Why Kingdom Hearts Means So Damn Much to People
I asked folks to explain their connection to Kingdom Hearts. It's not because of Disney, but identity, loss, grief, growing up, and so much more.
Image courtesy of Square Enix
Content Warning: This story contains brief discussions of suicide, mental illness.
A few months ago, I asked a basic question: Why does Kingdom Hearts mean something to you? The answers I received in the days ahead, which numbered in the hundreds, were anything but basic. To so many, Kingdom Hearts has not just been a video game about a kid with spiky hair travelling to various Disney worlds, but a story about hope, friendship, and a crisis of identity. It’s helped them find love, provided comfort through loss, and acted as a guiding light of unrelenting, unapologetic positivity in a world that’s increasingly dark, cynical, and upsetting.
- “I learnt that I didn't need to be the smartest or the strongest to still be worth being friends with.”
- “When Kingdom Hearts had asked for my fears, it had already known what a child, told in every story about Chosen Ones and destinies, would fear most and want most, and it gave me both.”
- “Kingdom Hearts taught me the importance of childish joy, gave me a hope for myself and my future when I was deeply depressed, and connected to me to two people who saved me.”
Again, those are just single lines, a small sampling of the many long letters I’ve received.
It’s impossible to read these stories and not come away with the realization designer Tetsuya Nomura, if initially only by accident, has spent two decades telling a story whose characters and themes have proved formative for countless people. Disney might have gotten them in the door, but the journey of Sora, Riku, and Kairi is what stuck, and whatever one personally thinks about Kingdom Hearts cannot take away what Kingdom Hearts truly means to the individuals spent up in it.
I’ve been as guilty as anyone of dunking on Kingdom Hearts over the years because—well, because it was easy to joke about the complex and seemingly impenetrable mythology and its loud, too-passionate fandom. But it also served as an easy way to distance myself from ever trying to understand its appeal. This tension served as the foundation for Lore Reasons, our podcast series that tries to seriously and earnestly untangle the same mythology that’s also served as the butt of jokes. (Our season finale for Kingdom Hearts went up yesterday.)
As part of the finale, we read some letters, but it was only a handful. There were so many more I wanted to share with you, and so here’s my chance to fully step aside.
In the words of its biggest fans, here’s why people care so much about Kingdom Hearts.
(Editor’s Note: For the purposes of brevity and clarity, some letters have been lightly edited. Names have been removed. There are minor Kingdom Hearts spoilers, but nothing from Kingdom Hearts III.)
Putting It Into Words Is Difficult
I spent a long time trying to write a long essay going into the details about what this franchise means to me but I couldn't word it right. I tried going on about how earnest the game is, how it takes itself seriously, even at its most absurd. Or how it feels like a modern fairy tale, full to the brim with magic and adventure and good vs evil.
But putting it into words is difficult. The franchise is more about making the players FEEL something, so I'll put it like this. Kingdom Hearts is special to me because when I play it, I forget what depression is.
Did Kingdom Hearts 3 Come Out Yet?
I'm probably like most of the hundreds of people you've received emails from. Kingdom Hearts means a lot to me, it was one of the first video games I bought with my own money, and I was immediately in love with its worlds and its story.
I played every game that came out (yes, including Coded) and devoured every piece of lore and rumor I could find. I went to college and maintained a life but KH was always there, always burning in the back of my mind.
And then...life happened. In September of 2014 I had a case of pneumonia, which normally would have been no big deal, just take some antibiotics, and be fine. However, my case developed into ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome). My mom found me, barely breathing, lips blue in my bed. I was rushed to a hospital and placed into a medically induced coma. For two months, it was touch and go. I died on three separate occasions. I should not be writing this to you right now, but here I am. How does this relate back to KH?
When I finally was woken up, I was run through all sorts of neurological tests. I was expected to have brain damage (I don't.). After the tests, they finally brought a large laminated poster with the alphabet on it so I could ask questions by pointing at letters (I still had a breathing tube in at this point). In a drug addled state, I spelled out, in all capital letters:
"DID KINGDOM HEARTS 3 COME OUT YET?" and then fell back asleep.
5 years later, I'm ok. The only lasting damage is that my vocal chords are permanently fucked up from being intubated for so long.
“Femininity” Isn’t Bad, It Can Be Heroic
Kingdom Hearts for me represents a kind of (positive) excess found in a lot of fandom and fan created media. It's this exciting collection of characters and frankly ambitious story that just does its own thing.
Also, my partner is a huge fan of the series and it's great to connect with them and see their joy. I'm excited to see their joy as experience the new game with them.
More personally, Sora, and especially his relationship with Riku, was an important part of realizing my queerness. Sora's genuine expressions of emotions helped normalize for me the concept of not being "too feminine" or "too masculine" in action. He loves the people around him and wants the best for them, vocally so. He helped me realize that "femininity" isn't bad; it can be heroic. He searches far and wide for his friends and spreads, for lack of a better word, light and heart everywhere he goes.
A larger part of the series as a whole importantly shows him not as a perfect being of pure light, which is equally important. Sora does questionable things, makes a lot of mistakes, but he really, truly wants to do good for his friends because he loves them.
I became disabled after a stroke and both Kingdom Hearts I and II coincided with a series of surgeries that would help me to walk, but would leave me in a wheelchair for 18 months both times. As I was 11 and 15 when they games came out, they provided me with an escape from all that was going on in my life. Now, at 28 I can walk unaided and I feel like Kingdom Hearts III is the closing of a chapter in my life.
I Cried Through Takeoff
I feel like I have a ton of stories about Kingdom Hearts and why it's important to me. The first game came out when I was in third grade, so the series has been a part of my life for well over half of it. I played the first one with my dad and brother, I've made friends in real life and online just because we both already loved the series, the first boy I had a crush on let me borrow his PSP for like a month because he wanted me to play Birth By Sleep and talk about it with him.
I think the moment that sticks with me the most is starting Dream Drop Distance while I was on a plane going to my first semester of college. Me and several friends had convinced our high school band director to let us play an arrangement of music from the series at our last concert my senior year, something that I still remember with love years later. I'd held myself together during the performance, but that caught up with me when I started up my 3DS for the flight to school and was met with the same arrangement I had just performed with all my closest friends.
I cried through takeoff, partially because I was nervous about leaving for school, but just as much because of the amazing time I'd had playing that music. The whole series has such a beautiful melancholy to it at times, and I felt it deeply in that moment.
The Strength to Battle My Mental Illness
Ever since the first game was released back in the early 2000s, I have been a major fan of the series (was always a fan of Goofy). It didn’t take on a special meaning for me until I experienced some psychological trauma when I was 14. After that I had to deal with horrific images and thoughts that I simply couldn’t get out of my head. I began to contemplate suicide on an almost daily basis as a result of these thoughts as I was terrified of myself and things seemed hopeless.
Then I played the PS2 version of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and I started to resonate with one of the main characters, Riku. He was a character who was racked with guilt due to his actions in the first game and his campaign dealt with him facing his inner demons. By the end of the game he found a way to use that same darkness that tormented him to fight for the greater good. His story of redemption moved me and made me realize that while I couldn’t undo the trauma that had happened to me, I could use it to sympathize with others to a greater degree than I ever could before. My struggles with mental Illness were far from over (still dealing with them nearly a decade later) but that series gave me the strength I needed to keep living until I had gathered enough courage to seek psychiatric help.
Long story short, Kingdom Hearts is a series that gave me the strength to battle my mental illness. As such I will be forever grateful to the series and even have Riku’s Keyblade tattooed on my right leg.
I Owe My Continued Existence to It
I had actually been contemplating killing myself leading up to playing Kingdom Hearts II back in 2006. I had played the first game and like it for its premise and because I liked Square's output, but wasn't an immediate hardcore KH fan. That changed with the sequel. It was halfway through my freshman year of high school, I had actually made an attempt about a month prior and was in an outpatient program as a result.
Something about the relentless optimism of Sora, and the stories of characters trying to find meaning when they "don't have hearts" or aren't "whole" really spoke to me, and the ending where Sora and his bud Riku (who's more brooding nature definitely resonated with me) basically gave me the strength and hope to fight through what proved to be a very trying high school experience. I got a tattoo of a keyblade, and feel such a strong connection to the series in part because I really feel like my owe my continued existence to it.
Even the actually awful games (the DS ones, for example) still hit home because those themes still are so prevalent. Hoping KHIII follows suit, but am thankfully at a place in my life where I won't be too let down if it's not.
Nobodies, People Created Out of Other People
The Kingdom Hearts series (in particular Chain of Memories, 358/2 days, the prologue of Kingdom Hearts 2 and Re:coded) deal with the concept of identity in a way that really resonates with me as a trans person.
The concepts of nobodies, people created out of other people really hit me hard, in particular two characters.
Namine, the nobody of Kairi, whose whole deal is that she can change others memories to think of her instead of Kairi, has to resign herself to not being "real" and simply being the nobody of someone else. It [felt] a lot like my experiences being trans, especially when I deal with people who knew me from before, I feel like the nobody of the person they knew, and I wish I could just rewrite their memories so they always remembered me as I am now.
The other one is Xion, who is trans. Now, stay with me for this: Xion is a replica of Sora—she was made to look like him and have his abilities. Sora is male, but Xion, with her friends’ help, realized that's not her—she is female and she is her own person
Now do the games bungle this? A bit. But I can still see past that and see the things that resonate with me.
TLDR Kingdom Hearts Made Me Queer
It’s difficult to sum up what the KH series means to me, since it was so important to me as I was growing up. I initially got into the series since I had a crush on our babysitter and I wanted to impress her. For some perspective, I was in my final months of elementary school, 5th grade, when KH2 came out. Now I'm 24. (Sorry if I made people feel ancient.)
It's also one of the first series I joined in discussions online. I was introduced to the wild world of fanart and fanfiction through the KH fandom. And to spare any NSFW details, it was also where I was first introduced to shipping, most importantly art, fanfics, etc. that shipped boys with other boys. [That] would start the domino effect of me exploring gender and sexuality. The nobodies even gave me a cast of characters to relate this struggle with.
So TLDR KH introduced me to internet fandoms and made me queer.
Growing Up, Some Kids Hit Weed in Their Room. I Hid My PS2.
Kingdom Hearts was one of those formative gaming franchises for me. I think even now, years later, Kingdom Hearts 2 stands as a style touchstone for the kind of art and design I find appealing.
When I was young I tore my way through the first game, which was no easy task for me. Games weren’t very welcome in my home in those days, and my parents kept strict control over my play time—limiting it to one day a week, Sundays, and only after dinner on that day to boot.
When Kingdom Hearts 2 was getting ready to be released, I was incredibly excited to play. However, going hand in hand with my limited play time I wasn’t allowed to buy many games as a kid either. I distinctly remember getting in the car to drive to Gamestop to buy the game with lawn mowing money (I was 17 at the time), when my mom stopped me on the way out the door. She smiled at me, handed me the $60 the game cost and said that she hoped I had fun with it. This was one of those moments that just felt like a nice win at the time, but really stuck with me as a gesture of kindness that I’ll always hold dear in my relationship with my mother.
I also think it was around this time that my parents finally started to get what I saw in games. Or, if not completely understand, at least become more accepting. Still, the ban on games was in effect even then. I remember that I was so obsessed with Kingdom Hearts 2 that I rigged a video capture setup to my iMac in my room using capture equipment that my dad used to back up recordings from our family’s camcorder. I would keep my PS2 in a drawer and take it out when I wanted to play in secret, using a tiny video preview window of the capture equipment in iMovie (of all things) to see what I was doing on the system sitting under my desk. I didn’t play the entire game that way, but I got through a good third of it in the time between my “official” play sessions using that methodology. I muddled through a lot of the game’s Tron world that way squinting at a blurry, pixelated Sora, Donald, and Goofy almost as if the world they were in was in my own computer.
But hey, you do what you gotta do. Growing up I knew some kids who hid weed in their room. I hid my PS2.
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