When we talk about the structure of films, TV, or video games, we are talking about the ways in which their narratives are constructed. By far the most often used variant is that of the Three Act Structure. Act One sets up the world, introduces us to the main characters and their status quo. Then there is an inciting incident and the characters are led into Act Two, where the meat of the story takes place and ends around the story’s Climax. In Act Three the characters deal with the changes they have gone through and settle into a new dynamic. This structure is most common in films, as they are the perfect length for such a set-up. Longer mediums however must deal with the problem of how to stretch this out. Television most often manages to strike a precarious balance between maintaining a three act overarching structure, while having to occupy their characters with smaller three-act pieces which we call episodes.
This is not a perfect system of course. Over time television has fallen into increasingly predictable patterns. For instance, most Fall network shows air 22-25 episodes over the course of several months with a mid-season break in the middle to compensate for the holiday season in the Winter. A lot of the time you can see the way that the writers compensated for this. For instance, shows like Once Upon a Time and The Walking Dead decided to space out two complete stories in these two half-seasons rather than make their viewers agonize over a cliffhanger-that-doesn’t-technically-count-as-an-ending. It’s a nice way to satisfy the fans, but it makes the structure of the season painfully obvious. Other shows, like The Good Wife, for instance choose to serialize their storylines by making the individual episodic pieces of the show carry thematic weight for a much more noticeable overarching plot that is deeply tied to the characters and status quo of the series. The individual episodes have plot, but the show itself is less inclined to feature a complete story every week because every week is furthering one large story.
While not exactly similar to American Television, Anime frequently features both the best and the worst of American Broadcasting standards. Anime functions differently depending on how it was made. Some are episodic and don’t feature an overarching plot while others feature one story and no episodic plot at all. And while American TV shows are built by-and-large to functionally have the ability to last forever should the network want them to, Anime has a more reserved structure. Most anime are adapting manga series which are either still running or have completely finished. They can run anywhere from 6 to 700 episodes depending on the story. But they still are a slave to the broadcasting seasons. Yeah, Monkey D. Luffy and the gang from One Piece have been around since the 90s, but you’re still only gonna get less than 52 episodes a year of their adventures. Outside of Shōnen series like that though, most anime tend to function on a 22-25 episode structure. The studio runs 10-13 episodes then takes a bit of a break then comes back with the rest of the show, with the halfway point marked with a turning point in the plot. These don’t have to function as cliffhangers, but they most often do. These 10-13 episode segments are referred to in Japanese animation lingo as “cours.” The studios do little to hide the fact that these are to different halves of the anime, as most of the second halves feature entirely new opening and ending sequences.
And that’s just normal run-of-the-mill anime. Some are a little bit more complicated. Take for instance the Ghost in the Shell series. Ghost in the Shell started off as a 1995 movie. It got one sequel and then was quasi-reimagined as an anime series called “Stand Alone Complex” which itself got a second season called “2nd Gig” which was then followed by an Original Video Animation (OVA) called “Solid State Society.” In short, if an anime is popular it could get everything from a canon film to a brand new extra episode produced separately from the rest of the show. Hell, Dragon Ball Z has had about a dozen movies that aren’t even canon. They’re just more Dragon Ball Z.
My growing knowledge of the way that television and anime works, having studied the subjects in depth for the last few years at school, have led me to an interesting observation: Kingdom Hearts II is a season of an anime television show, and a damn good one at that.
Episodic gaming has been on the rise for the last few years and it has been a fascinating evolution to watch. Telltale Games has struck the perfect balance with this style of gaming. Each of their games functions like a television show unto itself, with new episodes coming out basically every other month for much cheaper than how most AAA games are priced. In this way, Call of Duty is the shallow summer blockbuster film to The Wolf Among Us’s critically acclaimed season of television. And while Telltale Games has literalized this style of releasing episodic games, other developers have tried the concept in other various ways. With episodic gaming, the concept of “levels” can morph into “episodes” while “acts” can evolve into “season.” One Kotaku writer even pointed out how Mass Effect 2 could easily be seen as a 20-22 episode season of television complete with a mid-season break in the middle. In a more blatant example, Alan Wake is notable for billing itself as a 6 episode “television series” that evoked Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone and featured full end-credits sequences and “Previously On…” cutscenes. It was a nice way to break up gameplay, it gave the player an opportunity to put the game down for a bit, which anyone who has marathoned a 60-hour open world game can respect.
The first Kingdom Hearts was a loving tribute to Final Fantasy and the Disney Renaissance which worked way better than anyone expected it to. It had a typical videogame setup; each “level” is represented as a different world modeled after a different Disney movie, save of course for the early and late game worlds, which tie into the mythos of the series itself. It’s hard for me to compare the first Kingdom Hearts to anything other than the Final Fantasy games, which have a structure all of their own. The game was neatly segmented into what I would probably call “discs” even though the technology of the PS2 allowed it to stay on just one. But for the purposes of this argument, I am going to refer to the first Kingdom Hearts as a movie. Think of it as the Ghost in the Shell to KHII’s Solid State Society. Still with me? Okay.
Part 1 – The First Three Episodes
The major problem Kingdom Hearts II was tasked with was not an unfamiliar one: make a satisfying sequel to a massively successful piece of media that already had a pretty definitive ending. This is a fairly common issue in films. The Pirates of the Caribbean films had to deal with it to a certain extent. The first one had such a good and pretty definitive ending, how could we possibly follow it? Easy, retcon some plot points in an effort to expand the story. The second and third Pirates movies expanded the world of the first movie and gave new importance to things that weren’t the focus of the first movie, namely How Jack Sparrow got his hands on the supposedly mystical Black Pearl in the first place.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories was released for the Game Boy Advance before Kingdom Hearts II on the PS2 and connects the plot of the two numbered games by explaining what happened to our heroes after they walked off into the sunset of the first game: they immediately fell ass first into more trouble. The second game picks up a year after these events and introduces us to a new character: Roxas. To most gamers, this sudden appearance of a new characters was on par with the appearance of Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2: shocking and infinitely confusing. But Roxas’ section of the game in the opening world of Twilight Town is meant as a tutorial, though it is notorious for running far, far longer than it should have. On my latest playthrough of the game it came out to about 5 hours of game time before I managed to get out of Twilight Town and into the rest of the game. But what does this tutorial show us? Well, it uses Roxas in the smartest way it can. Kingdom Hearts II assumes that not everyone played Chain of Memories and uses Roxas as a plot device to deliver flashbacks and exposition about Sora and the previous games through a mystery consisting of one question: Where is Sora?
I have a personal rule when it comes to anime series, I will watch the first 3 episodes before I decide whether or not to stop watching it. In my experience, Anime tends to take its time setting ups its plot; a bit longer than the conventional American pilot episode. The opening of Kingdom Hearts II emulates this rule perfectly to me, as it is the love it or hate it moment of the game. If you don’t like the opening of Kingdom Hearts II, this is probably not the game for you. In my mind, Roxas’ story runs for about the first few episodes of the anime of Kingdom Hearts II. It’s the setup you have to get through to understand the rest of the show, no matter how boring or tedious you may find it. Once Roxas’s story is over though and we get back control of Sora, the real fun begins. Sora gets about one more episode’s worth of tutorial and then we’re off of Twilight Town off on our first adventure. So that’s three episodes down. What comes next is even more important.
Once Sora has left Twilight Town the first world that you arrive in is Hollow Bastion, easily recognizable from the first game but newly reworked as a friendly hub world and not a crucible of difficulty from the latter half of the first game. Sora reunites with some more friends and is swiftly menaced by the members of Organization XIII. By this point, the stakes have been defined and Sora has his quest: to travel to different world looking for Riku and King Mickey while unraveling the mystery of Organization XIII. There’s things to do in Hollow Bastion, but once the bit of story we have here for now is done we’re off to the next world.
Part 2 – Disney Worlds
For the next few “episodes,” Sora, Donald and Goofy, travel to worlds inspired by Mulan, Beauty & The Beast, Hercules, Steamboat Willie, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King. Each of these adventures could easily fill about an episode of an anime. They each build upon the central mission Sora has been given, with each world featuring their own mini-arcs to function as stories all on their own. For example, while Sora’s visit to Halloweentown/Christmastown gives us a valuable long-term update on what Maleficent is up to during the larger story it also gives us a small story about how Riku once told Sora that Santa Clause isn’t real. These smaller stories develop the main characters in little ways while the bread-crumbs of long-term plot are threaded out before us. That is a textbook example of episodic plotting as seen on television and in anime. The story has already set up the larger story, it’s allowed to settle into a comfy little rhythm that’s entertaining but in the long-run important to the larger plot.
Throughout these episodes, Sora and friends are periodically called back to Hollow Bastion and given updates on how things are going. Sometimes these digressions are to introduce different worlds, like when they return to find Merlin has re-discovered the 100 Acre Wood book from the first game. Other times its to learn more about Maleficent’s nefarious deeds behind the scenes.
Here’s the thing though, this is only the first half of the game. The stakes are still rather low compared to the overarching plot and the only true villain who has been actively mucking about with Sora so far has been Pete, humorously used here as Maleficent’s only surviving henchman. Pete appears in nearly every one of the worlds in this section of the game to give us a persistent antagonist to clash against. Sometimes he isn’t present, like when we go to Beast’s Castle and Xaldin of Organization XIII is the primary antagonist. Wisely though, as the game has defined the Organization as the Big Bads of this game, it doesn’t dole out a lot of information about them yet. It allows them to remain secretive, inching their plot along ever-so slightly while Sora deals with Pete’s antics.
It’s a comfortable balance, but not one that can be sustained. We’re never once meant to take Pete seriously as a villain. I mean seriously, just look at him. Maleficent meanwhile was a huge endgame boss in the first game, so Sora could easily just defeat her again. They are an immediate threat, but not an overarching one. They keep the heroes occupied while the real villains deal in the darkness behind the scenes. In true anime fashion, Atlantica and 100 Acre Wood even stand in for the ubiquitous “beach episode” and “breather episode.” They’re optional worlds but they aren’t exactly unimportant either. Their actual playable plots are functionally spread out across the whole game, but for the sake of this analysis let’s just think of them as being part of the first half of the game.
Part 3 – Rising Action
So with the opening four episodes and the subsequent worlds each taking up about 1 episode each, we are up to about 14 episodes. The last Disney inspired world we are taken to is much more connected to the main plot though and features some very big reveals that impact the rest of the game. After delving into the Tron-inspired Space Paranoids (cleverly set inside of a massive super computer in Hollow Bastion which was once owned by Ansem), Sora and friends return to Hollow Bastion and are immediately met by King Mickey, the object of their quest thus far. Mickey explains some very important details about the plot, like how the Big Bad of the first game (Ansem, Seeker of Darkness) was something more like one half of the big bad of the entire Kingdom Hearts series and the Big Bad of this game (Xemnas) is his other half. This is a smart retcon that expands the world of the games while simultaneously lending more contextual importance to the lore of the series. It also manages to make Organization XIII that much more menacing.
After these revelations Hollow Bastion comes under siege. Maleficent is attacking with her Heartless, Organization XIII is skulking around furthering their own agenda, and Sora has to fight through it all. It’s a perfect lead in, an episodic Disney world that leads directly into an extremely important episode. We are treated to the Battle of Hollow Bastion. The stakes get much higher and Sora faces down with one of the members of Organization XIII for the first time in the game. Everything goes to hell, all of the friends Sora has made in Hollow Bastion are fighting; even King Mickey is cutting down Heartless left and right. Sora and friends make it to the center of the battlefield and then this happens:
Right there, that moment where Sora and company ready for battle, Keyblade bared with Heartless on all sides, that’s the end of the episode. Cut to black. It’s a perfect cliffhanger. Sora has gotten all this important information and now has the ability to use it. The Battle of Hollow Bastion will be continued…Next Time on Kingdom Hearts! Oooh, there’s something about that that gives me warm fuzzy memories of Dragon Ball Z episodes past. It’s even something that’s been done before, recently in fact, in anime. The Fate/Stay night prequel series Fate/Zero’s 13th episode ends with several of the hero’s running into battle against a giant Cthulhu monster before cutting to black and saying “be back in a few months!” It’s satisfying, but also makes us want to keep watching. In fact it was this moment that made me notice the anime structure of the whole game.
After that, the mid-season premiere of Kingdom Hearts II is undoubtedly the second half of The Battle of Hollow Bastion. Sora makes it through the 1000 Heartless before him and faces down with Maleficent and agents of Organization XIII. These events have shaken the Organization’s plans and now they intend to change up strategies and actively move against Sora. They are to be the enemies for the rest of the game. Maleficent is forced into a corner and strangely finds herself on Sora’s side against the Organization by default. The pieces are in place and Sora is off again. The Battle of Hollow Bastion has had a huge effect on the rest of the worlds. Sora must revisit each of them one at a time, except they’re more dangerous now. We settle into the same confortable rhythm from the first half but with bigger stakes. Organization XIII members are present on several of the worlds for Sora to face off with. Slowly but surely, Sora begins actively cutting down the numbers of the Big Bad Organization of the game.
The mid-season premiere and the re-visits to each world add up to 9 more episodes on top of the 16 we already had. That brings us up to 25 episodes and toward the big end game. By this point there are two worlds left to explore, Twilight Town and The World That Never Was. Being the finale of the game The World that Never Was could easily encompass either 2 or 3 episodes before coming to the grand final battle against Xemnas. The end game is big, boisterous, and awesome. The rest of Organization XIII is cut down and the Keyblade Warriors confront Xemnas for the final boss battles. That’s an easy multi-part finale if there ever was one. If we assume a trilogy of episodes on top of the 25 we already had, that brings us to 28 episodes, a bit of a longer run for a normal anime series but still close. Death Note has 37, so there’s no real strict formula for this.
You’re probably wondering why any of this even matters. Well it doesn’t to most people, but it’s extremely interesting nonetheless. The structure of a piece of media is extremely important to the way we experience it. By using the structure of the anime series, Kingdom Hearts II was able to manage its pacing extraordinarily well, delivering a coherent and interesting story in a way that kept the audience interested. It managed to be bigger and have more action than its predecessor while at the same time changing up the story in a way that fit with the original’s mythology. This is the mark of a good sequel.
Paying attention to the way in which we consume something can alter the way you perceive it. It makes you notice things you maybe hadn’t before. So the next time you’re playing a game, take a deeper look at it and try to notice the little things. Think bigger than the run-of-the-mill Level-to-Level design of games long past. Maybe the game you’re playing is not unlike a season of The Good Wife or a blockbuster film franchise. It is by using these familiar layouts, and by occasionally deliberately subverting them that video game storytelling can become something more than just progressing through levels one at a time.