Kingdom Hearts II and the Sympathetic Villain

The Kingdom Hearts franchise is notorious for how complicated and somewhat contradictory its story has been for a long time. Now, in the era right before the release of Kingdom Hearts III, the timeline seems solid and understandable. At the time of Kingdom Hearts II, the story was (unnecessarily) convoluted, and many characters were not properly explained at the time of introduction, yet most of the main characters were compelling. Organization XIII got its true spotlight in Kingdom Hearts II, and though they were supposed to be the villains, they felt almost as compelling as the protagonists. This largely came about because of their association with the other villains in the game, the Disney villains. The portrayal of Disney villains alongside the main villains of Organization XIII makes the Organization members sympathetic and relatable.

The Disney formula makes villains that could never be sympathetic. Their motivations are entirely malicious and destructive. Most of these villains want to violently destroy an existing political order so they can seize power. Hades, Jafar, Scar, Ursula. The list goes on. They don’t seem to have any reason for their actions other than power lust, which is fairly one dimensional and hard to justify. There are some exceptions in the Disney canon, such as Gaston, but these characters are not featured in KH II. As a result, the player has no reason to support the Disney villains, and their defeat is not only satisfying but expected and demanded.

The Disney villains are unrelatable, and this is reflected in the army the game gives each of them. They all are able to command the Heartless, entities that are physical manifestations of darkness. Heartless are created when a person dies, and their only purpose is to kill the living to steal their hearts. This is blatantly one dimensional since they only have room in their being to destroy. They may come in different shapes and sizes, but they all have the same goal of indiscriminate destruction. This simple guiding principle is obvious in the Heartless, but it also characterizes the Disney villains perfectly. Thus, it is not jarring to see those villains command the Heartless.

The introduction of the Nobodies in Kingdom Hearts II as another enemy faction for Sora and friends disrupted the clear dichotomy between protagonist and antagonist. The basic Nobodies are just as shallow as the Heartless on the surface. They spawn when someone dies, and they hunt for the living’s hearts. The development of Organization XIII, though, gives purpose to this group. They have a constructive, not destructive, ultimate goal: to collect enough hearts to give themselves hearts. It is unclear if the grunt forces understand this goal, but the leadership certainly does, which already places them on a moral high ground compared to the Disney villains.

The Organization’s search for identity holds a justifiable aspect that the Disney villains lack. The player can understand why these entities want an identity, so it’s harder to write them off. In addition, they don’t necessarily achieve this goal through the same indiscriminate destruction that the Heartless and Disney villains do. Organization members always work in the background of the worlds Sora visits, using discreet tactics to achieve their goals. Some members, such as Demyx and Axel, even demonstrate individual agency to avoid conflict while achieving their goals. This is a much different attitude than the rampaging evil tactics that the Disney villains employ.

If the Organization did not appear alongside the Disney villains, their identity would certainly be different. The Organization’s sympathetic image arises because they look so much better than the other main enemy group. Compared to malicious political coups, the goal of identity is not absurd. Compared to one-dimensional evil caricatures, the organization members seem almost normal, or at least possessing traits that normal individuals would also have. All the support a player could give to Organization members originates from the perspective granted by Disney.

The Organization receives a similar treatment as Riku from Kingdom Hearts I. Technically, Riku is the true enemy of the first game, but the player also recognizes him as a friend. The whole opening segment of that game makes sure that the player develops a connection with Riku. He will later create difficulty for the player, but the player (ideally) wants to redeem Riku, not destroy him. The Organization is Kingdom Hearts II’s Riku. The individual personalities and desires of some members lead to player investment, which demands redemption. This clever and familiar way of portraying the Organization works to cement the game’s story and lead to its success. Though the details of the story may be fuzzy, the characters present in it offer enough interest and stimulation to keep the player engaged and wanting more.