(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
You make a game, a movie, or a television series. It becomes really popular. People love it, can’t stop talking about it, and more importantly they demand more. So it is that the sequel is crafted. If the series truly had legs, this sequel will not only be highly anticipated, but critically acclaimed. It’ll be bigger, badder, more climactic than the original chapter. By this time, your product is more than a piece of entertainment — it’s a bonafide franchise. It’s time for a third. The famous third. The difficult trilogy bookend. As Ricky Gervais once joked, concerning the topic of a third season of The Office — “[The] difficult third series … it’s going to get criticized whatever, isn’t it?”
By the time the third installment arrives, opinions are divided. People may have grown tired of the formula (Modern Warfare 3), the creators may have nowhere left to go after reaching so high in the second chapter (Alien 3), the fans expected more than they got (Mass Effect 3), or maybe some stupid motherfucker decided that what the world needed were Ewoks (you know who). In any case, people are still hyped — they still want it, they still crave a conclusion, and they’re still invested no matter what happens. They still care, because it is only beyond the third installment that the series feels like it’s oversaturated. We’re used to the idea of a trilogy, and we’re okay with our entertainment coming in threes. But after that controversial third installment, in sets the ennui. Any new installments aren’t quite so exciting. The fervor that was had for the third was the fever pitch, and fans are spent. Drained of all hype, the series begins to plod along, go through the motions, and retread old ground. Then we have Saw VIII, and nobody gives a shit.
This is not always the way it goes, of course, but it’s definitely how these things commonly go down. So what does this have to do with the game not-so-subtly hinted at in the title of this piece? Well, Kingdom Hearts is a fairly notable anomaly, a game that managed to skip the third installment altogether — bypassing our hype, our expectation, and our controversy — but in doing so managed to leap straight to the Saw VII stage. Kingdom Hearts does not officially have a third sequel — and yet I am so fucking tired of it, so exhausted by the entire franchise, that to mention its name draws from me the same reaction you’d get saying “Pinhead” to a Hellraiser fan.
There are nine Kingdom Hearts games. That’s right — nine of the fuckers. While the world patiently waited for Kingdom Hearts III, Square Enix was not letting the series remain paused in quiet dignity. The series has been whored out as much as any major franchise, but on a smaller scale — targeting the handheld and mobile markets with a slew of prequels, sequels, spin-offs and even a social game. After Kingdom Hearts, we got Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories to bridge the gap between it and Kingdom Hearts II. After that came Kingdom Hearts 385/2 Days, then Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, Kingdom Hearts coded and, more recently, Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance. In between, we’ve also had Kingdom Hearts for V CAST, Kingdom Hearts 3D, and Kingdom Hearts Mobile … and I want it all … all of it … to fucking fuck off.
When building up to a big sequel, you do want to keep a game’s name in the public eye, and handheld spin-offs can be quite useful for that. However, there is also merit in going dark, staggering information, and generally letting people build themselves into a frenzy as they await news. It’s a difficult balance, for sure — you don’t want to piss people off with your silence. You don’t want to nuke anticipation for your big sequel by carpet-bombing the world with content, either, and that’s what Square Enix has done with Kingdom Hearts. It’s too much. Even worse, due to the unique nature of Kingdom Hearts’ premise, it’s also irrevocably ruined the greatest asset the series had — a sense of wonder.
The first Kingdom Hearts was so amazing because we’d never seen anything quite like it. The idea of an original universe that combines characters and worlds from both Final Fantasy games and Disney movies was one of the most unusual and awe-inspiring crossover concepts of our time. Truly, it was remarkable. Just the image of Squall from Final Fantasy VIII occupying the same room as Donald Duck and Goofy — it was spectacular, to say the least. Then there were the cameos — that classic battle against Sephiroth in Hades’ arena, the awakening of Bald Mountain — memorable stuff that rests among my fondest gaming recollections. Though it lost a lot of that initial wonder, the sequel did a solid job of building upon the first game, helped by the introduction of new worlds based on even weirder movies (dude, Tron!?!?). It was difficult to repeat the greatness of the first game, and I don’t think Kingdom Hearts II quite rose to the challenge, but it did an admirable job. A third would be even tougher.
The best thing Square Enix could have done was waited.
Now? After years of far less ambitious games trotting out the same concept as before? Now there’s no wonder left. The idea of Square Enix and Disney characters coexisting is so established it’s become banal. It’s not inspiring anymore, it’s not amazing. It’s fucking tired. Oh wow, look, it’s Aladdin … again. Here comes Squall … how drearily unsurprising. Kingdom Hearts is a series that drew the majority of its power from surprise — and it has become one of the least surprising franchises of all time, because nobody could leave it the fuck alone.
Nobody thought to wait. Nobody considered letting it lie long enough for us to forget the details of what we’d previously experienced, so we could be surprised all over again. Like a kid who just had to open the Christmas presents before morning, Square Enix tore everything to pieces in its eagerness to have everything at once … and in my eyes, it’s totally fucked the series up.
It doesn’t help that the game’s plot was always a load of pretentious, convoluted drivel. Such utter garbage of a story, and dialogue that consisted almost entirely of people alternating the words “heart” and “darkness,” were forgivable in Kingdom Hearts and its sequel, because the concept was just so good we could overlook it. But the more Square Enix delves into the universe of Kingdom Hearts, the deeper into a black hole of deus ex machina and smarmy pseudo-philosophical bullshit, the more utterly grotesque the series has become. The series has become darker, and more angsty, and more full of people saying, “Perhaps I am nothing, perhaps I am everything, ha ha ha,” that it’s coming across as the game equivalent of that prick in the park with an acoustic guitar and some really trippy ideas on how to abolish the government. Even the installment names — 385/2 Days, Birth By Sleep, Dream Drop Distance — are dripping in contrived, pretentious, vague, ultimately meaningless spittle. Nothing said in these games means anything, yet the characters waffle on and on as if it’s the most important shit in the world. SHUT UP, characters in Kingdom Hearts, SHUT THE FUCK UP!
As someone who was transfixed by Kingdom Hearts and its sequel, and spent years happily waiting for that third chapter, I can honestly say I’m tired. Right now, I can’t imagine what Kingdom Hearts III could do in order to make me feel that same sense of amazement I had when playing Kingdom Hearts. I don’t know how it can revitalize the idea after draining every ounce of freshness from the series. I hope it finds a way, but right now, every time I think about Kingdom Hearts, I feel like the tongue of my soul just licked the end of a spiritual battery. To go from loving a thing to feeling an overwhelming sense of unpleasantness at the mere mention of its name is a sad thing, and I owe that all to Square Enix.
I’m sure there are others more tolerant than I, and to them I say, more power to you. I envy your ability to remain excited. For me, each installment of Kingdom Hearts has bled into the other, producing a mound of grey sludge that has absorbed all my love and suffocated any sense of enjoyment.
But at least it gave me a good excuse to write “Kingdom Farts.”
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