'Kingdom Hearts' Is a Lesson in How NOT to Tell a Story

The infamously convoluted plot didn't get that way by accident.

The long-anticipated Kingdom Hearts III finally arrived in January 2019 after a 14-year wait. However unlike the game’s title suggests, Kingdom Hearts III isn’t actually the third game in the series — it’s the 10th.

Millions of fans of the Disney-Final Fantasy crossover series flocked to YouTube before the game’s release to brush up on a story they missed, or, more realistically, that they never understood in the first place (myself included). Many of these videos are 30 minutes or longer, revealing just how complex this epic saga has become

The Kingdom Hearts series is renowned for its convoluted plot, but why is the story so complicated? Rather than attempt to create yet-another plot summary, I set out to figure out how video game about simple Disney characters became one of the most complex sagas in modern history. Read on for the full story and check out our video essay above.

Kingdom Hearts III Sora Donald Goofy
The Disney/Square Enix crossover series is wildly hard to follow

It all begins with one person, Tetsuya Nomura, the guy who directed every single installment of the decades-long saga. More importantly, he also wrote every game.

Nomura didn’t start out as a story guy. He was hired by Square Enix (formerly Squaresoft) to debug code for the ‘Final Fantasy’ series. He eventually started designing monsters and characters for the games (including icons like Cloud Strife and Squall Leonhart). Ultimately he was invited to work on the story team for Final Fantasy VII and VIII.

Tetsuya Nomura
Tetsuya Nomura was a character designer, not a storyteller.

In this 2012 conversation with late Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata, Nomura recounted how he, a relatively novice storyteller, was given the reins to some of the most copyright-protected characters of all time.

“Hashimoto-san and Sakaguchi-san [two Squaresoft Executives] were talking about a discussion they’d had with Disney, having an exchange along the lines of ‘Mickey Mouse would have been great, but we can’t use him.’ At that moment I basically put my hand up and said ‘I want to be a part of this’. That’s how it all began.”

I’m sure they vetted him and everything, but Square Enix gave Nomura serious access to powerful IP as his directorial debut. Quite a risk if you ask me.

In an interview released in the Kingdom Hearts Ultimania (a Japanese companion magazine to the game series), Nomura stated that he originally planned to make the story in Kingdom Hearts simple to target Disney’s main demographic, children.

It wasn’t until the game’s executive producer, Hironobu Sakaguchi, stepped in and instructed Nomura to make the story more complex to appeal to an older audience that Tetsuya started, um, complicating things.

The largest example of this is Nomura’s replacement of Maleficent as the game’s lead antagonist with an original villain named Ansem, whose backstory is so long and complex that it took two more thirty-hour long games to explain.

Maleficent Ansem
Maleficent, while still an antagonist in the game, was upstaged by the much darker Ansem

The story of the remaining nine games in the series suffered from something that I’ll call “development fever.” Nomura often cites new consoles and platforms as his motivation for creating new ‘Kingdom Hearts’ games. In a 2003 interview with the Dengeki PlayStation Magazine, he says he only released ‘Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories’ because he “heard a story that kids wanted to play Kingdom Hearts on the Game Boy Advance.”

This is surprising because ‘Chain of Memories’ contains some ESSENTIAL plot points that bridge the gap between the first two main series installments. The Game Boy Advance title was quickly developed and released before Kingdom Hearts II, even though the main series sequel was years into development — and long past the point-of-no-return to change the story. It seems Nomura had the story figured out ahead of time, but wasn’t concerned about his audience following along.

In 2007, Nomura told Famitsu that he “always chooses a system before developing a plan.” This means that he goes into a project with an idea for the style of game he wants to make, not the story he wants to tell.

He was interested in multi-platforming, so he developed 358/2 Days for the Nintendo DS. When he wanted to try multiplayer, he developed Birth By Sleep for the Playstation Portable. He was even drunk when he came up for the idea for Coded — a mobile chapter of the saga that had to bend over backwards to be part of the main story and yet has no bearing on its outcome.

Organization XIII drunk
Organization XIII members lie on the floor in 'Kingdom Hearts: RE: Coded', probably because they got tired of trying to follow the story, too

Additional story was tacked on as games were demanded, not the other way around. Nomura certainly had some more ideas for the story already, as several of the games explain plot gaps left out of the main series, but the development process clearly did not allow Nomura and his team to get the whole thing down and plan the releases in an orderly or even sensical way.

As for exactly how Nomura came up with the whole thing, I have no idea what goes on in that man’s brain. The bulky lore, the virtually endless properties and abilities of a heart, to say nothing of the very selective use of time travel — there’s no explaining it beyond conjecture. As in “I bet this dude never read anything by Joseph Campbell.”

In his defense, narrative through interactive media is an all-together different monster. We’ve all seen what happens when people try to make movies out of video games, so why should we hold games to the same story standards as movies? They work differently, and any saga that spans over 200 hours and ten volumes is bound to be complicated, or at least hard to summarize.

The Kingdom Hearts series has done something that few others have, so let’s cut Mr. Nomura some slack.

By January 2019, fans had been bombarded with nine games that boasted the message “this story was an afterthought,” but we were still excited for a 10th. With over five million copies of Kingdom Hearts III sold in its first week, I can all but guarantee we haven’t seen the end of this labyrinthine tale. And I don’t know about you, but I simply cannot wait.

Kingdom Hearts III is available now for PS4 and Xbox One.