With its new setting, the story of Kingdom Hearts IV should go full meta
The reveal of Kingdom Hearts IV was only a few weeks ago, and yet we already have a surprising amount of information on the game - which feels appropriate, really, given it might be quite a long time before we see it again. We know a little about the game’s setting, and its themes - and it appears to present a thrilling and interesting potential story for the series’ writers to explore.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a mega Kingdom Hearts fan. I enjoy each of the games for what they are and I love the nostalgia-stoking visits to Disney worlds, but any time the series gets knee-deep in its own lore I can feel my thoughts beginning to meander. I’m not one of those people who says KH is impossible to follow - you’d have to be extremely dumb to truly not be able to understand this story at a base level - but I just think it often tries to be too clever for its own good. Ultimately, it's burdened with a bucket load of terminology and winding threads of lore that often makes cutscenes a chore.
With that said, some of what I’ve seen in the secret endings of KH3 and now in the reveal trailer of KH4 have me seriously interested. I feel more speculative and excited about the future of the series than I have at any other point, except perhaps for in the wake of the ‘Deep Dive’ secret ending of the very first game, which teased the second.
The first Kingdom Hearts IV trailer sees Sora in a realistic-looking world, with an art style to match. This world, Quadratum, fully appears to be another version of our own world; fans even quickly pinpointed exactly where in Tokyo Sora's apartment building is. That is curious in itself. Then, in Famitsu, KH series lead Tetsuya Nomura made comments about this world that I find even more intriguing.
"From Sora's point of view, Quadratum is a world on the other side of his own world and reality: a fictional world," says Nomura. "However, from the point of view of the inhabitants of Quadratum, their world is the real one, and the place Sora and his friends hail from is the other side, the fictional world."
Elsewhere in the interview, Nomura basically explains that Sora is in this world, while his buddies Donald and Goofy are back in the traditional KH world, searching for him. That’s why Donald and Goofy still look like cartoon characters, but Sora looks like a more realistic anime lad. When Sora escapes Quadratum, Nomura has confirmed he'll have a more traditional look.
The concept of Sora being in a world he views as fiction is a fascinating hook, and it connects directly to what was most intriguing about the sequel-bait teases at the end of KH3. It’s a chance for the series to do something seriously different, and grapple with some interesting, metatextual themes - but it won’t be easy, and carries a great deal of risk.
Specifically, if Sora has ended up in a version of the real world… Does the Disney Corporation exist in that world? Does Square Enix, whose logo appeared on the fictional in-universe ‘Verum Rex’ video game within KH3’s Toy Story world? Is it the case that in this world where Sora finds himself, all the friends he made are cartoon characters? And all the worlds he visited movies and TV shows, works of fiction?
To me it brings to mind the first words we hear from Sora, during the opening of the first Kingdom Hearts. “Is any of this for real, or not?” With a setup like this, Sora could be forced to grapple with his existence - the possibility that he is, in fact, a work of fiction. Is he real, or not? What even is real?
These sorts of stories have been done before, of course. The most famous and critically adored example is probably the 2006 movie Stranger Than Fiction, though many examples exist. In the contemporary sense this could also be looked at as a corruption of the Isekai format - a reverse Isekai, almost, where somebody from fiction ends up sucked into the ‘real’ world, or a version of it. And, as a friend pointed out, there’s shades of Final Fantasy X in this concept, too.
In many ways, it feels like an appropriate direction for a series all about crossing over between various beloved media franchises. It’s a concept so exciting to me that it’ll now probably cast a long shadow over whatever Kingdom Hearts IV actually does for real - because, honestly, I don’t think it’ll be this.
It’s all a bit meta, and a bit complex. KH is no stranger to story complexity, but this is of a different kind. Rather than ‘internal’ complexity of various KH-created organizations and characters and their hierarchy and relationships, this would be a sort of ‘external’ complexity that would demand reaction within every Disney world. Through that, a story of this type must have something to say about the fictional worlds it borrows from - and like anything in KH, it'll need to get through of approval at partners like Disney, Pixar, and likely this time around at least LucasFilm, if not also Marvel.
It’s complicated, if not impossible. So as much as I love this idea, I imagine it’s too complex and too risky to come to fruition in the way my mind excitedly pictures it.
But it’s a hell of a story thread to think about, right? Maybe KH4 will stick the landing with Quadratum, whatever its role is. But in the years until its release, I’m sure this potential path for the story will continue to play on my mind - and raise my excitement to see what Nomura and his team actually do.