I’ve had a thought recently. It’s a long thought and a little absurd, but if you like Kingdom Hearts, stick with me. I promise I have a point. Spoilers follow.
There is a huge central conceit to the Kingdom Hearts games: that each Disney property takes place in its own “world.” In essence this creates a multiverse of worlds not unlike DC Comics’ 52 parallel Earths. In these worlds, the plots of the various films they were inspired by either play out before us in the game or are inferred to have happened before we got there. Case in point, while the Tarzan inspired “Deep Jungle” level in KH1 runs us through an abridged version of the original films plot. KHII’s jaunt into The Nightmare Before Christmas inspired Christmas Town this little exchange happens after Sora and company stop Oogie Boogie from hurting Santa Claus:
Santa Claus: Don’t even think about taking over for me again!
Jack: I just thought you could use a little help this year Mr. Claus, you must be exhausted from all the preparations. And I wouldn’t mind a second chance to get this Christmas thing right!
This is not the Jack Skellington we met in the original movie. The events of this level are inferred to take place after the events of the film. This is one of the more interesting angles the Kingdom Hearts series takes to justify its level-to-level plots. Sometimes Sora can be just dropped into the middle of whatever Disney Renaissance film is the flavor of the day, but sometimes a new story can be conjured and be fit back together using pieces of the original films.
The Halloweentown worlds are some of the better inclusions in the KH series. Lesser examples of futzing with Disney canon include such levels as Port Royal: an admirable attempt at capitalizing on the then-popular Pirates of the Caribbean series, but ultimately a hollow experience. None of the original cast returned to voice their characters and most of the first Port Royal level is left to re-hashing the events of Curse of the Black Pearl, with voice actor Brian George lifelessly reading off exactly lines that Geoffrey Rush gave so much texture and flavor when he played Captain Barbossa. Of course the second visit to Port Royal later in the game is a little better, with escalating tension in the game causing one of the KH-original antagonists (the gambling obsessed Organization XIII member Luxord) to mess around with our heroes in the second half of the game.
So the Disney characters all get varying degrees of success by plopping Sora into their plot lines either during or after their occurrences. But what of the Final Fantasy characters? Much has been made of the absolutely bonkers melding of FF and Disney in the KH series, so I’m going to spend a bit of time talking about the absolutely insane way that Nomura decided to include a “greatest hits” of FF characters in Kingdom Hearts in a way that not only paid homage to their original games, but also stayed in line with Kingdom Hearts lore. But to do that, first we have to talk about Sora’s homeworld.
Sora’s world of the Destiny Islands is the one most closely associated with our real world; albeit with a huge “anime school life” grain of salt that we must swallow to get over the goofy hair, oversized shoes, and the presence of a star-shaped fruit that apparently has the power to bind one’s fate to the person they share it with. Sora’s world is boring and mundane and in keeping with Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” or Monomyth architecture. This is the Ordinary World. Yeah the kids hold dominion over a large island just off the coast of their mainland home, but that essentially makes it little more than an oversized tree house. Were it not (as early cutscenes in both KHI and II prove) literally within sight distance of the mainland, there’s little chance that Sora, Riku and Kairi’s (heretofore unseen, but not unheard) parents would let them play there so often. But they do, fritting the hours away constructing a haphazardly designed raft meant to help them escape from their boring day-to-day and challenging each other to races to see who gets to eat a poupou fruit with Kairi.
Then the Heartless attack and break down the dimensional walls, allowing Sora (now newly minted as the chosen keyblade master) to travel between these worlds and fulfill his lifelong dream in the scariest way possible. The Destiny Islands are destroyed, its pieces drawn into a cluster of debris from other destroyed world that form together and create the bizarre patchwork realm known as The End of the World. But Sora, Riku, and Kairi escape the destruction and are deposited all across the cosmos in different dimensions.
In Sora’s case he is dropped into a world that isn’t dissimilar from his own, only it’s strange. The architecture seems to hold an aesthetic of a different time. It’s never really “daytime” here either. No, in Traverse Town, the stars can always been seen. This is because Traverse Town isn’t much of a world at all. It’s more like a dimensional refugee camp. Where it came from is anyone’s guess. It could have been a world of its own before the Heartless attacked, but for now it plays host to all manner of people stranded by the Heartless, somehow having escaped the dark energy induced entropic demise of their homeworld.
Sora meanders around a bit. And this is where the Final Fantasy tie-ins start to pop up. While FF’s adorable Moogles wander the streets of Traverse Town, it turns out the item shop is run by none other than the FFVII version of Cid, whose acerbic sense of humor has not dulled a bit since we saw him last. Sora later turns a corner and runs smack dab into FFVIII’s Gunblade-wielding Squall Leonhart (here dubbed simply “Leon”) who also seems to be running with the great ninja Yuffie from FFVII. We later find out that all of these Final Fantasy characters actually come from the same world: a KH-original land known as Hollow Bastion (which in later installments of the games becomes a focal point of the lore). This also happens to be where KH1’s red herring Big Bad Maleficent has set up shop with her council of fan-favorite Disney Villains.
But again we begin to realize that these aren’t entirely the Final Fantasy character we spent so much time with in our respective youths. Let’s stick with Leon for a minute. Why did he jettison his old name? If inflection and dialog are to be analyzed, apparently he viewed it as an act of penance after failing to help prevent Hollow Bastion to falling to the Heartless. He is also a few years older than he was in FFVIII. Also, take notice of the back of his jacket. It bears a red-colored version of the wings on the back of Rinoa Heartilly, his FFVIII love-interest. Rinoa is suspiciously missing from Leon’s life when we meet him; her absence inferring something bad happened to her when Hollow Bastion fell.
The backstories of the Final Fantasy characters function much like Peter Parker’s in post-One More Day Marvel Comics canon. We are led to believe that the stories we remember them from have happened, even though they contradict KH-series lore. All the characters from the Final Fantasy games went through their own stories back on the PSOne, except all those stories happened in Hollow Bastion, which eventually led to them all just knowing each other and escaping the realm when the world fell.
…except of course for the FFVII crew. They get a bit more…complex.
Being the most well-known and popular Final Fantasy game in the series has its benefits in the Kingdom Hearts universe. Almost all the main cast gets a chance to pop their heads in on the KH series. But while we are busy enjoying the fact that Cid is in this game, or we get to fight against Yuffie in the Hades cup we overlook the most glaring detail of their inclusion: Aerith is still alive. She was stranded in Traverse Town when Hollow Bastion fell alongside Cid, Yuffie, and Leon. One would expect that perhaps Cloud would be among them, given that he is the most popularly known Final Fantasy character by a country mile. But he isn’t. Don’t worry; we meet him later in the game. And it’s in the strangest place possible.
Hercules has been good to the Kingdom Hearts series. When Sora and the gang turn up at Olympus Coliseum, Hercules has already been a true hero for a while now. Presumably the events of his film happened years before Sora got there. Now Herc helps Phil run this prestigious coliseum, which hosts the game’s many fighting tournaments which Sora can compete in. Hades continually tries to pit Herc against whatever monsters he can in the arena, and he’s doing it the same was he was in the film. He’s pulling mythological creatures and dead fighters from the bowels of the Underworld and giving them a chance at life if they can beat Hercules. It’s his main method of attack. It even hilariously blows up in his face when he tries it in KHII and has the unfortunate luck of pulling FFX’s fan favorite but notably-dead warrior Auron up from the pits of Tartarus, only for the strong-willed Auron to basically tell Hades to screw off.
Auron made sense in that case. FFX’s characters, while present in the Kingdom Heart’s universe, seem to have all joined FFVI and FFIX characters (along with FFVIII’s Seifer, Rai, and Fuu) in being repurposed as full residents of the worlds where we meet them unconnected to their Final Fantasy origins save in name and basic character traits. Tidus, Wakka, and Selphie appear as children on Destiny Islands with Sora, Riku, and Kairi. Vivi, Rai, and Fuu are all part of Seifer’s gang in Twilight Town fighting in Struggle! tournaments trying to beat reigning champ Setzer. Yuna, Rikku, and Paine have been reimagined as pixie-like characters who do little more than annoy everyone while acting as spies for Maleficent (who seems to have a really terrible habit for hiring incompetent underlings). But having Auron continue to be dead as he was in FFX for him to be used by Hades makes sense; its his most notable trait.
Except the undead warrior that Hades chooses from the Final Fantasy canon Underworld in the first Kingdom Hearts doesn’t make much sense at all. Because it’s Cloud Strife, here with a new look consisting of a skeleton hand, a tattered cape, and a bandaged Buster Sword. This begs the question, what the hell happened to Cloud? The game makes it clear to us that Cloud struck the deal with Hades on the condition that Hades would lead him to his one true nemesis: Sephiroth.
How can Cloud not only know but rampantly despise Sephiroth to the point that he would strike a deal with the literal Greek god of the dead to find and fight him? Aerith is alive, which means the plot of Final Fantasy VII didn’t happen the way we remember it. And listen, I am not one of those people who wants Aerith to have been revived by a Phoenix Down. Her death has weight in FFVII’s story. It gives the characters something to fight for, someone to rally behind. One could say that Phil Coulson, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., followed in Aerith’s footsteps when his death spurred the Avengers to fight Loki. If Aerith is alive, then that means that the plot of FFVII never happened. One could argue that Cloud hates Sephiroth because of the Nibelheim Incident or maybe he blames him for Zack’s death, but Kingdom Hearts manages to go a different route entirely.
In Kingdom Hearts II, when Sora returns to Hollow Bastion halfway through the game, they encounter Cloud (who sports a character redesign in the vein of his Advent Children look, which had recently been released when KHII first came out). Cloud is brooding, as usual. When they come upon him, Cloud and the other have this exchange:
Donald: Whatchya doin?
Cloud: I’ll get him. This time we settle it; me and the one who embodies all the darkness in me.
Donald: Huh, I thought you looked kind of different Cloud.
Cloud: If I do, it’s his fault.
Cloud: Sephiroth. Tell me if you see him.
Cloud: Be careful, he messes with your head. Makes you think darkness is the only way.
People like to complain that the Kingdom Hearts series has lore that is hard to understand. I think it’s much easier than most people make it out to be. But this exchange? This bit of dialogue nears David Lynch territory with its obtuseness. First of all, Cloud refers to Sephiroth as “the one who embodies all the darkness inside me.” This is a pretty clear indicator that we are meant to understand that Sephiroth and Cloud are tied together in the KH series on a more spiritual level than they were in FFVII. Cloud had little in common with Sephiroth in their original game. In fact the biggest twist about Cloud’s character is that he wasn’t a Shinra trained SOLDIER, that he had gone a little nuts and dealt with the trauma of his friends death by assimilating their lives together into one memory. Sephiroth, meanwhile, is basically an alien test-tube baby manufactured by Shinra as the perfect SOLDIER, one who ultimately went rogue and on a killing rampage. But the implications of Cloud’s statement are much larger in context of KH’s lore.
In Kingdom Hearts lore all human beings are in a constant internal struggle between the light and the dark. Every human being has darkness in their hearts, and if they let it consume the light they will lose their hearts and become one of the Heartless. If that person similarly has a strong will, their now heartless body will live on with a life of its own as a Nobody. The only beings in existence who are free of any darkness in their hearts are the Seven Princesses of Heart (Cinderella, Snow White, Belle, Aurora, Alice, Jasmine, and Kairi). Some men can have little darkness in their hearts and produce weak and feeble heartless Shadows when they fall to darkness. When Sora is briefly turned into a Heartless towards the end of the first Kingdom Hearts, he produces a weak Shadow but his Nobody goes onto become Roxas, the most powerful Nobody outside of Xemnas, leader of Organization XIII who spawned from franchise baddie Xehanort.
So what would happen if, perhaps, a good man such as Cloud who had fought his own darkness of self-loathing and inner anguish for so long were to fall into the darkness and produce a Heartless? Could Sephiroth be Cloud’s Heartless, having spawned from Cloud when Hollow Bastion fell? It would explain why Cloud was in Hades’ service in KH1. It would also explain why he was so reluctant to return to Hollow Bastion when it was restored, because he would have to face Aerith again. Tifa’s fervent searching for Cloud in KHII shows that Cloud feels so much shame over Sephiroth’s existence that he is willing to shun the love of his friends in the effort to kill him.
This example shows that Nomura is aware of the rules he has created for the Kingdom Hearts series and that he is following them. The conundrum of Cloud’s presence as Hades’ henchman and Sephiroth’s status as a possible Heartless help show that the lore is more meticulous and thought out than series detractors would have you believe. It uses complex concepts like the multiverse to sustain its usage of Disney movies without perverting them in our memories. It personifies or anthropomorphisize abstract concepts like light and darkness into the Disney Princesses and the Heartless to build its narrative and create obstacles. The blending of the Disney Renaissance and Final Fantasy is a perfect marriage between my generation’s childhood love of Uncle Walt’s empire and our current obsession with video games. I would go so far as to even say that Kingdom Hearts is the best Final Fantasy game since FFX because of its innovation with the real-time battle system, exciting beat-em-up action, and well thought out story that forces us to contemplate very serious concepts.
The whole series is built on a central idea: that all creatures have light and dark within them and every day is a battle between the two. If we allow ourselves to fall to darkness, to our baser urges and demons, then we risk losing ourselves. It’s an extremely positive message championing the light triumphing over the dark and how we can all come back from the brink. Riku is the personification of this idea; a man who fell into darkness and lost himself but who clawed his way back to the light and acknowledge that he will always have darkness in his heart even if he devotes himself to the light. And Nomura found a perfect lens through which to view such a message in the films of the Disney Renaissance, a series well known for subtlety teaching helpful lessons to children.
Maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe I’m finding meaning and ideas where there actually aren’t any. Maybe I’m searching for a good story, a good message, hidden behind all the shadows.
Well in any case it’s far less hamfisted an approach than Once Upon a Time takes.