A new trailer for Kingdom Hearts 3 was released this past weekend. The latest game in the series, which follows the spikey-haired Sora as he travels to different Disney worlds to vanquish darkness, is easily one of the most anticipated video games of the decade. Outline culture editor Jeremy Gordon and special projects editor Aaron Edwards, who are hyped beyond explanation, explore what the impending game release means for them, and for gaming culture, in 2018.
When I was younger, I used to spend a lot of time reading fanfiction.net, the one-stop repository for every half-assed literary reimagining of nerd culture.
Aspiring authors, many of them awkward teens and tweens, wrote themselves into the plots of The Legend of Zelda and Dragonball Z; they made Ranma cross over with Pokemon cross over with Lord of the Rings; they wrote imaginary sequels to Harry Potter; they made everyone fuck, somehow.
As a premise, Kingdom Hearts sounds like one of these garbled fanfiction.net stories. Here are the heroes of Disney and the heroes of Final Fantasy teaming up with a bunch of svelte, hot anime boys to save the world from darkness. If you explain it out loud to an adult, you will look like an idiot.
I texted my mom the other day about her memories of me playing the game and this is what she said:
Yet it all came together, somehow? The Kingdom Hearts universe is earnest and fun without being fanservice-y, conceptually overstuffed without becoming incoherent. It’s the most a fanfiction.net writer could’ve aspired to, in the best way, and it’s a real video game you can play. (Other games have blended universes, like Super Smash Brothers or Marvel vs. Capcom, but never with the same dramatic, emotional narrative purpose.) What a weird idea that I could never imagine getting off the ground today.
For the past year or so, I’ve been deliberately revisiting the video games I played as a kid. When Kingdom Hearts came out in 2002, the U.S. had launched Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, Thoroughly Modern Millie had just started previews on Broadway, the first season of The Wire was about to begin, and I was a nerdy, reserved 10-year-old just starting to really notice the men on underwear packaging at WalMart. I was just a few years removed from my introduction to the Final Fantasy series, which absolutely blew my mind and gave me hours upon hours of 16-bit and blocky 3D material to play through. Then all of a sudden this deeply emotive, sentimental, and intensely fun Square Enix/Disney collaboration crash-landed into my universe, adding layers to characters I’d met in the Final Fantasy worlds as a maturing boy, and to the Disney characters I knew since I wore diapers. Jack Skellington was casting elemental spells to defend Halloween Town. Aladdin was hack-slashing through demonic cartoon creatures in Agrabah. And I was alongside them.
When Kingdom Hearts came out... I was a nerdy, reserved 10-year-old just starting to really notice the men on underwear packaging at Walmart.
A crossover game from a squeaky clean Disney and a darker Square Enix sounds like it makes no sense in 2018, when for so many companies the “brand” comes above all, the consolidation of production is a virtue, and the monolithic status of a company and its creative output is often preferred. But the success of the Kingdom Hearts franchise is a ray of light through that malaise: it should never have worked, but it did.
When Kingdom Hearts was released, the gaming internet as we know it was barely a thing. YouTube didn’t exist; IGN was the only gaming site I knew. I was still using gaming message boards, so I’d rely on rumors reported secondhand by other credulous teens. Kingdom Hearts definitely seemed like an urban legend, before I saw the photos in a friend’s copy of GamePro, and the posters at my local GameStop.
This lack of information meant it was much easier to start the game knowing relatively nothing about it, except that it was the “Disney game with the Final Fantasy characters.” There was a tangible thrill every time you headed for another world, in anticipation of what classic movie would be explored next. Would it be Peter Pan? Aladdin? Hercules? The game rendered these worlds in cartoon perfection, evoking all my childhood memories. I never wanted it to end; I wanted to see more and more.
These games were released when corporate exploitation of decades-old intellectual property was not such an industry standard. It felt meaningful to engage with movies I hadn’t seen in years, to see how their core themes of love, friendship, and justice accentuated the main storyline. The power of this game came from its ability to make you remember, while still pushing forward.
At the end of the first game, Sora reaches out to his childhood friend Kairi as the ground parts beneath them, separating their worlds. He yells after her:
“Kairi! Remember what you said before? I’m always with you too. I’ll come back to you. I promise!”
“I know you will!” she cries back, as their hands are pulled apart and stars light the sky above them. Simple and Clean by Utada Hikaru plays. Donald and Goofy are somewhere in the distance. It is the most absurd scene, and yet after 30+ hours of gameplay it makes total sense. Of course Donald and Goofy are witnessing anime-inspired melodrama. Of course the tweens are crying as darkness fills the void between them. Of course Mickey Mouse shows up and does a monologue about the power of love and light.
When I went home over Christmas, I discovered that my freshman year notebook was filled with literally dozens of photos of keyblades (Sora’s mystical weapons) that I’d doodled during class. One even had a joint strategy session on how to play the game that my best friend and I wrote.
First of all, I was obviously extremely cool. When my peers were busy being heterosexual, I literally studied the blade. Was I ever so innocent? It is really insane how much time has gone by since the last proper Kingdom Hearts; I can’t think of another franchise that’s allowed 12 years to pass in between official sequels. (I don’t count the supplementary games, which were released for handheld systems.) When Kingdom Hearts 2 came out, I was still in high school.
In those 12 years since the last game, it’s become way more popular to intellectualize populist art, especially cartoons. Movies like WALL-E and Up — both of which could feasibly appear in Kingdom Hearts — weren’t just venerated as excellent kids’ movies, but as some of the best movies of their years. I’ve become suspicious of this rush by adults to immediately canonize these movies, so a little part of me is wondering whether I might be too cynical to enjoy Kingdom Hearts 3 — if the corporate crossover will feel crass, if the themes will not resonate now that I’ve gone from teen to adult in the years between sequels. It doesn’t look like they’re reinventing the wheel, as with recent games from my youth like Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, or Metal Gear Solid; it just looks like the proper next-gen Kingdom Hearts we’ve been promised all along. I know I still know how to feel, because people and art still make me cry. But what I’m asking is… do I still remember how to feel like this?
This past year has felt like a challenge to our collective ability to not go completely numb. And whenever presented with something that offers a generally harmless escape, I tend to latch. One of the joys of video games like Kingdom Hearts is that they encourage us to try remembering how to feel like the kid who did those keyblade drawings again.
I was actually 14, sadly, but you know what they say about being young at heart.