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Traditional Media ► Kingdom Hearts and Intertextuality

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Jul 27, 2013
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Recently, someone asked me to justify my fondness for Kingdom Hearts and elaborate on what place it has in Video Game history. In making this video, I aimed to discover the important role of intertextuality in Kingdom Hearts and how it influenced the game's production and lasting legacy. I tried to emphasise the franchise's need to attain its own identity in spite of its association with existing properties. I admit I could be wrong here and a lot of this is my own speculation. I simply wanted to dive a little deeper into what makes the games appealing in a general sense. Obviously this won't apply to everyone.

Let me know your thoughts on the appeal of KH.


For those that would rather not watch the video, here is the full essay:

Kingdom Hearts and Intertextuality

Our media-saturated society is certainly one that is well-acquainted with the device of intertextuality. Few media texts, be they films, books or video games can escape from being colluded with the works of the past - even if unintentionally or vicariously through the opinions of critics and consumers. More than most texts today partake in references, cameos, reboots and remakes. This conscious infusion of contemporary and classic has pervaded all mediums of art and a number of established genres. You can even argue that genre itself is an exercise in paying homage to or ‘reimagining’ previous texts, but nowhere is the device of intertextuality more prominent than that in the genre of the crossover.

In many ways, crossovers are analogous to wish fulfilment, they are the equivalent of a child smashing different toys together and coming up with their own story. Thus, without being too patronising, this analogy leads us towards the idea that the genre of the crossover inherently involves a type of narrative that is contingent on a creative immaturity, usually appealing to those of young age that are not yet interested enough in storytelling to embrace new and unfamiliar types of stories. Enter Kingdom Hearts: released in 2004, the first Kingdom Hearts was a fusion of niche and mainstream, of east and west, of whimsical-ness and angst, of fantasy violence and adolescent sentimentality; it was a kaleidoscope of bizarre and conflicting elements, but it was also a gift to the young generation of its time.

To many, especially its Western audience, the Disney element was the primary appeal, and this much can be understood from the game’s marketing in the West; the established Disney figures emblazoned the game with a colourful sheen of nostalgia, meanwhile Square Enix (still running as Squaresoft at the time) simultaneously lured the player into a very different story removed from the intertextual narratives of these classic animated films. Importantly, in its conceptual stage, the game was originally going to feature Mickey Mouse as the main protagonist before shifting to an adolescent boy instead; it was only the shoes, gloves and Mickey’s red, white and yellow colour scheme that stayed. The figure of Sora is an interesting one. In Japanese, Sora means Sky, so, appropriately, he functions as the sky which connects the hearts of people, but he also represents the connection between the player and the game, between Western and Eastern sensibilities and between childhood and adolescence. On this latter point, Kingdom Hearts may well be one of the greatest Bildungsromans ever made in the medium of gaming, taking its young characters through an arc that teaches them the value of compassion, friendship, and inner-strength. And the way in which it does this is intrinsically bound to its use of intertextuality.

In our investigation of the intertextual elements of Kingdom Hearts, we must take care not to make the mistake of missing the independent meaning. By focusing purely on the intertextual element we may miss what the creator is attempting to say with those elements. Intertextuality goes beyond mere reference to pre-existing works – rather it involves a series of signified concepts being perpetuated with signifiers (which are audio-visual symbols and signs). The Key, the crown, the heart, recurring musical themes and motifs, words (Destati), phrases (thinking of you wherever you are), patterns of 3 (groups of 3 friends), even symbols and emblems themselves (emblems, X blade, etc) become an essential component of the shared universe. Now you could argue that any text is structured by a patchwork of concepts and signifiers, but the world of Kingdom Hearts is a special case, something of an exercise in intertextual meaning making, a kind of meta-intertext; the games go from relying on intertextual references to other (external) texts to a growing reliance on references to its own sequels, prequels and interquels. With each new instalment, Kingdom Hearts as its own entity is fighting for autonomy, it occupies a bizarre grey area on the continuum, dependent on its shared universe of intertextual references while striving to be recognised as its own being. This is why, I feel, the original worlds of the game (that is, those not based on Disney) are so memorable, so much thought goes into making these places truly iconic, they are distinctive, like the diverse worlds of a Super Mario game: Towns, Cities, Islands, castles, Caves and strange planes of in-between existence.

And then there is the use of the archetypal narrative, drawing on those of established tales; the motif of the journey, the odyssey, the strength of heart and friendship overcoming self-interest and evil. Kingdom Hearts is many things; it is an allegory, a coming of age narrative, a cautionary tale, even a morality text - but it is also a video game, made to be fun, to entertain, to distract, to provide escapism. Above all, this escapism comes from the identification of character. Aimed at young teens, the character-types of Kingdom Hearts, reflect perfectly the typical concerns and anxieties of adolescent life: the feeling of entrapment, of having no identity, resisting temptation and the difficulties of making new friends while staying close to old ones. Being trapped on my very own island during my adolescence, I was able to fit into these characters effortlessly, their problems were my problems and I envied how easily they could attach to others. Appropriately for a game targeted at young teens, there is a focus on learning lessons, of overcoming jealousy and pride and recognising the delicate intricacies of the human heart and the soul: we are all our own person, even though we might be told that we are one thirteenth, or fourteenth, of an external whole.

And it is the intertextual Disney element, I feel, that emphasises this need for individuality; each world brings something new to the table, a different theme, a new objective or mechanic; Deep Jungle has a focus on exploration, Wonderland has the player solving puzzles, Olympus Coliseum focuses on combat while 100 Acre Wood is an arena of combat-free minigames. Each new world becomes a vehicle for the developers to try something new with the mechanics of the game, the Disney paintjob on this Japanese RPG is incidental. Moreover, the paintjob itself is something of a one trick pony. The true appeal of Kingdom Hearts (as it were) is what keeps fans coming back, or rather, its continued neglect and evasion explains the gradual decline in its popularity. Apart from the novelty of exploring Disney worlds, the true appeal of Kingdom Hearts was never about pandering to our prior knowledge and experience of these films; rather the Disney element is a backdrop, a smokescreen, something to keep the young mind entertained as the real work is achieved behind the scenes without them even being aware of it. I would argue an important function of Kingdom Hearts is to introduce the young, western mind to Japanese video games, it is a gateway JRPG that puts Mickey Mouse and Sephiroth within the same universe.

It’s silly, but it knows its silly; and that doesn’t stop it from trying to tell a relatable story in spite of this. It is, perhaps, that deadpan, tongue in cheek approach to its bizarre world that makes up the real appeal of Kingdom Hearts. Although, on paper it is a superficially constructed amalgamation of pop culture, the game nonetheless manages to establish its own identity among its contemporaries. To excuse the disgusting pun, It is only by looking into the heart of the matter that we might see this quirky gateway JRPG as something truly special.


信じているの... ♪
Oct 21, 2011
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This deserves more recognition. You clearly put a lot of effort into this video, and I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on its self-aware intertextuality. It wasn't the first, but it definitely aided in boosting crossover material mainstream. We're flush with this genre now, collaborations as far as the eye can see. Though I discovered Final Fantasy earlier, I still recognize KH for its power to bridge cultural elements.
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