Bringing together Disney’s finest is a daunting task – and Kingdom Hearts 3 is crossing company lines more than ever before – a challenge for perfectionists at both Pixar and Square alike.
When the call announcing Square Enix’s interest in their films arrived at Pixar, one employee in particular was quite excited: Tasha Sounart, the Associate Creative Director at Pixar Animation Studios. Sounart’s resume includes A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc and Finding Nemo, but she also has a strong connection to games – in a brief break from Pixar, she directed Double Fine’s excellent Costume Quest.
“I’ve been a Kingdom Hearts fan for a long time,” Sounart explains to gathered press at the Kingdom Hearts 3 hands-on premiere event. “I played the first two games and a couple of the handheld games – and so just as a player I always wanted to see Pixar worlds represented.”
“Rob Rowe, our director in the interactive group, just came up to me one day and said that they were thinking of adding Pixar worlds to Kingdom Hearts 3, and what did I think of that? I was like… er, yes please! I really want to work on this! So, yes, I was super excited.”
In a sense, Disney and Square has always seemed a match made in heaven. Both companies are known for their creative drive and their perfectionism – something that has on occasion earned Square some criticism for game delays and lengthy development cycles. Kingdom Hearts 3 has been no exception – it was announced five years ago now – but hearing Sounart and Pixar Story Supervisor and Toy Story veteran Jason Katz talk about the game drives home just what a challenge melding different franchises together is.
“The person who designed Buzz is giving notes, the person who designed Mike is giving notes – all to try to make the integration of Sora and Donald and Goofy into Monsters and Toy Story feel right”
“Square Enix’s process is very similar to ours on films, where they’ll go all the way from script to storyboard to layout to blocking animation – y’know, it’s a very similar path that all the scenes take, and we were involved from the very beginning and giving notes on the script just to make the characters feel authentic to how they would actually act in those situations,” Sounart explains.
“The person who designed Buzz is giving notes, the person who designed Mike is giving notes – all to try to make the integration of Sora and Donald and Goofy into Monsters and Toy Story feel right,” Katz adds.
“That’s an important thing. It’s an easy thing to say and a tough thing to realize. Like – what is the monsterisation of Donald? What does Sora look like as a toy? But it’s so important, because not only does it move the story line, but it helps buy them into the world – there’s a reason for them being in that particular story.”
That story is important, too – Kingdom Hearts goes beyond light-hearted fan service and tries to truly make the merging of worlds matter. When Sora and company visit the toybox world they don’t just blabber about their world-saving plot – it’s a running joke in the series that Donald constantly nags Sora about protecting the ‘world order’ – instead they find themselves entwined in an all-new plot for the Toy Story crew, in turn helping them to resolve it.
If you’ve seen a screenshot of Kingdom Hearts 3 you likely already know how impressive and film-like its representation of the Toy Story world looks. That only ups the challenge, however, with Katz explaining that once he saw how closely the game was now able to resemble the still-gorgeous 1995 CG movie, the bar was raised.
“All of a sudden the degree of notes and the amount we’re gonna push up our glasses and really dig in on the details… it’s gonna raise,” Katz says of Pixar’s involvement with KH3. “Because if it looks like the film it needs to move like the film and feel like the film.”
“They have such an attention to detail and really care about getting things right. That really is very similar to Pixar.”
Katz and Sounart both say they believe Kingdom Hearts 3’s representation of the worlds of Toy Story and Monsters Inc are successful in this regard, but it’s clearly the result of many hours of painstaking back-and-forth between Square Enix’s developers in Japan and the Pixar team back in the states. It isn’t all about visuals or story either, with these conversations bleeding into game design. As it turns out, my favourite part of my KH3 hands-on session was directly inspired by conversations between the two companies.
“A big part of the Toy Story universe and those films is nostalgia – nostalgia for toys that we remember growing up, or that feeling of playing with a toy as a kid. I remember having really great conversations about… challenging the folk at Square Enix, asking ‘What were the toys you remember? What were the toys from your childhood?’,” Katz says.
The end result is a little taste of Japanese toys in the game. In the Toy Story world, you head to a toy store and end up battling evil, possessed toys. The hardiest of these are very Japanese-feeling – Gundam-like mechs that you can even take over and pilot known as Gigas, and monster toys that are known, appropriately, as Kaiju. Piloting the gigas is one of the best bits of the Toy Story world, a striking and incredibly fun little diversion.
“When they brought back the idea for the Gigas and taking advantage of things that were specific to their experience playing with toys, that’s when it really started to click. That’s when it really began to feel like we were speaking the same language – but it’s also a very specific thing for Kingdom Hearts 3. That’s when you really take advantage of the time it takes to develop a real quality story,” Katz adds.
“Just like making our films, that takes time. It takes time to establish trust, to understand what we can both collectively bring to the table to make the end product reach the ideals we have.”
Most important to the collaboration, however, is probably that the two companies share a mindset – even if it is a mindset that means Square Enix games have sometimes sluggish-seeming development cycles.
“They have such an attention to detail and really care about getting things right,” Sounart says of Square. “That really is very similar to Pixar, where we will have a meeting where we’re all obsessing over this one little shadow or something [laughs]. The way that Square Enix is – they really try to get everything as good as they can get it, and so we really appreciated that when we were working with them.”
“Just seeing Buzz and Woody running around with Sora… I dunno, I’ve just wanted this for a long time – it’s so cool!”