Sunday, July 22, 2012

Some thoughts on Kingdom Hearts...

Kingdom Hearts has a lot of Win points, and a few points of fail, nobody's perfect. All around, I think most people agree it's a pretty good game, and the fans love it to bits. Narrowing down the best point would be an arduous task.
So, this article isn't going to do that. I'm not here to tell you the BEST part about Kingdom Hearts, but the most fascinating part, to me. It may not be the best part of the game, in fact, I'm rather sure it's not, but it is the part that stunned me into silence the second I realized it. Once I saw, I could never forget it, and even now, I am forced to put my controller down periodically and offer a “that was interesting...”
Because the most fascinating point of Kingdom Hearts is Riku. 
It's not that he's so cool, although he is. It's not because while Sora got a Keyblade and was meeting Donald and Goofy, Riku was running around the worlds destroying heartless with nothing but his wooden sword and a will of iron. He's got looks, charisma, baggage, danger, can smell darkness like a bloodhound and is delightfully hardcore in everything he does, but that's not what makes him the best part of Kingdom Hearts. 
And it's not his looks.  Really. Not at all...
What makes him astounding is that he's an extremely inconvenient character to keep around after the first game. 
Kingdom Hearts 1 doesn't have a terribly original plot. That's not a slam, most plots are incredibly similar once you break them down to their basics, and several dramatists and philosophers have claimed that there's only about five stories in the world, and what makes them different is just the minor details. And Kingdom Hearts (the first) totally kills in it's tiny details, but the basics are familiar. Two friends, growing up together and competing, both in love with the same girl. The main character is called upon to be a hero and discovers his true potential, the best friend makes some bad decisions and ends up on the side of wrong so they have to fight each other. But, in the end, the best friend comes back to the light side and does something dramatic to redeem himself, evil is defeated, cue happy ending.
That's basically Kingdom Hearts, right up until “cue happy ending”, because that's where things get weird... that's where the mind-rape begins...
As I said, we've seen the above plot a million times before. And, typically, in the above plot, the character of the best friend negates himself, because for there to be a happy ending, he kind of has to. Usually the evil side is, well, pretty evil, and our wayward friend may have done a lot of unpardonable things. To just apologize and come back would be nice in the real world, but in fiction, we find it less palatable than if his redemptive act is equal and appropriate to his crimes. An eye for an eye. Several times, in these plots, the friend sacrifices themselves for the greater good, usually ending their life.
And that's exactly what Riku does, except instead of truly dying, he gets locked behind that door in the realm of darkness. But, he has the king with him, so the audience can assume that they'll be safe together, sequel or no sequel. The story could end right there, Riku in an unknown land, but with King Mickey and so, someday they'll be able to come home. If the credits fell there, it could be a perfect happy ending.
But Kingdom Hearts likes to tweak things just a bit, and says, “No”. No, Sora doesn't get to go home to his island and his princess. He, Donald and Goofy are going to continue to fight the good fight, find the King and Riku, and all go home together. Fine, perfect premise for a sequel. Except...
...another reason the “wayward best friend” characters eliminate themselves in the climax is because once they've seen the error of their ways, made up for it and come back, it's really hard to find a new place to go with them. Suddenly, they become incredibly one-dimensional, unless you can find some new direction to go in, one that doesn't feel forced, and doesn't upstage the journey of the main character. It's hard to pull it off seamlessly, and it's a reason these characters tend to die a lot, or go off on their own, maybe get reduced to a minor role, anything to get them out of the picture. They're hard to deal with, sometimes, and it can be easier to just move them out of the way. Kingdom Hearts gets around this by running Sora and Riku's stories back to back in Chain of Memories, where Riku gets to be his own protagonist, and basically, relive his whole story again. Being a video game also allowed the creators to be a bit more flexible than some other mediums. So, again, they got around it.
But, ultimately, Riku has to have a bit of a darkness regression, because, if he returns to his old, happy self, there's nothing more to do with him. Being happy is Sora's department, and he's the main character. Basically, if Riku wants to stay in the plot, he has to be continuously pushed further into darkness, conflict and depression, but again, there's only so much of that you can do before it gets old. A big reason why Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep stars some new characters; we need a break from Sora and Riku, they've exhausted us for the time being. We needed to back off before Dream Drop Distance
Yes, all the above plays a factor in my argument, but more than any of that, Riku is inconvenient for one giant reason, and because of that, his existence is astounding.
He likes Kairi.
Yes, that seems obvious, we've known that since the beginning, it's an important part of his rivalry with Sora, it's part of his motivations to join the dark forces, it's a staple of the plot formula I mentioned above. It's not so radical that he likes Kairi.
How could you not like this cutie?

The radical part is that he never stops liking Kairi.
You see why a lot of the characters in Riku's position tend to get eliminated before the story finishes, right? Because it's pretty obvious that Sora and Kairi are going to end up together, then, lo, and behold, they do. If Riku were to come home to the islands, they'll still be three BFF's, but the dichotomy has changed. Sora and Kairi will be a happy couple, and Riku will be the third wheel, which wouldn't be so bad if he didn't still like Kairi himself. The happy ending is marred by Riku's silent love-pining. We are forever forced to ignore the giant elephant in the room that is Riku's breaking heart and increasing awkwardness. I wouldn't be surprised if watching my love and my best friend together every day wouldn't drive me to open up the door to darkness again.
So, if the “wayward best friend” character didn't get killed sacrificing themselves, there are two other common patterns for them. They can somehow “get over” their previous love interest, making it very clear that they're no longer hurt if she goes for the hero. Or, they can find a new love. With two sequels, Disney and Square had a lot of time to do this, but never do. Therefore, we can assume it's deliberate.
Very deliberate. Riku demonstrates on several occasions his devotion and caring for Kairi, and when Kairi and Sora finally reunite in a huggy emotional way, Riku can't take it and has to leave. Every time Kairi is brought up in Riku's presence, you'd think he was the hero expected to get the princess. No, Riku never stops liking Kairi, and the only other girl he interacts with is Namine, who is, sort of, Kairi.
I dare you to look into those big eyes and deny her anything

As a friend put it to me, “Hanging out with Mickey did wonders for Riku's self-esteem, but it did absolutely nothing for his love life.”
This is a weird move for Disney, to have a main character, hero in his own right, be perpetually unhappy. Riku was the protagonist for one game, even, and he needs to have some closure in this department. It's not like Square ran it behind Disney's back, because Disney was very involved in the process, having to, of course, protect their investments. Riku's love life is such a small, simple thing, but it's unusual, and has an effect on the rest of the story. After all, what kind of ending is it if the three friends make it back home, but one of them will never be happy?
It reminds me of Quasimodo, and I kind of hope the acknowledge this if Riku goes to that world in Dream Drop Distance. “I feel you, buddy, I didn't get the girl, either...”
But, that's the most interesting factor in the game, to me. They don't make a big deal about it, it just is. Riku is who he is, and he's not just going to get over Kairi, or transfer affections so quickly. Wouldn't that feel forced an awkward if he did? And so, Riku quietly pines, and everyone quietly pretends not to notice, but the weird part is, Sora and Kairi know. It's so bizarre.
And so, I have to say, it's a brave move for Disney. It's not so unusual for Square, but again, it's pulled off so subtly, and despite being a character who is remarkably inconvenient, Riku becomes one of the deepest and most fascinating characters in the game.
Well played, guys.

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