Kingdom Hearts 1 – Richard Garriott Flipping You Off from Space

kh1marathon-2015-04-07-11h48m59s143It’s here that the tutorial begins: the Dive to the Heart, or “Awakening” as far as the menu is concerned. Now, let me start by saying that Kingdom Hearts has one of the most memorable tutorials of all time. Let me follow that up by saying that I feel it is in no way an effective tutorial. The criteria is not the same.

It’s hard to define exactly what makes up the best possible tutorial. These days, people seem to favour tutorials that introduce concepts as naturally and unobtrusively as possible, with redundant documentation in the menu in case you need to repeat. KH1 does not provide the latter (the series wouldn’t start until Days), and its tutorial is absolutely obtrusive and is only “quick” if you ignore all the complications. It’s flash and glam mixed with unexplained complexity – a bunch of ribbons hot glued to a math text.

Before we talk about the nice points, we should talk about the basic problems. First off, its structure. The player is stopped dead whenever the game talks, asked to perform a three second task, and then stopped again. Jerk, stop, jerk, stop, walk-jerk, stop. After the tutorial is complete, Kingdom Hearts lets you loose in a practice course, an easy Stage 1 that lets you play with everything you’ve learned in the tutorial, but that’s only after you’ve cleared this game of red-light-green-light. I’ve seen two separate players, both experienced gamers, forget at least one basic lessons of this tutorial after finishing it, so it just goes to show.

kh1marathon-2015-04-07-16h14m50s164It’s the aesthetics that make the tutorial memorable, even if they’re used to excuse some bad design decisions. The Dive to the Heart weaves through five “Stations of Awakening”: stained glass platforms like the one Sora landed on in the opening cinematic. Four of the platforms depict Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, and Belle from Beauty and the Beast. The third station, found between Cinderella and Aurora, is more curious, depicting three silhouetted princesses framed by hearts. This gives us a total of seven princesses. These three silhouettes are symbolic, so don’t stare too hard trying to work out who is who. This little bit of symbolism is some nice foreshadowing, and in a clever touch, the game chooses to use this silhouetted Station of Awakening for its longest tutorial to make sure you notice it. Your eyes will probably wander and catch sight of the silhouettes. Your eyes will also want to wander because you will be bored, as this is the Station where the game asks you to perform fundamentals like pushing boxes and opening chests, all in one place so the tedium will pool and fester. It’s not just a gag, I really mean it and almost suspect the devs were aware of it (but with a positive spin!). Ah, the old Disney magic.

One factor that does (generally) work about the tutorial is the voice giving you orders. This Voice speaks into Sora’s head, and seems to be some kind of guiding spirit or force. The Voice serves as your only guide and interpreter in the dreamscape, and the game goes so far as to give your most technical instructions in a separate style of prompt so the game won’t break its ethereal persona. You’re going to need our friend The Voice to get through to the other side, because there is a lot going on in the Dive to the Heart that doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t take long for KH1 to stub your toe on all the cruft.

Dull tutorials are one thing, but KH1 reveals its real toe-stubber when it tries to do a character creation segment. If you caught the FFI Journal’s first chapter, you already know how I feel about features like this, but I’m going to go into it a little more in-depth here. That’s the nature of these Retrospectives versus the Journals I also host on this blog: Journals are based on a first impression, Retrospectives on familiarity and depth.

Character creation systems are the kind of feature that add heavily to replay value, and can even be a snazzy way to jazz up a tutorial. KH1’s even adds to the narrative by implying that Sora is here at the Stations of Awakening to awaken some inner power, so the character creation is him focusing that power. Very nice! But nearly everything about this character customization system itself is off somehow. Off, and carrying the weight of compounded problems. Most of these are problems shared with all front-loaded character creation segments: chiefly, the game is asking you to decide your character makeup before ever playing the game. I like character customization on second playthroughs, but on first playthroughs, they just bog down the game with opaque questions.

kh1marathon-2015-04-07-16h15m01s18The kind of opaque question depends on design style. In a modern character creation system, it’s not uncommon to be plunged head-first into the game’s systems and subsystems with only the internet to save you, because the devs are openly relying on the internet to manage the information overload. In the 1980s, character creation systems like Ultima IV’s chose to throw you in partially blind, to give you variety without stress. If you’ll look closely, you’ll realize these systems have opposite intents for first-time players: modern games want the player to have control, while retro games wanted players to have variety (you can see these patterns in the tabletop games of the era: classic tabletop RPGs used randomized character creation, while modern tabletop games use weighted random with adjustments, or a point-buy system).

KH1 chooses to take elements from both systems: it gives you some information, but not nearly all. But instead of capturing the best of both systems, I feel they missed both: now the player does not have enough information to have control, and too much information to risk variety. But don’t worry: not only did KH1 miss its targets, it kept the weaknesses of both systems! KH1 both confounds you with its opaque (pseudo-)game terminology like a modern game, and kicks you in the shins 40 hours from now like a retro game! For the second time!

The character creation is two-staged. The first stage starts when Sora is presented with three platforms bearing a colourful Sword, Shield and Staff (weirdly, the franchise refers to the Staff you find here as the “Dream Rod,” even though it uses “Staff” to refer to every other Staff in the series. I feel “Staff” was intended, considering it keeps up the alliteration with Sword and Shield). The mysterious voice prompts you to select a “Power” that you will gain from these three items. After doing this, the game surprises you by asking you to select a “Power” that you will lose! Thankfully, you can always cancel back, but that’s ugly surprise strike one.

kh1marathon-2015-04-07-16h15m12s128As you select your Powers, the voice tries to spell out their advantages, though it’s so abstract that even an experience gamer will only understand half of it. Less than perfect for younger players, but not outright bad… yet. If you are an experienced gamer, then you might recognize that the game is hiding enough information to justify crawling off to a walkthrough instead of sitting around trying to guess things, but is that really ideal?

On the surface, this part of character creation is sell-explanatory. The power you “take” will make you stronger in that area, and the power you “drop” will weaken you. The Sword’s “Power of the Warrior” is clearly about attack power: taking it will boost your attack power as you go through the game, and dropping it will lower your attack power. The Rod’s “Power of the Mage” is clearly about spellcasting, plus and minus. It’s the Shield that gets caught in the gears. I assume the average, experienced gamer would feel the Shield represents Defence, but that’s not the full picture. Oh, it does represent defence, but it has additional powers on top of that, like carrying capacity. The game never explains this.

The tutorial does try to explain these things, but it’s so invested in atmosphere that it gets only a few specifics across. The Voice explains that the Shield represents “The Power of the Guardian,” and the ability to protect your friends. So taking the Shield boosts your item carrying capacity so you can heal your friends. That’s exactly what you thought of when you heard that, right? Of course my ability to help my friends is tied to… the encumbrance system.

kh1marathon-2015-04-07-16h15m42s181But there’s another catch: if you “drop” the Shield, do those powers drop? Well, your defence drops, but not your item slots. No, those are lowest if you take the Rod. Why? Because this tutorial hates you. It would rather you be awed by mystery than be partially informed.

It’s hard to explain just how much damage this causes until you’ve seen it happen. Here’s a clear, if uncommon example. Imagine being half-way through the game and thinking “This game doesn’t let me carry enough items.” It’s not a question – indeed, I’ve only ever seen it phrased as a complaint: “One downside to Kingdom Hearts is that you can’t carry enough items for the first half of the game.” Like that. The player is technically being weakened by their character build in exchange for a strength they gained in the character build, but since the game refuses to explain itself, players tend to assume the negative side of their character build is a problem built into the entire game. Speaking personally, the difference between my Sword-minus-Staff games and my Staff-minus-Sword games is night and day.

On top of this mess, the power you keep also determines when Sora gains special skills as he gains levels. Sora is never locked out of any skills, but your choice will shunt some valuable skills to Level 90+, which means the average player will never see them. In the original game, there were some major advantages to taking Sword and Staff as far as skills are concerned, but in Final Mix the skills are much better arranged, so I don’t feel any of the choices is “better” unless you have a specific goal in mind (Sword, for example, makes the game easier in terms of skills but makes achievement hunting harder by putting off the item-finding “Lucky Strike” skill. Staff gives you Lucky Strike earlier but puts off valuable combat skills. It depends on what you’re going for). Don’t stress out too much about this choice. You can’t go wrong, and you can’t be right, either. In Vanilla, I simply recommend you not “take” Shield. Its advantages just don’t stack up.

kh1marathon-2015-04-07-16h15m27s31I’m not sure what I would have done differently if I had been on the design team for KH1. If I’m going to make a suggestion in this Retrospective, I want my role in this to be to sharpen the original intent of the author, like the kind of editor I’d want if I were writing. In that regard, I’d say this segment serves to create a dream-like atmosphere but also to give the player the impression that they are “honing” Sora’s heart to be ready for the trials to come. Going into more detail about the stats would be out of character for Kingdom Hearts (the series is never that crufty, which is another reason this character creation stands out), while hiding more of the details would be going too far in the opposite direction. Even Ultima had heavy, real-world guide books!

I think the best solution from a modern perspective would have been to use a pre-built character alongside character creation: to allow the player to select a “Default” Sora. Sora is tied to the Sword at a few other points in the series, so taking the Sword seems to be what you’re expected to do. I’d suggest the Default Sora would have Sword-minus-Shield (so that the Magic system wouldn’t become neglected), and to leave the character creation to vets. I can’t say I’d have come up with that idea in 2002, since it’s based on dozens of games that have followed, but in an ideal world that seems like a good start.

kh1marathon-2015-01-29-19h55m59s22After the first character creation block, the game throws you into your first fight as a series of small shadow monsters spawn nearby you. These are cute little animal-like things, at least until the moment they lunge at Sora with their huge claws. They have big yellow eyes and antennae, and can merge with the ground and become temporarily invincible, making for a fairly elaborate move-set for the series’ signature Goomba. Sora is able to defend himself using whatever weapon he chose to “keep” at the first station. I’m going to put off a discussion of combat for some time (I think character creation is going to eat up my quota of gameplay discussion for weeks), but that’s fine, because the shadow monsters are easy enough to kill that you’re not going to be missing much.

At the third station, the Voice presents you with a translucent, ornate door which you cannot open until you complete those box-pushing tasks I mentioned earlier. The Voice is using this moment to acclimatize you to the phrase “Opening the door,” which it insists is a grand task Sora that is destined to complete. This is a metaphor you’ll be stuck with for the vast majority of the game, so it’s kind of odd that the game actually does let you open this particular door after completing your basic tutorial. It’s kind of surreal to see a symbolic representation of the end of the game snap open after you push a crate one foot to the left, but whatever you say, Kingdom Hearts 1.

kh1marathon-2015-04-07-16h53m11s136After KH1’s critical Sokoban lessons, you’re seemingly teleported out of the Stations of Awakening. Without warning, you find yourself in the attractive island from the opening cutscene, surrounded by three Final Fantasy characters, all of whom have been aged down to preteens. Present are Selphie from FFVIII and Tidus and Wakka from FFX. Wakka seems to be a few years older than the others, while Tidus and Selphie are Sora’s age. You later discover that these are three of Sora’s real life friends, so I’ll put off their full introductions for when Sora wakes up. Besides, they’re not really themselves at the moment, as you’re still in the dream, and these characters are just representatives of the dream-world. If you talk to them, they ask probing, abstract questions about the player’s life goals, like whether they want friends or respect, that sort of thing. It’s very reminiscent of Ultima IV, and should come as no surprise that this is the second stage of character creation – the one that explains nothing, in the Ultima IV tradition but without Ultima IV’s extensive manual. It just sort of… hints.

I think we should just marinate in the experience of a new player for a moment, seeing this for the first time. Some weird, vaguely low-res children are asking you through a ghostly internet survey about which Smurf character you’re most like, and the best you can know is that this is sure to impact the game somehow. But how? If you complete the survey, the ghostly voice declares that “Your journey will begin at” either Dawn, Noon or Night, but what does that mean? If you hadn’t scuttled off to a walkthrough already, you’ll probably be off in the next few seconds, giving the game the stink-eye the whole damn time. And all the better you do so, because like the first choice, this will affect your experience from start to finish.

kh1marathon-2015-04-07-16h54m42s23Despite Occam’s Razor, these mysterious time frames don’t actually represent what time Sora will start his journey. We haven’t gotten into the actual gameplay much (thanks to this two hundred tonne character creation boulder Square Enix parked at the front door of their game often played by children), but during the game, Sora and his friends will get stronger by amassing Experience Points like in any RPG. This dreamlike sequence is related to how you level up. We’ll consider “leaving at Noon” the default for simplicity’s sake: Sora levels up “normally” if you leave at Noon. Leaving at Dawn changes things so Sora will level faster (compared to the default) from level 1 to level 50, then will level slower in comparison to “Noon” from 51 until he maxes out at level 99. “Leaving at Night” is the reverse: your first 49 levels are harder to earn and the last 49 are easier. Once again, this is a system that has come back to bite player after player, and since the game explains none of it, confusion abounds.

I’ll be frank: I recommend one takes Noon and get on with the game. It’s easier to get experience points in the latter half of the game, so Night is almost useless. That might be a point in favour of Dawn, but there are a few minor downsides to Dawn, and after fussing over the first half of character creation for two or three pages, I’d like to just get on with things. To manipulate the results without any further fuss: answer all three questions with the first answer to get Dawn, the second answer for Noon, and third answer for Night.

How does the quiz work if you aren’t trying to cheat it? Essentially: consider each of the three answers as A, B and C, in that order. The game will give you Dawn if you take Slot A more often than any other slot (that is, twice), you’ll get Noon if you take Slot B, and so on. If you take one of each, you also get Noon, making Noon look more and more like the default. Unfortunately, there are a few exceptions to this relatively simple pattern. Best to be either honest with the personality quiz and take what you’re given… or to cheat.

kh1marathon-2015-04-07-16h56m17s209(If you’re an extreme player wanting to use EXP Zero to play through the game at Level 1, make sure to take Night, or you’ll gain a level against mandatory enemies before the game lets you turn EXP Zero on in the first place!)

I’m sorry for this extended look at the dry, technical side of things, but it’s almost unavoidable: this character customization system is one of the things that makes KH1 unique even within it’s own series, but also one of the things that makes KH1 frustrating. Even with full understanding of the variables, you can easily make a mistake during KH1’s character creation that will upset your entire gameplay experience. Do you like games to be hard? Character creation might make the game easy enough to sleep through, without telling you why. Do you like your games easy? Character creation might make the game grindy and tedious. Trying to get achievements? Well, you’re going to need random drops, so how about we put that off to level 90, and blame the player for doing it? And there’s almost nothing you can do about the outcome because it’s not telling you a damn thing, and you haven’t played the game yet.

I don’t think this tutorial bothered me so much until I saw the sheer number of people upset about the consequences over the years, and a close look at the tutorial shows it’s mostly the developer’s fault for being opaque. There’s nothing like ten years of experience and multiple releases to expose a game’s specific faults.

kh1marathon-2015-01-29-20h02m27s67Returning to the story, Sora is moved between the Stations of Awakening, at one point by being swallowed by a pool of darkness. This darkness doesn’t leave him alone from that point you end up fighting the shadow monsters multiple times. The Voice makes it clear that fighting for Sora is supposed to be a matter of self-defence, “to protect yourself and others,” but I don’t need to say that like most video game protagonists and twelve-year-olds, he gets aggressive pretty fast.

For a change after all that negativity about character creation, let’s throw in a compliment. One of the best element of this tutorial is the music: “Dive into the Heart,” (and its companion piece “Dive into the Heart –Destati–”) which another Kingdom Hearts signature. A haunting, dark choral tune, “Dive to the Heart” and “Destati” are tracks that has stayed with Kingdom Hearts through multiple games. They’re instantly memorable.

As Sora goes, he learns more and more rudimentary techniques and seems to be less bothered by the darkness that swallowed him at Station 1. While the little shadows continue to appear around him, spawning from pools of darkness, the character creation process – this “Awakening” – seems to have made Sora stronger in its own right. He even moves from Aurora’s station to Belle’s under his own power, without the need to be swallowed by darkness or moved through doors of light. But it’s at Belle’s station where things go over the deep end. It’s here where Destati rises and we see Sora’s own shadow extending, the Voice saying that the closer Sora gets to the light, the longer the shadow. Sure enough, the shadow becomes a monster: the first boss.

kh1marathon-2015-01-29-20h03m21s94Thankfully for anyone still not used to the controls, there is no obligation to win this particular fight. If you lose, the game will continue in a slightly different way, and you won’t get the EXP for defeating the boss, but that’s no great harm. Kingdom Hearts 1 is fantastic at including these minor, alternate paths, like bosses where you can lose and modify the story just slightly, or some other irregular examples we’ll seen down the road. It’s an unusual and well-appreciated design sensibility, that I wish more games took the effort to apply.

As for the boss, well, I’ll hold off on that for the time being. This isn’t the last time Sora will meet this guy, so I’ll have time (I’ll have lots of time). No matter the result of the battle, Sora is ultimately tired out and once again consumed by the shadows. In spite of Sora’s apparent demise, the Voice leaves off with an optimistic note, with the reminder to: “Always remember: You are the one who will open the door.” Great hook, great sequence really, if only the actual tutorial portions hadn’t been such as boilerplate example of terrible early naughties design.

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 1 – Prelimaries and Cutscenes
Next: Kingdom Hearts 1 – Team Sport Bludgeoning

This retrospective’s screenshots come from Spazbo4’s longplay of the PS3, 1.5 HD version of Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix at World of Longplays (YouTube).