My Kingdom Hearts
I’m fourteen years old when Cloud Strife and Donald Duck blend into the same game. It’s strange—I don’t yet know of Kingdom Hearts. Up until this point in my life I’ve grown up almost entirely without the Internet. If I wanted to know about an upcoming game I would beg one of my parents to buy me the current issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly or GamePro, and despite scouring the pages for the newest grindy RPG somehow Kingdom Hearts eludes me.
I know about the Playstation 2. Sleepless sleepovers at friends’ houses returned my glazed stare with hours of Metal Gear Solid 2, Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy X. But the game itself isn’t something that anyone has shown me, and I haven’t seen it.
“I have a present for you,” my dad says as I climb into his Suburban truck. I pile in with my younger brothers. We’re leaving one house for another, but only for the weekend. The youngest, Colin, is six. Jared and Dylan nine and twelve. Up until this point video games have been mostly comprised of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Mario Party, The Ocarina of Time. Video games are everything to us; we are living in a time before social media has blanketed the world, and our mother and step-father are conservative and strict.
My dad, in the anger of divorce and desire to be cool toward his four young sons, is less strict.
He wants to appeal to his nerdy children.
He doesn’t realize the door he is opening.
“What is it?” I ask, slipping off my backpack and hopping into the driver’s seat. The youngest, Colin, is strapped into a car seat. Jared and Dylan sit on either side of him, sullen and tired from the last school day of the week.
“That new video game,” he says, and through his silence during the remainder of the drive my young mind explodes with desire for detail. When the Suburban rolls across the gravel and parks, the three of us are bounding into the house before the wheels roll to a stop. Colin is bound, helpless, but he can sense our joy.
The Playstation 2 awaits, and with it Kingdom Hearts. The game is new. The reviews it has garnished are solid, though the world doesn’t know what to make of it yet.
I know nothing of it.
We hook up the console. We start the game.
I frown as I realize a piece is missing, and Dylan realizes it with me: Dad hasn’t bought a memory card. He didn’t know, and the store clerk wasn’t insightful enough to point this out.
“We’ll get one tomorrow,” I tell Dylan as the Playstation 2 boots up on the TV. That tell-tale, soon to be achingly familiar bloom of noise when the PLAYSTATION 2 logo pops up white against black on the screen will follow us for a long time. A long time.
The title screen of Kingdom Hearts is simple. A young boy is standing barefoot in ocean waves against a beach. A beautiful song is lulling us to press X, each individual note crafted to tug at the heart strings before the game has even been started.
I’m clutching the controller. Dylan is sitting next to me, as is Jared. Colin has toddled into the room, wide-eyed with curiosity.
I hit the button.
Our lives unfold.
I was fourteen then. I’m thirty now. Life has changed in the interim. We’ve grown. Colin graduated college last year. I’ve published novels. My brothers have lived their lives and we have experienced highs and lows. And throughout all of our living, Kingdom Hearts has existed. You could say we’ve grown up with the series, and we have. It has been a vessel existing alongside us for the entirety of our conscious lives. For Colin it has existed in some fashion since before his firmest memories. At age six he could barely hold the controller in his small hands. He played the game anyway.
Like Sora, my thoughts are strange and my memories scattered. I’ve experienced much in my life, and sometimes it seems like too much. I’ve experienced some things that make me don’t want to remember pieces of myself, memories that lie below the surface of dark waves that would serve nothing but to add to the tumultuous storm of my mental health should they be disturbed. But that weekend, playing Kingdom Hearts with my younger brothers?
I remember it in detail.
The lack of a memory card did nothing to occlude our enjoyment that evening. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t save our progress, it didn’t matter that we would have to wait untold hours before we could return to the store with dad and buy that cheap little eight megabyte storage device—ludicrously overpriced—that would allow us to not only play, but to create permanence.
We didn’t need permanence in that moment.
We needed Sora, and Riku, and Kairi.
“I’ve been having these weird thoughts lately,” a young boy tells us. We can hear the howl of the ocean. It sounds close, ominous, beckoning. “Like, is any of this for real? Or not?”
This boy falls through water and we see a tropical landscape unfold around him. He shields his eyes from the sun as another boy stands in the ocean, smirking, holding out his hand. He’s welcoming us. He’s telling us everything will be okay.
Sora runs toward Riku but a wave washes over him, and despite Riku’s closeness Sora can’t reach him. He’s there, waiting, confident despite the tumbling darkness around him, everything plunged in ocean water.
My brothers and I are rapt with attention. No one moves. No one breathes.
The cutscene continues, and with it plays what is certainly our first taste of Japanese pop music. It’s beautiful. It’s fun. Without knowing context or detail, Simple and Clean is effective. It tugs at the heart.
The scene resolves with Sora standing on a pane of stained glass, surrounded by thick darkness. A silent voice calls to him.
“So much to do, so little time…Take your time. Don’t be afraid. The door is still shut…Now. Step forward. Can you do it?”
And we do. This is a tutorial, but it’s crafted so expertly that we don’t notice. We are offered three weapons. I choose a sword and give up a staff.
I play through until the end of Destiny Islands. My brothers are itching to play. Then, dinner is called.
We still don’t have a memory card. Dad wants to watch TV. We are being taken from the light.
“It’s okay,” I say, though inwardly it is the extreme opposite. I press the PS2’s power button and Sora vanishes into an inescapable darkness.
We eat dinner. I don’t remember it at all.
“It’s my turn,” Dylan says, and he’s right. As the oldest I can’t hog the TV.
Dylan plays. He watched me, so he knows what to do. He gets farther.
Jared plays. Colin plays.
We get past Destiny Island. We find our way to Traverse Town. We see Wonderland, and Hercules’ Colosseum. Each time Sora finds himself farther along on his journey, and each time we have to end it.
Dylan stays up all night. He moves beyond these places and finds Tarzan’s home of the Deep Jungle. And through all of this, we are absorbed. Kingdom Hearts has latched itself into us in a way that is deeper than any video game any of us have yet played. The music is soulful and soothing and furious. The combat is engaging and addictive. The monster designs are terrifying but accessible in a way that only Disney can replicate. And through all of this, Final Fantasy exists. Final Fantasy is breathing through this game, though at this point in my gaming career I have only experienced the classics. What I’ve seen of Final Fantasy X has only been through an intro demo at Gamestop.
Kingdom Hearts comes first.
We make it through that weekend, and when the memory card is acquired it is like finding the Holy Grail. It is like being gifted the Keyblade. We have a way to continue on through the darkness.
The rest of time is lost to us. We play and we play and we play. We take turns and the game unfolds for each of us. Sora becomes lost and found again. We ache for Riku, for Kairi, but the sudden on screen appearance of Goofy and Donald changes the game. It adds a levity to the darkness.
Sora, Goofy and Donald are a rag tag team that work so well together it’s as if destiny itself has forged their friendship. My brothers and I will learn through them what exactly this means, and how the light and the darkness can exist together in beautiful, twisted ways.
Months pass. We visit my father on the weekends, on holidays. We play Kingdom Hearts in small chunks and then ache for it in the weeks after. I find every video game magazine possible that talks about Kingdom Hearts. I read every review, I look at every detail. My eyes sweep the strategy guide and I learn about things I didn’t know existed, creatures called Kurt Zisa and Sephiroth. I find out there is a secret movie and a secret ending, and I feel panic tug at my heart. Will I be able to find the secrets? Will this game be too much for me?
One by one the keyholes lock. The Heartless are vanquished. World by world we move through subspace on board the Gummi Ship. My real life continues around me but I barely take notice of it. Other video games come and go. Kingdom Hearts stays.
Hollow Bastion, reads this world near the end. It is a steampunk citadel, a twisted dreamscape forged from the collective of Final Fantasy minds. This isn’t Disney, not anymore. But I will soon learn that it is not Final Fantasy either.
What occurs in the final act of Kingdom Hearts seems absurd. It seems unreal. But we swallow it all eagerly. The twisted strangeness of Ansem creates only a desire to see him conquered. The fallen nature of Riku, the rescue of Kairi, these things push us onward.
All of this and the fact that this game is incredibly, unapologetically, beautifully fun.
My brothers and I memorize Sora’s angry, heartfelt speech before taking down Dark Riku. We lose over and over again against Maleficent. We brave the final few Colosseum matches and are rewarded with Keyblades of awesome power. And the game does not unfold for us in a weekend, in a week. There is no social media to ruin it, to spoil the story or the ending or the characters in the interim of weeks of not playing. When Kingdom Hearts blooms into the television screen nothing else exists.
In what feels like a year after receiving our Playstation 2, I reach the end. There is only Ansem remaining, and his villainous hubris echoes so far beyond Destiny Islands that it corrupts all the other worlds as well. Here is a true Final Fantasy villain, a monster of such proportion that his form takes nearly a half hour to kill. Everything on Sora’s adventure has culminated in this moment against Ansem. He is ultimate evil, I am sure.
When I go after him my motivations are more than contained in Sora’s heart. They’re in my heart, too. I want to rescue Riku. I want to see Kairi again. I want to free the Worlds from the Heartless. Somewhere in that moment the barriers between Final Fantasy and Disney vaporize entirely. Kingdom Hearts has become its own existence, and it has been fused by friendship and hope and light.
“I know now,” Sora says, standing on the precipice of darkness, facing down Ansem. “That without a doubt, Kingdom Hearts…is light!”
The doors behind Ansem split at the seam and open, and it’s true. It is not all-powerful darkness waiting beyond. It’s healing, baneful light.
Ansem is destroyed. Sora, Donald, and Goofy are left standing. But the victory I feel vanishes as quickly as Ansem’s twisted body.
Here, Kingdom Hearts is only beginning.
Riku calls to Sora. Somehow he has found himself on the other side of the door, and he’s not alone. Powerful Darkside Heartless are crushed instantly, felled by singular Keyblade strokes before that familiar chuckle falls on my ears. It’s the King.
“Now, Sora! Let’s seal this door for good!”
I am all pins and needles and a melted heart. I would do anything for the King. But I am losing Riku, too.
I watch, adrenaline surging through me, as Sora pushes the door inward. Riku helps from the other side. They will see each other again. They have to.
Behind Sora, Kairi calls. I am close to tears. This game is stirring my emotions in a way nothing else ever has, in a way nothing else ever will. Kairi is standing on an island that is separated from Sora. As they near one another, the distance grows.
Sora holds out his hand and Kairi grasps it.
“Kairi! Remember what you said before? I’m always with you, too!”
Sora leans forward, reaching, hoping. “I’ll come back to you. I promise!”
Eyes alight with hope, Kairi says, “I know you will!”
The speakers bloom with music. Utada Hikaru’s Simple and Clean—the clean version, not the remix—explodes outward with a storm of feeling as Sora and Kairi are ripped apart, and as the credits roll and the song plays and the worlds that Ansem ravaged are returned, the emotions building inside of me are too much.
Kingdom Hearts is too much.
The credits end. The story does not.
A small part of my fourteen-year-old self is afraid that Kingdom Hearts will leave and never return. A part of me fears that this game is too perfect, too beautiful, too strange.
And then I see Sora, Donald and Goofy walking together down a green path. They seem without a care in the world. They seem unsure of the future.
Then Pluto, the King’s trusted and loyal dog, shows up on the path. Clutched gently in his mouth is a letter stamped with the unmistakable round head and ears of the King.
Once again I think the game is over. Once again I am wrong. And what I do not understand here, and what I will quickly come to learn, is that Kingdom Hearts is about being wrong. Kingdom Hearts is about the unknown. Kingdom Hearts is about defying expectation, about twisting it, about giving and taking and waiting. And waiting.
Another scene plays at the end of the game. This is my secret ending. This is what I earned from looking through strategy guides and studying details.
After Deep Dive plays, I realize that what I thought to be Kingdom Hearts is only a small piece of something much greater.
I play Kingdom Hearts again. I watch my brothers play. Together we help Colin best the portions of the game that his small hands cannot work, and he destroys Ansem too. We are together here. The four of us are so deeply in love with Kingdom Hearts and yet we do not understand the full scope of what this means.
I think I cannot wait long for another game. I think that I cannot manage hoping against hope for another Kingdom Hearts. When Chain of Memories is released, it is strange but it is satisfying. I’m obsessed, but confused. Kingdom Hearts is evolving into something else. It’s growing.
Four years after the release of Kingdom Hearts, when I am a Senior in High School, Kingdom Hearts II releases. It defies expectation in every way imaginable. It is so impossibly grand, so jaw-droppingly beautiful and fun that we are once again taken into Kingdom Hearts in a way no other game has been able to achieve.
Roxas. Namine. DiZ. Ansem the Wise. The Organization. Kingdom Hearts has changed, but when the scope of it is fully revealed I realize that this is a part of something beyond Disney and Final Fantasy fan fiction. Kingdom Hearts has no parallel, no equal. And Kingdom Hearts II proves that it has no desire to be anything other than itself.
School changes. Life changes. Relationships and friendships come and go. My growth from teenager to adult occurs, and here still is Kingdom Hearts, teaching lessons and growing up too. When I first see Sora emerge from Namine’s pod, his memories restored, the way his old clothes fit him is absurd and laughable.
His new clothes are regal, punk, dangerous. Sora no longer wields the Keyblade like a clunky, overweight club but now has a lightness and finesse to all his movements. Sora has changed, and with his changing has grown into someone that is still wholly recognizable. That fun, naive, affectionate boy is still there.
And he is still looking for Riku. He is still hoping to save Kairi.
Kingdom Hearts II smartly continues the formula laid out in Kingdom Hearts, expanding only in terms of combat, minigames, characters, plot. I am still guiding Sora through various Disney Worlds and saving them from the Heartless, though now the Nobodies have been added due to the Organization’s meddling. There are more Final Fantasy characters now, and so many familiar faces have changed alongside their various games. The adorable Yuna, Rikku, and Paine from Final Fantasy X-2 are helpful fairies. Leon (Squall, I grumble to myself) is still a taciturn leader, though his brief moments of comraderie with Sora and the gang as well as his moments of frenzied action with Cloud create a new sense of diverging plots. These characters are fighting for what they believe in, running parallel with Sora’s efforts to save each world from the threat of the Heartless. Yuffie is helping Cid. Tifa is looking for Cloud. Sephiroth is still waiting in the darkness.
At this stage of my life, video games like Kingdom Hearts II are no longer a simple enjoyment. They are a distraction. They free my high school worries, they ascend beyond my troubled home life. Kingdom Hearts II’s ironclad devotion to the positive benefits of friendship and love are a welcome balm during my aching adolescence. And here, still, my brothers and I are enjoying them together.
Dylan is angry when Jared comes down with a spring flu and stays home, the hours flying by as he is the first of us to beat the game. When the credits roll for me, I realize I have made a mistake. There is more to accomplish in Kingdom Hearts II and I did not gain access to the secret ending. So I go back. I play through the Colosseum, I level up my Drive Forms and Summons, I conquer Sephiroth. Kingdom Hearts II is larger in scope but it is also deeper. This time, as I watch the credits roll after helping Sora and Riku best the seeker of oblivion known as Xemnas, I feel a new hollowness wash over me.
Kingdom Hearts II was good. It will go on to be one of the best games of the Playstation 2, if not the best.
I replay Kingdom Hearts. I replay Kingdom Hearts II. I gleefully, unabashedly play the strange Playstation 2 remaster of Chain of Memories. Somewhere in the interim Kingdom Hearts invades the real world. Fantasy Flight Games releases a Kingdom Hearts TCG, and my brothers and I collectively dump all our birthday and holiday monies into buying pack after pack and box after box. We build decks of cards that are filled with Keyblades and Heartless and we go after one another, conquering the Worlds in a new way.
After I graduate high school, new adult worries enter my life that Kingdom Hearts cannot fix. And yet the game is there, waiting, always welcome. Beyond serious break ups, beyond moving into new places, beyond college and terrible jobs and hunger, Kingdom Hearts is there, a light in the darkness. And it will be some time before the next Kingdom Hearts game is released a console, remaster, remake, or otherwise.
Kingdom Hearts II effectively changed the landscape of what I thought Kingdom Hearts was. It pushed the series into a new, strange, beautiful place. When 358/2 Days would release it would graft a new soul to the series. That brief time spent with Roxas and Axel would be expanded upon, and a new place in my heart opened for Xion. 358/2 Days was bizarre, but for the first time ever my brothers and I could all play a Kingdom Hearts game together.
And still, somehow, it did not prepare me for what Birth By Sleep would do to the series. After a lukewarm few years of Playstation Portable releases, I had a game of some substance to look forward to, and it was a Kingdom Hearts entry no less. This Kingdom Hearts entry would be decidedly different than the others, however. Sora and Riku were nowhere to be seen, at least not at first. Aqua, Ventus and Terra were new heroes, but they weren’t. Birth By Sleep rolled back the clock and brought us to a place before everything that had yet to occur in the series, and once again the game did it in a way that was fun an explosive and challenging. The combat was different, the Worlds were different, the characters were different.
But this was still Kingdom Hearts in its soul.
Birth By Sleep is a sad game. There is little happiness in the battle between Xehanort and Eraqus, in the corruption of Terra, in the manipulation of Ventus, in the loss of Aqua. When the final credits roll there is hope in knowing what occurs next in Kingdom Hearts, but these new characters that had been introduced were ripped away from me in the same action. I felt a vow blossom in my heart of hearts that I would do whatever it took to save Ventus and Terra and to absolve Aqua. Despite moments of monotony, Birth By Sleep was a solid entry and a damn fun portable game. It was Kingdom Hearts again, new, different, old, the same. It was friendship and light and darkness. It felt like it contained meaning, and it still does.
My brothers and I continue to grow and life continues to change. Our family shifts as people are divorced, imprisoned, lost. At times there seems to be only darkness in aging. There are no moments of great conquering, only small victories. The next Kingdom Hearts game to release is a port of a mobile phone game that is remastered for the Nintendo DS. I grit my teeth and power through it, but it feels like a missed opportunity. It is the first time that something in Kingdom Hearts feels unnecessary and unwelcome to me. I play the game on board a flight as I travel across the country to see a girl.
She will leave my life, and Kingdom Hearts will stay.
Dream Drop Distance is a new entry, and it is released on handheld consoles like the previous two. But it is not Birth By Sleep and it is not RE: Coded. Dream Drop Distance puts me back into the controls of Sora and this time Riku as well.
The game is strange, different, dreamlike. This is Kingdom Hearts but it has a softness at its edges. It is a portable game at its heart and yet it is undeniably fun. The characters, music and combat all center me into my love of the series. Dream Drop Distance all pushes the Xehanort Saga forward, and for the first time I am becoming worried for the fate of Sora, Riku, and the others.
Kingdom Hearts III is teased in the secret ending, and I am aching for it.
A new hopelessness settles into my heart as the drudgery of daily life continues. I hate my job. Everything feels disconnected. Colin graduates High School and leaves us, settling into California for the next few years. There is a shift of closeness, and the way we identify one another adapts to each one of us entering adulthood. Singular identities are crafted that no longer contain the attachment of simply being four brothers who are forced to spend time with one another. We decide, one by one, that we enjoy each other’s company.
I stay up one night discussing theories with Colin. I watch Jared play Kingdom Hearts II again. Dylan is not much around, but when he is it is as if he never left, and we all become excited, because something simultaneously new and old is on the horizon, and Kingdom Hearts feels as if it is returning from a period of hollow darkness.
The first entry in the series is remastered for the Playstation 3. It is the same game down to its teeth and bones but it looks and plays beautifully, and I feel like a kid again. I rush home from work every day, miserable but excited to play a game that I first fell in love with eleven years prior. We are all playing it again. Kingdom Hearts has consumed us, it has swallowed us into its landscapes of light and darkness. What I do not know is that my full love of Kingdom Hearts will be reignited in a scant few months.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2013 begins. It is my high holiday. I watch with bated breath as new games are teased and the next year of entertainment is revealed, but there is a surprise waiting. Final Fantasy Versus XIII becomes Final Fantasy XV.
The first ever teaser trailer of Kingdom Hearts III is shown. Gathered around my laptop, my brothers and I explode into tangible bouts of exclaimed hysteria. Kingdom Hearts returns us to childhood with the flip of a switch, light blooming into a room to chase away the darkness.
Kingdom Hearts II is remastered and released on Playstation 3 shortly after. I finish a busy Christmas shift and come home to find Dylan is playing it already. His game has arrive a full weekend ahead of release.
“A scattered dream that’s like a far-off memory. A far-off memory that’s like a scattered dream,” Sora says, standing at a crossroads. “I want to line the pieces up. Yours, and mine.”
A chill runs down my spine. Other games are released that season and I can’t remember what they are. I’m aching to play a new old game, a beloved game, a piece of my history that was released nearly seven years before.
We are collectively the children we used to be. Kingdom Hearts II has united us, and alongside the various new friends I have made we are all plunged into our love for the series. This feels like a new era, and yet I am still left to wonder.
Where is Kingdom Hearts III?
“It will never be released,” the collective Internet whines. “Square doesn’t care about the fans. Only the product. We don’t want the spin-offs. We don’t want the re-releases.”
Kingdom Hearts is remastered for the Playstation 4 and released again, as is Kingdom Hearts II. Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance both see console releases. I happily play them both and still in the back of my mind I am worried for the inevitable release of Kingdom Hearts III. It’s been over a decade. Will it ever come?
Attached with Kingdom Hearts II.8, Final Chapter Prologue, a teaser game is released called Fragmentary Passage. This is our first collective taste of Kingdom Hearts III, and I am returned to Aqua who has fallen so far into the darkness that she must do battle with herself. What is shown of Kingdom Hearts III is mind blowing. The graphics, the spells, the combat, the music. What I will soon come to understand is that this is only a shadow of what Kingdom Hearts III will be. The game is in development, but Fragmentary Passage does not accurately showcase the true majesty of the next main iteration of the series. And it only serves to make us all hunger more.
Once Fragmentary Passage releases, the teasing of Kingdom Hearts III moves on in full. Like Sora being swallowed by the darkness in Destiny Islands, the collective of Kingdom Hearts fans spends the next few years strung along by image after image, trailer after trailer. Kingdom Hearts III is still coming but these last few years feel like agony. We have waited so long that all of us—not only my brothers and I but my friends, my loved ones, and others in the community who are strangers but feel familiar—have entered adulthood and been here for some time. We have graduated college and found jobs. We have created things of our own. We have seen other video game series rise and fall.
Uncharted, Dark Souls, Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Persona. Other series enter new eras. They become triumphs and disappointments in their own rights. Lives are lived in the interim of Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts III. In the span between games I write, craft, promote and self-publish an entire series of novels. I experience my own bouts of doubt, depression, hopelessness. Still Kingdom Hearts is there, an anchor, an inspiration. Many other games fill the void in my heart but when Kingdom Hearts returns it proves itself as unlike anything else. It sparks love and hope within us all.
My brothers and I find new friends with which to share in the joy of Kingdom Hearts. Together we craft a community that eagerly awaits the next release.
It has been a long few years. People whom I love have passed away. Thankfully, blessedly, my brothers and I remain together. Tight-knit, firm, devoted. Kingdom Hearts III is one week away as I sit in a coffee shop and write about it. One week, and thirteen years.
I am thirty years old in the year of Kingdom Hearts III. I am fourteen years old in the year of Kingdom Hearts. Somewhere between I have become who I am, and the good parts of me are intertwined with a series of glorified fan fiction that has unified Disney and Final Fantasy with an adhesive of memorable characters and strange, abstract story.
I can see myself a week from now. I’m sitting in my room, in my chair, in front of my television. Kingdom Hearts III’s box sits on my desk. The disc is in the console.
Dearly Beloved starts to play. My eyes grow warm and a chill crawls up my spine and I am transported.
What happens next? What am I after Kingdom Hearts III? What is Kingdom Hearts after Kingdom Hearts III? Will it be a good game? A great game? Will it disappoint? What has Kingdom Hearts been but a journey to itself, a journey to myself, a journey to those around me whom I have loved? Sora, Riku, Kairi, Donald, Goofy, the King. The Organization. Aqua, Terra, Ventus. Xehanort, Vanitas. Eraqus. Namine, Roxas, Xion, Axel.
I love you so much. I always will.
I am sitting in front of my television. Kingdom Key in hand, Sora will continue his journey between Light and Darkness.
And I will be there with him.