A Kingdom Hearts Christmas Reflection

The Magic of Kingdom Hearts

 

Tea: That awful Christmas Blend

 

Christmas time is always filled with magic and nostalgia. Memories of holidays long past may return to one while sitting next to loved ones and a nicely decorated Christmas tree. The smell of the food alone may open the floodgates of childhood memories. Not that I would know, of course, I spent my life buried in books and games, never ceasing to consume one or the other in a gluttonous and very un-Christian kind of way. Joking (or nor joking) aside, I often have to think about the Kingdom Hearts series when Christmas draws near. Not that I got the first game this way or anything like that, I assume it is the magic of a childish mind that links these two. Looking at the game from a distance, one could reasonably wonder why such an aesthetic mish-mash could ever gather such a great following. Return thus with me to my childhood, to find out why the aesthetics of Kingdom Hearts do not obstruct but rather further the game’s central message (yes, those are exactly the things I did in my childhood).

For those unaware: Kingdom Heart follows the journey of Sora and his childhood friends Riku and Kairi who leave their safe and secure home island in search of adventure in the form of traveling to other worlds. These worlds are usually self-contained Disney properties such as a Mulan-world, a Beauty and the Beast-world etc. you get the idea. However, there are also worlds exclusive to the Kingdom Hearts lore, such as Sora’s home Destiny Island, Twilight Town, Traverse Town, and Hollow Bastion. The self-contained worlds rarely spill over into other worlds, the only exception being summons. Sora is able to summon certain figures of one canon in the canonical realm of another, e.g. summoning Stitch from Lilo & Stitch in Port Royal from The Pirates of the Caribbean. From this example alone, the stark visual contrast should be apparent, since Jack sparrow receives no visual alteration save for the necessary adaptation into a video game character, however, his physique is left as natural to his human actor as possible. Another added style is Final Fantasy. These characters usually travers boundaries of worlds and can appear in locations not connected with their original source material, e.g. Cloud form Final Fantasy VII appearing in Olympus Colosseum from Hercules. Oddly enough, Final Fantasy characters do not have a “home” world such as the Disney ones, they feature most strongly in the shared spaces exclusive to the Kingdom Hearts canon.

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– The clashing of environments and character aesthetic becomes rather drastic. –

Sora is introduced to the player as a at first silent protagonist during the tutorial stage. After learning the basics of combat he refers to the experience as a dream, a dream we shared with him, thus we as players associate ourselves with him in a rather natural way, he becomes our surrogate in the game world. He also wanders a level of abstraction which makes this possible, not looking like a human being from a Disney movie, but rather a Final Fantasy one. Sora then becomes a puppet of fate and circumstance, since his best friend Riku opens a portal to other worlds and all of them are sucked away from the island. Sora is revealed as the bearer of the Keyblade, a weapon made to fight the darkness with agency of its own. Naturally, the player feels equally special though in reality it seems more like chance than destiny that the blade chose us. This is made clear near the end when Riku can temporarily acquire the blade due to his “stronger heart”. It is no coincidence that this happens in one of the exclusive worlds, Sora is a foreigner in this realm and the player cannot relate to any Disney lore associated with the place, so to him the place is alien as well. Sora discovers new strength in the bonds he has made and can re-acquire the blade for himself and this is important for later.

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– The fragmented nature and incomplete sense should be obvious. –

The game seems to play on the distinction between us and the Other seen in so many games and movies these days, however, Kingdom Hearts differs in one large area: The enemies are called Heartless, black creatures which can take on multiple forms. In specific worlds, they take on appearances fitting with the world (e.g. ape-like versions in Tarzan). This is a form of mimicry, one that is to be destroyed by the hero. A clear distinction between us and them should be maintained, thus the hybrid beings in the middle are labelled as evil and need to face extermination. This would seem like a rather strange and dark message for such an upbeat game, but here comes the twist and it has to do with the aesthetics. It is established very early on that Sora and his crew mustn’t interfere with the business of other worlds, their job is only to destroy the Heartless and leave. The player’s main task is hereby not to free the world of the Other but to reconstruct the canonicity of a given realm. Sora himself becomes an Other in most of these worlds. Usually the player can draw upon his knowledge of Disney movies to figure out what is right and wrong in a given world and leave afterwards. Once the aesthetic integrity has been restored the only thing left to do for Sora is to leave, since he does not belong there either. It is a message to the player to immerse himself but not lose himself in these worlds, he is merely a guest. All the while the sense of adventure which marked the start of the journey starts to diminish and a longing for home and stability takes its place.

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– This example is from Atlantica where the Heartless take vaguely fish-related forms. –

The worlds where characters from different source materials mix feel decisively incomplete. Traverse Town already holds the passing-through nature in the name and Hollow Bastion is a destroyed relic. The last world “The End of the World” is a fractured and inconsistent space where even moving forward works differently. The aesthetic is starkly fragmented with odd elements finding their way into the mix, such as geometrical forms, lurid colours, and distorted versions of other worlds. This is the world of the Heartless, a world marked by its state of distortion, one that does not fit with anything. During the final boss, Sora even returns to his home island, albeit be it a twisted and torn apart version of his once sought after safe haven. Through the actions of the three at the start, the world has been changed and torn apart, not enough the be beyond repair, however. Sora can defeat the evil and close the door to the world of darkness. This motif of the final stage being one of distortion and unfamiliarity is one which can be traced throughout the series (e.g. Castle Oblivion, The World that Never Was). Sora is separated from Riku and Kairi at the end of the first game, marking the incomplete transformation of his character, though having taken his first step into the right direction by rescuing both from the evil forces.

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– Distorted and incomplete in the most literal sense. –

Kingdom Hearts explores a youthful longing for other worlds, those dreamt up and illustrated by movies and games. Actually being able to visit such places might appear like a dream at first, but soon one must realise that these are their own places and one does not belong there, be it canonically or aesthetically. There are those in the world who have not found their place, but are always searching for it, giving the player the message of a fixed destination one is supposed to find/return to. The game constructs a home inherent to every being, a determinist view of place where one belongs and which one will find sooner or later. The only beings being denied such a place are those who disrupt the flow of other worlds violently, those who employ mimicry to live in places they have no right to be. There is experience to be gained from visiting other places, but ultimately a mixing is unwelcome, so Kingdom Hearts maintains its strict distinction. Sora’s strength stems from the bonds he has made, meaning the knowledge he has gathered on his journey. The game thus emphasises an open horizon but one which always entails the return to the roots. While it may strengthen the globalised aspect of the world, it tries to give a sense of stability by establishing a place where one belongs. This is simultaneously negative in the sense of drawing this stark line between the Other and us, but it also helps those who feel lost, seeing as there is a place where even they belong.

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– He has a point, but once you leave there is no returning to a state prior to the open horizon. –

This for me is exactly what makes Kingdom Hearts magic in its own way. While made for children, the message resonates strongly with me. Feeling the world is open to me, but seemingly finding no place inside it, is a feeling many will be able to associate themselves with, but the message is clear: wander around, gather experience, make friends, and by the end you will find a place for you and your experience will have shaped you. For this Christmas, you may perhaps return to your own Destiny Island or maybe you still wander around Traverse Town, the important thing remains is that you are not alone. Just as the game states: there are so many worlds, but they all share the same sky. With that in mind, a happy holiday season for you with whomever and wherever you chose to spend it.

 

 

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