Wednesday, 25 September 2013

How Kingdom Hearts III Will Grow Up With Its Players

I’ve got a confession to make: when my 12 year-old self sat down to play Kingdom Hearts for the first time, he wasn’t exactly blown away. I had only recently finished Final Fantasy X and was looking for a title that would have a similarly profound effect on me, but quickly felt concerned about the pacing and comparatively frivolous story beats of the game’s early hours. I also wasn’t totally into seeing some of my favourite video game characters of all time, specifically Tidus, Wakka and Yuna, reimagined as youngsters. An hour in, I didn’t think this was the game for me.

Ten hours later, my eyes starting to itch from exhaustion, I was prepared to accept that I was wrong. Over a decade later and with many more Kingdom Hearts adventures under my belt, it’s fair to say that I completely underestimated how significant a role the series would play in my life. The Kingdom Hearts titles have provided me with more than just happy afternoons whiled away in front of my tellybox; the wider arc that Sora and the series have taken has mirrored the development of both me and my gaming generation.

Revisiting the game for Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMix, series producer Shinji Hashimoto was mindful of the sentimental importance that so many people attach to the franchise. I got the chance to sit down with him just after its launch, and he was quick to acknowledge the pressures of re-releasing the game that kickstarted it all.

The feelings people have towards the series are so deep these days because they spent many of their teenage years, which is a very sensitive period of your personal life, with Kingdom Hearts.

"It’s been 11 years since the original game was out and now we’ll have Kingdom Hearts III at some stage in the future," he said. "The people who played the original game, at the time they were probably around 12 or 13…but now they’re in their twenties.

"While fans of Disney are usually quite young and Final Fantasy players are much older, they come together to create a Kingdom Hearts audience that’s very unique. The feelings people have towards the series are so deep these days because they spent many of their teenage years, which is a very sensitive period of your personal life, with Kingdom Hearts."

With considerable pressure not to screw up millions of gamers’ treasured memories then, the team at Square Enix could probably have done without any additional stress…which is why it’s so unfortunate that many of the original assets for the game were lost. Tetsuya Nomura revealed at E3 this year that the character models from Dream Drop Distance were modified and reincorporated into the game, and Hashimoto acknowledged that this was just one of several issues they faced. He explained, "As the game was originally released more than ten years ago, it was quite difficult even to get all the data! Also, updating the screen size to look its best in the HD format was a challenge, as the ratio is completely different. That kind of detail was hard to do."

But alongside all the complications and worry, Hashimoto and the team also enjoyed an intense feeling of nostalgia. Though most of them have now worked on multiple entries in the series, going back to where it all started was a poignant experience, which is of course the same sentiment he wants to invoke in players. His partner-in-crime on this front is series composer Yoko Shimomura, whose sweeping scores have carried numerous gamers along on tides of emotion for over two decades.

If everyone plays 1.5 HD ReMix and everyone supports us, then 2.5 HD ReMix could happen.

Meeting her, I asked her whether or not she was tempted to rework aspects of the original soundtrack she perhaps wasn’t completely satisfied with. She quickly told me that this never entered her head. From the moment she revisited the tunes she knew they’d stood the test of time; they still had the ability to affect her.

"I felt really nostalgic revisiting my old project, but at the same time I found lots of new things too, things that I’d forgotten doing," she said. "So it somehow felt strangely new, too. It was fun.

"Of course the basic music across the series is all the same in terms of themes and the like, although it does vary slightly depending on which Kingdom Hearts game it is. But I always want to bring something new to the games."

But what of the future of the series? By its very existence, HD 1.5 ReMix creates an expectation that the second cycle of Kingdom Hearts games will be getting the HD treatment. The fact that a series of high-definition clips from Kingdom Hearts II, Birth by Sleep, and Re:coded make an appearance in the closing credits of HD 1.5 ReMix seems to all but confirm Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMix is on the way, but Hashimoto isn’t prepared to make it official just yet. "If everyone plays 1.5 HD ReMix, if everyone likes it and everyone supports us, then 2.5 HD ReMix could happen," he says. "So at this stage, we just have to encourage people to play 1.5 HD ReMix!"

After so many years, the players’ personal growth is closely tied to the game’s story at this point, so that’s the most important thing about the series and what we want to put into [Kingdom Hearts III].

The question on everyone’s lips, however, is when we’ll see Kingdom Hearts III. Though the title was confirmed at long last at E3 this year, Hashimoto reiterated this was more an attempt to reassure fans that the final instalment in Sora’s story is on the way, rather than suggest its arrival is imminent. As we previously reported, the fact that Tetsuya Nomura needs to split his time between Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy XV means the climax of the saga may still be some way off.

One thing Hashimoto point blank refuses to do is rush the game out the door. Picking up the thread of our earlier conversation, he argues that the franchise remains so important to people not just because they played through it during a formative stage of their lives, but also because Sora’s growth and development now mirrors their own. It’s this powerful feature of the series that Square Enix hopes to focus on in Kingdom Hearts III in order to provoke a reaction that is in equal parts nostalgic and reflective.

"The fact is that the main focus of the series is Sora and Riku; how their friendship develops, but also how they grow up," he says. "After so many years, the players’ personal growth is closely tied to the game’s story at this point, so that’s the most important thing about the series and what we want to put into the game. For Kingdom Hearts III, players will be able to resurrect the happy memories they have from being teenagers when playing Kingdom Hearts III. So it’s very contemplative, and will match the personal experiences of much of the audience very closely."

And as long as the series remains this emotionally potent (not to mention lucrative), there’s no sign of it stopping. Kingdom Hearts III may be the end of the trilogy that began over a decade ago, but the franchise is set to continue with other instalments in future. Something I wanted to clear up, though, was Sora’s role in all of this; seeing as most of us have a rapport with that specific character, honed over 11 years, could it be replicated? Or, given that this isn’t Final Fantasy, why not just let him stay on as the series’ protagonist?

"I can’t really say anything about the future beyond Kingdom Hearts III," Hashimoto asserts. "I’m the producer, not the director, so it’s totally out of my hands. It’s up to Tetsuya Nomura whether or not we’ll see Sora in future Kingdom Hearts.

"As I said earlier though, the Kingdom Hearts storyline is designed to mirror the player’s personal experiences. If people play HD 1.5 ReMix they remember what it’s like to be a teenager again, access those memories and experience some enjoyable nostalgia from their past. That theme is something we want to keep with future titles as well. About the characters, we can’t say anything…but that’s the theme we want to continue."

Luke Karmali is IGN's UK Junior Editor and long-time lover of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. You too can revel in mediocrity by following him on IGN and on Twitter.

Source : ign[dot]com

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