I was delighted to receive an advance review copy of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix in the mail last week. Delighted, but also a bit uneasy. Confession time, I have never beaten the first one. I always seem to lose steam after the Tarzan stage. Nothing to do with how excellent the game is, of course, just me being the lazy gamer as always. Consequently, I have never played the sequel, either.
So it left me with a problem because Kingdom Hearts 2 is not a game that you can just jump into without really knowing the mythology of what came before. It's a rather unique series in that missing either an entry in the main franchise or one of the portable spin-offs affects your understanding of the plot a significant amount.
Reviewing the game in a conventional sense is clearly out, then, but it did bring me to a greater understanding of the unique problem of video games as an art form.
When people talk about the evolution of gaming as an art they are usually pointing to A List voice casts and photorealistic graphics. To be sure, all of those things have contributed a significant amount to where gaming has reached these days, but to focus on them is to ignore what makes gaming unique.
It's interactivity. It's the literal act of playing. I remember David Lynch once saying that often what happened in his films was not so much a linear plot, but designed to create emotions in a certain sequence. He would play reaction like a piano, a song without words in a sense.
Gaming is the same way. It's not enough that you get a jump scare through a window, but that it is coupled with your immediate need to do something about it. Run, fight, or die. That's what gaming offers that movies and books and music can't.
Despite not fully experiencing it myself, it's pretty safe to say that ,em>Kingdom Hearts is one of the grand, sprawling epic stories of gaming. I've played enough of them to at least see it as tale the size of A Song of Ice and Fire, and it's still being written.
Here's the problem, though... gaming "rots" faster than any other medium. Music has gone through only a handful of media storage shifts in a century. Ownable film and television only three, and one of them fully backwards compatible. Books? Only one.
More than that, the quality remains largely unchanged. An eBook version of David Copperfield is pretty much the same experience you would have gotten when it was published.
But gaming suffers from two hazards. The first is that making systems backwards compatible is usually costly and therefore ignored. That means that there is a continued march away from the sole machine that you once played a great title one. There's a reason my PS2 is still hooked up. Sure, downloadable copies of old games are more common every day, but unlike uploading your old CDs to iTunes you're just essentially rebuying old games to run them on a single piece of technology.
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The second hazard is just the nature of game consumers. We'll play old games, but as we do so we are constantly aware of how their tech measures up to new ones. The story and gameplay of Final Fantasy VI remains a classic, but the nagging feeling of being obsolete never quite goes away.
That's why these HD remakes remain so important in many ways. The Kingdom Hearts ones especially. They're designed to leap over both of those hazards, compiling multi-system releases in one place on current generation hardware as well as smoothing over the edges that mark them as past releases. It's not perfect, mind you. Kingdom Hearts 2 still can't compete with something like Ni no Kuni graphically, and when we see Kingdom Hearts III I'm sure it will reinforce that divide between PS2 capabilities and eighth generation abilities.
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Keeping up this way is the only means by which a lot of these works of art will achieve true preservation. You can remaster and shine up an old movie, re-edit or re-translate an old book, but with gaming you have to make sure the play experience is constantly being upgraded in order to appeal to a new generation of gamers who grew up with better consoles than their parents did. It's the curse of the medium.
I mean, if you can call the two Kingdom Hearts HD collections, basically Criterion editions of a classic saga, a curse, that is.
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is out now on Playstation 3.