'Kingdom Hearts III' Has Great Storytelling, No Matter How Silly the Tale
The series may get ragged on for bombastic lore, but the third game ends in a satisfying way.
All images courtesy Square Enix
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Big spoilers for Kingdom Hearts III.
Beyond all of the jokes about lore and complexity and spiky jackets, behind the weird sheen of the allied Disney universe of intellectual property, there’s a cold, hard fact that’s hard to deal without the tell-tale layers of irony and weird jokesterism that characterizes modern game culture: Kingdom Hearts III is a genuinely powerful emotional experience. Full stop. It pulls on the heartstrings like the most powerful melodrama in human history, and what I want to dig down into is how it manages to generate its big world of feelings in the midst of so many games and franchises that want to do the same but don’t quite manage to hit the mark.
Of course, I might have it wrong. To some degree the kind of welling up of feeling and emotion that I experienced while playing Kingdom Hearts III is singular and personal, and yet on the other hand I have seen so many people talk about it, and it feels so powerful, that I have to say that this game, and the previous games in the franchise, are doing something unique. While the lives of Big Boss and his son Solid Snake get me in my feelings and the trials and tribulations of the Master Chief and his friends and enemies inject some slight melancholy into my life, I can’t quite express how significant and strange the final couple hours of Kingdom Hearts III were for me.
Without getting too far in the weeds, we can say that the end of the game brings 20 of the series’ characters together for a massive climax, and then squeezes every little bit of emotional content out of that battle that it can. Sora, Riku, Roxas, Axel, Kairi, Ventus, Aqua, and all the rest square up against a bunch of versions of the villain Xehanort and just start kicking each other’s ass over and over again. And in most games, including other games in the Kingdom Hearts series or its conceptual allies in the Final Fantasy games, that would be the focus here. There’d be some emotional beats, but your big narrative focus would be on smashing through giant mutants or your dad or whoever the hell was monologuing at that moment.
And there’s plenty of keyblade fighting at the end of Kingdom Hearts III, but there’s also a massive amount of time spent paying off the emotional beats of the series. We’ve collectively spent more than a decade trying to get the gang together, and now that they are, the dominos of connection can start falling.
One of the most powerful stories in games centers on Roxas, a Nobody and a member of Organization XIII, who was fundamentally written out of reality at the start of Kingdom Hearts II. In order to allow Sora, the gung-ho family-friendly protagonist who everyone loves to continue his story, Roxas had to be banished into Sora’s heart, and he’s been in there for years. That’s something that’s stuck with me: for us to enjoy the kind of games and stories that we’ve come to expect fromKingdom Hearts, Roxas had to give up something fundamental. His life, his memories, and his ability to exist in the world all had to be sacrificed.
It’s such a melancholy story, and when—through a complicated story of sacrifice and replicas— Roxas re-emerges into the plot to take up his dual keyblades on the side of good, I had this weird shuddering emotion of fulfillment. I mean, my god, I’ve been sitting on this sadness about Roxas for years, and here it finally is.
Every time an emotional beat paid off in the finale of the game, it was like my heart skipped a beat. Terra freeing himself from the darkness in his own heart gave me goosebumps. Riku reconciling his past self with who he wanted to be and understanding that sometimes you have to sacrifice to get the things you want. Vanitas completely getting his ass kicked. All of these were payoffs to long-running stories that were, for all intents and purposes, stock narratives. No one is winning prizes for new and unique or unusual storytelling in the Kingdom Hearts writers’ room.
These payoffs were expected, and their shape wasn’t necessarily surprising, but I think I was so emotionally taken by them precisely because games are often bad at keeping the goalposts of a story in sight. For all of its complications, the story of Kingdom Hearts is fairly clear about where your investment should lie. While Gears of War might keep reiterating that you need to keep the fate of humanity in mind all the time and Deus Ex might keep harping on the quality of that humanity,Kingdom Hearts’ story rarely asks you to focus on things on the level of big abstractions.
Instead, it is a grand story that is ultimately grounded in specific friendships and relationships. While there’s a grand evil plot that needs to be foiled lest the universe be cast into darkness, that plot is beaten through people living their lives with one another. This often gets talked about with a veil of garbage gamer irony as “the power of friendship,” but it is so clearly more than that. Kingdom Hearts forces you to see the big plot in the context of the characters in front of you, because if you can’t see how Sora and Riku fit into the chaos, then what even is the point? The game cannot see these things as abstract problems. It needs them to be grounded, specific, and consumed alongside your feelings with the characters.
Big Boss might make me feel a way in all of his video games, but he doesn’t make me feel a way the same way that Sora does, and that’s because every culminating event is personal to the characters. Big victories have an air of deserved triumph, and big failures are losses felt at the level of relationships. It shouldn’t feel like this kind of grounded narrative should be such a significant thing in a game, since this is a mode of storytelling that is very common in other media, and yet I feel likeKingdom Hearts III has accomplished something profound by actually pulling it off in a way that I didn’t find cloying or weird or clunky. And, to be clear, I am talking about a series that people roast constantly for being all of these things.
There’s something about the earnestness combined with the fact that the stories of Mickey Mouse, his weird teen friend Sora, and the dozen other side characters who have constantly been experiencing loss and deleted memories and the deaths of their close friends over the past decade that makes Kingdom Hearts more than plot summaries or goofy cutscenes taken out of context. It is a series that takes its emotional core seriously, even if its tale of loss and friendship is a little played out, and then it drives it all the way to the end.
I’ve certainly never experienced the rollercoaster of emotions and chills that I had during the finale of Kingdom Hearts III before, and I wonder if there’s ever going to be a series that figures out how to really do it again.