Lately, I’ve been thinking about memory as a narrative.
We arrange our memories into chains of events that form a story about how we got to be who we are. If memory is a story, however, then I wonder how much of my ‘life story’ happened the way I think it did, and how much of it I’m editing to suit my purposes now. The way we think about our lives changes as we grow up, but are we retroactively altering how we remember our pasts, and what we’ve learned from them?
When I look back now, I can remember a host of pivotal moments that had a big impact on who I am. Being a huge nerd, a lot of the things I remember as important to my development are video games. I wonder if my relationship with a game had to do with anything in the game itself, or if I was just seeing what I wanted to see.
[Warning: Contains spoilers for the original Kingdom Hearts]
My dad gave me the first Kingdom Hearts for my tenth birthday. My life already revolved more-or-less around video games, but this was my first foray into an RPG not called Pokémon. I don’t think “obsessed” is an overstatement. I’d never played a video game that seemed to give back as much as I put into it. Kingdom Hearts was the first game that made me want to own one of those tome-like strategy guides, and I used to take it to bed with me to read before going to sleep. I cornered any of my friends or family members who would listen to me and rant about how the storylines in the Disney-themed worlds reflected the overall messages of the movies that inspired them (this is only because they’re kind of lazy, direct re-tellings of those movies, honestly, but I was 10).
I think more than anything what stayed with me were the characters. Sora was just as silly, dumb, and immature as I was. Donald and Goofy are so effective as your party members and best friends because they’re so recognisable, they actually feel like old friends. I immediately took to the rivalry the game sets up against Riku, and would angrily reset the game whenever he beat me at anything. Kairi was probably the first girl I had a crush on (which is a strange thing to admit in an article on the internet, but here we are).
As a consequence of this obsession, Kingdom Hearts was my go-to in seventh grade. As you could probably have guessed, seventh grade was a tough year for me. I was a short, goofy-looking kid with glasses, braces, and more-often-than-not a Dragon Ball Z t-shirt. I had also just moved school districts. All this amounted to some John Hughes-caliber bullying.
The thing about the bullying that happens in seventh grade is you tend to take it on the chin. I was already undergoing to some major self-image and self-esteem changes, and had started to become painfully aware that not everyone loved talking about magic swords and manga. Suddenly I paid attention to what I looked like. Suddenly I was ashamed of the stuffed animals in my room. When I think about what Kingdom Hearts means to me, this is the part of my life I remember, and it’s what I thought of as I replayed it this summer.
As Kingdom Hearts opens, teenaged protagonists Sora, Riku, and Kairi are preparing to leave their island on a raft to explore new worlds. As they spend their last few days in this idyllic childhood home, we get to see simultaneously how these childhood friends have always felt about each other, and how those feelings are beginning to change.
Riku, the oldest, is the de-facto leader of the group, and spearheads their raft-building plan. He and Sora are simultaneously best friends and fierce rivals, the way only best friends can be. Everyone’s had a Riku. He’s your older sibling, your better-looking best friend, and the most talented member of your team. Riku seems to be better at everything than Sora: he wins the games, he’s more confident, he’s better at speaking his mind. Without ever showing their relationship before this time, we can tell that the way Riku feels about his friends is changing. At the centre of this change is Kairi.
Kairi is a girl with a mysterious past, who suddenly came into Sora and Riku’s lives years ago. She’s the youngest of the three yet also the wisest, the most mature, and the most mischievous. Sora and Riku love her in the puppy dog way teenaged boys love their first crush, Riku more aware of his feelings than Sora. Kairi approaches building the raft the same way she’s always responded to attempts to win her affections: as a kind of game. More than either Sora or Riku, however, Kairi can sense the changes coming, and her carefree attitude disguises her concern. For her, the raft is not a way to escape their small home, but an attempt to keep things the way they were. “Riku has changed,” she comments to Sora one night. “Sora, don’t ever change.”
Sora is the silly one, the glue holding the group together. We start playing Sora right at the moment he sub-consciously becomes aware of the changes happening around and inside him. Sora’s building the raft because his friends want to; that’s the reason Sora does everything. His antics disguise his own anxieties: unlike Riku and especially Kairi, Sora doesn’t understand what’s happening to him. To him, the raft is just another fun summer adventure, not the beginning of a journey they can’t come home from. Of the three, Sora’s the least prepared for what happens when the door opens and darkness comes to Destiny Islands, and that’s why we play as him.
The events that incite the action of the rest of the game happen very quickly. Darkness is consuming the island! There are other worlds! Sora is the chosen one! You have to stop an unstoppable evil! As you visit each Disney-themed world, Sora, Donald, and Goofy learn a valuable (on-brand) lesson about love and friendship, and ultimately save the day. Through all this, however, Sora’s anxieties persist, mostly unremarked upon but informing his behaviour. Sora is not ready to save the universe. In fact, he’s pretty sure the keyblade choosing him was some kind of cosmic mistake. After all, how could he be a chosen one when people like Riku are out there?
Sora’s anxieties come to a head when they collide with Riku’s, after they are reunited under unexpected circumstances. Feeling abandoned and jealous of Sora’s newfound status, Riku was manipulated by primary antagonist Ansem after being promised power to match Sora’s. Accusing Sora of losing sight of what’s important, Riku seizes the keyblade and declares himself the true chosen one. This confirms Sora’s worst suspicions about himself: that someone like him could never be what the world, or Kairi, needed. However, with the help of Donald, Goofy, The Beast – that’s as in Beauty and the Beast, not X-Men – and of course Kairi, Sora doesn’t give up. He confronts Riku and, showing how far he’s come, reclaims the keyblade.
When Sora finds Kairi, it’s revealed that her heart had been inside him, travelling with him. Sora was the chosen one because of who he was, not what he wasn’t: Kairi loved him because he was a silly, immature kid. In the final battle, Sora is victorious because he figures something out before Ansem can: Kingdom Hearts, the center of all the worlds, is light, not darkness. Despite Sora seeming inadequate, in the end, it was his youthful optimism and simple love for his friends that let him save the day.
I didn’t realise it until now, but Kingdom Hearts was exactly what I needed as a scared kid on the cusp of adolescence. Kingdom Hearts shows that even if the changes happening to you and your world seem scary, and even if they demand you change, the things you loved – the things that make you who you are – are still valid, and can still be important to you. Even in a world of scary music, scary facial hair, and scary odours, I could still love Disney movies. I could still rant about video games and daydream about sword-fighting. Kingdom Hearts helped me see that it was alright to be who I was, that I could grow up and still love the things I loved. In a time when I felt lost, Kingdom Hearts helped me understand who I was.
I don’t know if this is really what I took away from Kingdom Hearts back then. I edit the narrative of my life differently than I did then. It’s 2016, and I’m preparing to move far away from home for the first time. It’s a strange feeling, a change not unlike the change I experienced moving to a new house and a new school. Once again, I’m afraid that when I move somewhere new everything will change. I’ll change.
Maybe I read Kingdom Hearts the way I do now not because that’s what it was for me then, but because that’s what I need it to be now. I think that’s alright. Kingdom Hearts can be for me what I need it to be. If memory is a story we tell ourselves, then I suppose what really matters is what the story is supposed to be telling us. Right now, Kingdom Hearts is telling me that no matter how we change or where we go, the things that make us who we are will always have an important place in our lives. I’m sure years from now, I’ll need the story to tell me something else.
Maybe then, I’ll play Kingdom Hearts again.
From the archive: Features we love given new life. Harry’s personal essay on Kingdom Hearts and the power of memory was first published on August 12, 2016.