The Kingdom Hearts series is full of convoluted lore, but its core message is profound.
Not My Final Form is Julie Muncy's column about transformations, changes, and their powerful expression in games.
At a climactic moment of the first Kingdom Hearts, the protagonist, Sora, gives a speech. The plucky hero has lost his magical weapon, the Keyblade, to his best friend gone heel, Riku. Sora, flanked by his besties Donald and Goofy, explains that he doesn't need the Keyblade.
"Although my heart may be weak, it's not alone," he says. "I don't need a weapon. My friends are my power!"
Afterward, Sora is able to reclaim the Keyblade from Riku and, after an obligatory boss fight, Sora wins. He was right; his friends did make him more powerful. They gave him the bravery and tenacity to go into a fight that looked like he was sure to lose. Within the simple, Disney-flavored morality of that first Kingdom Hearts, which mashed up Final Fantasy and Disney into a silly-but-compelling fable of a role-playing game, this makes perfect sense. It's a clean, family-friendly message. By fighting alongside his friends, Sora becomes strong enough to take on anything.
Several games and an encyclopedia worth of bizarre plot twists later, Sora makes a nearly identical speech. This time, though, it means something different. Over time, the simple notion—that friendships are empowering—has transformed into something stranger. In Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, recently re-released as part of Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, when Sora says, "My friends are my power," he means it literally.
For a series that ostensibly began as games for children and nostalgic Disney fans, Kingdom Hearts has a surprisingly complicated metaphysics. The first game introduces the basics; every living being, along with every world, has a heart, the mystical seat of its existence (like a soul, though a soul is actually… something different in Kingdom Hearts).
Hearts are governed by two forces, darkness and light, loosely representing good and evil. Heartless—monstrous embodiments of pure darkness—steal hearts, snuffing out their light. They seek the hearts of people, worlds, and ultimately Kingdom Hearts itself—the God-heart from which all others originate. Sora, a hero chosen by the Heartless-slaying Keyblade, is on a perennial quest to stop the darkness from succeeding.
As the games go on, it's revealed that hearts build connections in strange and powerful ways. Sora, in particular, is a nexus for connections made between hearts. The heart of his best friend/anime love interest Kairi becomes detached from her body and embeds itself, for a time, inside Sora's. In the next game, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, memories are phenomena that exist interconnected between individual hearts, so that magically meddling with Sora's memories changes the memories of everyone who ever knew him. In Kingdom Hearts 2 and the following games, this all spirals into a messy web of ideas and connections.
Sora has a shadow self, a being without a heart called a Nobody, that formed when he had a brush with the darkness in the first game. The two share a metaphysical connection of sorts, and Sora connects with another Nobody, a girl named Namine, and they both connect to a girl named Xion, a synthetic being made by the villains out of Sora's heart (seriously, that happens).
Sora becomes caught up, throughout Kingdom Hearts, in a web of connections capable of exerting profound effects on reality. Hearts have tremendous power, and the bonds among them can transform people and the world. When Sora nearly falls to darkness in the first game, it's his bond with Kairi that protects him—creating a force of light that drives the Heartless back and saves his life.
Throughout the increasingly muddled narrative of the series, this force is a constant. It's used by the heroes and villains alike, to save worlds and destroy them, to control and to set free. Sora is constructed as a sort of composite person, his special place in the series not due to any unique virtue of his own but due, instead, to the way he can foster connections with other people. His friendships are not merely a source of inspiration. They're a force of nature, warping reality itself on Sora's behalf.
The second time he makes his grand speech, it's the series gesturing toward the way it's evolved its own theory of identity. In Kingdom Hearts, our connections literally transform us.
Kingdom Hearts doesn't believe in a stable self—instead, it posits the self as a complex bundle of connections and relationships, constantly evolving, constantly being navigated and manipulated and grown. We are all in constant fluctuation.
Look at Sora; his existence is in the collective of the many hearts and relationships that constitute him. Identity in Kingdom Hearts resembles the way categories like sex and gender are conceptualized by queer theorists. The categories that make up an individual are constantly collapsing and being rebuilt. Hearts create beings whose identities are always subject to change as their relationships change, that transcend gender, space, time, and any other categories. In Kingdom Hearts, there's only ever connection.
As Sora puts it, in Dream Drop Distance, just before echoing his most famous line: "Hearts are made of the people we meet, and how we feel about them. They're what ties us together, even when we're apart. They're what make me strong."
I want to use my space in this column to talk about transformation and personal identity. I believe those phenomena intersect profoundly with the way we experience video games, and that by charting their expressions, we can find valuable human truths. Kingdom Hearts is an elegant expression of this belief. Over a decade and a half's worth of silly, overly-complicated games, motifs and ideas coalesce into something beautiful and profound.
A story that was originally about the adventures a boy went on with two cartoon characters and a giant key becomes a story about the profundity of interpersonal connection, enlivened by the beautiful and empathetic hope that our ties to other people can recreate the world for the better.