Sunday, December 7, 2014

Report from the Front: Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix Launch Showcase

As I waited in anticipation for Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix, I was made aware that an event, “Inside the Kingdom, with Heart,” would be hosted on the Walt Disney Studios Lot where lucky fans would be able to see exclusive footage related to the game as well as meet a few special guests. This felt like something I couldn’t really pass up on, so I followed the instructions and waited on the official Kingdom Hearts Facebook page for a link to the free tickets. After three attempts, my brother and I both managed to score tickets to the later 6:30 time (because school) and, come December 1st, we were ready to go.

Our trip took us between 30 and 45 minutes due to traffic and because we happen to live in relative proximity to the Lot. Once we got inside, we parked and walked past a few sound stages to get to the event; as a side note, if you’ve ever been on a studio lot for any reason, then you have an idea of what the Walt Disney Studios Lot is like. Signs were posted every few feet in mainly a straight line to direct us to the right spot, marked by a large photo showcasing a lot of the major characters in the series. Before we could partake in anything related to the event, we had to go through the process of signing in, doubling as a waiver for filming (if we were filmed, they would be allowed to use our likeness). We were then given an orange bracelet to wear and merchandise sheets for the room next door.

The first sight of the event (the Notice of Filming is to the left).

The next place we went was the merchandise room, aka the Hyperion room, where attendees could buy various merch related to Kingdom Hearts. Our options included Play Arts Kai figures, keychains, a soundtrack bundle and versions of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix for PlayStation 3 (in other words, it was possible to buy the game one day early); I skipped on the last option because I had already pre-ordered the game through Amazon weeks prior. One item we actually wanted, a Meow-Wow plush, was marked as Sold Out almost immediately after we entered, so I ended up purchasing the soundtrack bundle for HD 1.5 and HD 2.5 Remix instead.

After leaving the Hyperion room, we both went into the Disney store to have a look around. Disney evidently sold a lot of merch in such a small space, including a small selection of movies, some ornaments and a section dedicated to Disney Inifnity, aka “Disney Skylanders.” Admittedly the figures for Groot and Rocket Raccoon were tempting, but we ended up not buying anything because we were at the lot for Kingdom Hearts and nothing else.

There was a lot of merch in the Hyperion room (pictured: one of four display cases).

With not much else to do, we walked around for a few minutes before getting to the event proper, though we had to stand outside of the theater and wait. Since we still had time to kill, I participated in the photo booth. We then ended up standing around until the show started, snapping a few pics where allowed.

About 20 minutes before 6:30 P.M., the large crowd in front of the theater was allowed inside, where we waited for the show to start. I overheard conversations regarding the Nintendo DS or Kingdom Hearts, but without any real form of entertainment, I was only able to wait patiently, which I found very difficult to do.

Background options at the photobooth (vertical
photo for clarity).

A little before 6:30, the event finally began, indicated by the lights dimming and the theater curtains opening to reveal the movie screen. Before any actual Kingdom Hearts stuff, everyone had to watch three trailers for other Disney projects: Into the Woods, Cinderella (2015) and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Since I had to sit through these, I suppose I might as well share my brief opinions, or rather first impressions. Into the Woods is based on a Steven Sondheim musical from Broadway which, based on what I saw in the trailer, is kind of a mash-up of several of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The trailer made it out to be The Brothers Grimm but better and seems rather interesting although I’m not sure I’m going to see it. Cinderella (2015) looks like Disney basically took their Cinderella animated film from 1950 (read: 64 years ago) and gave it the live-action treatment while adding in some filler scenes and making the tone appear darker, as well as throwing in the uncanny valley for good measure. On top of that, if you look at the trailer, it seems to serve as an effective plot summary. I’m not planning on seeing it anyway, but I have a feeling that it’ll show that sometimes fantasy is better done in animation. As for The Avengers: Age of Ultron, we had already planned on seeing it anyway, if only because we’ve been following the Marvel Cinematic Universe up to now, but what appeared to be new footage was an added bonus.

After the three movie trailers, the ball finally got rolling once trailers for Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix were projected onto the screen. I remembered seeing the second one beforehand, but the first one seemed new and the crowd was clapping and cheering when certain characters showed up. Once the trailers finished, Drew Hayashida from Disney introduced Shinji Hashimoto, the Executive Producer for the Kingdom Hearts games, and Emiko Yamamoto, Executive Producer at Disney Interactive Japan for the franchise. The three of them talked about how they liked being able to see the fans at the event and Yamamoto mentioned that Square Enix and Disney have a very strong working relationship.

A video was then displayed of Kingdom Hearts fans talking about their favorite music from the series. This led into a performance by the pianist Livan from Video Game Orchestra. As he played a couple of pieces, I could see his fingers flowing across the keys as though it were easy. He is certainly very talented and was able to play very gracefully and accurately (if memory serves). After this performance, another video was projected, this one being series composer Yoko Shimomura talking about her experience with the Kingdom Hearts franchise. She specifically mentioned how it was her first series and how she always does her best to make each score better than the last one. One particular piece that she discussed was the battle theme of Traverse Town, with the working title of “Town Battle,” from the original game, which she imagined as being more upbeat than what the staff intended. The end result was a compromise, with a somber beginning and upbeat second half; this was pointed out as a rare occurrence in video game scores.

The video served as a lead-in to further performances by Livan, who showed off his incredible talent with a few more songs (there was also a humorous event where an assistant had to tape the sheet music down so Livan wouldn’t have to keep propping it back up). When he finished, Drew Hayashida pointed out that there were two pianos in the front and introduced Yoko Shimomura herself. The audience erupted with joy when it was revealed that she and Livan, who attended at the former’s insistence, were to perform a duet. As they played together for a couple of songs, I really enjoyed hearing them work together to do justice to the beautiful score of the series.

After the performances on piano, Drew Hayashida introduced a panel-like Q&A session with Shinji Hashimoto hosted by Kaori Takasue, the North American Kingdom Hearts Brand Manager. There were three chairs set up, which the audience assumed was for Hashimoto, Takasue and the translator. However, Takasue mentioned that she’d need a fourth chair and revealed the appearance of a surprise guest, the Director of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, Tetsuya Nomura himself.

After the excitement of the audience, including myself, died down, a few questions were fielded to both Tetsuya Nomura and Shinji Hashimoto. Out of the questions asked, the answers I can recall are:

1) The urban legend of Shinji Hashimoto meeting Emiko Yamamoto in an elevator is true. Hashimoto needed approval from Disney to get the idea of Kingdom Hearts off the ground, so his chance meeting with Yamamoto allowed the necessary relationship to form and develop a strong bond between Disney and Square Enix.

2) The reason the Kingdom Hearts series has such a confusing timeline is because, according to Tetsuya Nomura, when players complete a traditional RPG, the ending completely wraps up the story and they are able to reflect back on the adventure they took, but are likely to forget it within a week. During development, a spark of inspiration will come and he’ll have ideas for the next one or two Kingdom Hearts games (for instance, he came up with ideas for Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II during development of the original Kingdom Hearts). As such, he tries to counter the problem of players forgetting the story by inserting a teaser for his next idea. This way, players will continue to talk about Kingdom Hearts by discussing how they feel about what they just saw or coming up with ideas as to what the teaser could mean and what’s in store next.

3) As an extension of the story ideas, when Nomura envisions the next one or two games, he’ll actually come up with more or less the main plot points, but not really the minutia. Instead, he allows the finer details to spin around these main plot points as multiple writers go through the scriptwriting process.

4) Nomura acknowledged that the reactions of the fanbase differ greatly between Japan and the US. In Japan, the fans react to announcements in a more reserved and less emotional way. By contrast, the US fans are more openly passionate about reveals and express their feelings more deeply. In fact, he loves seeing the reactions of the US fanbase and it keeps the development team’s morale high.

5) For Nomura, inspiration can come from anywhere. Even something as simple as an object with a shape that he likes can turn into a game concept later on. All ideas are considered and he keeps an open mind for this reason.

6) In his private life, Nomura is more of a homebody. He’ll get on his computer for a while or do some grocery shopping when he has to. At home, he’s also taking care of two cats, specifically Scottish Folds. This is partly to help him recover from exhaustion over the last year, which saw intense development work.

7) Nomura is one of the few people in the world who is officially allowed to draw Disney characters. He considers this an honor, as it allows him to design characters the way he wishes, but he also feels pressure to uphold the image of the Disney brand. He’s also become very comfortable with drawing the characters.

8) The reason the poster for Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is designed the way it is has an interesting explanation. Kingdom Hearts right now is going through what Nomura calls the “Dark Seeker Saga” with Master Xehanort as the main antagonist. Nomura wanted to highlight Xehanort’s importance to the story by putting him front and center, but he also wanted to highlight the importance of Sora to the story as the main protagonist. When conceptualizing this idea, he also inserted the other characters around Sora to show their importance to the narrative as the “warriors of light.”

This suddenly made more sense.

Nomura also discussed his favorite scenes from the games depicted in HD 2.5 Remix.

1) His favorite scene from Kingdom Hearts II comes from the end credits sequence, specifically the footage where Sora discovers what Kairi added to the cave drawing in the first game. Everything in this scene, from camera angles to Sora’s actions, is a reaction to the moment with Kairi and furthers the connection between the two characters.

2) From Birth By Sleep, Nomura selected the moment where Terra is taken over by Xehanort, becoming Terranort, and Terra’s spirit brings his armor to life to fight this new combination. He chose this scene because in Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, which wasn’t ported to the US until HD 2.5 Remix, there is a secret boss fight with the Lingering Will, which is a sentient form of Terra’s armor from Birth by Sleep. This boss fight was conceived before the scene form Birth by Sleep, so he wanted to create the scene in a way that would add more emotional impact to the Lingering Will fight and help the player understand why Terra feels the way he does about Xehanort.

3) As for Re:coded, Nomura picked the scene where Sora and Roxas have a lengthy discussion. He said that there were scenes that the team wanted to animate in the game, but couldn’t due to the limitations of the platform. When working on it more recently, he was able to finally see this scene in animation, but also explained that the conversation between these two characters specifically is a rather rare occurrence within the franchise. Not only do these two characters talk for as long as they do about themselves, but there’s also a lot of raw emotion going on that would only have worked within the final scene.

Once the Q&A ended, the audience was shown an exclusive first look at a trailer called “Inside the Kingdom, with Heart” showcasing audience reactions to the Kingdom Hearts brand and what it means to them. I was able to feel the clear passion from the video, including parts showing the development team’s reaction to the fan reactions, and it was hard to not join in on cheering for it.

Afterwards, a raffle took place with prizes including signed Play Arts Kai figures, signed copies of the HD 1.5 and 2.5 Remix Soundtrack Bundle and copies of HD 2.5 Remix, as well as posters for The Avengers: Age of Ultron (because Disney). My brother and I both lost the raffle, but the audience did manage to make a couple jokes when people were handed the prizes by Nomura himself.

When the raffle was over, the audience saw a trailer with hilarious outtakes from the previous trailer, which proved to be quite entertaining. After the guests said their goodbyes however, the audience was given a special treat courtesy of Tetsuya Nomura: a taste of what to expect from Kingdom Hearts III. What we witnessed were animations of Sora using new weapons, concepts of Heartless, and a room in which Sora approached a window. More specific information is out there about what the teaser contained, but what I can say is that the graphics are going to be the best yet, matching or even exceeding the beautiful FMW sequences, and the game looks like it’ll be very exciting (I already planned on buying it anyway, but still).

After the event concluded, I left the theater with a sense of genuine happiness due to the passion of other fans and the inherent positivity that the franchise contains. Being in such close proximity to this positivity did wonders for me and I came out with knowledge that I can do more in my life to make myself happier than I’ve been during school (school being the reason this post is late). In any case, I’m very excited for the future of the Kingdom Hearts franchise and continue to anticipate the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III.

Now to wait until 2015 for more info (the suspense is killing me).

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