The Best Games of All Time, #7 – Kingdom Hearts

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I’ve written this entry about six or seven times, and each time I devolve into a bunch of mindless praise words that don’t have a lot of reason behind them. It’s a damn shame, because there is a lot of stuff in this game worth talking about, a lot of things worth praise and reasoned critique, but I cannot bring myself to do it rationally. This game, more than any other on this list, has such a resonance with me emotionally that it clouds my judgment at all ends. I can appreciate every items on this list above this entry just as much and in most cases more, but this game above all else fills me with this rapturous joy every time I play it, listen to music from it, or sometimes just look at the art for it. It’s one of those games, and I love it to death.

But I’m going to try to write it anyway.

I returned, recently, from a vacation to Disney World with a group of my best friends. It was a fantastic time, as one might expect, filled with thrills and laughs and all that manner of business. But I was struck throughout the weekend by an interesting realization. I’m a rather cynical person, typically. Not necessarily by choice, but by observation. In keeping with this, throughout the weekend, the corporate atmosphere that pervaded Disney’s resorts was the butt of many jokes, and was always a source of bemused bewilderment. But as the weekend dragged on, I found that cynical core of my mind slowly eroding, and I stopped caring about that corporate atmosphere. There was this tremendous innocence and charm to Disney World: sure, it was all constructed with this cold corporate ruthlessness, with mythical tales of underground tunnels, plainclothes cops silently removing disturbers of the peace, and other manner of Big Brother-esque tails, but it was all in the service of this pure ideal of Disney World, this idea of Disney magic™. That there was a place where there can be fireworks shows every night, where blind 1980s future idealism can make even the most jaded modern cynics smile, where pirates and forest creatures (that are thinly veiled racist caricatures) and astronauts and princesses and anthropomorphic animals can all co-exist harmoniously. It’s infectious, and it softens the most hardened of hearts, making everybody smile at the sheer euphoria of the whole affair.

Kingdom Hearts captures this quality, indefinable except perhaps by the term “Disney magic™”, in spades.

The story and cosmology of the series has a very Japanese RPG bent, with anime-styled characters going through the melodramatic motions. But unlike most JRPGs, this game deals with decidedly more universal ideals. No lofty environmental ideas as in Final Fantasy VII or takedowns of player agency as in Final Fantasy XIII – instead, we get Disney ideals. The darkness inside all of us, the invisible ties of friendship that tie us all together, overcoming evil with a devotion to light and goodness: these are kitschy, sentimental and kid-friendly tropes.

And yet, that “Disney magic™” makes it work. Whenever a character waxes poetic about how powerful they have become because of their friends, and how it is those friendships that give them power, we don’t groan or feel sick to our stomachs. We smile and feel that tinge, that love for the character. We go along with them, perhaps not using such juvenile language, but we understand them and agree with them on a universal level. The innocence and purity with which the characters of this game go about their tasks is immediately endearing. We aren’t annoyed by Sora’s lofty loyalties and unyielding devotion to a vaguely defined good (there is no moral relativism in Disney). We buy into it completely, because of Disney magic™.

The iconography behind this cosmology that exudes Disney magic™ is sublime, as well. The recurring motif of keys and keyholes as pathways to the heart and a way to both lock and unlock darkness is very appealing and used well. It speaks to the association of secrets and darkness, of keeping things locked inside as a negative thing. It further speaks to the Disney idea of power and threats: the weapon of choice is not a sword or a particularly intimidating weapon, but a key. Violence and force isn’t the source of power in a world populated with Disney characters, but rather the power to open doors and hearts. This is the same sort of power that Disney itself holds, with nearly every arm of the massive company being aimed solely at making people – children in particular – feel happy.

That’s ultimately what makes Kingdom Hearts work so well. That Disney magic™ endears characters, worlds, cosmology and iconography in the minds of players, and if the game grabs you it doesn’t let go. You’re engaged from that point on, and at moment does the game ever stop being anything other than spectacular.

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