‘Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days’ and ‘Re:coded:’ Why Video Games are Not Movies
Medium-bending in fiction is not a new idea. People experiment with it all the time, whether that be Black Mirror adopting a choose-your-own-adventure game format, or television miniseries being treated more as films than as serials. Right now, at this very moment, someone on this planet is holding on to the belief that Twin Peaks: The Return is really just an eighteen hour-long movie, and that’s not unfounded. The lines between storytelling mediums are only as defined as we make them out to be, and any story could ultimately be told in any medium with the proper treatment. So, why not cross mediums? Why not, for example, take something that was originally a video game and mold it into something a bit more… cinematic?
Over the past couple months, I’ve been revisiting a real guilty pleasure of mine: the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Oh, Kingdom Hearts. A series of very fun action JRPGs with a really, really messy plot. As it happens, I’m into messy plots, so this series is my drug. I literally cannot get enough of it.
That being said, I’ve run into a bit of a problem. You see, the games in this series were released on many different consoles, with varying degrees of modern cultural relevancy. The PS2, Game Boy Advance, DS, PSP, 3DS, and PS4 have all been home to various Kingdom Hearts titles. Gracefully, however, Square Enix decided to throw the fandom a bone and release the 1.5, 2.5, and 2.8 remix collections, effectively porting the entire series to the PS3 and PS4. I managed to snag the 1.5 and 2.5 collection bundle for fifteen bucks, and have had the pleasure of playing through four great titles on my PS5.
Well, therein lies the problem. The Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5 collections each contain two fully playable games: Kingdom Hearts and Re:chain of Memories from the 1.5 collection, and Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep from the 2.5 collection. But each collection also contains a third game — a game that is not playable, but rather watchable, as a gallery of all of the cutscenes in sequence. These games were originally playable on the Nintendo DS, and due to the impracticality of porting a game designed to be played with two screens onto a single screen, their cutscenes were simply remastered in HD and attached to their respective remix collections: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days on the 1.5, and Kingdom Hearts Re:coded on the 2.5.
This wouldn’t be such a major deal, if it weren’t for the fact that every single Kingdom Hearts franchise entry is absolutely essential to understanding the overall plot. 358/2 Days is especially important, as it sets up the motivation for the character Axel, who plays an important role in every main game in the series starting with Chain of Memories. 358/2 Days also fills an important gap in the story between Kingdom Hearts I and II, detailing the life of the character Roxas, and providing needed context to his introductory chapter in the second game. Re:coded, meanwhile, fills the gap between Kingdom Hearts 2 and Dream Drop Distance, while also providing catharsis for story beats set up in 358/2 Days and Birth by Sleep.
To complicate matters even more, these cutscene collections are about three hours long. Each. I had to dedicate an amount of time equivalent to the first two Godfather films in order to watch both of these. For all intents and purposes, these two games are presented in their respective collections not as games, but as films. As a blend of two disparate mediums.
Now, I have never played 358/2 Days or Re:coded in their original DS versions. I have only watched the cutscene collections. I hope that I can provide some insight into what it is like to watch a video game as a film, and tell you how it generally fails to have the same impact as both a regular film and a regular game. For the most part.
Video games are a tricky medium to quantify in the same way that one might quantify a film. While both games and films can be effective at telling a story, games rely on the extra component of interactivity to draw the player in. Games are also often relying on players to stick with them for dozens of hours on end to finish the story, where a film typically only requires two. If the gameplay itself isn’t satisfying, the resultant game’s story can only carry it so far. Kingdom Hearts I is a great example of a game with a phenomenal story and phenomenal gameplay. The two work in synergy with one-another to invest the player even deeper into the world.
When you strip that gameplay away, though, things can get a bit tricky. Especially in later installments, these games have incredibly convoluted stories that make little sense from moment to moment. It can be a struggle to orient yourself in why exactly you’re questing with Peter Pan and his army of five year-olds when you don’t understand why the anime protagonist du jour looks exactly like the anime protagonist from two games ago even though this game is a prequel, and also the bad guy looks like the protagonist from the first game, which doesn’t really make sense? And why is Xehanort an old guy when he was young in Kingdom Hearts II, which is set 10 years after this game?
Did you follow any of that? No? Then you understand what I mean.
Suffice it to say, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days doesn’t have the easiest premise to get behind at first blush. It’s a prequel to Kingdom Hearts II that centers around Roxas, the Nobody of the first game’s protagonist, Sora. For the uninitiated, a Nobody is basically the living husk of someone’s body left behind after they die. Roxas and his friends Axel and Xion go on adventures and have gay teen angst, all the while Xemnas (KH2 villain and main series villain Xehanort’s Nobody) is scheming to use Xion to permanently keep Sora in a coma from the events of Chain of Memories. It’s pretty heady, and entirely reliant upon previous games to inform the player’s investment in the characters. The only reason I can think of for Axel being Roxas’ best friend is because he was already the fan favorite bad boy, and the writers needed to balance out the kind of lackluster investment players had in Roxas from his overlong prologue in KH2.
When you have a story that is so heavily tied to not only other games, but also the very concept of it being a video game, and then you try to convert it into an easily watchable film format… you run into some problems. First of all, the gameplay is the most important part of your game, so how do you pad out the gaps between cutscenes when you take the gameplay away? If you’re Tetsuya Nomura, the answer is placing chunks of text in-between cutscenes to explain to the viewer what the heck happened. This provides very little information to the viewer, because these aren’t drawn out and detailed dramatizations of the gameplay, but rather short, snappy Wikipedia summaries. All things considered, this is the absolute biggest problem with the 358/2 Days film.
Obviously, there is room for someone to get the full experience of a game without having to actually play it. Lets plays are such a popular format because they allow a viewer to invest themselves into a video game without having to belly up to a $60 price tag. That being said, you would be much better served watching a lets play of 358/2 Days than watching a collection of the cutscenes, even if the former isn’t in HD.
358/2 Days is structured around the passing of time day by day across 358 days, as the title suggests. When playing the game, my understanding is that the missions take place on various numbered days in this time span, with the final mission occurring on the 358th day. In the film version, this translates to very, very frequent transitions telling us which day we are on, with very, very short scenes padding out these transitions. It gets repetitive and tiring very quick, and it’s hard to feel invested in something so disinterested in getting you invested in the first place. It doesn’t help that the principal trio’s bonding moments take place entirely on top of the Twilight Town clock tower, and never in any other location. In the game, this is likely different, and you probably feel attached to the characters through the gameplay. Funny how that works. Instead, we have repetitive character building scenes that happen one after the other after the other — less of a structured narrative, more like a YouTube compilation of the best moments from the game.
The final boss encounter is especially disheartening, because you don’t even get to see it. At the very least, you’d think that the developers would have the foresight to render an in-engine fight scene so that the viewers have something to watch and feel invested in. But no, Roxas has an encounter with Xion on top of the clock tower, she monologues to him for a second, and then… the screen fades to black, and we reopen immediately on what happens after the final battle. That has to be the biggest slap in the face to anyone who played the video game and was expecting to relive their experience in a film format.
I’m primarily dumping on 358/2 Days, because Re:coded addressed a lot of the issues that I had with the first film recreation. There are very few text blocks explaining what happened in the gameplay, and the text that is there is in the second person, addressed to Sora, and narrated by Mickey Mouse. This makes it at least a little entertaining, as I’m not just expected to read an entire novel to understand what’s going on. Mercifully, there are only three or four of these in the entirety of Re:coded, so there’s not much for me to complain about.
Overall, Re:coded’s film is much more coherent. There are still some obvious gaps where there would normally be gameplay, but there do seem to be cutscenes of what would be boss fights added in to make the mere experience of watching the film more enjoyable. However, this creates its own host of problems. Video games typically do a lot of legwork to convince the player that the boss they’re about to fight is super hard, and accordingly a boss is usually pretty challenging and takes at least a couple minutes to beat. Unfortunately, without the gameplay, you have all this buildup that resolves in a 15-second sequence of Sora swinging around his keyblade a bit, and then the fight is over. At best, this feels anticlimactic, and at worst it feels endemic of the same problem that plagued 358/2 Days’ disappointing final encounter.
Re:coded’s structure also leaves a lot to be desired. It is roughly split into three parts, each part retreading the same six locations: first, Data Sora (the entire thing is a simulation, by the way) travels through simulated recreations of Destiny Islands, Traverse Town, Wonderland, Agrabah, Olympus Coliseum, and Hollow Bastion. Then, Data Sora travels inside of Data Riku’s memories of Data Sora’s own journey to these six worlds. Finally, Data Sora goes to Castle Oblivion, where he journeys through his memories of the six worlds he’s already been to twice, all the while progressively losing those memories. In theory, these worlds are separated in the gameplay by a relative level of challenge. While watching the film version, however, you really get the sense that the runtime of the game was just being padded to give the illusion of variety. Many, many times throughout Re:coded, I was under the impression that I was at the end, only to be baffled when I found out that I wasn’t even halfway done, or that I still had one third of the way to go. The gag gets tired pretty quickly.
That being said, I was impressed by just how meditative Re:coded was, in a way that I feel the game wouldn’t be. In a way, it exercised an incredible restraint. Its long stretches of time without any action, compounded with its high-concept dialogue, leads me to rather embarassingly draw a comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. In the end, Data Sora finds out some information that will ultimately help the real Sora end his existential turmoil, but should that give us pause? Data Sora has been hurtling towards his own demise since the very beginning — when the game ends and Mickey figures out what’s wrong with Jiminy’s journal, Data Sora ceases to be. The computer is simply turned off. Is his existence not meaningful in its own right? Is his journey through the real Sora’s memories not meaningful enough to justify his continued sentience?
While I don’t think these themes are necessarily lost upon someone who played the game, I think stripping away the player’s agency does work to great effect in amplifying the hopelessness of Data Sora’s journey. Does that mean Re:coded is better as a film than a game? I can’t say, since I haven’t played it, and I am inclined to say that anything designed as a video game obviously works better as a video game. Nevertheless… this strange film experiment leaves me puzzled.
The developers of Kingdom Hearts almost certainly didn’t set out to create a cinematic quandary when they turned 358/2 Days and Re:coded into films, but that certainly is the end result. What information we glean from these titles in their film format is ultimately and intrinsically different from what we glean from them in the video game format. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the medium is the message. Whether a lack of player agency informs a sense of hopelessness or one of tedium, and whether a lack of on-screen action feels meditative or anticlimactic, the fact of the matter is that these film versions of video games are their own independent products from the games that they came from — for better or for worse.
But seriously, just port the games to PS4. Please.