Kingdom Hearts and Sunk Costs

The Kingdom Hearts series is available across half a dozen Sony and Nintendo systems, plus a mobile/browser game. All entries (or an equivalent digest) are collectively available on Playstation 4.

As an up-front qualifier to the rest of what I’m about to say, I absolutely adore the Kingdom Hearts series and (most of) its associated games.

Just like the strong majority of U.S.-raised children, Disney movies were markedly prevalent throughout my childhood in a positive way. Naturally, the idea of exploring those stores directly and interacting with those characters is a super appealing proposition – especially to eleven-year-old me, just inside the right age bracket to fully buy into doing so through the series’ proxy character.

And the series has really done a lot to live up to that ideal of “Disney magic” time after time. The art direction has always been fantastic, from the cartoonish visuals and vivid animation that squeezed the very best possible presentation out of the Playstation 2’s limited capabilities to the fantastic musical scores by Yoko Shimomura and even the judicious ways in which the series balances established characters and familiar stories against the flavor and interpretation inherent to its own sense of drama.

I’ve been a fan for nearly sixteen years at this point, from preadolescent years where I played the first game over and over again to stretch its value, up until getting giddy over teases of information from the Tokyo Games Show presentation just this week and falling back into the latest entry on the 3DS.

But here’s the rub: I have serious doubts that I would start playing the Kingdom Hearts series if I heard about it for the first time today.

The most in-your-face barrier to entry for the series – and one that gets repeated in nearly every conversation about the games nowadays – lies in its long-form story being a tangled mess at this point. It regularly doubles back over itself to exact retcons, there are dozens of characters to track with names that run the gamut from “normal-ish Japanese” to “amateur fanfiction”, certain elements read as mutually contradictory, and the writing struggles constantly with separating its metaphors from literal interpretations (among other foibles).

Gonna cut that list off right there, ’cause the full version could double the length of this article.

The fact that they had to clarify this on an official livestream is a problem – and this is far from being one of the more confusing aspects of the story.

It certainly doesn’t help the games were spread across five different gaming platforms until some recent re-releases, either. And regardless of accessibility, playing through just about any series of serialized JRPGs is a long undertaking, as the genre is notorious for games that regularly run upwards of fifty hours. As a working adult, playing between five and seven story-relevant installments with each billed that long to be properly caught for the newest blockbuster release just isn’t an appealing proposition.

Granted, many of the mobile Kingdom Hearts games clock in markedly lower than your average JRPG, but realistically I’m liable to get sidetracked exploring every nook and cranny of Aladdin‘s Agrabah and Mulan‘s Land of Dragons, so it all kind of evens out in the end.

Other major franchises definitely share in this problem, especially recently – see Avengers Infinity War (where even the shortlist of directly-relevant films constitutes a full-day movie marathon), or the Yakuza saga of busy, dramatic open-worlders (where the shared history of the characters and setting can constitute a major draw to many players and informs the story in each new release). This is to say nothing of comic book “events”, which are tricky buggers to keep track of before you start to consider the decades of underlying continuity in stacks and stacks of back-issues that few sane folk will read all of.

You can get synopses of the other story-critical games in series to clue you in on important elements, sure – heck, they’ve even started doing this in-game – but there are huge drawbacks to relying on this approach. Mainly, reading a static description of events is way less impactful, nuanced, or easy to recall as getting the story told through its intended form and pacing.

Luckily or unluckily, though, I caught each of the previous Kingdom Hearts games roughly as they were released, which kind of dashes the problems of adding half a dozen games to my already-stagnant backlog or having to a half-dozen games’ worth of story and lore before catching up to next year’s headline, triple-A release. I even generally understand all the running plot threads, regardless of how ridiculous they all sound on reflection.

Which means kind of by default that I’ll play Kingdom Hearts III, right?

Well, that’s a troubled assumption.

(Oh, you couldn’t keep me from playing it on day one if you tried, but for the sake of argument, let’s leave it in doubt.)

Just look at that. Whatever’s got Goofy G. Goof to make a face like that is worth seeingg. Probably?

Jumping back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe example, while luckily that franchise has a strong record of putting out solid hits at this point, it’s a bit dangerous that in just a decade we’re already twenty films deep. Surely at this point there’s a substantial “floor” to their audience where, no matter what clunker they put out, people would just go see any new film in the franchise. IN all fairness, I’m probably in that camp – I’ve spent enough time seeing these particular characters in their film incarnations that it would be a monumental task to resist watching even a Batman v Superman scenario (something I also went to see in theaters, shame on me).

Kingdom Hearts is in exactly the same boat, albeit one carrying a much smaller group of people. This third game is billed as the final part to a series I’ve played for a good few hundred hours, so I’m a bit past the point of being attached. It’d almost feel like a shame if I just dropped the series right near the end after following it for so long, regardless of how well it actually turns out.

Except that, if Kingdom Hearts III ends up being garbage, that becomes a fairly clear model of a sunk cost fallacy.

In reality, I’ve already enjoyed these games plenty, and none of that is going away if I skip out on the next game in line. Even if I’ve already done the legwork to get the most appreciation out of this sequel, all the steps along the way were satisfying enough on their own. I could walk away now and be just as well off.

Except I feel as though I can’t, because I know it’s coming, and I’ve already got the other seven out of eight titles done and under my belt. It’s a nasty mental trick, to feel unable (or at least unwilling) to stop something despite knowing consciously that it’s utterly nonsensical.

Regardless of whether I’m actually in too deep or it just seems that way, Kingdom Hearts kind of gets a pass in the end for its pure gumption and upbeat attitude. There’s a ton of problems with it, sure, and the whole ordeal feels way too self-serious for what is, in effect, mostly a colorful Disney crossover. But throughout all of that, there’s some level where the whole thing feels a bit tongue-in-cheek. The villains’ ridiculous melodramatic speeches are offset by seeing Goofy in plate mail, its questionable logic is countered by main character’s cheerful cluelessness, and its snarled continuity kind of fades away behind the vibrant appearance and snappy action that takes up the lion’s share of playtime.

All of which are probably advantages that I’m more willing to afford it because of how long I’ve spent with the series, I’ll admit. That probably wouldn’t be nearly enough if I was approaching this jumble of story elements with fresh eyes (hell, recent trailers come across as just plain unintelligible to newcomers). But I’ve put a lot of time into playing and thinking about this dumb series, dagnabbit, so I’m seeing this ridiculous train through to the last station.

And hey, there are way worse things to over-invest in than a colorful action game featuring Mickey Mouse.

Granted, the guy has undergone total makeover, but still.

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