All characters belong to Disney and Square Enix.
Featuring the most annoyingly upbeat protagonist in video game history, Kingdom Hearts was the bizarre lovechild of Disney movies and the popular Final Fantasy video game series, born from a morbid curiosity to see Cloud Strife fight Donald Duck. The first game follows Sora as his world gets overtaken by darkness, and he is separated from his two best friends, Riku and Kairi. What follows is about eighteen hours of chasing heartless, or hearts consumed by their inner darkness, through Disney worlds as villains try to capture the seven Princesses of Heart, those without darkness in their hearts including Kairi, to summon the Door to Darkness, or Kingdom Hearts. Tragedy ensues as Kairi loses her heart, and Riku aligns himself with Maleficent to save her and to win control over the keyblade from Sora.
With a series of plot twists sharp enough to give you whiplash, Maleficent is revealed to be under the influence of an ultra-powerful heartless named Ansem, who has possessed Riku. Sora finds the strength to summon his keyblade through his friendships with Donald and Goofy, and he restores Kairi’s heart through using his keyblade to turn himself into a heartless. Kairi is able to recognize Sora even in his heartless form, and the light in her heart expels his darkness. Sora fights with Ansem, but he is unable to close the Door to Darkness alone, until surprise! Riku is good again—just in time to trap himself in the Realm of Darkness. Riku is not alone, however. King Mickey arrives in all of his shirtless glory with a keyblade of his own to help Riku close the door as he imparts a tragic goodbye to Sora: “take care of her.”
(From left to right: Kairi, Donald, Riku, Sora [center], and Goofy.)
Enter Kingdom Hearts II. The game doesn’t open on Sora. Instead, the player is introduced to Roxas, a kid so normal he was voiced by Jesse McCartney, living out his summer vacation until he starts having these memories that aren’t his—they belong to Sora. You see, when someone becomes a heartless, their body is left behind, essentially without a soul. These sentient beings are known as nobodies. Roxas is Sora’s nobody, a former member of a group of nobodies known as Organization 13. The Organization are the main antagonists of Kingdom Hearts II, led by Xemnas, who is derived from the same being as Ansem was: big bad, Master Xehanort.
Upon revisiting Kingdom Hearts as an adult, I was shocked by how I resonated with it differently. As I kid, I thought of myself like Sora, the hero of the story, but now that I am older, I remind myself of somebody else: Xemnas. Now, Xemnas is arguably the worst of the many iterations of Xehanort that players are introduced to; while Ansem is Xehanort’s heartless, all of the darkness in his heart, Xemnas is what remains after Xehanort is stripped of his heart, soul, and emotions. He’s pure evil, convinced that he is incapable of feeling. He thirsts for power, determined to summon Kingdom Hearts, the source of all light, by stealing captive hearts from the heartless.
Ansem and Xemnas in Kingdom Hearts III.
The tragedy is that he is trying to earn back his own heart through stealing those of others, and he tells the members of his Organization 13 that they cannot feel and anything that they think they feel is a memory. When Axel starts to feel genuine friendship towards Roxas and when Saix remembers that he once thought of Axel as a brother, it’s all a lie. Xemnas tells them that people do not care about nobodies, that they are not meant to exist, that they have no place in the world. Xemnas manipulates his followers into agreeing to summon Kingdom Hearts by convincing them that they will become whole when they’ve stolen enough hearts.
At first, he sounds like an unsympathetic villain, but I relate to him. Not because of the terrible things he’s done, but because of his answer when Roxas asks him what he is. Xemnas responds “I’m what’s left.” I didn’t realize how much that sentiment can mean with somebody who’s going through the struggles of depression. You often feel like what’s left of someone from a brighter time. I have found that I myself feel like a nobody; I’m what’s left of Allison, that happy kid who my mom complains about missing. I’m the person that used to be her, that’s all.
Axel shares a sea salt ice cream with fellow nobody Roxas and his replica, Xion.
There is hope; Xemnas taught me that yeah, I am what’s left. But, at the end of Kingdom Hearts III, when he is defeated for the second time, the first thing he says to Sora upon regaining his ability to feel is that he regrets that he took his comrades for granted and that “a heart is just pain,” to which Sora responds “pain is being human.” Xemnas then notes that it “must take incredible strength.” Similarly, fellow nobody, Saix, expresses that he was jealous of Axel when his friendship with Roxas was able to make him feel happiness again; that’s when he realized that he was wrong to follow Xemnas. The nobodies weren’t too far gone. That meant that there was always a way to come back.
It’s the same thing that characters such as Riku prove. Riku, who called himself the biggest nobody of all. He proved himself, willing to sacrifice everything to protect Sora when he was at his weakest. Riku overcame his darkness, becoming a keyblade wielder and a guardian of the light. He defeated Ansem, and with Sora, he was able to defeat Xemnas and Xehanort. He proved that no matter how far you fall, you can redeem yourself. That’s the sort of lesson that can inspire someone. The sort of lesson that makes a girl who’s sitting in her bedroom, razor blade in hand, think twice about what she’s about to do.
Sora and Riku rely on each other to defeat Xemnas in Kingdom Hearts II.
Axel is much the same; he had the least scruples out of the Organization members, a mercenary with no qualms about striking down his fellow members. When he got a taste of true friendship, however, Axel grew to feel again and recognize right from wrong. He abandoned Organization 13 and was instrumental in helping Sora defeat them. Axel became a keyblade wielder himself upon regaining his heart, which he did not realize would happen—he believed he would die saving Sora. That all ties back into the same message: you can overcome your darkness. You are not defined by your past. The true meaning of Kingdom Hearts is as simple as its most famous quote: “my friends are my power.”
So what do I do when those terrible thoughts creep in? I think about the people in my life who I would want to protect and who would protect me. My mom. My dad. My sister. My best friend, the closest person I have to a Riku, who ran away when we were teenagers. I think about how no matter how dark my world seems and no matter how little I feel I have to offer, that small beacon of light in my heart is worth more than any pain or hate that I may feel or that others feel towards me. Never should you let your light be put out by darkness, whether it be someone else’s or your own. You are worth more than all of the doubt and the fear. In the words of Sora himself, “The heart may be weak. And sometimes it may even give in. But I’ve learned that deep down, there’s a light that never goes out!”
When I worked at Disney, I was able to attend a Kingdom Hearts III Demo, prior to its release.