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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>Kingdom Hearts</i> is Disney at its strangest, darkest—and most moving

Kingdom Hearts is Disney at its strangest, darkest—and most moving

Illustration: Emi Tolibas

When casual observers say that Kingdom Hearts is unlikely, they’re not wrong. Around the turn of the millennium, Disney was a media company coming off of its second “golden age,” immensely profitable, powerful, and self-possessed. Its image was paramount—so much so that in 1998, Disney pushed for changes to American copyright law to ensure it didn’t lose exclusive rights over its nearly 100-year-old icon Mickey Mouse. So it seemed strangely forward-thinking when the company announced that it was working with Squaresoft (later Square Enix) to create a role-playing game that merged Disney’s classic, beloved properties with Final Fantasy. The whole world pictured Aladdin and Cinderella hanging out with Cloud Strife, and they were, understandably, confused.

But that confusion, now, is more than a little outdated. In the years since the first game’s initial release in 2002, media has only gotten more self-referential, more incestuous. Crossover culture is media culture in 2018. Disney itself makes movies featuring all its princesses going to slumber parties together in Wreck-It Ralph 2; one of the largest moneymaking enterprises in media history is Avengers: Infinity War, which crosses over every Marvel superhero legally feasible; and let’s not even get started with Ready Player One or the fervent online fan-theory culture claiming everything ever is connected. Kingdom Hearts’ crossover excess isn’t strange anymore; it’s passé. And as pop culture collisions have only become more commonplace, Kingdom Hearts has moved beyond the novelty of its premise and spent the last decade, give or take, losing its goddamn mind.

Take, for instance, (and this is its real name, I promise) Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep—A Fragmentary Passage, the most recent installment in the series. Released as part of the Kingdom Hearts 2.8 collaboration on the PlayStation 4, it is a sort of introduction to next year’s Kingdom Hearts III, bridging the narrative gap between the most recent console entry, a 3DS game released in 2012, and the upcoming numbered sequel. It stars Aqua, the heroine of the earlier game, Birth By Sleep, and it takes place in hell. (Pretty serious spoilers to follow.)

Illustration for article titled Kingdom Hearts is Disney at its strangest, darkest—and most moving
Screenshot: Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep—A Fragmentary Passage

It’s not a particularly cute, Disney-fied version of hell, either. The Realm Of Darkness, as it’s called in Kingdom Hearts, is a Manichean otherworld, home of all the negative energy in all of reality and birthplace of the monsters, the Heartless, that are the series’ primary antagonists. It’s a bleak, timeless place, mostly characterized by a fragmented and unending landscape of craggy plateaus and eerily shimmering crystalline valleys. Think the innermost ring of Dante’s Inferno—the frozen one, where the traitors live—but thrown headlong into the Petrified Forest. It’s less malevolent than it is indifferent, but that doesn’t make it any less cruel or inhospitable. Once you get trapped there, you might be stuck forever.

The story of A Fragmentary Passage begins where Birth By Sleep leaves off. At the end of that prequel to the original game, Aqua, an optimistic, strong-hearted young woman trained to wield the magical Keyblade, has failed. She was able to stop the series’ ultimate bad guy from taking over the world (well, more or less; it’s complicated), but she wasn’t able to achieve her real goal of saving her friends. One friend is possessed by the big baddie, doomed to more than a decade of torment. The other is comatose, his heart—Kingdom Hearts’ idea of a soul—lost, possibly forever.

And Aqua’s trapped in the Realm Of Darkness, having sacrificed herself to protect the world from an even worse fate than the one it got. In this hell, Aqua has been walking for a long time. One foot in front of the other. No purpose, no destination. Just: forward. She’s been walking so long, in fact, that when she learns she’s been wandering for a literal decade, she’s mostly nonplussed. Until, finally, at the start of A Fragmentary Passage, she finds something strange, nestled in the dull gray craters. A castle, tall and white and resplendent. Aqua recognizes it. She’s been there. It belongs to Cinderella.

In A Fragmentary Passage, Aqua journeys through three Disney worlds, all having relocated to this hellscape after being consumed by darkness in the “real” world. The result plucks Disney movies out of their context and suffuses them with despair, darkness, eternal death. First, Cinderella’s castle; then, the world of Snow White, complete with a trip into the surreal reality inside the Magic Mirror. Finally, a forest full of thorns, all that remains of the world of Aurora and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. The worlds are empty, all their denizens either escaped or turned into Heartless. A Fragmentary Passage is largely a lonely psychodrama, as Aqua wrestles with her own failure and isolation and tries to keep herself from completely losing herself to despair, a fate that in this place will literally kill her.

Contrasted with the first Kingdom Hearts, which told a story about a plucky, spiky-haired youth teaming up with Donald and Goofy to go on adventures to Disney worlds while wielding a sword-key, it’s impossible to overstate how tonally discordant this is. Picture Mickey Mouse running around through a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and you’re close. In fact, Mickey Mouse does appear late in this game’s three-hour runtime, diving into the Realm Of Darkness for a heroic task like Jesus doing the Harrowing Of Hell. But in another sense, A Fragmentary Passage is the perfect encapsulation of the bizarre tonal and thematic journey Kingdom Hearts has taken from its quaint crossover origin. Aqua’s journey is the strangest part, sure, but in the broader spectrum of what series director and creator Tetsuya Nomura has done, it fits, shockingly enough.

Illustration for article titled Kingdom Hearts is Disney at its strangest, darkest—and most moving
Screenshot: Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep—A Fragmentary Passage

When you’re telling a story that requires the use of Disney properties as an essential part of its setting, your narrative options are somewhat limited. You can’t, for instance, turn Mickey Mouse into a villain, or have these characters act in ways substantially removed from their filmic portrayals, which are largely aimed at kids. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Kingdom Hearts has always been about coming-of-age stories. At first, these stories were rather straightforward, with hero Sora exploring small pockets of reality based on Disney movies, making friends, and learning something about himself. It was quaintly nostalgic, with just a dash of Final Fantasy’s signature sense of melodrama to keep the plot moving. But even this early on, it was always weirder than it let on. The PlayStation 2-era game engine used for the first two games wasn’t capable of rendering large amounts of people or objects on screen. As such, the Disney worlds were mostly barren, with a tiny cast, a bevy of monsters, and no one else. Agrabah was an empty city with no citizens. Peter Pan’s world was reduced to a clock tower and a pirate ship. Hercules got Olympus Coliseum, which was three rooms strung together.

In these early installments, traveling through these worlds is less like exploring a Disney movie than it is like exploring a half-remembered dream of it. The broad facts are there, but they’re off, diminished, distorted. As the series went on, and the original universe of Nomura’s creation became an increased focus of the story, that surreality became a feature, not a bug, working its way into the very narrative. The second game begins with an impostor. Doppelgängers are everywhere; memories are manipulable, and sometimes important events and people just fade away. The Disney setting is still prominent, but it’s distorted in the same way as the storytelling itself. Kingdom Hearts isn’t an unironic exploration of nostalgia. Instead, it’s a series of coming-of-age tales, using Disney properties as inspiration and setting.

Aqua’s story, wherein she experiences Disney worlds through the lens of purgatorial suffering, is only a stark exaggeration of this. Like anyone who grew up on cartoons, Aqua is a subject surrounded by a landscape of Disney characters and ideas. The only difference is that for her, it’s not a postmodern, mediated landscape, but a literal one. Aqua has come to adulthood and found herself in a situation so dire, so painful, that these childhood stories offer her no comfort. She trudges through a barren castle; she dives deep into the dwarves’ mine, now in ruins and situated over a vast abyss. She keeps going, even though there’s nothing to find but shadows. What good would a fairy godmother do her, anyway? Her friends are dead or worse, and she has nothing left to fight for.

This, then, is Kingdom Hearts in 2018, as it braces for a huge new release in January. Using Disney as a canvas, it’s painting some of the most batshit coming-of-age stories ever to grace a video game. What is adulthood for Kingdom Hearts? It’s a bullet—or maybe a magic sword—barreling toward you, that you can’t stop. Those things you loved as a kid—those movies, those heroes, those lessons about friendship and love and hope? They’ll be there, when tragedy hits, and maybe they’ll help you. But just as likely, they won’t. The upcoming Kingdom Hearts III will return to the eternally optimistic Sora, and with him a chance at redemption. Maybe you can save everyone, integrating Disney-style optimism into the series’ increasingly dark look at growing up. But that won’t erase the strange or the horrifying. Even if Aqua is saved from the darkness, she’ll still be marked by it. And even if this series has a happy ending, it’ll be the one that was brave enough to take Disney to hell and get away with it, too.

io9 Weekend Editor. Videogame writer at other places. Queer nerd girl.