Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

I’m not going to mince words with you: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is the bleakest Kingdom Hearts game I’ve played to date. In some ways, it doesn’t even feel like a Kingdom Hearts game. Gone are the cheery messages of friendship as the all powerful, all redeeming force. What we get instead is a story with a touch of tragedy, its heroes destined to fail in the end. This is clear right from the beginning. Despite the cheery tunes, we only see our heroes either fighting each other, flailing helplessly as villainous figures make short work of them, or running away from an overpowering force. Toward the end, one of the hero’s’ eyes change to an angry gold as the song proclaims, “Nothing’s like before.”

Now I don’t say this to disparage the game. (If I wanted to do that, I’d have described the hit or miss prequel-y bits.) In fact, the things I love about Birth by Sleep are the things that break from series tradition, and one of the biggest ways the games shakes things up is with its story structure. Specifically, it uses a Rashomon story structure in comparison to the single perspective narratives that a lot of stories use. While Birth by Sleep runs up against some very important limits. I’d still hold it up as one of gaming’s stronger examples of a Rashomon plot. It demonstrates a keen understanding of what makes the format work, allowing it to depict its melancholy moments in ways it wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

For those very few people unaware of what a Rashomon is, the term refers to the 1950 Japanese film where four witnesses give varying accounts of the same crime. What makes a Rashomon strong is seeing how the subjective viewpoints intersect or clash with each other. They don’t clash because one side is maliciously misrepresenting the truth, but that multiple truths clash with each other; that the limited information each character has ultimately results in diverging narrative. And this doesn’t mean that there’s no objective truth to the situation; only that each character interprets (thus obscuring) that truth in their own particular way. The best Rashomon stories accept each character’s viewpoint as valid while still confronting the subjectivity of those viewpoints. (You can read this piece for a more in-depth discussion of Rashomon and games.)

Birth by Sleep is especially well equipped to handle these points. The game follows the separate adventures of three young Keyblade wielders: Terra, Aqua, and Ven. Although they begin as close friends, an unfortunate turn of events late in their training complicates things and scatters them across the cosmos. Their job now is to protect the worlds they encounter and hopefully reunite with each other. A simple story, but one that hits all the best Rashomon notes. You’ve got a multitude of perspectives, each one enlarging our view of the narrative. What’s more, the context exclusive to each character changes our interpretation of events without ever contradicting anything. Terra and Ven serve as good examples of that. Where Terra maintains a distance between himself as Ven to protect the latter from the darkness, Ven sees a growing rift between them that he might not ever be able to fix.

Yet Birth by Sleep carries the format one step further. Remember: you don’t play these stories in parallel, but one after the other. This means that for eight or so hours, you’re adopting a given character’s viewpoint. What this means is that the game is applying the Rashomon structure to the player themselves. No longer are they a detached observer. By actively guiding these characters throughout their journeys, the player becomes an active participant in those stories. This means that whatever rules apply to the characters apply to the player as well.

The combat exemplifies this particularly well. As the title suggest, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is the same action game as its predecessors. The major difference (obviously) is that you play as three characters, each adding their own quirk to the system. Terra’s a heavy character with strong physical attacks. Ven is faster, focusing more on quick strikes and combos. And Aqua is the most balanced, specializing in dodges and placement rather than on just attacking the enemy.

Not only does this strategy make for a robust combat system; but it also makes sure that each character’s personality (and thus their personal viewpoint) comes across as clearly as possible at all times. Their ways of seeing and navigating the world becoming more pronounced when the game forces you to adopt that mantle. If you want to make progress in the story, you have to understand all the ins and outs of whoever you’re playing as. With progress in the game tied to thinking like whichever character you’re playing as, it’s all too easy to adopt their viewpoint during the cutscenes. So like them, you must confront your own subjectivity while playing the game.

Of course, this strategy also distances the game from series tradition. By stressing the differences between each character, the game has to move away from the squishy feeling combat that previous games have, and toward something more technical. This is especially obvious when you complete one storyline and have to abandon all the strategies you’ve learned as you begin to play another. However, between the combat’s balance between depth and approachability, and the bleak tone hanging over the story, I think Birth by Sleep can handle a transition like this.

What I’m more concerned with is what the narrative format does to Birth by Sleep thematically. I’m not saying that the game lacks a clear topic; it has those in spades. Each story tackles its own narrative thread, whether it’s Ven’s outsider status and his sense of naivete, or Terra’s attempts to reconcile the darkness in his heart…and his sense of naivete. (I’ll get to Aqua in a bit.) And I’m not saying that the story can’t handle broader themes with skill. What better way to represent friendship as naive idealism that can’t stand up to the world’s larger problems than by splitting up the party and making it harder for them to capitalize on that friendship?

No, what has me worried is the game’s larger choice of theme: emotional isolation. It’s certainly a topic worth exploring, but maybe not through this format. While the Rashomon can work for stories about individual and broad issues, Birth by Sleep’s twist on it really can’t. By focusing on each individual narrative rather than the broad issues surrounding them, the story loses its feeling of isolation. For it to be there, we need to see just how much these characters value each other; how much it pains them to be apart. And although the game nails the first part, I don’t see much of the second. If anything, the plot goes to great lengths to distract from that goal. The story’s more content to let its protagonists bumble from world to world, only getting the occasional vague reminder of what their friends are up to.

Aqua gets it the worst. Her whole story is about being a Keyblade Master herself, and learning more about the duties that come with it. A solid base to work with, but how much of that is reflected in the actual story? In my experience, not much. She spends less time reconciling her idealistic duties with reality, and more time chasing after Terra and lamenting his fall into darkness. And sometimes, Ven’s there, too. If the story’s doing anything with her duties, then it’s too subtle for me to pick out. I imagine a lot of that comes down to her status as Keyblade Master only holding meaning in relation to other characters. A story like this, where Aqua spends more time with strangers than with those close to her, doesn’t allow many opportunities to practice her role.

In the end, though, I think the writers just didn’t know what to do with Aqua. Look at Ven and Terra: the writers define them on singular terms. This isn’t to say that their friendships aren’t important. Rather, it means that even if the game’s broader themes stumble, their individual narratives still have something to fall back on. Ven has his mysterious past, and Terra his struggles with the darkness.

Aqua, however, has nothing. She cannot define herself in any meaningful way without relying on her closest friends. This leaves her story with very little to work with, explaining why it feels so flat compared to her peers. Xehanort’s plans (the common thread in all these stories) reflects that. Ven and Terra factor heavily into his plans because of who they are. As a result, their stories feel meatier. Yet with Aqua being incidental to Xehanort’s goals, it’s no surprise that her story sees little development until the end. It says a lot about her character when one of the villains can so easily point out how worthless she is in the grand scheme of things. (I can’t imagine the detached, emotionless voice direction helps much, either.)

While these are important issues to consider, it’s also important to remember that this isn’t a story about theme. Birth by Sleep is more about the interplay between the characters than the broader ideas it represents through them, and on those terms, the game does well enough. It sports a cast of well-defined heroes, and their stories play off each other in very intriguing ways. For all the problems the game runs into, it still stands as a great example of how games can use multiple perspectives in meaningful ways.between decks on the fly

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