bizarre soliloquies that are completely disconnected from the events around them. Is Sora in the middle of a boss fight with three villains? Well, the other two will disappear while you spend several minutes casually chatting with the third. And while this is partly due to the challenge of giving such a large cast an appropriate send-off, it’s also a direct consequence of the lack of time given to exploring characters and their relationships in the previous 20-25 hours of playtime. 

In this way, Kingdom Hearts III teaches us an important lesson about constructing a story. Whether it’s the first game you’ve ever made, or the tenth in a series, you need a complete narrative. Obviously in a saga like this, the story is built upon what has come before; but that doesn’t mean you can forsake foundational elements of story-telling. This game may be part of an ongoing tapestry, but it’s still an individual product. Lore and convolution aside, the game’s narrative needs to be fully-formed; it must be engaging on its own merits. While it’s fine to subvert the three-act structure, that’s not an excuse for poor pacing, or under-developing your story and characters.

It’s important to note that my example of Kingdom Hearts II doesn’t mean to imply that the middle of a game must be some dramatic, exciting set-piece. If in Kingdom Hearts III Sora returned to his home on the Destiny Islands, and the player got to experience a more town-like, explorative setting (a break from constant combat) - accompanied by character exploration and growth - that could be just as effective as any big battle or set-piece laden sequence. It’s really about what feels right for the flow of the story – finding a natural way to disrupt your narrative’s structure and pattern, in order to avoid becoming repetitive.

On that note, having some sort of hub – a place, like Traverse Town or Hollow Bastion in the first two Kingdom Hearts games, that the player regularly returns to – can be an effective way to centre your story. It provides a home base, and a recurring cast of characters that can be revisited at any time. This kind of location helps players to feel a deeper and more personal attachment to your world.

In Kingdom Hearts III, the story never makes you return to a previously visited location[1]. While this eliminates any chance of tedious backtracking or retreading old content, it also makes you feel far less attached to the world as a whole. There’s no emotional anchor point, or any characters to check in with (which is strange for a game with such a large cast). The world of Kingdom Hearts III is so much more dynamic than ever before – with its dozens of NPCs, unique opportunities for interaction, and amazing environmental detail. And yet, through the lens of the core narrative, it feels more static than ever.

If Act 1 is setup, and Act 3 is resolution, I feel the core point of Act 2 is character development. This is a time for our protagonists to grow; to gain new skills and a better sense of self. In a way, you could say that it’s the destruction of one character, and the formation of another - one who has the ability to overcome the challenges ahead. An argument could be made that Sora experiences some degree of this development when visiting The Final World in Act 3. However, it comes far too late, and once again lacks any depth, tangibility, and exploration beyond its introduction. The narrative proposes an idea, but doesn’t go any further than that.

Without a midpoint – the space to add meaningful depth and complexity to your story; to get inside your characters’ heads and really challenge them; to draw players deeper into a cohesive, engaging world – it feels like something integral is missing in Kingdom Hearts III. And that results in the overall experience feeling incomplete. The gameplay is all there, and elements of the title are filled to the brim with charm; but both a compelling core narrative and meaningful character developments are blatantly absent – and this absence is felt throughout the entire game.

Put in Kingdom Hearts terms, we might say that the body and soul are here; it’s just missing its heart.

[1] With the exception of revisiting Twilight Town in order to access the 100 Acre Woods story book. But this is a completely optional side-quest without any real narrative relevance. 

Thanks for reading! If you want to contact me for any reason (and please feel free), you can find me on Twitter @CriticalGamesAU, email me at [email protected], or visit the website for my upcoming project: https://www.8bitadventures2.com/

Click here to continue reading in 'Part 4 - Motivation, Meaning & the Key Question - Why?'

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