“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
6. PART SIX: Dreaming of the Future, Neglecting the Present
“You have surpassed nothing, only proved how little we both know…We're both ignorant, as oblivious as when we began.” – Ansem the Wise, Kingdom Hearts II
So far we’ve discussed love and loops, acts and omissions, motives and meanings; and I believe the arguments I’ve made support the assertion that Kingdom Hearts III is, in effect, a conclusion to a series of games without a genuine story of its own to tell. But in this final topic, I’m going to commit a cardinal sin of essay writing. You see, my premise – even my title – contains a flaw. Because in so many ways, Kingdom Hearts III is *not* a conclusion; at least, certainly not as decisive a finale as it was implied to be. So many of the events that take place in Kingdom Hearts III seem arranged to set up future games, serving as awkward teases that seek to undermine the grand conclusion to the almost 20 year Dark Seeker Saga.
In the Kingdom Hearts ‘Back Cover’ film (which is related to the story of the mobile game), a mysterious black box is introduced as a plot point, and is implied to be very important for the future of the world. One of the earliest cutscenes in Kingdom Hearts III introduces Maleficent and Pete, who are searching for this same “distinctive” box in Hercules’ world. Hades assumes they’re talking about a box that Zeus hid long ago, which seems to immediately get this plot point off to a running start and implies this Disney world has an essential connection the main narrative. But all this amounts to is a gag about Pandora’s Box being the wrong one, as Maleficent and Pete move on.
Then in the Pirates of the Carribean world, Luxord has been ordered to find the box as well; believing it may be the one that contains Davy Jones’ heart. He tells Sora that no one actually knows what’s inside the chest they’re looking for, but “...they did say the box contains “hope”.” This makes Sora aware of the plot point, but apart from momentarily questioning the notion that the Organisation are looking for hope, he never brings it up or considers it again. A box with someone’s heart sealed inside seems like the perfect way to tie a Disney world into the greater Kingdom Hearts lore; but the concept is only paid lip service, in favour of rigidly following the film’s original plot.
Then in Maleficent’s final cutscene she tells Pete that the Keyblade War has begun and that it will reveal the black box, also stating that Pete will get his “big moment” and that their “real work” will begin – implying that they’ll play some role in the upcoming battle. But unfortunately, they don’t appear again – aside from a brief moment in the game’s epilogue, wherein the box also makes its first appearance in Kingdom Hearts III (albeit with no more context or explanation as to its purpose).
It should go without saying, but if you introduce an overt plot point within the first 30 minutes of your story, it must be relevant to *that* particular story. And it’s the same with characters; if Maleficent and Pete are established with a goal and subplot of their own, they should play some sort of active role in the narrative. In fact, we’re introduced to them before any villains from the Organisation, and Maleficent even tells Sora that they’ll meet again – even though they never do.
Unfortunately, the black box isn’t the only time that Kingdom Hearts III’s plot makes this mistake. Within the first five minutes of the game, a flashback with Xehanort brings up a group called “The Lost Masters” – the ones who started the original Keyblade War long ago. This is in reference to the mobile game, but it could have been an interesting thread to explore elsewhere in Kingdom Hearts III. However, once more, it never gets brought up again until the game’s epilogue – a cutscene which isn’t even on the disc, but instead requires a day-one patch.
There’s nothing wrong with seeding narrative elements that could potentially be used in a future game, or laying the groundwork for future narratives that have already been planned out, but these are not the ideas you want to be introducing in the opening hours of your game. Obviously video game stories, due to their length, can be a slow burn, but every term introduced - every character arc/goal established - in these early stages should be meaningful to the story you’re telling *now*. Because if you add too many red herrings or irrelevant plot points, they’ll only serve to convolute your current narrative – and take time away from elements that could contribute to the existing story.
While it’s fine to lay the groundwork for your series’ future, I think we should examine the way in which Kingdom Hearts III does this – because I would argue it takes a very flawed approach. As a player experiencing the story for the first time, you have no clue which of the information being presented to you is relevant, and which is future set-up – there’s no clear delineation.
For example, in a cutscene following the Frozen world, we check in with a few members of the Organisation who have been summoned to the Keyblade Graveyard by Xemnas. He reveals that these particular members are something special, stating “You four are going to reveal your greatest secret: the ancient Keyblade legacy that slumbers within you” as the cutscene fades to black ominously. But they don’t. This plot point is *never* directly raised again – aside from the vaguest hints at something odd in Marluxia and Larxene’s death sequences (the former in particular teasing some kind of secret purpose). The mobile game has revealed that these two were ancient Keyblade masters, but again; why raise this point in the middle of Kingdom Hearts III if the story is never going to utilise it? And more importantly, don’t blatantly tell the player that some new secret is going to be revealed, when (as the writer) you already know it isn’t. That just sets false expectations and puts a spotlight on your undeveloped ideas.
One of the most blatant examples of this comes from Luxord’s death scene. He’s a gambler who uses magically-infused cards as weapons, and before fading away he gives one of these to Sora, calling it a “wild card”. He tells the spiky-haired hero to hang onto it because it could “turn the tables”. As this scene comes shortly before the end of the game, it’s heavily implied to be a set-up for the final battle against Xehanort; perhaps for some exciting twist! After all, a wild card is one which can be used however the player holding it wishes. But as usual, it’s never brought up again.
Now it is possible that this ties into the ending (which I will address shortly), but if so, that isn’t shown or contextualised in any way. And without that context, this plot point feels completely neglected and forgotten. Or worse, like a bait-and-switch; a set-up implied to be for this story, but that was actually setting up the next. Obviously leaving the player hanging, or introducing something that seems integral to the plot only to never be broached again, are both things you don't want to do in your story. Making the player believe one thing and then subverting their expectations would be a legitimate way of doing this, but that requires addressing what you’ve set up. And that’s the main issue here – if you establish a new element so late in your story, and in a context that seems particularly relevant to that element, you need to deal with it in some way before the credits role.
And I haven’t even covered every instance of this; there’s a mysterious girl that’s been added to Axel and Saix’s backstory who Xehanort was experimenting on (for some mysterious reason), the new Princesses of Heart (which is a central focus in the Frozen world), and the nameless star girl you meet in the Final World (whose heart “pines for another”; a mysterious man who she waits for in purgatory, whose whispered name Sora seems to recognise). Not all of these are egregious by themselves, but as a combined whole they can feel excessively future-focused.
But looking to the future is nothing new for the series, so what went wrong this time? For comparison, let’s examine how some other Kingdom Hearts games handled establishing and teasing upcoming plot points.
At its best, Chain of Memories on the Game Boy Advance served as an intriguing exploration of Sora’s character; but more than anything, it was a game designed to sequel-bait Kingdom Hearts II. However, the way it went about doing this was generally quite clever, because the game posed the same mysteries to the player as the story did to Sora himself – putting both player and protagonist in the same position, pondering the same questions. It referenced a shadow-y organisation, and showed there was unrest, betrayal, and backstabbing within its ranks; its members each seeming to have their own motivations and goals, many of which intersected as they vied to make the Keyblade wielder their puppet. It introduced terminology like ‘Nobodies’, but in a way that only hinted at the true meaning; working it into dialogue so as to feel like a natural use of the ordinary word, rather than obtuse jargon.
Even the introduction of Twilight Town, despite being given no context, is referred to as being a memory from the “other side” of Sora’s heart. While players of Kingdom Hearts II learn this is referring to Roxas, our protagonists (in the context of this game) take their lack of familiarity as a sign of their depleting memories, conveying a greater sense of urgency and loss. As such, it teases a new location, but doesn’t feel out of place and serves a purpose to our characters in their current story. Even an important character like Naminé is introduced and fleshed out, which makes the revelation in Kingdom Hearts II that she’s Kairi’s Nobody all the more meaningful – without sacrificing any part of Chain of Memories’ plot.
But that’s a game intended to serve as the middle chapter in a larger tale. By comparison, Kingdom Hearts II was written to conclude the story so far, and I think that makes it fairly comparable to III. While II doesn’t feature much set-up for future games (it’s more interested in resolution), there’s a scene where Xigbar taunts Sora, telling him that the Keyblade really picked a dud “this time” and that “You don’t look like you’re half the hero the others were.” While Kingdom Hearts II never addresses this concept, the lines don’t feel out of place because they’re appropriate insults from a villain. It’s just that they also contain implications; subtle enough to get the player’s imagination going, but without feeling like a necessary element of this particular story. Consequently, there’s no sense that something’s missing or unresolved. The series had already stated that there were past Keyblade wielders; this exchange simply adds another wrinkle, implying that Xigbar knew them, and that they were even more powerful than Sora.
When developing a series (as opposed to a standalone game), there is a definite benefit to considering future entries and laying the groundwork for a larger narrative. But these things should never distract from, or undermine, the story that you’re currently telling. They need to feel subtle, and natural. If you keep pulling the player’s attention away from what’s happening in the here and now, they’re liable to stop caring about the present and fixate on the future. And if you don’t present your future-proofing plot points in the right context, you can inadvertently set people up for pay-offs that never come, leaving players feeling unsatisfied with your current product. I’m sure there’s a corporate executive who thinks that sounds like a good thing, but as a writer you want every chapter of your narrative to feel complete and satisfying. Whether your game is the whole story, or just a part of something greater, that should be your goal.
But what if, instead of accidentally setting people up for a pay-off that never comes, your story instead carries an inherent expectation that goes unfulfilled – an expectation based on past entries in your series? Here I’m talking about the lack of Final Fantasy characters in Kingdom Hearts III – and while the series is much more than a crossover, this is another example that I think has repercussions for the game’s intended status as a conclusion.
In an interview with USGamer on this topic, Nomura stated that “…the original characters are more polished than they were before, so I don't think they need the Final Fantasy characters help as much as they did before.” He also mentioned that when Kingdom Hearts released, it was the first time different Final Fantasy characters had been brought together, but “…nowadays, there are an abundance of titles that do that, so I don't see the value of having that kind of feature in the game anymore.” But that implies these characters were simply a “feature”.
On a similar note, co-director Tai Yasue gave his take on why Final Fantasy characters were not present. “We had a lot of original characters. It's the conclusion of the Xehanort saga and we really wanted to concentrate on the main storyline of Kingdom Hearts, such as Sora and Roxas…They're having all these stories in other games and we wanted them to conclude.”
But if Kingdom Hearts III is supposed to be the conclusion to the Xehanort saga, then it needs to capitalise on its pre-established elements and characters – it should bring everything full circle. Final Fantasy characters were pivotal to both the story and the world of Kingdom Hearts I and II. They weren’t just pointless cameos - they were Sora and Kairi’s childhood friends on the Destiny Islands; they were rivals in Olympus Coliseum and Twilight Town; they were the first people Sora met after leaving home, the first people he remembered when Naminé began restoring his shattered mind, and the first familiar faces he sought after waking from a year long slumber. They weren’t just characters from another game series making an appearance to sell units; they were changed and integrated into the Kingdom Hearts universe. The main Final Fantasy-based crew (lead by Leon) were tied to one of the most important worlds and events in the lore; they were the characters that introduced Ansem for the first time, and explained the Keyblade to Sora when he was just starting out. Characters such as Cloud and Leon even had unresolved plot threads left over from Kingdom Hearts II (relating to Sephiroth and Rinoa respectively). These characters were an integral part of Sora’s story and for them to be left out of Kingdom Hearts III does this intended conclusion a disservice.
In a separate interview, Nomura stated “It was simply that there was no room. There were so many characters appearing in the main story that in the end I wasn't able to create opportunities to use the FF characters…by the end I just couldn't find a place to use them.” While this is an understandable predicament, and one of the biggest challenges when building a large story over many games, I believe this essay has established how little the story achieves and how many opportunities there were to do more within the time given. It shouldn’t be about squeezing these characters into an existing story; by virtue of their relationship with the protagonist, and even their history with the antagonist (who was responsible for the destruction of their world when they were children), they should automatically be involved.
Really, the same is true for many of the Disney characters Sora has met throughout his journey – especially those he revisited in Kingdom Hearts II. The familiarity that Sora and Hercules share at the start of the game is an example of how effective this could be on a larger scale. Of course, I’m not suggesting that the developers create dozens of extra levels to accommodate this; but I think it would’ve been so powerful to involve various Disney heroes in Sora’s climactic struggle - for example, during the Keyblade War, against the army of Heartless. Perhaps during the player’s adventure, King Mickey could have travelled to various worlds, invoking Sora’s name to recruit warriors for the big confrontation. What a montage that could’ve been, as old friends immediately drop what they’re doing and join the fight when they learn Sora needs their help.
And I’m not suggesting this just for the sake of an Avengers Endgame-style sequence. Sora has saved so many worlds, and helped so many people – what a satisfying moment it would be if, at the climax of his story so far, all those people returned the favour and fought alongside him to open the path to Xehanort. Characters like Jasmine, Belle, Beast, Simba, Genie, Mushu, Stitch, and Peter Pan have all been outside of their respective worlds before, so during a crisis like this, I don’t think that the series’ traditional “world order” excuse would be a barrier. Regardless of any hurdles, some sort of pay-off for all the good that Sora has done over the course of his story would have made Kingdom Hearts III feel like it genuinely brought the whole series – and its entire cast of characters – full circle.
As a fan-base, we tend to put everyone into little boxes in this series – we have the pre-established Disney characters, the pre-established Final Fantasy characters, and the original Kingdom Hearts characters. But rigidly categorising your cast like this can be an easy trap to fall into when writing a story. To Sora, these labels are irrelevant; it doesn’t matter whether it’s Aladdin or Leon or Aqua, to him they’re all just people inhabiting the same world. Viewed through that lens, Kingdom Hearts III is missing a lot of Sora’s closest friends, who would no doubt be willing to help him in his darkest hour. Nevermind being a satisfying conclusion that brings everything full circle; it just seems like a lapse in logic that a veritable army of able-bodied allies wouldn’t be called upon. And given how things end up for Sora, Kingdom Hearts III feels sort of like a going away party where most of your oldest and dearest friends don’t turn up.
And that leads us into the largest and most detrimental example of this game’s focus on the future. Despite allegedly being a conclusion, Kingdom Hearts III ends on an un-contextualised cliff-hanger.
After defeating Xehanort, Sora tells everyone that he knows how to save Kairi, and leaves on a mission by himself. In fact, to go back to my previous topic, here in the ending Sora *finally* regains his personal motivation. It’s just ‘find Kairi’ again, but it leads to one of his strongest character moments in the whole game. He finally opens up to everyone (and the player) about his personal desires, fears and hopes, saying: “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. But she’s out there, alone. Not for one more second.” That last sentence in particular feels powerful and effective, because (and this goes back to Nojima’s comments about character writing) its Sora rebelling against his circumstances; fighting back against the rules of life and death, and refusing to accept that he’s powerless. He finally knows exactly what he wants, and he’ll go to any lengths to get it – and that’s compelling in any context. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see this play out, and it’s far too late to help Kingdom Hearts III’s actual narrative. But it is an attempt, at least – and I’m sure will be capitalised on in future games or DLC. So, while not very conclusive, this part isn’t the main issue.
The problem comes in the final shot of the ending, which shows Sora and Kairi sitting on a tree on the Destiny Islands, where they previously shared the Paopu fruit. It’s seemingly a very appropriate image to leave Sora’s story on – at least, for the time being. But as their hands touch and their eyes meet, Kairi sheds a single tear and Sora fades away; leaving her alone. Without any context or set-up (vague warnings about the Power of Waking aside), he’s just gone. And this isn’t in the epilogue or secret ending - that would be fine. No, its how the game’s normal, standard, cut-to-credits ending leaves the player.
While this series is no stranger to bittersweet endings, and there’s no problem with the basic idea (setting Sora up for his next adventure by making him face the consequences of saving Kairi), this is a terrible place to introduce that concept. A conclusion can leave the door open for future stories, but it should end with a sense of finality – or at least the sense that a new chapter in your characters’ lives is beginning. By giving Sora what he wanted, and then snatching it away in the final three seconds, it leaves the audience feeling unfulfilled. It’s an unnecessary addendum to Kingdom Hearts III’s story; and only serves to undermine what should be a moment of triumph and contentment – especially for players that have followed Sora since the start of his journey. And it’s also made especially unnecessary by the epilogue and secret ending. Those by themselves – the re-introduction of the Lost Masters, and seeing Sora and Riku in Tokyo – would have been more than enough to wet fans’ appetites for the future of the series.
Endings are very difficult to get right, but ideally you want the player to walk away feeling as satisfied as possible. Even if your game is part of a series, they should feel like they experienced a complete package; a full adventure. As easy as it can be to give into excess, or the desire to tease future ideas, sometimes less is more. Be careful you don’t undermine the story you’re telling (or have just told). There’s a time and place for everything, but not now.
As such, between its obsession with the future, its inconclusive plot threads, its neglect of relevant characters, and its inability to bring the whole series full circle, Kingdom Hearts III fails to satisfyingly conclude the story so far, and misses its opportunity to tie a nice, neat bow on the Dark Seeker Saga.
Despite playing devil’s advocate at the start of the topic, this verdict doesn’t actually undermine my argument. With Xehanort and his army of darkness defeated and characters like Terra and Xion saved, Kingdom Hearts III is still technically a conclusion. It’s just one of the most inconclusive conclusions I’ve ever seen, particularly when viewed through the eyes of the protagonist. There’s a certain irony to a game that has such a single minded focus on reaching its own end, yet at the same time cannot provide a definitive finale. And that’s not to say it’s necessarily bad (I personally quite enjoy the game's final act) - simply that it doesn’t achieve what it set out to do, or what many fans seemingly hoped it would.
That’s been a lot to take in, so let’s summarise what we’ve learnt from Kingdom Hearts III in this topic.
- The characters and plot points that you establish in the opening hours of your narrative should be relevant to the story you’re going to tell. There’ll be plenty of opportunities to explore other ideas, but at the outset of your game, the player is looking for an excuse to get invested, and they’ll likely be paying a lot of attention to what you introduce here. These ideas must be addressed (and should pay off) in some way during your story; whether it’s within those first few hours, or all throughout the game. If you present a new plot point or character, you should be prepared to follow up on it – and you should only introduce these things if they have some relevancy or role in your story (no matter how minor that may be).
- Otherwise, you’ll run into our next problem. Because a player is experiencing your story fresh, and for the first time, they have no idea which pieces of information being presented to them are important and worth keeping track of. That’s your job as a writer and developer: to communicate to the player what they need to know – what is essential for them to know – and by comparison what is simply flavour, texture, or future possibilities. This can be done in a variety of ways; for example, working subtle world building naturally into your characters’ dialogue (akin to the example I referenced from Kingdom Hearts II, regarding Xigbar). If this is not achieved, then you run into the same issues that Kingdom Hearts III did; the player doesn’t know what is important, and things that seem particularly relevant to the plot are neglected, while elements that may have felt peripheral take centre stage. This will only serve to confuse the player, and convolute your story.
- Never lie to the player’s expectations. Obviously deception, misdirection, and revelation are essential tools in any writer’s arsenal, but there’s a difference between tricking the player to maintain the mystique and suspense of your story and straight-up lying about what your story is going to explore. Don’t explicitly tell them that something is going to happen, or a plot point is going to be addressed, when as the writer you know full well that is not the case. And on the flipside, don’t be afraid to capitalise on, or at least explore the potential of, good ideas – even if they occur late in the writing process. But don’t just throw them in there either; if a topic is going to be brought up, then it needs to be addressed too.
- If you want to plant the seeds for future stories, it’s important that you pose the same questions and mysteries to the player that the story does to the protagonist. This way, the protagonist can exposit their own meanings and interpretations within their current context (making these ideas seem somewhat relevant to the existing plot), while the player is left to infer and speculate upon potential deeper meanings. Always remember that your story is (generally) being framed through the lens of its protagonist, and this viewpoint is what you must consider when conveying ideas and information to the player.
- Focus on what’s important to your story, and don’t distract from that too often. If you keep pulling the player’s attention away from the central themes and character arcs of your story, they may very well stop caring about those things. Inconsistency (of tone, of pace, of direction, of focus) can be a death knell for even the best of stories. Decide what you want to convey with your narrative - what you feel are the salient points - and make that the heart of your game’s plot.
- Try and make every part of your story feel complete and satisfying. If you were writing a novel, you’d want every paragraph to feel that way; to maintain the reader’s attention – to be gripping and engaging for them, no matter how mundane the subject matter may be. While games are obviously quite different in structure and format, I believe the same mindset should apply. Even if that’s an impossibly tall order (every story has its ups and downs, after all), if you start from this position, and examine your writing with this goal in mind, I believe you’re much more likely to succeed in achieving it.
- If you’re writing the conclusion of a long-running story, or series of games, do your best to bring that narrative full circle – make it feel like everything the protagonist (and thus, the player) has done has fully paid off. I recommend examining past entries in your series and picking out any key points. These may be character relationships, themes that were explored, locations that have a lot of meaning – but whatever you find, keep it in the back of your mind while you consider your resolution. You may find that you already have a character who’d be perfect for a role in this story, or a location which can serve as both a nostalgic retread and a thematic stepping stone for new ideas. While I can’t discuss specifics (as every game is different), you want your conclusion to incorporate any elements of your world that feel appropriate; that feel like they should be involved in this finale. Because the players that have followed your ongoing saga will always be acutely aware of any offensive omissions or lapses in logic. On that note, sometimes examining this challenge from the perspective of a fan can be a helpful exercise too! If you were a fan, what would you like to see? How would you like to feel at the end of this journey? What kind of result and pay off would feel most satisfying to you?
- Remember that no matter how you may categorise your cast (e.g. Disney characters and Final Fantasy characters in the Kingdom Hearts series, or even just the distinction between player controlled characters and NPCs), within the context of your story they are simply people, existing in the same world and facing the same challenges. Don’t fall into the trap of placing your characters into rigid little boxes as this can limit your perspective when constructing their stories – as well as the overall narrative. Don’t be afraid to see beyond your own narrow definitions, and instead try to view your fictional world as a cohesive whole.
With all that said, I want to end this final topic on a personal note. I played Kingdom Hearts III 17 years after my first encounter with the original game, and I’ve been a massive fan that entire time. The series is an essential part of my childhood, but I’ve also found a new appreciation for it as an adult. For so much of that time, the one consistent dream on my mind had been Kingdom Hearts III. The first two numbered titles mean so much to me, and my desire for a third main entry was always driven by a sense that the series was somehow incomplete; that there was something left unresolved from my youth that I desperately wanted to see brought to fruition and completion. Obviously I’m being dramatic, but I think many fellow Kingdom Hearts fan can relate to this sentiment.
As much as I enjoyed my time with the game, Kingdom Hearts III was not that for me – not even close. But what the third entry did was give me the realisation that this series was never actually incomplete. Of course they’ll always keep making new games and teasing new adventures, and I'll always be there to enjoy them; but playing III made me realise that Kingdom Hearts II had *already* provided the ending – the conclusive, satisfying, contented feeling – that I’d been waiting for all these years.
In a way, my problem was the same as that of Kingdom Hearts III’s story. We both spent so much time looking to the horizon, imagining what the future may hold, that we missed out on what was already right in front of us. I will always love and support this series, and its creativity and charm will no doubt continue to inspire my own stories for the rest of my life. But despite not being the conclusion I hoped for, Kingdom Hearts III has freed me from my own obsession with the series’ future. I no longer feel like I’m waiting for something that may never come. Of course, I hope the series gets its story back on track, and rises to new heights greater than ever before! But it turns out that I already got my ending in 2006; and now that I’ve finally realised that, I can finally, honestly say that, as a Kingdom Hearts fan, I am satisfied.
“It is time to move on, boy. There is more to seek…so go forth now, and seek it…” – Ansem (Seeker of Darkness), Kingdom Hearts III
 Tetusya Nomura, in an interview with USGamer, released on the 13th of June 2018 - https://www.usgamer.net/articles/kingdom-hearts-3-final-fantasy-tetsuya-nomura-news-e3-2018
 Tai Yasue, in an interview with Game Informer, released on the 22nd of March 2019 - https://www.gameinformer.com/column/rpg-grind-time/2019/03/22/kingdom-hearts-iiis-co-director-discusses-difficulty-final-fantasy
 Tetsuya Nomura, in the Kingdom Hearts III Ultimania, released on February 28th 2019, and published by Square Enix. Translated by goldpanner @_KH_ENGLISH - https://www.khinsider.com/news/Kingdom-Hearts-3-Ultimania-Main-Nomura-Interview-Translated-14763
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