Kingdom Hearts and
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Kingdom Hearts (Square-Enix, 2002), the action role-playing game that fuses the popular Disney and Final Fantasy franchises. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the original game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
In 2002, Square-Enix released the first entry in a series that would spawn over a dozen sequels, prequels, and remakes: Kingdom Hearts. The upbeat action role-playing game broke new ground by bringing together two familiar franchises, Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy and Disney’s Mickey Mouse & Friends, and adding them to a new world full of original characters. This unlikely combination drew in fans from across genres and platforms, selling millions of copies1 and paving the way for a variety of follow-up titles. Almost twenty years later, the Kingdom Hearts franchise has remained so successful that its protagonist, Sora, has recently been added to the roster of Nintendo’s popular fighting game, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. This inclusion will no doubt spawn a new wave of interest in the Kingdom Hearts series, opening the door for even more titles in the future.
Although much of the success of the original Kingdom Hearts is due to its unique fusion of franchises, the title has many positive qualities that are either unrelated or tangential to the intellectual property heavyweights supporting it. One of these positive qualities is the strong opening sequence, which introduces an original cast with wants and needs that bring them into conflict. At the same time, this introductory segment also delivers on the promise of the premise—the fusion of Disney and Final Fantasy—by showing off characters from both worlds without letting either party overwhelm the story. Together, these elements result in a streamlined, exciting opening that simultaneously draws the player into the world and leaves them wanting to know more.
Although Kingdom Hearts drew in many of its earliest fans through its Final Fantasy and Disney connections, its original characters have since become gaming icons in their own right. The protagonist, Sora, is known for his positive attitude and his unshakable faith in his friends, as well as his distinctive weapon, the enormous sword-like key known as the key blade. His human friends, Riku and Kairi, have their own memorable character traits that inform their wants and needs. These traits are on full display in the game’s opening, which succeeds in the difficult task of connecting new characters with players who might only be playing for the familiar faces from other franchises. Square-Enix accomplishes this task by using the opening to establish the basic facts about each character: who they are, what their flaws are, and what they care about. With these facts in place, players have everything they need to relate to the cast of newcomers as they begin their journey through an extraordinary world.
As the game’s protagonist, Sora gets the most love in the story’s opening scenes. After a brief tutorial segment disguised as a dream sequence, players take control of Sora, who’s been snoozing on the beach of his home, Destiny Islands. When his friend Kairi comes to wake him up, he tries to tell her about his dream, then pivots to asking about her hometown when she isn’t receptive. Although the dialogue is on the clunky side, it sets up an essential piece of backstory: Kairi doesn’t know where she’s from. As a result, her goal is to find out and see it for herself, and Sora’s committed to helping her. But Sora doesn’t just want to see her world; he wants to see all the other worlds out there, just waiting beyond the water. While the urge to explore the unknown is a common character motivation, it’s common because it works: it gives characters a reason to leave their ordinary world and pursue something new, even at the expense of important things at home. Luckily for Sora, Kairi is focused on the same goal as him, and so is their friend, Riku. Proving himself to be the most mature member of the group, Riku is the only one working on the raft that will take them off the island: a sign that he’s invested in their shared goal. These brief interactions quickly establish the roles each member of the trio serves in their group. Sora is the dreamer, Riku is the doer, and Kairi is the one who holds them together. With these roles established, the opening can move onto the next essential step: creating conflict.
Kingdom Hearts keeps the opening interesting by adding multiple layers of conflict. There is the internal conflict, the tension between friends, and the external conflict, the threat from an outside enemy. The internal conflict, established first, focuses primarily on the rivalry between Sora and Riku. This rivalry is based on their shared desire to win Kairi’s heart. Kingdom Hearts establishes this shared desire by introducing the paopu fruit, a star-shaped fruit rumored to connect the destinies of two people who share it. Early on, Riku claims that Sora has been looking for an excuse to share the paopu fruit with someone, so it’s no surprise when Riku later challenges Sora to a race and says the winner gets to share their fruit with Kairi. Afterward, Riku will claim it’s a joke, but Sora’s serious expression proves how serious the race was to him. This conflict escalates when Sora and Kairi are alone, and Kairi says that Riku has changed and she and Sora should take their raft and leave him behind. It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing for Riku’s arc, and it also plants a seed of doubt in Sora’s mind about whether Riku is trustworthy. Much of the conflict in the later parts of the narrative will grow from that seed, which justifies the time spent on the setup and gives the opening meaning.
The external conflict, Sora’s fight against the Heartless, also gets its start in the opening. While the tutorial dream sequence introduces the Heartless in their most basic forms, they don’t show up again under Sora, Riku, and Kairi’s characters have been established. Once the core cast has been set up, Kingdom Hearts introduces the primary antagonists during an encounter deep in Destiny Islands’ caves. When Kairi sends Sora to go looking for food, he finds himself in a cave he used to play in as a child, but someone—or something—has added a door to the cave. After Sora tries to open it, a man in a dark cloak appears and tells Sora he cannot yet comprehend what’s beyond the door. It’s typical, opaque RPG-villain dialogue, but it works in connection with the secondary story that’s running in parallel to Sora’s: King Mickey’s disappearance from the Disney Castle.
While Sora and his friends have been working on their raft, King Mickey Mouse has been unraveling the mystery of the heartless in another world. Whatever he finds has him so concerned that he departs his castle right away, leaving only a letter for his trusted lieutenants, Donald and Goofy. When Donald finds the letter, he insists on keeping it a secret from his wife, Daisy, as well as Queen Minnie, but the women catch him and he’s forced to reveal the contents. After a quick cut to Sora, who meets the dark-robed stranger, the action returns to Mickey’s Castle and the letter explaining his departure. According to the letter, the stars are going out, and Mickey thinks he knows who has the “key” to their survival. While Mickey investigates the cause of the fading stars, it’s up to Donald and Goofy to find the person who holds the key. It’s a solid lead-in for Donald and Goofy to connect with Sora, thus kicking off the story’s second act. It’s also the perfect way to get the disparate groups of Kingdom Hearts fans excited about the same story.
As an original game with characters from two successful franchises, Kingdom Hearts is beholden to three separate audiences: Final Fantasy fans, Disney fans, and fans of action role-playing games. While these audiences have some overlap, the Kingdom Hearts developers still had to satisfy each of the three groups to keep them playing the game. They accomplished this by introducing a handful of characters from each franchise early on.
Players who love Final Fantasy are instantly greeted by the familiar faces of Selphie (Final Fantasy VIII), Tidus, and Wakka (Final Fantasy X). Meanwhile, Disney enthusiasts get Donald, Goofy, Minnie, Daisy, and Pluto. The action-RPG fans who aren’t invested in either franchise have the original characters Sora, Riku, and Kairi to ground them in the world of the game. Although later portions of the story lean towards original characters and Disney characters, more familiar Final Fantasy allies make appearances throughout the game, providing assistance to Sora, Donald, and Goofy on their journey. This balanced cast ensures that there’s something for players from every audience, and by the end, fans from each group are more than familiar with the others. This is all thanks to the strong, balanced cast in the opening, which united a divided player-base.
Almost twenty years after its release, Kingdom Hearts still holds a place in the hearts of its fans. Thanks to the character development in the conflict-driven opening, as well as the balance between franchises, players from different audiences were able to unite around the strange, upbeat story of a young boy and his search for his friends. Now that Sora will be making an appearance in Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a whole new group of fans may find their way to his story. The first scenes are sure to have something to delight them, no matter who they are.
Final Fantasy VII: Opening
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Final Fantasy Tactics: Character
Final Fantasy Tactics uses a Corruption Arc to show what happens when a character compromises his integrity in pursuit of his goals.
Final Fantasy VIII:
Setup and Payoff
Final Fantasy VIII’s most infamous plot twist is a failure of both setup and payoff.
1 GamePro Staff. “Kingdom Hearts sold how many?!“. GamePro. (April 30, 2003)
* Reference Footage: RabidRetrospectGames. KINGDOM HEARTS 1 HD PS4 Gameplay Walkthrough Part 1 – DESTINY ISLAND KH 1.5 + 2.5. YouTube, 2017.