This franchise is - and has always been - badly written. It is, as a matter of fact, on par with a typical fanfic. It is a fanfic.
It is, indeed, one of the most successful fanfics of all time, with a multi-million dollar budget and corporate backing. Not that it had never occurred to me. I knew this for years. But mention this to some people and they might get a tad defensive, as some are wont to do for anything they love. Not many like being told the object of their affection is dumber than a bag of hammers. Given emotional investment, one is subconsciously inclined to take offence. You can't help it, it's just how the brain is wired.
Hence the title of this journal:
"Kingdom Hearts is Bad Fanfiction, and That's Okay."
It absolutely is. I'm about to point out the glorious stupidity of this bloated franchise and defend it, all in one swoop.
Let's look at the very first game in the series. All the hallmarks of a fanfic are stamped over its face.
- Sora and co. are "original characters" - and not at all terribly basic stock anime archetypes (the shonen hero, the shonen rival, the moe waif).
- The story crosses over two major franchises (Final Fantasy, Disney) to serve as background dressing for an "original" mythos.
- The crossover in the first place is bait, luring in audiences by way of advertisement. Both fanfiction writers and corporate marketing teams understand that the best way to grab someone's attention is to exploit familiarity. What is Kingdom Hearts, if not an exploitation of both a) Disney nostalgia and b) Final Fantasy nostalgia? Fanfiction writers do this all the time. How else are they going to get people to read their... masterpieces of dubious quality and originality?
- Sora is unfailingly pure, corny, and will never shut up about the Heart of the Cards, the Power of Friendship, and so on so forth.
- Sora, as the audience surrogate and everyman, gets to smack down and/or show up canon characters like Cloud Strife, Hercules, Hades, Aladdin, Maleficent, Sephiroth, Squall, etc, using skills he... never actually earned or trained for. Just picking up the keyblade makes him a badass. At least Cloud and Squall were soldiers; at least Aladdin had to get by on streetsmarts all of his life; at least Hercules trained for (it's implied) a few years to become a hero, and then nearly dies several times before proving himself; at least Maleficent and Sephiroth both took decades to reach the heights of their villainy. Sora just has to pick up an oversized Fisher Price toy and suddenly he's a master swordsman who can punch out gods.
- The "original" villains get to do the same likewise, to establish their villain cred, as "original villains" in fanfics tend to do.
- If the original plots of the crossover material are ever referenced, they're streamlined. Any original character development, dramatic weight, meaty conflict, or any heartfelt emotional moments are either dumbed down or excised completely in favour of making the OC protagonists and antagonists look good. They are, after all, the real stars of the show.
- The dialogue is awful.
- It's tremendously clear the writer has never written a joke before. More on this in a moment.
Incidentally, want an example of Kingdom Hearts' infamously awful dialogue and forced attempts at humour? Check out this exchange from II.
Goofy: "Yahuck, y'know, Sora and Jack sure are alike!"
Sora & Jack Sparrow: (in unison, in forced tones that sound like their VA's were either stoned or had to recite the lines at gunpoint) "No we're not!"
Party: (Everyone laughs)
Even the writers of Big Bang Theory would say, "Don't quit your day job."
Ever seen a fanfic writer tell a good joke? I guarantee, they're far and in-between. Comedy is subjective, sure, but there's still a craft to it. Some people are a natural. Others are not.
But to get to the meat on the bone here...
Think of all the special privileges or pats on the back Sora and Riku receive. Rick gets taken in by Maleficent as her apprentice, trains him in the dark arts, and then our brooding bad boy becomes the Luke to King Mickey's Yoda... and he also becomes every Jedi Mary Sue ever made, the kind of lazily written anti-hero who went into the Dark Side and came back to the light, so he gets to have all the Dark Side powers... but, hey, he's good now, so it's cool. He can use them with impunity.
Sora, meanwhile, easily befriends every Disney/Final Fantasy hero and side character he comes across. All immediately help him in his quest, and he's often the one who - when participating in their stories - comes up with the solution that they (again, in their own stories) would have originally stumbled into themselves. He's a sort of narrative blackhole, sucking up the character development and dramatic weight out of other character's stories, making him all the more special and reducing everyone else - true heroes and characters in their own right - to background pieces.
And again, think about the timeframe of the Kingdom Hearts series. Yes, I know, horribly convoluted - even the fans have trouble figuring it out -, but even during the events of the first game... let's just make the safe assumption it took Sora at least took a few months in-context to a) save all the available Disney worlds, b) seal all the Keyholes, c) defeat Maleficent and her council, d) undermine Ansem's evil plan and e) save all existence. In that amount of time, he's proven to be so good with a Keyblade - a weapon he's had no training with - he can take down experienced heroes who spent their whole lives training to become the heroes they are.
Both Sora and Riku are gifted with incredible power from the outset. As chosen ones - something Birth by Sleep makes quite clear - they have all the necessary gifts beforehand. There is no effort in any skill they acquire. Naturally, they're excellent swordsmen, spell casters and physical specimens. The reason why they're so broad? Our heroes are blank, they're the Campbellian hero, they're everymen the audience can live their wish fulfillment fantasy through.
They're everything The LEGO Movie took the piss out of.
Hell, Kingdom Hearts is The LEGO Movie without the irony, parody or satire. In The LEGO Movie, the crossover is initially designed to overwhelm the hero - Emmet - and (for a time) overshadow him with the bigger name stars (i.e. Batman). The crossover in KH, meanwhile, has two main purposes, when you get right down to it. In-context, it's to make Sora and Riku - and possibly Kairi, if KHIII gives her the chance - look effortlessly awesome.
Again, contrast that to The LEGO Movie, where Emmet is consistently treated with scorn or mockery by the Master Builders.
Out of context, the crossover is there for the sake of being there, for the sake of spectacle, rather than to tell a compelling narrative where all these worlds intertwine into one, and see what sort of consequences such a meta-union would unfold.
Now that I think about it, you know what else serves as a good antithesis to Kingdom Hearts? Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Namely, in that it's a good fanfic. The kind of fanfic where the author uses the crossover to explore their respective source material; where the crossover is a vehicle to highlight a few nasty truths behind the culture and era that spawned them; the crossover is a dark, vicious, brutal satire. The world and mythos Moore creates from this crossover is meticulously detailed. There's an entire book devoted to deciphering the connections Moore makes between just about every fiction of the Western world (up until the 60's, evidently).
Contrast that to Kingdom Hearts, where Disney and Square Enix media meet up at the proverbial pub and... sit there, more or less, drinking quietly from the tap while the original flavour characters get to have the party and drink all their booze.
The crossover is window dressing; decoration; garnish; maybe a side dish to the main dish that is the main story of Sora, Riku and Kairi, if we're being generous.
The actual story? Even the fans think it's a bit silly. When you get past the repeated uses of "Heart," "Light" and "Darkness," it's ultimately a shonen anime about some kids with bad hair who have to save the world from supervillains who want to destroy the world/rule the world for... reasons.
What makes Kingdom Hearts notable is just how insanely convoluted the whole mess is. It's simultaneously straightforwardly simple and yet so complicated in scope fans have had to create pie charts just to make sense of anything. What should have been a simple story has turned into a decade-old nightmare told across multiple games, since some genius thought it'd be a great idea to release the games on multiple consoles instead of just the one, for several years.
Gaming is full of simple narratives. Simple narratives are easy to digest, simple plots are easy to integrate into game mechanics, and simple stories can often be a vehicle for truly unique and memorable experiences. From saving princesses in Zelda or Mario, to working your way up the Kanto League, simple tales often yield happy memories.
Kingdom Hearts... again, simple, but not. What does that leave us with as an experience? We have to deal with hours of hackneyed dialogue, the intellectual dumbing down of classic stories, grinding, obtuse side quests and treasure hunts, and bad jokes. Again, what does that leave us with?
Well, for some, plenty of justification to hate this series. You can easily call Kingdom Hearts a time waster. I don't think anyone would actually debate you on that.
... and now, I'm wiling to bet a good portion of my watchers have dabbled in this exact kind of fanfiction before. Some of you have tried to write grandiose plots involving your favourite series, maybe even center it around your personal OC's. Some might even be doing it right now. Some might feel offended. Some might immediately leap to your keyboards and, well, you and I both know where that's heading.
Here's where I turn things around. After spending all this time banging on about Kingdom Hearts and its general inability to tell a cohesive, frank, narrative...
Here's where I save the day by saying, "And all of these qualities are what makes this series great."
Or, alternatively, "There is nothing wrong with fanfic."
Yes, it's in vogue to sneer down at fanfiction. That fanfiction has become a derisive term for low quality should inform you of its ubiquity. Popular writers like George R.R. Martin will say that using someone else's work is creatively limiting, stifling. But if Alan Moore or Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have taught us anything? They created two satires (one Juvenalian, one Horatian) built from the very foundations of works of fiction they loved. What is that, if not fanfiction?
Fanfiction is the literary equivalent of Lego. Take Emmet's speech from The LEGO Movie for a moment.
"Look at all the things that people built. You might see a mess. For what I see are people inspired by each other, and by you. People take things from what you have, are making something new out of it."
Fanfiction can be just that; rearranging or implementing new designs into old works, precisely because some people - devoted fans, creative individuals, etc - were inspired by their love for those very works. Yes, most fanfiction is devoted to someone's personal sexual fantasy... to varying degrees of acceptability and/or tolerance... and to, let's be frank, somewhat nightmarish degrees likewise...
... Damn, fanbase, what the hell is it with some of you and vore? Jesus Christ.
And yes, most fanfiction are written by young men and women still in high school, or college, and by God does it show. Yes, most fanfiction writers tend to have a loose grasp on the canon of their works. Yes, there are all kinds of crazy fanfiction writers who deliberately exaggerate or ignore elements of canon so they can cherry pick and form a collage of unconnected moments to support an insane ship or irrational theory (see: Harry Potter fans with most of their shipping, or the various "Dumbledore was the true villain all along! theories). Yes, even the non-ship fanfictions - most fanfictions - are rife with cliché. They lack of irony, a suitable hold on the concept of comedy and just about anything else one can learn in a creative writing class.
... But for many, fanfiction can be a great place to start.
Fanfiction can be a place to start flexing those writing muscles. It can be a place to express burgeoning creativity, encourage it. Yes, you'll wind up writing something that isn't exactly Dostoyevsky, but every mistake you make is something you will learn and take to heart, if you have any smidgeon of humility in you. But more to the point, fanfiction - your fanfiction - means something to you. No amount of snark and criticism can take that away from you.
... And perhaps more importantly, fanfiction can be fun. That's not a shield against criticism. If the writer messes up or follows a questionably... irrational choice of narrative (see: every infamous fanfic out there about lame ass rape drama, forceful Christian conversion or any ideological indoctrination, etc), or anything that heavily disrespects the canon, don't be afraid to call them out on it.
But if a writer demonstrates a talent for crafting a fun story? That in of itself has value. Encourage it. Foster it. Give it room to grow. Help along the way. That's worth something.
And getting back to Kingdom Hearts...
Kingdom Hearts is dumb, bloated and the script is in dire need of an editor... and maybe a smarter marketing team.
But it's fun. In fact, I dare say, it's its very stupidity that makes it such a wonder. Why? That stupidity betrays a genuine earnestness.
Have you ever watched any of the behind the scenes docs on the series? From Nomura to the voice actors, from the animators to the developers, so many are in it out of sincere affection. They love this thing they've created and are continuing to develop, no matter where it's taken them. Yes, there's that cynical exploitation of nostalgia at play here, Square Enix and Disney both are banking on it. But the actual creative team? True heart there.
Kingdom Hearts is a bizarre hybrid of whimsical fandom and misanthropic marketing, that's what makes it so fascinating. And with its stupidity in check, it rather makes the whole thing... rather endearing.
Heh. When you think about it, Kingdom Hearts is sort of like an otaku Forrest Gump. Where Gump walked through the best hits of 20th century American history, Kingdom Hearts walks through the best hits of Disney and Final Fantasy. Either way, both are dumb as hell and you wouldn't trust them to take care of the cooking, but you can't help but like 'em.
And its in that stupidity where the story actually shines. See, Kingdom Hearts' plot is - as said - convoluted, over-complicated, but deep?
Unintentionally so. Think about it! This series creates a whole slew of bizarre implications either hinted at or glossed over. Moving away from the story of Sora and co. for a moment, and realize that at the heart of this series... the story is actually about a crushing and nihilistic cosmic horror consuming vibrant worlds - worlds based on beloved films and video games - and reducing them to nothingness, draining away colour and imagination...
Refugees huddle in this one town, constantly under threat from invasion. Squall from Final Fantasy VIII - who has last his world and a good many of his friends and loved ones - becomes a weary community leader by necessity, having to burden the lives of everyone in Traverse Town on his shoulders, mounting a small and potentially futile resistance against the tide. Everyone else?
Walk around Traverse Town in any of the games, and you know what I've noticed? All these citizens cheerfully going about their day, all of them in good spirits... seemingly.
Here's a thought, what if they're repressing the horror and shell shock of everything they've witnessed, just to hold on to some scrap of sanity?
This could easily be a gritty war/refugee story about a ragtag community struggling against inevitable entropy. All of this, hidden in a lighthearted Hero's Journey narrative.
I almost wish Squall - or "Leon" - was the protagonist. Just think about the events of the series from his perspective; here's a guy actively saving refugees and bringing them to Traverse Town, one of the few holds against the tide of Heartless, while doing his damnedest to remain aloof and detached lest his empathy and humanity crush him into an emotional wreck.
He's like Bogart's character in Casablanca, with a touch of Oskar Schindler. Holy shit, I would watch that. It's like Casablanca meets Lovecraft.
And think about all the other implications. In the first game, in Agrabah, all the human citizens are mysteriously absent, and its more or less implied this is a world where Aladdin never used any of his three wishes to become Prince Ali. The events of the movie might never have happened here. This is an alternative Aladdin where the Heartless consumed all the citizenry of Agrabah, Princess Jasmine has to hide out in the empty buildings of her people, and Aladdin is leading some minor resistance against Jafar and the Heartless.
See, that's what makes this series interesting. In its stupidity, glimpses of brilliance shine through...
... And it helps compliment the sheer fun, whimsy and spectacle of the series.
Again, accidental depth.
Think to Axel, probably the most well developed OC in the series. His death? Moved people. It moved me. It was another case of an accidental bit of good writing, thanks to great voice acting and sheer accident. That was real. That emotion KH fans felt, with some comparing it to Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII? Genuine.
The series is dumb, but... rather appropriately...
It still has a heart.
And I love it, the big stupid lug.
It's the best example of the sort of fanfiction it is. Badly written, but more or less coming from a good place, from good intention and ernest affection. That's worth celebrating, I should think.
It's okay to love something that's dumb. If it brings you joy and happiness, it's all good.