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Part 5: Missing Ingredients - What made Final Fantasy & Disney a Perfect Match - This six-part essay analyses Kingdom Hearts III's approach to storytelling, and the lessons that we as developers can learn from it.

Joshua Hallaran, Blogger

January 23, 2020

21 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

My whole journey began the day I lost her. And every time I find her…she slips away again. I thought we’d finally be together.  – Sora, Kingdom Hearts II

When I first saw the original Kingdom Hearts on a store shelf, my reaction was something along the lines of “well, that sounds stupid”. What could Disney films possibly have in common with the Final Fantasy series? Why bring these seemingly incompatible franchises together? But it turned out the fusion worked perfectly. Even as a child, I was amazed by how well Tetsuya Nomura and his team were able to weave all of these disparate Disney worlds into a cohesive whole, that somehow never felt disjointed, and I genuinely cared about.

Ever since that first game, I’ve been trying to identify what it is that unified these two styles of storytelling – the Disney fairytale with the SquareSoft RPG. And in writing this essay, I finally realised; the secret ingredient, the unifying thread that both franchises had in common, was love. Romance is at the core of almost every classic Disney film, and every Final Fantasy from IV to X was in some way a love story. Seemingly the developers of the original Kingdom Hearts realised this too.

While most people think of friendship as the core message of the series, romantic love was a key pillar of the ‘original trilogy’ (Kingdom Hearts I, Chain of Memories, and II). Sora and Kairi’s relationship is a driving force for the whole narrative (as well as their own personal motivations), while Riku adds an interesting wrinkle, forming a sort of love triangle - with the two boys constantly jostling for Kairi’s affections (despite her only seeming to have eyes for Sora).

But it’s not just the *concept* of romance that unifies the two franchises; a more tangible link is established through the game’s use of iconic Disney couples: Tarzan and Jane, Aladdin and Jasmine, Peter and Wendy, Jack and Sally, Mickey and Minnie, and Belle and the Beast – all of which are used, in varying degrees, to mirror Sora’s own struggle and desire to save Kairi. In a way, the first Kingdom Hearts is about how far someone will go to save the person they hold most dear - culminating in Riku's descent into darkness to find Kairi, and Sora's self-sacrifice to restore her heart.

Romance proved an effective theme and focus to unify Disney and Final Fantasy’s contrasting approaches to storytelling, and this remains true in both Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II. It’s also likely the reason that all of these games begin and end with one of Utada Hikaru’s love songs.

Kingdom Hearts III does somewhat follow this trend; Hercules, Frozen and Tangled all feature their appropriate couplings, and the game certainly doesn’t drop Sora and Kairi’s relationship. There is also at least one moment where the romantic synergy between the original story and Disney worlds intersect (Sora briefly thinks about two love-focused scenes from Tangled and Frozen after Kairi saves him near the end of the game). But overall, the series has largely moved away from exploring romance; either recycling the same plots and character arcs from Disney films, or just ignoring the subject entirely. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, I do feel on a more general level that the games have lost a certain humanity in recent entries; characters feel notably stiffer and less natural, less relatable. But even more importantly, characters like Sora have lost their core motivation – and that’s what this is really all about.

There are so many moments sprinkled throughout those early games which help us to relate to Sora; which make him feel genuinely human. In Neverland, Sora excitedly exclaims how, once he finds her, he can’t wait to tell Kairi that he flew, comically lamenting that she probably won’t believe him. While watching Jack Skellington and Sally waltz, he daydreams about dancing with Kairi, prompting a cute conversation where Donald and Goofy give him relationship advice. When Saix taunts him about Kairi’s captivity, telling Sora to demonstrate how important she is to him, Sora gets down on his knees and begs, humiliating himself. When Naminé alters Sora’s memories, replacing Kairi with herself and manipulating his romantic feelings, we see him at his angriest, most obsessive, and most raw.

Love as a core trait and motivation allows a writer to explore all kinds of facets of their characters – selflessness, jealously, fantasy, joy, sadness, desire, desperation, intimacy, devotion, compassion, humility, humanity, and so on. Not only does developing these feelings provide a natural progression and arc, but it’s also a fairly universal way of creating a character who the audience finds relatable (if done well). This doesn’t mean that your game has to be a romance by any means; but establishing a driving force for your protagonist that feels genuinely human and easily empathetic is an effective way to draw players into your world and help them bond with your characters. Certainly, that was what drew me in at the start of the first game. As a ten year old, I was immediately enamoured by Sora and Kairi’s playful, earnest, and honest interactions; I felt a natural kinship with Sora, as well as a desire to see him succeed.

One of the most interesting quotes I’ve ever read from series creator Tetsuya Nomura was on this topic of relating to Sora. He said, “I actually don’t sympathize or empathize with Sora at all…I think I’m closer to those characters [the villains], so Sora is like my enemy… In that sense, I really think that Sora is just like an opposite personality character to who I am.”[1] After Kingdom Hearts II, Nomura took over writing the scenario and dialogue for the series[2] and I think this statement really sums up the problems with his approach to Sora in Kingdom Hearts III. To empathize means to understand the feelings of another person; and if, as a writer, you don’t understand the feelings of your protagonist – if you can’t relate to them in some way – then it’s very difficult to explore those feelings or develop the character in a meaningful way. It explains why the heroes in this game feel so surface level, and why the villains in the final act are allowed much more empathy than they seemingly deserve.

We all relate to different characters for different reasons, and that’s absolutely legitimate; but as a writer, it’s essential to have a robust understanding of your cast’s emotions, personalities, desires, morals, quirks, feelings, and so on. You are the one moulding, establishing, developing, and conveying your characters; so if you don’t really understand who they are – what they want, or why they’re doing what they’re doing - chances are the audience isn’t going to understand or relate to them either. And that puts your story at a disadvantage before you’ve even started writing.

Now, you may argue that Sora’s motivation in Kingdom Hearts III is saving the universe and defeating Xehanort, but this is where we need to consider micro and macro perspectives. Yes, Sora’s a good boy; he wants to save the world because it’s the right thing to do and he cares about everyone. But you need more than that in a story; characters need personal stakes - a personal motivation. In Kingdom Hearts I and II, Sora’s motivation is saving Kairi and locating/redeeming Riku – as well as finding a way home. Whereas in Kingdom Hearts III it’s…giving Roxas his own body (at least, for the first few worlds), and saving some people he barely knows anything about. These are the selfless desires of a hero, yes, but that's not what I'm talking about.

While there are many things that could provide Sora a more personal motivation, furthering his relationship with Kairi throughout the whole game – perhaps even incorporating it into the gameplay – seems the most obvious way to give Sora personal stakes, and better set the stage for the devastating events that unfold (including his seeming sacrifice in the ending).

In fact, the story almost has a mechanism that could’ve helped to flesh out their relationship – letters. We see Kairi writing Sora a letter in an early cutscene (which she never actually gives him), and it could’ve been a really nice touch if they were sending letters back and forth after every world – much like the player received Reports in previous Kingdom Hearts games. Something as simple as regular, consistent correspondence could’ve helped to develop these characters, and given us more of their internal reactions and raw feelings as events unfolded.

I also believe a scene with the Destiny Islands trio, possibly prior to setting out on this new adventure, could have addressed several issues. Perhaps Sora might be reticent about leaving home again, establishing his lack of a personal motivation as a plot point, rather than a weakness in the story. Riku wants a chance at redemption, and Kairi’s headstrong (perhaps wanting to prove herself this time), but Sora already has everything he wanted – his best friends are safe, home, and together again. That was his goal in the first three games, and he achieved it. But then perhaps Kairi gives him the push he needs to leave, and that’s that - making her fate all the more tragic, and ultimately forcing Sora to overcome regret. Regardless, this kind of sequence would allow the game to better establish Riku and Kairi’s characters, and specifically the way they interact with Sora, very early on; providing a fond farewell where they each set out on their own individual journeys, all of which then coalesce in the final act.

As it stands, Sora and Kairi’s relationship is definitely incorporated into the story of Kingdom Hearts III – it’s just (once again) left untouched until the final act, which greatly diminishes the impact and opportunities it could have had. While it can certainly be considered a motivating factor for Sora in the game’s conclusion, it plays no part in the bulk of his journey, and consequently doesn’t allow for any of the moments or character development I described from past titles. It’s also not established in any way for new players – without Kingdom Hearts I or II under your belt, you really have no basis for their bond. Of course, being a sequel, there’s some expectation that you’ve played past entries - or at least know the characters - so that the story doesn’t need to waste time rehashing old information, and can instead build on what was previously established. But that brings me to my next point.

When developing a sequel, one of the most challenging things is the balance of old and new. You need to accommodate players new to the series, while also capitalising and building upon the narrative threads that have come before. Kingdom Hearts III is a bit of a mixed bag in this space; featuring plenty of call backs and fan-fulfilling moments, but also making some questionable decisions that either omit previously important elements or feel inconsistent with the characters. So let’s examine some of these that are relevant to our current topic.

In general, Kingdom Hearts II concluded the main characters’ arcs and dangling plot threads, but there was one thing teased in the first game which seemingly never came to pass – Sora and Kairi sharing a Paopu Fruit, an act which legend states will ensure they remain a part of each other’s lives forever. This is pretty much the only narrative thread from the original game left unexplored, and it’s both a cute link to the characters’ origins and a powerful symbolic moment for the pair; as well as long-time fans. While this is one of my favourite scenes in the game (and one of the most genuinely emotional), it has two big problems. Firstly, this is our introduction to Sora and Kairi’s relationship in Kingdom Hearts III – Kairi says one line to Sora in a prior scene, but that’s it. The symbolic culmination of their relationship so far is given no build-up or explanation prior to the third act, and I imagine a new player would find the scene somewhat weightless. Once again, their story only begins to be told in the game’s conclusion.

Secondly, Kingdom Hearts I already used this motif to its fullest, as the legend about the fruit was really a metaphor for the pair’s bond. Before the final dungeon, Kairi tells Sora that she’ll always be with him; and in the ending he tells her that he’s always with her too – right before they’re physically torn apart. She then finds the cave painting where Sora drew a picture of himself offering her the fruit, and she completes the scene, drawing herself giving a Paopu to him as well. It’s a beautiful image, and concludes that story perfectly. But the moment she completes the drawing? *That* was them sharing the Paopu. Actually eating the fruit is nice, but it’s missing the nuance. By the end of the first game, they’ve committed to being a part of each other’s lives forever; and that bond is what brings Sora home to Kairi at the end of Kingdom Hearts II. And by that point, sharing the physical fruit is irrelevant. So while it is a nice moment in Kingdom Hearts III, it also demonstrates an unwillingness to build too much on that foundation, instead content to reuse one of the series’ most iconic motifs.

Another curious note when it comes to building on the past is that at the end of Kingdom Hearts II, all that Roxas and Naminé want is to be together – something they can only do when Sora and Kairi are together. While it isn’t given much time to be explored, their bond makes sense, as they are Sora and Kairi’s Nobodies and so would possess their lingering memories and feelings for each other. It’s somewhat bittersweet, but after over a year of hardship, the two are represented as finally being happy and whole. So it’s a little bizarre that in Kingdom Hearts III, Naminé is not addressed by Roxas (or Axel for that matter) at all; the connections she had in II going largely ignored. In fact, her own revival is just tacked onto the game’s ending (albeit set up briefly by Riku Replica’s death scene).

And Roxas himself isn’t treated much better; despite his return being one of the driving forces of the early game’s plot, he says and does very little, and once again doesn’t get established as a character until the final act. While he’s a little more physically restricted than most other characters I’ve discussed, he could have at least served as an inner voice to converse with Sora.

Additionally, by changing what Nobodies are, and restoring every previously fallen character to life, it could be argued that III undermines one of the most interesting, thought-provoking, and emotionally complex elements of II. That’s down to opinion (and personally I don't mind III's approach), but in general, it’s important to ensure your characterisation is consistent and to respect what has been previously established. The last thing you want to do with a sequel is diminish your past work in any way. Ideally, you want to elevate what’s come before with new ideas and perspectives – some of which may even enhance future playthroughs of old games and make your stories feel like part of a coherent whole.

Finally, let’s look at a line in Kingdom Hearts III that had so much potential, yet went underutilised, and was inherently undermined by past events. After finishing the Olympus world at the start of the game, Sora tells Hercules that “I’ll find my strength the way you found yours. Something to fight for…with all my heart.”

This line could have addressed some of the issues I’ve raised and formed a solid arc for Sora – the search for a motivation *is*, in and of itself, a motivation. But this simply isn’t explored. There are no scenes throughout the Disney Loop where Sora discusses the subject with Donald and Goofy, or gets introspective and considers the things that are most important to him; he just realises that it’s Kairi when she saves him near the end of the game (a whopping 20 hours after his statement to Hercules). But even putting that aside, there’s a much bigger flaw with this line – Sora *already* figured out what he was fighting for in Kingdom Hearts I and II. Whenever he’s been on the warpath, it’s been for Kairi. So even if it was actually addressed and treated as a character arc, it still may have felt a little hollow.

But as it stands, once again, an idea is posed at the start of the game, ignored during the main adventure, and then only addressed in the conclusion. This is another area of the story that would have greatly benefitted from establishing Sora and Kairi’s relationship, and giving them the opportunity to interact and open up to one another. Perhaps they could have discussed their future together, giving Sora’s “something to fight for” a little more depth and detail. Or maybe they had a fight before starting this journey, and that’s made Sora feel insecure and unsure of what that “something” is, allowing the story to play with their relationship and build up to the moment where Sora regains his faith. Regardless of the approach, a greater degree of development and exploration (of both the characters and their relationship) was required to use this line as an effective motivation or arc for Sora.

With all that said, though, I do want to highlight one truly positive use of relationships in Kingdom Hearts III. The game makes wonderful use of the bond and love that Donald and Goofy have for Sora; sometimes as brothers, and sometimes as parental figures. It is the one element this game establishes from the outset, and builds consistently throughout its entire story. And because of this build-up – because their relationship is so well established - it pays off in an incredibly satisfying way at the end of the game. As Goofy says, “We’ve got your back, not just now, but always.” And the player genuinely feels that. It’s just a shame that the strength of this portrayal wasn’t replicated with any other characters.

Okay, we’ve covered a lot under this heading, so let’s summarise - what can we learn from all of this? I believe there are four key points.

  1. Establish a clear personal motivation for your characters. The macro ‘save the world’ perspective is a starting point, but there needs to be more to it than that. People have desires, hopes and dreams; your characters should too!

  2. Give your characters human, relatable traits – quirks, fears, doubts, optimism, excitement; all sorts of things! Relatable moments are important too. For example, I mentioned a scene where the protagonist daydreams about the person he loves; I think anyone can identify with that. And on the flipside, sometimes a villain can then be given inhuman or un-relatable traits to specifically distinguish them as something very different or unnatural.

  3. If your game is a sequel, don’t rely on past games to establish your cast of characters; communicate clear and distinct relationships within your current story. Don’t forget about new players who haven’t met these characters yet, but also don’t abandon elements previously established for old players. There’s a fine line that needs to be walked. Conveying characters doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming, though. For example, when the heroes all gather at Yen Sid’s tower in the final act, Sora and Kairi could have excitedly run up to each other and hugged. Very simple actions or short lines of dialogue can convey a lot to the player, and subtle, natural interactions may be just as effective as overt ones.

  4. Growth and development are essential to creating compelling characters and developing an engaging story. Generally, your game will be the story of your protagonist, and so you should see every event in your narrative as an opportunity for progress; through learning, exploration, introspection, interaction, or revelation. When developing a sequel, it’s also important to build upon prior foundations with your character development, rather than treading water or recycling those foundations. If your character hasn’t learnt something or grown in some way by the end of your story, then what was the point of their journey?

What we really need to take away from all of this is how important it is to establish personal stakes and create characters with relatable traits that we can emotionally connect with. Sora and Kairi’s relationship in Kingdom Hearts I immediately grabbed me because it felt so genuine and earnest; just listening to the two talk would naturally grant new insights into their characters. This allowed me to connect and relate to the main character, and served as an emotional touchstone, easing me into this strange world.

It’s the same reason a sci-fi film will often have a fish-out-of-water main character; having someone the audience can relate to in the first degree helps them to invest in the world and story as the narrative builds.

And that’s what this is really about. It’s less that Kingdom Hearts III should have more romance (even though that’s an essential part of Sora and Kairi’s arc), and more that it needs to make its characters easy to invest in – and do so within its *own* story. It should develop them, make them compelling and relatable, and provide them with powerful moments of growth which cap off everything that’s come before. Relatability and humanity are essential for this kind of story; and while present to a degree in Kingdom Hearts III, they largely feel like a casualty of the lacking narrative.

In a way, this game’s struggle with character motivation and development mirrors its issues with story structure. The culmination of a narrative feels satisfying because it’s been built up to; essentially it’s the pay-off to the story that’s already been told. Kingdom Hearts III tries to make its final act the entire tale, forcing it to carry every narrative burden that the rest of the game has carelessly kicked down the road. And while that final act is filled with the game’s best and most powerful moments, they exist largely in isolation – unsupported by the rest of the story.

So if there’s one central take-away from all of this, I think it’s the importance of balance - don’t neglect your first and second acts, or your characters, and be wary of piling too much pressure onto a single portion of your narrative. Don’t just start with an end goal and figure out the simplest way to reach it. You want to construct your story in a way that brings the player with you, each step of the way; and this approach will reveal organic opportunities to convey information, build relationships, and develop characters. And yes, maybe even explore a little romance too!

[1] Testuya Nomura, in an interview with The Verge, released on the 14th of June 2018 - https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/14/17462782/kingdom-hearts-3-confusing-story-nomura-e3

[2] Famitsu: Did you also write the scenario (for Kingdom Hearts III), Nomura-san?

Tetsuya Nomura: “It wasn’t just for Toy Box (Toy Story world) but I ended up writing everything as far as the scenario goes, including dialogue. This was never made public, but that’s generally how it’s been after Kingdom Hearts II, especially so starting with Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.” –

Tetsuya Nomura, in an interview with Famitsu, released on the 24th of January, translated by Siliconera - https://www.siliconera.com/tetsuya-nomura-talks-about-doing-most-of-kingdom-hearts-writing-after-kingdom-hearts-ii/

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 6 - Dreaming of the Future, Neglecting the Present'.

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