Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sweet Lily Dreams's Use of the Kingdom Hearts Method

Sweet Lily Dreams is a sequel of sorts to Whisper of a Rose, both indie RPGs created with RPG Maker. You may recall that I had several issues with WoaR, and unfortunately, it’s much the same with Sweet Lily Dreams. In some regards, SLD is a little improved, I admit, but it still suffers from the same lackluster writing that fails to bring its characters or subjects alive in any way, as well as the same difficulty in avoiding confusions in its lore and events. And unfortunately, SLD also brings a new set of problems to the table, with an even less engaging cast than WoaR, an ending more flat and lifeless than an unsalted Saltine as it abruptly ends the game’s main conflict in the most unlikely way possible* so that it can then immediately toss you into a spontaneous and unwanted sequel-bait plot twist, and some truly fucking horrible mandatory minigames (more on at least 1 of them in a future rant).

Among the issues that Sweet Lily Dreams suffers from which its predecessor did not is that it’s not using its storytelling method well. Whisper of a Rose’s was a fairly generic approach of its protagonist traveling from 1 place to another in its world (dream world, at any rate), with the story’s events motivating her to go from 1 place/plot point to the next, in typical RPG fashion. Certainly not innovative, but functional enough that you kinda can’t mess it up. Sweet Lily Dreams, on the other hand, has a setup in which the majority of the game is a large crossover, in which the game’s characters visit the settings and meet the casts of several other stories to take part in those stories’ events. Basically, it’s like Sora visiting various Disney settings in Kingdom Hearts 1 + 2, except Sweet Lily Dreams does classic old literature and movies, like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Dracula, and The Mummy. Maybe Roseportal Games intentionally used Kingdom Hearts as a template for Sweet Lily Dreams’s approach, or maybe they didn’t and it’s just a coincidence.

...But since SLD opens with its protagonist** choosing what kind of fighter she’ll be on a series of big stained glass platforms floating in a void, I’m gonna bet on the similar narrative approach to Kingdom Hearts being maybe not a complete coincidence.

Here’s the problem, though. Kingdom Hearts did this journey across familiar worlds well. Sweet Lily Dreams doesn’t. If I had to take a guess, I’d say Roseportal Games didn’t realize that there was more to making this method successful than just the act of having it at all. It’s like if you bought a car with an empty gas tank and found yourself utterly perplexed by its refusal to drive you anywhere--all the parts are there and assembled, so why doesn’t it work?

See, here’s the thing. It’s kind of cool to move along from 1 dream world to the next, hanging out with Swamp Thing, helping Dr. Jekyll conquer Mr. Hyde, and battling against Dracula, but nothing of substance comes from these adventures, story- and characters-wise. Of the few times that members of the party get developed during the course of the game, few to none of these occasions have any significant ties to the world and story they’re currently experiencing. None of these worlds have any part to play in the game’s events after you leave them; they’re solely plot obstacles that have no lingering effects--Swamp Thing isn’t going to return later to assist you in thanks for trying to help him, the Mummy’s not gonna return later for revenge, the Hypercube has no bearing on the finale’s events, etc. And even though these are worlds created by the game’s antagonist, The Writer, from his own mentality from the stories he cares most about, none of them actually tell you very much, if anything, about his character. I mean, they’re all darker stories, and he’s a pretty troubled guy, so there’s that, but that’s far too general to be considered character development. You could look at the Swamp Thing and Mummy stories as indicative of his feelings about being unable to protect someone he loved from the cruelties of the world, I guess, but since none of the other stories you visit appear to have any substantial connection to The Writer’s headspace beyond being gloomy, it seems much more like these stories only happen to connect to him out of chance, rather than design.

See, what makes Kingdom Hearts work is that, despite being a dozen different little stories in succession, they’re all strung together by a feeling and depiction as being important vignettes of a larger story. In Kingdom Hearts, the major characters, Sora in particular, learn and grow from their experiences in the worlds they visit, and their character bases and developments are solidified through the mini-adventures that each world provides. By the finales of KH1 and KH2, it feels like the experiences of Sora and company have led them to these final points and contributed to the growth of them and the plot. Additionally, several plot points and characters in the various Disney worlds visited come back to contribute to the story overall; they’re not just left behind and forgotten as though they had no actual importance. The specific events of each Disney world are relevant vehicles for the main characters’ long-term development, and the characters and plot points of those worlds frequently maintain a relevance to the overall story of Kingdom Hearts after the fact.

And Kingdom Hearts 2 did make use of Organization 13 in many of the stories of the different worlds Sora visits, which made the attempt to develop the villains of the story. I mean, KH2 failed miserably on this part, but that’s because what it was trying to develop were a bunch of 1-dimensional morons so bland they were barely distinguishable from each other, not because the game didn’t have the right idea, storytelling-wise.

That’s how this style of narrative needs to be--it needs to use the specifics of each crossover world in a way that develops the cast, that holds relevance to the overall story, and that develops the antagonist(s) of the game where possible. And Sweet Lily Dreams just doesn’t really do that, at all. Each story world you enter, you’re just there to get through it and move on, as you occasionally witness spurts of character development that could have occurred anywhere. Your goal in SLD is to get to the end of The Writer’s dream worlds to confront him, and the game handles itself in a way that makes this goal the clear focus. Each world in Sweet Lily Dreams is just an obstacle to be overcome, not a part of the greater storytelling process, and since these literary/cinematic sidestories take up the majority of the game’s play time, that makes this an RPG in which you spend most of your time just trying to get to something that matters. And that, sadly, makes for a pretty dull time.

* So, wait, the evil dream cult that wants to destroy everyone who took up residence in the central city because they consider that city part of their heritage...was actually totally fine the whole time with just sharing it? These extremists who experiment with creating out-of-control phobia monsters and have no qualms whatever about trying to destroy the psyches of other people, including those of children...these guys are just totally fine with a compromise the first time it’s offered? And no one else thought to just check with them at any point to see whether they’d be reasonable about the matter?

** At least, the game wants you to think she’s the protagonist. Given that she is the most passive and superfluous, as well as least-developed, member of the party, has the least effect upon the game’s events and other characters, and doesn’t really have any substantial connection to the plot, though, I’d say she’s no more the main character of her game than Vaan is of Final Fantasy 12. Lily’s really just along for the ride.


  1. Curiously, this flaw may be more subtle and understandable than it first appears. Specifically, this is a failure that KH2 itself is guilty of, not merely in developing shallow mini-bosses, but in failing to connect the bulk of the game's content with the actual storyline.

    In KH1, the worlds introduced Sora to Darkness and how people can be changed by it, they involved him not getting along with Donald and talking it out, they impressed upon him the importance of not meddling, and taught him that the ability of the Keyblade TO meddle is what makes it such a powerful, dangerous, and necessary weapon. All the while, Riku and Kairi are kept in Sora's and the player's thoughts through regular mentions.

    In KH2, you kinda fuck around in various Disney Zone Act 1s until the plot wants to hijack the game, then you fuck around in various Disney Zone Act 2s until the plot wants get its shit together and get on with its life. By the end, only a couple of these Organization nobodies(what a label!) manage to contribute to the major events of the plot.

    I love both games, but drawing inspiration from 2, probably the most popular title, without a hard look at the narrative and pacing structure is bound to produce similar shortcomings.

    That stained glass intro in KH1 kicked ass, by the way. Each option gave you radically different abilities that heavily influenced your playstyle. KH2 limited this to a handful of passive traits that didn't matter until late in the game when you already had all of them. If KH3 does this setup again, I want a greater difference in outcome.

    1. Hmm, but in both games, I at least think that it's safe to say that Sora's experiences in each (or at least most) Disney world are developing him into the character he'll be by the end of the game, developing him into the decisions that he'll make during the major plot moments. Yes, you make a good point that the events of every Disney world don't do much in directly influencing the major plot lines, and I'll agree with you that KH is no better than Sweet Lily Dreams on that point, but at least Sora seems to carry his journey with him in these games, making it a necessary and noticeable function of the overall story, not just an obstacle to overcome, like with SLD.