Kingdom Hearts has Finally Reached FF Status
Contributed by DJMMT
As a writer myself, I recognize that every great story eventually has to end. I’d even argue that the mark of a great story is that it ends so well that the audience is sad to see it end but also feels completely satisfied in its conclusion. Shows like One Piece that never seem to end are outlier exceptions. But at the same time, every corporation in the entertainment industry producing story-based content actively works against the idea of stories ending. Everything successful from Star Wars to Superman never seems to end. While there are a number of reasons for this, one of if not the largest contributing factor is marketing value. It’s hard to launch a new IP. It takes a lot of effort and money to convince people to buy something they’ve never seen before, even if it’s genuinely good. It’s a lot easier to sell someone something they’re already a fan of. That’s why Kratos is still the God of War, even though they absolutely could have made an entirely new franchise or changed the protagonist. That’s why they just announced another Tomb Raider game, even though Crystal Dynamics already said they were done with Lara Croft’s story with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It’s easier to get people to buy a sequel, prequel, or even remake of a game series they already know is good than to try to make an entirely new IP. That’s also why Square Enix keeps using the name Final Fantasy even though the various games have nothing to do with each other a majority of the time.
In my estimation, the goal of every developer/publisher is to create a franchise that reaches what I refer to as “Final Fantasy status”. To clarify, what I mean by Final Fantasy status is the ability to sell games under a specific IP name that will sell in large numbers even if the actual game has nothing to do with previous titles in the franchise. Final Fantasy is no longer a reference to a specific game. It’s a reference to a brand. The IP has reached a point where they could release any type of game in any genre on any platform and millions of people will buy it simply because it has the name Final Fantasy slapped on it. There’s even a Final Fantasy themed kart racer on Switch. What’s important is not the number of games in the FF franchise. It’s the fact that the brand is so strong that the games don’t even really have to be related to each other but still all make insane profits simply because of the name Final Fantasy slapped onto them. This is where every developer/publisher wants every game franchise to be. They want to be able to make a game that can have literally nothing to do with previous games, slap a brand name on it, and still generate sales from that established, loyal fanbase. For every big player in the game’s industry, that’s the dream. There are already a number of franchises that have reached this status. Obviously Final Fantasy, but I’d also include Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, and now Kingdom Hearts, among others.
I hadn’t realized this about Kingdom Hearts until the recent announcement of a fourth main installment, an expansion to a long running mobile game, and an entirely new mobile game all set in different worlds with almost completely unrelated stories, all in the same presentation. There’s a long running joke among Kingdom Hearts fans that it’s nearly impossible to explain what the franchise is actually about. Having played every console release title, save one (Melody of Memory is in my backlog), and quite a bit of one of the mobile games at one time, I wholeheartedly agree with this meme. The reality is that while Kingdom Hearts games have story content, the franchise as a whole isn’t really about anything. Or maybe it’s about everything. It’s impossible to say at this point. Yet we keep buying the games. When I heard they had announced another KH game, I was genuinely angry. I played the original Kingdom Hearts on PS2. I still remember picking it up from GameStop on the day it released in the US. It might sound crazy now, but the honest to God reason I bought the game was for the story. The idea of a Final Fantasy story with Disney characters sounded awesome to me. And it was! The first Kingdom Hearts was an amazing narrative, visual, audio, and gameplay experience. Even the PS4 port is great, because the game has aged beautifully. It was and is a phenomenal game based on a genius concept. And the second game was great too. But after that, things got out of hand.
The major problem with Kingdom Hearts games since Kingdom Hearts II is that most of them aren’t about what the original premise that the franchise was built on. They’re certainly stories. Sometimes they even mention important details from the original games. But more often than not, they’re completely unrelated. Now they’re even just rehashing old games and selling them as new games for full price. And no I’m not talking about rereleases. I’m talking about completely different games like Melody of Memory. That’s literally a music game where you just rehash the story of past games with additional story content added. But even that’s not as bad as projects like Union X that are just stories about other things with other characters you’ve never heard of set in the same world. Or should I say universe? Or now multi-verse? More than one of the games in the franchise doesn’t even mention Sora, Donald, Goofy, or Mickey. And yet, people, like me, keep buying these games.
Like I said, I was unhappy with the announcement of KH4. Because it meant that the story still isn’t over. I actually like when stories conclude. I like the satisfaction of knowing I’ve completed the entire adventure. But Kingdom Hearts just won’t give me that. I could have accepted the idea of new games not starring Sora, because honestly I still only care about his story. Or more accurately his story as it’s tied to Donald, Goofy, and Mickey. So if KH4 had been starring a completely new protagonist that I didn’t care about, I might have been able to just ignore it and be done with the franchise. But of course it has Sora in it. They know exactly how to reel us long time fans back in. I didn’t want to consider it. Even with Sora present, I considered ignoring it. Then I watched the gameplay and hell if I wasn’t immediately sold. The gameplay looks great. Sora is still in the games. That’s how you sell me a Kingdom Hearts game 20 years later. But let’s consider that I’m an OG.
I said from the beginning that true Final Fantasy status is when the story doesn’t even matter anymore. Games can just release with the name of the IP and they sell. Kingdom Hearts is already there for a lot of people. It’s not for me, because I started at the beginning with a genuine interest in the story. The only reason I played all those random spin-off games is because I was told it connects to the story. And arguably it all does in a way. But what about all the players who started after Kingdom Hearts II? They weren’t sold on the story. They were sold mostly on the graphics, gameplay, and Disney references. Because by then the story was already known to be incoherent. Those are the people who do buy KH games just because they sport the IP name. That’s Final Fantasy status. And the more games with the name that get released with even more convoluted and unrelated stories, the less people will care about how unrelated and incoherent they are. That’s how you solidify Final Fantasy status.
It's interesting but not ultimately surprising that Square Enix would be able to build another franchise to the point of FF status. It’s funny that it’s a franchise that’s literally tied directly to FF. But ultimately I don’t see this trend as a good thing. Franchises no longer having to tie coherent narratives together and just milking names for astronomical profits is a net loss for people like me who actually care about the stories in games. But this trajectory should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. They’ve been training the next generations of gamers to not care about stories for more than a decade. It’s extremely common to find people online saying they don’t even care if a game’s story is bad. People today commonly buy JRPGs and skip all the dialog and cutscenes. Honestly, it’s a disgrace. But it’s not uncommon. Yet I wouldn’t even say Square Enix is the most responsible for this trend, even though they’re the ones who arguably started it all. Companies like EA and Ubisoft have way more franchises that are built around names that don’t actually mean anything to the game’s story. Kingdom Hearts is the next one, but they can at least say they earned it. There was a story there at one point that traversed the length of multiple games. In the future, they’re not even going to try anymore. The irony that Final Fantasy did it on a whim thinking they were going out of business and now it’s a business model.