As a “gamer” (I use this term with quotes because the margin between fad and actuality becomes increasingly blurred every passing week) I watch my beloved industry sway and swirl between ideas and concepts that are both genius and inherently detrimental, all under the pretence of finding the elusive (and arguably nonexistent) “future of gaming.” And unfortunately, when various reviewers sit down to decide who the pioneers towards our interactive manifest destiny are, all too rarely (or honestly not at all) is Kingdom Hearts so much as considered to be in that oh-so-noble category. Nonetheless, this, our beloved franchise, contains countless elements that the industry, both east and west, should take note of. And here are 3 of the most poignant, in my opinion.
1. A complex plot is not a bad thing
There are many terms used to describe ideologies held in highest regard when developing a game. The one that incites a particular sense of nausea in my stomach is “accessibility”. While this might sound crude, cold, and downright narcissistic, I assure you it’s not. Unfortunately the term has become synonymous with the phrase “dumb it down so the idiots understand.”
This, ladies and gentlemen, does nothing for the gaming industry. As large and unfortunately popular our community has become, we still have an image of being a group of collective mouth-breathers drooling in front of a monitor or TV screen.
Kingdom Hearts is at the forefront of dispelling that notion simply on plotline alone. If there is one feature I’d have to attribute to Tetsuya Nomura as his single greatest, believe it or not, it’s not his artistry, it’s his mastery of retrocontinuity. Through it, he has created a stable (keyword – Ubisoft failed miserably at this) plotline with more complexity than most of us have ever seen in a game series.
For too long have we been spoonfeeding plotlines and stories. Accessibility is great, but this color-by-numbers story creation is not moving us forward. We are not growing and being the thinkers we should. We need to challenge our intellect, and our cognitive ability.
Sure, we might run around with Disney characters ranting about friendship and light, but the plot of Kingdom Hearts as a series offers us a deep and complex story, one that keeps fans learning and discussing. Accessibility can lead to some cool things, sure, but let’s not shy away from growing our brains, too.
2. It’s okay to make your spinoff games progress the main plot line
I noticed something a while back that caught my attention with regards to fans of the Kingdom Hearts’ series. I had multiple friends buy a PSP for Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep. And those same friends bought a Nintendo DS in order to be able to play 358/2 Days and Re:Coded. And it struck me because of how incredibly rare that is.
We seem to live in a world of unnecessary handheld “spinoff” games. And that’s what we make them. Spinoffs. Same concept, yet completely unrelated to the main plot. This causes an overwhelming feeling of oversaturation of a given title for all the wrong reasons. To create this additional tale, we should see the excitement grow for the main storyline – not atrophy into some false sense of nostalgia.
Kingdom Hearts dispelled this notion with its “spinoff” (and every Kingdom Hearts fan knows why I’m using quotes) games in that they didn’t just connect back to the story. They were the story. And not only were they good to know, you couldn’t understand the entirety of the plotline without them. But they did something more that the gaming industry should take note of – each of them, in addition to selling themselves and respective handheld consoles, has only served to fuel the excitement for the future of the story.
3. A soundtrack can be just as important as the game itself
There are countless elements to what makes a video game good per se, but one thing that I find the gaming industry not focusing on with due effort is the musical element. At a game store, all too often are we looking at some of our beloved titles, and our brains are filled with images, but not with sounds. The soundtrack of any video game adventure is the difference between enjoyable and iconic. And when the latter is achieved, something very unique happens: gamers listen to the music outside the game, with as much passion and emotional connection as any piece of music made outside of a video game. Sure, we’ll have some songs inside of a video game that we find particularly pretty or wistful, but to add it to our iPod or Mp3 player is all but unheard of for far too many games.
Kingdom Hearts has definitely been a pacesetter musically, and pushing a very clear agenda: that their music is tantamount to the writing of the game itself. “Hikari” has been ranked top among music in its own rights and Utada topped Oricon sales charts well prior to Kingdom Hearts’ conception. Clearly Nomura and Square went to lengths to get the best of the best for their project, and yet the industry still is overfilled with bland, mindless soundtracks whose primary purpose is simply a purging of silence.
And while we can’t expect our highest-grossing (which unfortunately is often unrelated to their talent) musical artists to grace every single game put out there, the industry should consider the model that Kingdom Hearts has set forward: that you can get above-par musical talent behind your endeavor if your product is good enough. Generally speaking, the industry has become complacent in their music department, so much so that most video game composers and featured artists are relatively unheard of, not being featured on compilation CD’s, or y’know, selling 52 million copies, and being basically the best, ever.
The industry needs to remember that a video game is an experience, grand or small. And the music we hear is just as important as the colors we see, the landscapes we traverse, and all the people we meet along the way.
Kingdom Hearts is not the top selling game series of all time. And it’s not without its flaws. But all those things notwithstanding, there are many lessons that the industry as a whole should be writing down as Kingdom Hearts continues down its path. While the aforementioned three are the most prevalent, there are countless other attributes that simply make Kingdom Hearts all too unique in this over-saturated market of gamer fodder. If even some of the studios could follow even one or two of these trends, we could see a whole new brand of quality gaming and maybe once and for all, dispel the stigma of a “gamer” being the slack-jawed mouth-breathing degenerate that some of the uninformed world sees us to be.
What other lessons could the gaming industry stand to learn from Kingdom Hearts? Let us know below!
This article was written by 50 Shades of Riku, one of our old founding members. Five years ago, he made a meme about “Wielding a Keyblade for dummies” that ultimately led to gaining an Ohana that means more to him than the world. Half a decade later – he’s writing articles like he even knows what he’s talking about, still with his Ohana and still with his sick sense of humor.