Kingdom Hearts

the gang

by Nora

It's been awhile since we've had a good Squaresoft game to drool over review. FFXI has been out for a year in Japan, but as a massively-multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) it doesn't have anything in the way of a plot or established characters, so I doubt we'll ever see any doujinshi from it. And although FFX-2 has been out for a while, I don't expect to see many doujinshi from that either; I found the game mindless and annoying. We can still hold out hope for the forthcoming FFXII, especially since the early buzz sounds so promising, and there's always a possibility that Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles will contain slashable elements even though it seems to be marketed at Nintendo's younger audience, but... well, let's face it. On the slashability front, Square Enix has been a disappointment lately.

Well. Not entirely. In 2002, just before the big corporate merger, Square released one last RPG-ish sort of game to a surprising amount of fanfare. This was probably due to Square's choice of partner, which was none other than the Mouse House itself, Disney Interactive. I can't speak for the whole of gaming fandom, but I know that when I heard about this seemingly unholy union, my first reaction was horror followed by incredulity. Disney and Square? That was like... like oil and water. Republicans and the Green Party. Microsoft and Sun. What were they thinking?

So out of sheer stubbornness I refused to touch the game. The very idea was ludicrous. Square characters mingling with the likes of Goofy and Donald? Never mind the clash of art styles and cultural sensibilities, where was the logic? Sephiroth and Cloud were supposed to be in the game; how, when Cloud lived in the FF7 world and Seph was dead? The best Square games always contained elements that Disney wouldn't touch, like genetic engineering and torture and the end of the world. What would happen to those elements, and the trademark intricate Square storylines, given Disney's trademark "sap treatment"? Just as importantly (to me, anyway), how could there possibly be any BL in a game that would surely be targeted at American children... and their parents??

KH logo

Fortunately, fellow gamergirl Donna lent me her copy of the game. More fortunately, I was bored enough one night to actually start playing it. And from about two minutes in, I was hooked.

The story is deceptively simple on the surface (spoiler-free synopsis). On a lovely tropical archipelago called the Destiny Islands, three teenaged friends live mostly-carefree lives. There's Sora, wild and cheerful; Kairi, sweet and bubbly; and Riku, rough-and-tumble but also driven. Early on we get to see the undercurrents of this trio's relationship. Puberty has hit all three hard, both physically (Riku is a year older and noticeably more developed than Sora or Kairi) and spiritually. Sora's feelings toward Kairi are transforming from friendship into first love. Kairi's starting to feel the same toward Sora, but Riku makes her uneasy for some reason. Riku clearly cares for both, but his greatest wish is to get off the Destiny Islands. He's old enough to start thinking about his future, and his plans are bigger than a tiny island can easily accommodate. Because of him, the three start working on a raft which will take them across the ocean -- exactly where, they don't know, since apparently the Islands represent the only inhabited place on this planet. It doesn't really matter where they're going. They're kids. They can dream.

Luckily, before they can set off on their quest (and die of exposure, storms, or sharks), the world ends.


Okay, so this isn't entirely lucky. But in some ways it is. See, both Riku and Sora have been feeling the pull of some magical, higher destiny for awhile by this point. In Sora's case, that pull has manifested as strange dreams just chock-full of psychoanalytic symbolism. These dreams forewarn that he will soon be torn away from his friends, and also that he will become the wielder of a mysterious weapon called the Keyblade. On the dark stormy night that the world ends, this is exactly what happens. Riku, still following his own inner tug, vanishes. Kairi is attacked by vicious little creatures called "the Heartless," which have the power to literally rip the soul out of any living being. She disappears as well. Sora survives the destruction only to suddenly find himself in another world, where he learns that he is "the Keyblade master" and the sole defense of the entire universe against the Heartless horde. He sets out to track this horde to its source and destroy it, while also searching for his missing friends.

But here's where the story surprised me. I can't tell you any more of it without spoilers (although I'll mention some spoilers [marked] in the Character Summaries), but I have to admit, Square and Disney left me pleasantly surprised on several fronts by the end of the game. That's because Kingdom Hearts has an amazingly surreal quality to it -- as one might expect from such a bizarre collaboration -- and deeper, darker themes than I ever expected to see from anything bearing the Disney stamp of approval. Sora suffers terribly during his quest, and Riku suffers even more. Kairi is nearly a nonentity in the story (the typical Disney damsel in distress), but the sexual tension caused by her presence has ripple effects throughout the storyline. Case in point (idea taken from a spoilerific but comprehensive fan treatise on the subject): the characters' names. "Sora" has several meanings in Japanese; one of them is "sky". "Riku" can likewise mean "land". In Japanese mythology sky and land, or heaven and earth, are usually depicted as joined in some way -- whether as the formless chaotic mass from which the universe was created, or later as the separate-but-still-joined married/sibling gods who created all life. A surprisingly fitting allegory for Sora and Riku's relationship, which starts as "friends/rivals" but later proves to have powerful implications for the fate of the whole universe. But wait -- Kairi's name means "that which comes between" or breaks apart. So what implications does that have for the universe?

Layers of hidden meaning and shades of grey abound in this game. Few characters -- even the Disney villains -- can truly be classified as good or evil. The bad guys do bad things, but in the end you learn that they've just been the pawns of someone even badder. The good guys do good things, which sometimes have unintended bad consequences. The game goes on and on about hearts and love and friendship in squishy Disney language, but the theme of the game can actually be best described by this proverb: "Whoever battles monsters should take care not to become a monster too, for if you stare long enough into the Abyss, the Abyss stares also into you."

Nietzsche. Yes, in a Disney game.

When I realized this, I began to understand just how incredible this game really was. Never mind the graphics (which are amazing) or the music (which is a delight) or the gameplay (more "adventure" than RPG, but still fun). Kingdom Hearts is a sort of digital representation of the Japanese principles of tatemae and honne -- the outward semblance of a thing and its hidden reality. On the surface it's a kids' game whose central theme is "love conquers all". In reality the game is a meditation on the nature of the soul, the inevitability of fate, and the hazards and tragedies inherent in the process of growing up.
And Riku's a hottie in CGI. Sorry, just had to get that off my chest.

Final note: I haven't seen much Japanese KH doujinshi, but it exists -- generally featuring Riku and Sora, but you can find it featuring Ansem, KH Sephiroth and KH Cloud, Leon, etc. There's a ton of English-language KH fanfic out there on various sites and mailing lists, as well as a Livejournal community (there are probably more, but this is the one I found first). There is also apparently an official KH manga currently running somewhere, and two KH sequels are slated for release soon (one for the Game Boy Advance, another for the PS2). Rumors abound on the plots of these games, in large part because KH featured a secret ending/KH2 teaser which contained quite a few layers of hidden meaning itself. I suppose we'll have to wait and see what it's really about.

On to the Character Summaries.

Images for this article were taken from The Ansem Report, an excellent informational site on KH and its sequels.