With the release of Kingdom Hearts 3 (KH3), a game I’ve wanted pretty much since KH2 came out in 2005, I’ve really been thinking about the role of an expanded universe of titles on various franchises. Expanded universes exist in all forms of media, including comic books, books, TV shows, movies, audio dramas, and video games. And we generally love them for it. Fantasy and science fiction fans seem especially drawn to expanded universes. As someone who often says “I want to write all the stories” of the worlds I create, the bigger question is why not explore these amazing universes to their fullest?
Expanded universes also allow stories that might otherwise be lost amidst the main plotlines to be told. Beloved side characters can be pushed front and center or impactful backstories explored. The richer the world, the more there is to tell.
I’m going to be using expanded universe fairly interchangeably with shared universe, as I see them as generally the same with only a few smaller differences.
But there is a danger to expanded universe titles, and its impact depends on whether or not the expanded universe exists to tell stories of side characters or backstory surrounding a single major narrative (such as the Bioware novels) or if it exists to allow each story its own spotlight within a greater universe (such as the Marvel/DC multiverses).
The danger: money.
It is the business of entertainment to make money, and expanded universes can make a lot. And most of the time, I’m okay with it because I’m paying to be entertained. I also happen to love a lot of side characters and want to have stories that focus on them.
The system works when both sides get what they want in the transaction. Expanded universes are in danger here when the quality of the universe drops simply so that whoever is selling it can continue to milk that particular cow. That too, can work within the system when the consumer simply refuses to buy sub-par content. (I’m looking at you, Disney.)
The problem arises when vital information to the story you want to follow (whether a primary narrative the universe revolves around or a single story weaved alongside other stories) is placed in sub-par titles, forcing the consumer to purchase all parts of the expanded universe in order to understand the story.
On this, I must find the Kingdom Hearts franchise 100% guilty. Worse yet, they are guilty of it cross platform since most of the side games were originally released for different devices, from Gameboy Advance to PSP to Nintendo DS. They were eventually remastered for both the PS3 and PS4, but if you wanted to follow the series as it was released, you had to not only buy the games, but sometimes the device needed to play it.
Some might say that you don’t need to play these other games to enjoy and play the primary titles KH, KH2, and KH3. They are side stories expanding on the universe. And at first that was true . . . to a point. The first side game was Chain of Memories which was not needed to understand KH2, even though it explained how Sora ended up sleeping at the beginning, and it offered something unique in that after playing Sora’s story you could then flip and play Riku’s, which I did, no matter how horrible the mechanics were. (Have you figured out my favorite KH character, yet?) So it fulfilled its purpose.
Next came 358/2 Days, which expanded out Roxas and Axel’s stories, as well as what happened to Organization XIII. Again, this came out after KH2 and is not really necessary to understand it, so if its style of gameplay bothered you (I just couldn’t finish it) or you didn’t have the device it was on, not too much was lost from the main narrative.
That being said, if you play (or watch the cutscenes for) both Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days, a great deal of the rather confusing details in KH2 make substantially more sense (like why Riku was Ansem in body again). Since these were merely annoying and not detrimental to the plot, I can still place them as okay side games in an expanded universe.
Now here’s where things get tricky. There were only three years between the release of KH and KH2, but there’s a fifteen year gap between KH2 and the current release of KH3. Square Enix wasn’t about to let people lose complete interest in the franchise, but how to do that in a way that would both make people want to play and not interfere with the plans for the plot of KH3?
They started with 358/2 Days, which cleared up a lot of confusing threads in KH2, moved on to Birth By Sleep (which I’ll be getting into later), then RE:coded, Dream Drop Distance, X, and Unchained X. Since I’m currently only up to Dream Drop Distance, I won’t be discussing X or Unchained X in this, but the franchise’s sins are clear enough even up to this point.
I hadn’t intended to play any of the other side games after Chain of Memories and my original attempt at 358/2 Days. I was ready to delve straight into KH3 and continue the primary narrative. And then I played the opening and training sequence, watched the “help me remember” pieces for anything I might have forgotten, and realized I felt entirely lost in the story. I had no idea who the main baddie they kept referring to was, and it seemed like I’d never been exposed to whole chunks of necessary information.
This bothered me a lot. So I decided that I’d go back and watch the cutscene movies to a few of the other games. I had known that Birth by Sleep came before KH, but didn’t realize it was going to be referenced to KH3. It had been marketed more as learning more about the world of KH before Sora. And RE:Coded had always felt like a way to grab more money by reselling the first game “slightly different.” Now, I went back.
I started by watching the rest of the cutscenes to 358/2 Days. (Okay, I admit I skipped most of it and just watched the Riku parts. “Help me Remember” in KH3 did a good job of summarizing that title.) I then moved on to RE:Coded, feeling it would have absolutely no new info, but figuring I’d better check anyway.
A little more than two hours of me ranting a play by play of that awful story to my friend, which included a great deal of Matrix references, I ended screaming about the secret ending actually having real information that helps make other games make sense, like Dream Drop Distance and the end of KH2. Yes, it was minor, but I’d been very confused watching the “Help Me Remember” trying to figure out how Sora and gang learned about Xehanort. This scene in combination with the ending of RE:Coded explain that, and what was in the letter Mickey sends to the Island at the end of KH2. Annoyed how these little pieces of information have been stuck in an incredibly sub-par game, I moved on to Birth by Sleep, expecting a history lesson.
I don’t know who marketed Birth by Sleep, but I did not get what I expected. They focused so much on this mysterious Keyblade War in promos (something that is already long in the past to these characters) and completely ignored how vital this game is to understanding not only all the things that happen that directly influence how Sora, Riku, and Kairi ended up the way they did in KH1, but who Xehanort is and how Ansem and Xemnas came to exist from him. And, given what I’ve seen so far, Aqua’s story is going to continue in KH3.
Birth by Sleep should have been developed for the console and marketed as another important installment of the series for all you need to know to understand what happens before KH3. That being said, I still ended up fast forwarding through most of the world cutscenes because in the end they were the same kind of content as every other KH game. I don’t know that I’d have enjoyed playing this game as much as I did watching the story unfold.
I’m now playing Dream Drop Distance through the KH 2.8 game, because as much of a money grab as it is, it allows me to pay as Riku, which is all I’ve ever wanted in the KH games. Sora, I find, is not nearly as interesting. And it also gives more explanation of the state of the KH universe after KH2, who Xehanort is, and how Sora and Riku are preparing to face off against him. Things that, I have no doubt, will matter to KH3. But the game is still sub-par, redeemed in my opinion only by the fun I have playing as Riku. The gameplay itself is monotonous and the story is exceedingly thin and repetitive from all other KH games.
[Edit: I’ve now finished Dream Drop Distance and while the first half was very derivative of all KH games, the second half actually offered new worlds, such as Three Musketeers (Mickey, Donald, and Goofy) and Fantasia, which was more enjoyable. And the later main plot offered a lot of character growth for Riku, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and a lot of very important information leading up to KH3. I’m now putting this in line with Birth by Sleep in that it should have been made for the console and marketed as vital to the lore. That being said, the gameplay and worlds’ stories needed a great deal of improvement to be a decent game.]
Square Enix, I promise you if you remake all the KH games from Riku’s POV, I will buy them and play them and love them. Riku Forever!
But once again, vital information has been placed in side games that not everyone would or could play. And the creators know it. That is why they pulled all the cutscenes into movies and bundled them into the KH 1.5 & 2.5 game so people could watch instead of playing. If you want to completely understand the story, even major things like who the villain is and what he intendeds to do, you need little pieces of all the games, many not up to the price of purchasing them even for the cutscene movies (I watched them on YouTube).
This is an expanded universe that started well, but the time between KH2 and KH3 got to the point that each subsequent game only replayed the same stories in the same worlds with the same (or worse) mechanics, and had just enough important information snuck in there that when KH3 finally came out, they could bundle the games all up and say, hey you need this to understand the next game, so buy it all here, you don’t even have to play the games if you don’t want. The money grab is so obvious that it actually diminishes the value of the games themselves.
I am curious what X and Unchained X will end up being (they are movies in KH 2.8 I believe, and if they aren’t I’d rather find them on Youtube than play the games), as well as this extra “episode” that supposedly “leads right up to KH3,” which of course you can only get legally through KH 2.8. But once done, I plan to replay the opening of KH3 and I have a feeling things will make a lot more sense.
Kingdom Hearts may have used its expanded universe to draw out a franchise into sub-par games while they waited for KH3 to finish, but there are plenty of wonderful expanded universes out there. Which are your favorite, or least favorite, universes to explore?
Update: So I’ve now finished watching/playing all the properties including finding a very useful Youtube video explaining all the X properties, and went back to KH3. My reaction?
I was surprised how much of a change it was to view the opening song sequence now. The first time left me confused and I had little emotional connection to what was happening. Now that I’ve caught up on all the games I can see what they were intending the viewer to feel. I could connect with all the characters as they appeared and made sense of the bits of story presented, even the opening talk over the chess game. The opening resonated extraordinarily well, but I had to know almost all the properties to get the intended effect.
It only makes me feel more than ever that they should have made several of these games on the consoles, at full production budget, and marketed as KH3, KH4, etc., because their stories really are important but their gameplay/worlds are boring and repetitive.
Tip for people going into KH3: You need to know Dream Drop Distance. The story starts almost immediately after it and references plot points from it, but never bothers to explain what happened. So if you aren’t aware of the story from Dream Drop Distance, you won’t understand what happened to Sora that has triggered his current situation.