Kingdom Hearts 2 – The Straw and the Scale

kh2-2016-05-22-22h58m29s639Leon shushes any questions about the King, indeed he makes it a point to stop Sora and the gang from even saying the word “King.” Quietly, he tells them “This ought to tide you over,” and reveals the secret passage is controlled via a hidden panel on the wall. The passage leads out of Ansem’s study and onto an observation platform overlooking a massive vista of a huge machine, a mutli-storey hall of devices stretching off into the distance. (The stretching off into the distance effect was a little better on the PS2, where things were grainy enough that the fade to white looked like it might go on forever, but that’s not the case in new versions where it just looks like there’s some sort of open bay door to the outside world in the distance, which seems somewhat unlikely in a secret room.) Ansem’s computer is inside a nearby observation room, facing away from a large red, circular device on the opposite wall. There’s no sign of the King, and I guess the silent implication is that you missed him in the halls because there’s nowhere else he could be. Shit, Aerith, Tifa, you, The King, there’s a lot of people moving around here without spotting one another!

Sora takes one look at the keyboard and…ugh. This sequence. You might remember in KH1 when I said that later games have made Kingdom Hearts a more introspective series than it used to be. KH1 wasn’t meant to be seen under a critical lens, but CoM was. However, KH2 was once again not meant to be seen under a critical lens, in fact so much that it almost collapses under the weight of a basic critical scan. But thankfully it’s easy to enjoy by simply not applying that critical scan.

But this… this sequence is different. To be clear: by “this sequence” I mean everything that takes place in the computer room and the office, even though we’re going to be interrupted by an extensive tangent. I’m pairing all of the office and computer room scenes together despite the tangent because they seem to have been written in a single block, and apart from the tangent (and probably by different authors, too). These office and computer room sequences are going to accumulate problems with such startling rapidity that I couldn’t believe my eyes even on my first, casual playthrough. I kept breaking out laughing at the emotional moments, and staring baffled at the awful moments. The worst of it isn’t simply low quality but an outright lack of respect for the player, and they’re problems that persist to the end of the game. These are problems so bad that essentially the rest of the franchise has been trying to correct them ever since.

kh2-2016-05-22-23h01m37s599…Seeing the computer, Sora runs up to the console, shouting at the top of his lungs “Where’s Kairi? Where’s Riku?” and starts bashing the computer like a defrosted cartoon caveman seeing his first toaster. Leon rushes in, afraid he might outright destroy the machine! Holy crap! Really, Sora? First off, before I say anything more: yes, it’s likely Sora has never used a computer, given the evidence (Roxas did have a video game console at his home, and we later learn in Days that he has certainly used computers, but not all of Roxas’ memories seem to have surfaced in Sora). However, Sora does seem to know what a computer is, and has seen Cid using the one in Hollow Bastion. He knows they’re not run by shouting at them (that is actually a stem of a different problem I’ll get to in another moment) and presumably also knows that he’s not supposed to smash them. Indeed, I’d say anyone beyond the age of five knows not to smash things lest they break, especially when Sora smashes things as part of his job! He of all people should know that force breaks things. As far as Sora knows, this computer may be the only way to find his friends, and he’s all but trying to break it! Goodness great garbage, what does he think he’s doing?

Second, I know this is supposed to be a joke, but it’s exposing a lot of problems that run through KH2 as a whole and I think it’s time I talk about them.  There are two major issues here I feel have to be addressed: Sora’s stupidity, and the series’ use of melodrama. Or at least the series’ use of over-emoting.

In KH1, Sora was fairly naïve and at times rather thick-headed, but KH1 portrayed the main trio as being closer to kids than teens, so those sorts of juvenile attitudes were understandable. CoM had Sora slower on the uptake than Jiminy, but that was still par with Donald and Goofy. I’ve talked about how CoM allowed for the game to cater to players of various levels of experience at the exact same time, so in this regard, Sora stood in for the younger audience but is being presented as about as smart as most of the adults. He’d grown up from KH1. CoM also respects its younger audience, trying to keep them up to date with the mystery so that they can take a role in guessing it as well.  But as I’ve said in the past, KH2 design goes in the opposite direction from Chain of Memories. KH2 does not design for all levels of audiences, KH2 only designs for the youngest, and I question their level of respect for that audience. This is how it’s carried on pretending that Riku’s identity as “Ansem” is still a mystery, and why it keeps peppering the script with moments of Sora being just gratingly stupid so that someone else can explain things to the young players.

You could argue that that kind of exposition serves a certain purpose, and I’d normally agree with you! The trouble is, this has now reached a point where Sora is acting stupid because the writers looked at their script and concluded “Sora is stupid.” Or at the very least, that Sora lacks all common sense.

kh2-2016-05-22-23h03m10s123For example: “I just woke up in a pod in a mansion in a world I’ve never seen and will never question it for any reason.” Or: “I’m going to commit assault on this guy who looks like Pete even as the evidence mounts that it’s not the Pete I know and he’s barely fighting back, making me a monster.” Or trying to high-five Beast, funny as that was. But as you’ll see, this festers until it becomes its own standalone problem: not Sora-the-plot-device lacking common sense to advance the plot (a character outright designed to abuse the “idiot ball” trope to avoid actually plotting out complex situations), but Sora-the-character actually lacking common sense as a matter of personal makeup. Sora shouting at the computer doesn’t advance the plot, it exists for a joke, but does that mean the authors were taking advantage of Sora-the-device, or that they really think that Sora-the-character would do something like this?

Since we’re looking closely at this, we should point out that there are two phases to this joke: the setup and the joke itself.  Smashing the computer is the joke, so the setup (“Where’s Riku? Where’s Kairi?”) must be intended as a legitimate character piece.  Sora’s just! So! *thump* Upset! *thump* About! *thump* His friends! Nevermind that he wasn’t upset about his friends on any of the Disney worlds, even as late as Pride Rock. Nevermind that he only ever so much as mentioned them off-handedly, for a single line per world, at best. Nevermind that his response to hearing Riku might be trapped in the darkness was to react in a subtle, reasonable manner. Nevermind that his response to learning Kairi was kidnapped was to have a single outburst and then return to normal. No, now it’s critical that he Express! These! Emotions! In the most noisy! Way! Possible! (Feel free to slam your fist into your keyboard along with me.) What’s worse is that this kind of emotion isn’t dramatic: he may outright get Riku and Kairi killed by destroying the computer! I don’t care how upset he’s “supposed” to be! In fact, I’d argue that if Sora doesn’t care enough about Riku and Kairi to show care around the evidence, then he doesn’t really care about them at all.

kh2-2016-05-25-15h27m32s997So the player character is acting like a five year old. Fantastic. At this point, Sora’s sudden characterization is less an issue of characterization and more an issue of plotting. I’ve said, over and over and over, how I feel the “Sora is looking for Riku” plot was deficient in KH2, and just kept coming up in “band-aid” situations, with one line here, another line there, and no participation. Now that we’re supposed to be participating in that plot, it seems like it came out of nowhere. In character study, there’s a concept called the “informed ability,” (pardon the TVTropes link) which is when characters are said to have an ability, but never necessarily demonstrate it because the writer assumes that having someone else talk about the ability will suffice. It’s a lazy and frankly totally inadequate way to write a character, which means it’s incredibly popular because it saves the writer from having to approach their product with even basic competence. Sora trying to find Riku is an informed plot. We’re told he’s looking for Riku, and by slapping the label on the entire quest, the writers hope that the entire game will appear to be a quest for Riku, but with Sora’s cat-like distractibility, it’s clear he’s just going from world to world because he’s going to world to world, and you have a plot that is essentially not happening.

So, to make the plot suddenly happen again, the writers have turned to another trick: melodrama. Not the generic insult, I mean the actual theatrical mode. Melodramatic acting oversells the emotion so that the audience will be able to make out every single emotion that comes across, even from the cheap seats. Unfortunately, this is a video game, where you can see everything. When a creator uses a tool (like melodrama) in a peculiar way you have to ask: why are they using this tool? Melodrama is used to make sure the audience knows what the characters are feeling. I feel that KH1 and CoM used subtle emotion well in the past, so I can only think of two possible explanations for this switch to outright melodrama. Either 1) the writers felt they hadn’t been doing a good job selling Sora’s emotions in previous games (if that was the case, I feel they were mistaken), and so felt the need to oversell them, or 2) the writers thought the audience was too stupid to understand how Sora was feeling. And keeping in mind that KH2 has made a track record of making Sora an idiot to explain simple concepts to the audience, I think the writer’s opinion of the audience is starting to look… unfortunate. There’s a lack of respect for the audience coming from the writing team. And that’s how we reached the straw that broke my camel’s back with KH2.

kh2-2016-05-25-15h30m37s329And really think about that “straw that broke the camel’s back” analogy. Hear it as though it were brand new. A straw, light little thin strands of vegetation, just a few grams. Sora bashing the keyboard is just little problem. But as I’ve been trying to show, KH2 has been mistreating the audience over and over and over and over, until the point where I cannot take it any longer. Sora is smashing the keyboard both because the writers realized they had done a bad job and because the writers lacked respect for the audience. They felt the audience was too stupid to understand Sora was upset unless he was outright committing violence. I don’t know where the problem began, though I suspect the devs were operating under the assumption that only children played these games, given the below-the-floor difficulty.

Thankfully (deep breaths), the game is actually about to break away from the insulting plotline to a nice, neutral divergence. A tangent, if you will. Far, far away from the computer room and office. Hopefully this is going to soak my head in some much-needed cold water, but like I warned, there’s another big writing problem upcoming. A big conglomeration of one, in fact.

kh2-2016-05-25-15h31m20s040Leon tells Sora to stop breaking the computer, when suddenly Stitch drops down from the ceiling onto the keyboard himself. We now go full slapstick as Donald doesn’t just ignore Leon’s advice, but outright jumps onto the keyboard to scare Stitch off. Okay, in spite of the pages and pages I just wrote up there, this is actually pretty funny, which only serves to underline how the setup can uplift or ruin a joke.

The voice of Corey Burton echoes out from the computer, and Sora asks “Who’s there?” I don’t blame him, Corey Burton could be anyone. Santa Claus? What are you doing here? The voice explains that it is “the Master Control Program” and “Further misuse of this terminal will result in immediate defensive action.” Donald tries to get off the keyboard… slowly, which of course means he just steps on a different part of it. No, really, this is genuinely funny, where did this quality come from? It’s because I pulled the stick out of my ass, isn’t it? The Master Control Program announces that “You are now under arrest,” and the big red device opposite the screen begins to glow. Leon shouts for everyone to run, but instead they freeze-frame in slapstick realization as they’re sucked into the computer by a beam. And okay, okay, I needed that.

kh2-2016-05-25-15h32m15s373.png

Surprise Disney world!

When I first played KH2, I didn’t actually realize TRON was a Disney property! As a result, I think I actually gaped at the screen for a moment, completely dumbstruck.

Let’s be clear about something before we go any further: the Tron sequences don’t bother me at all and serve as a nice break from the caustic scenes in the office and computer room. Unfortunately, we’ll be getting back to those soon… and then we’ll be interrupted again… and then we’ll go back and things will become worse than ever. I don’t like to forecast my reactions like this but I wanted to divorce my rant, above, from the Space Paranoids sequences that are otherwise quite lovely.

Corey Burton voices the Master Control Program (MCP), and Sora, Donald and Goofy are soon taken in chains by blacklit, neon Heartless to see his right-hand program, Sark. Sark is also voiced by Corey Burton. This isn’t surprising, in fact it’s actually a nice touch. In the original film, the character of David Warner was the programmer of both Sark and the MCP (long story short) and as a result, both the MCP and Sark shared Warner’s voice. In this universe, Ansem is the user of the computer and we later learn he created or at least installed the MCP, so it only makes sense that both characters share his voice!

kh2-2016-05-25-15h33m06s984(Given the fact that the MCP has inherited traits from Ansem, plus the MCP’s later actions, the MCP almost seems hint at an upcoming plot from later games. Hopefully veterans will catch my meaning without my having to go into spoilers: essentially, he embodies a major plot point from DDD.)

Sark demands obedience and even uses some sort of pain stick (that we’ll never see again) to hurt Donald and Goofy and force Sora into submission. Together he puts the trio into a room called the Pit Cell, which has windows to a large vista of the TRON world outside.

Luckily, Sark has also been handling the idiot executable today. He’s locked the trio in with the title character, Tron, voiced by his original actor Bruce Boxleitner. Besides playing Tron in almost every adaptation to date (with a curious, notable exception…), fans may also know him as Captain John Sheridan from the 90s Babylon 5, the lead in How the West was Won, and a lot more. I like Tron a lot in this game. Like Sora, he is a giving sort of personality, but he also compliments Sora’s youth with an older, more tired approach, but without having given up on his ideals. It’s not necessarily the happiest picture, but it’s like a picture of what Sora could become, someone tired by the weight of Sora’s sort of life, but never exhausted. As a result, the times when he surprises Sora feel like character development not just for Tron, but for the both of them together. The TRON segment is one of KH2’s best Disney narratives – the franchise’s best – for reasons I’ll get to in the long run, and I’m surprised to find I’m actually kind of emotional about it.

kh2-2016-05-25-15h33m54s486

Note that while Tron respects the audience, for the sake of “comedy,” the game assumes the audience does not understand him!

Tron explains to the trio that they’re inside a computer system, and we later learn that he’s already deduced that they’re Users. And he just sort of slots that into his behaviour automatically, giving them the information they need without any disrespect or hesitation, or even weird treatment. In essence, and to my surprise, Tron is exhibiting the exact opposite behaviour KH2 is employing to its audience, and is being the kind of person and program I’d want if I were in Sora’s situation. A parcel of KH2 is showing up the rest of KH2!

Tron explains an interesting tidbit while he’s at it. The world we’re in isn’t the world of the original TRON. Tron explains that this is only a copy of the original program from the film. Tron says that the User who created the copy renamed the system “Hollow Bastion OS,” and used it to manage the town and his research. This raises quite a few questions about what it means for these intelligent programs to be duplicated like this, but believe it or not we will be talking about that in the long run, so if you’re planning to be around by the time I get to DDD, keep notes!

Tron explains he’s a security program and that the MCP arrested him, and that Sora, Donald and Goofy should probably get back to the User world before the MCP decides to “de-rezz” (kill) them. He explains that there’s a large, yellow terminal here that could have gotten you out (…odd feature in a prison cell being used for Users…), but the MCP cut the power. Together, you decide to break out and restart the power.

kh2-2016-05-25-15h35m13s436The devs are in a funny spot here. They need to imply you’re captured, but KH2 always grants the player one obligation: it will never trap them in a challenge they didn’t accept themselves. Remember: we were dumped into this Disney world entirely by surprise, so the devs are directed by their own credo to get you out before putting you in any danger. As a result, this trip to Space Paranoids is going to be very brief. I think they do a good job with it, keeping you in relatively safe situations and a relatively easy puzzle before letting you go. Come and see.

Since the Keyblade can unlock anything (anything), it proves capable of unlocking the gate using a similar “orb” mechanic to Struggle or the fight with Shan-Yu… which lasts all of three seconds. This is the only door you unlock in this fashion! I don’t blame them for wanting to make this door a little different from every other, but what an odd inclusion. Why not a few other doors like this, with some enemies defending them? You will encounter some more orbs later, but I doubt you needed the mechanical reminder! We’ve been collecting prizes and orbs this entire game!

We get a cut-away to somewhere else in the world (GrovyleTheThief informs me that in the film, this is on the carrier ship, which otherwise doesn’t appear in KH2), where The Great Big Face is talking to Sark. Corey Burton asks why they’re keeping Tron alive, and Corey Burton explains that Tron knows the “the password to the dataspace,” and without access to the dataspace, Corey Burton can’t break Tron’s mind for the information. You’d think Corey Burton would know this already, but apparently Corey Burton felt that wasn’t something Corey Burton would know.

kh2-2016-05-25-15h36m33s590No, really, why doesn’t Sark already know that the program they’d need to break into Tron’s mind is in the “Dataspace”? I haven’t seen TRON. Is this scene from the original film (where it would be just as flawed?). I’m not really sure why Sark suggests to use power that would have to come from “the datascape” if they don’t have access to the datascape. “Master, you do not yet possess the full power of the Elder Wand, but if you used the full power of the Elder Wand…”

After unlocking the gate, you’ll be able to interact with a Moogle hologram. Wow, these guys really are everywhere!  Moogles are now selling Hi-Potions, and I suppose better late than never. Because KH2 has potions using a percentage system, they could have arguably started selling High Potion at any point and not upset game balance. Economy maybe.

After taking an elevator (that the MCP is apparently too stupid to monitor or keep under guard), the next area is a safe zone, except it’s clearly not supposed to be and will certainly be a hostile area after you’re done here. You must have just pulled a helluva jail break if even the Heartless haven’t noticed you’re free, but like I said, the devs didn’t want to trap you in a dangerous situation, so good for them. While you’re here, you may also notice that the MCP has stolen some of Tron’s power: he joins your party lacking almost all his fundamental abilities, having only a few generic partner abilities: Item Boost, Jackpot, and Auto-Change. Auto-Change, by the way, swaps out a party member if they fall unconscious for the benched party member, so essentially, one of Tron’s only skills is to get rid of himself if you made the mistake of bringing him in the first place!

kh2-2016-05-25-15h37m40s773Tron leads you to the energy core. Repairing the core involves playing a shell-game with a large ring of cubes, where you have to find the right cube after they spin for a while. You have to find the right one and get orbs from it. The funny thing is, I’ve never lost at this mini-game, even when I feel certain I lost track of the box. It’s like I have a useless superpower that only works on this one mini-game, and in the end I couldn’t tell you what happens if things go wrong! Here, weirdly enough, you hear Space Paranoid’s combat theme for the first time. I guess it is more congruent to play a TRON-esque theme than the normal mini-game theme.

There’s an irritating puzzle piece in this room in FM+. It’s hanging over one of the entrances to the energy core. You might think you can grab it by climbing some of the blocks nearby, but attempting to do so reveals the lie in much of KH2’s level geometry. Most slanted surfaces cause you to slide off no matter the gradient, ergo what looks like a lot of texture to explore is actually just funny-looking walls. The original KH2 doesn’t actually want you to explore, it just wants you to bash things in rooms with Disney-themed paint jobs, and it’s always hurts my exploration-happy self when it hides it so poorly.

kh2-2016-05-25-15h38m41s555After the game, Tron says everyone should return to the cell. “Where’s that again?” asks Dingus the Keyclown. Tron is forced to explain: “That’s the sector where we met!” Since I was just talking about KH2 making Sora a moron to explain basic things to the audience, here are a few more natural ways the game could have brought this up without costing their lead character anything. Like, for instance, saying “Let’s go back where we started,” without having Sora forget anything, or “Let’s head back down the elevator.” Of course, the latter would require the script-writers and the level designers to communicate, and it’s clear at this point that that was off the table.

But even though it started with hand-holding, the hand-holding stops once you enter the cell. It directs you to the cell, but then doesn’t do anything to direct you to the console in the corner (the console is actually behind you when you enter, so it’s literally in the last place you’ll look). Yes, yes, it’s all very petty of me and takes only a few seconds to resolve, but within the span of twenty seconds, I get separate impressions that the devs both trust and do not trust me to play the game properly. I said earlier that they couldn’t find their audience with a long pole, but now I’m not sure the entire team is trying to find them!

kh2-2016-05-25-15h38m27s756As he works the console, Tron asks Sora for a favour, which Sora is eager to do, so eager that he agrees without hearing the request. This surprises Tron, but he explains: he wants Sora to find his user to get the password for the “DTD,” which turns out to be another name for the dataspace. It seems Tron doesn’t know the password after all. Tron explains that he wants to reset his own functions from the backup files in the DTD, and then use those backup files to repair the whole computer to its pre-MCP state. “The way it was supposed to be—a free system for you—the Users.” Not to interrupt your “rah rah, go democracy, this movie is from the Cold War” speech, but I don’t think a system with a password lock is a free system, by definition?

Goofy asks if information about Organization XIII will be in the DTD, and Tron says “Most likely.” What is Tron talking about? Sora and the others haven’t introduced the concept of the Organization to him, and I don’t get the impression that Tron is capable of lying. He either does know what the Organization is and so must know the contents of the datascape, or he can’t know what they are and so shouldn’t be as certain as he’s pretending to be! I hope it’s becoming very obvious to all of you why I think these one-line mentions of the main plot in the Disney worlds were last-minute edits, even in this world that was set in the middle of the main plot.

kh2-2016-05-25-15h39m38s438Goofy asks Tron why the User installed the MCP in the first place, and Tron doesn’t know, and suggests you ask his User. This is when he explains what some players have already worked out: his User is Ansem, who is of course, dead. Before anyone can explain, Tron suddenly announces that “The MCP is on to us!” At this moment! And at no other time in the plot where it would be inconvenient for it to be on to us! Tron teleports everyone out before anything more can be said.

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Pixie Power
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Pass the Password


This retrospective’s screenshots come from Spazbo4’s longplay of the 2.5 HD version of Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix+ at World of Longplays (YouTube).

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4 comments

  1. A thought occurs, I’m all for the program heartless, but if programs don’t usually have hearts, wouldn’t that make them just programs like the Hostile Program (which as a side note, I think is cool for being a boss that is an original generation character )?

    1. Hm, possible. But given that they’re Emblems, I think they may have just been inserted into the computer externally, making them Heartless in another disguise no matter what the heart-status of the locals, if that makes sense.

      1. I see what you’re saying, that explains the glowing hearts in the canisters when you return to the lab, they were reserves for creating the new heartless.

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