Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Music Chain of Memories

I often listen to the soundtrack of Kingdom Hearts and it often causes me to cry. Certain songs of that game effortlessly trigger an emotional response from me and it wasn't until just the other day that I came closer to understanding why its so emotional. I have thought for years that Kingdom Hearts is just a very sad game and the sadness of its story was being recalled by the music. Now I think it goes quite a bit deeper than that and I am surprised that it took me so long to realize it. As I was listening, and responding emotionally, I was thinking about how to write this article. That's how I had this sudden insight to what the game and the music actually mean to me.

Kingdom Hearts is a collaboration with Square Enix (formerly Squaresoft) and Disney Interactive Studios. It successfully blended elements of the Final Fantasy series with characters and settings from various Disney worlds in an Action-Roleplaying Game experience that was unlike any other game of its time. Sora, the main character, is original to this series, but he is constantly interacting with Disney and Final Fantasy characters who encourage him or fight along side him. The game was released in September 2002 and since then I've played it from start to finish several times - which is indicative of an excellent game in my book. 

Now to understand what I discovered about my connection to the game, you have to understand where I was in my life when I met Sora. September 2002 was the middle of the darkest time in my life. I was in a terribly unhealthy relationship. I had abandoned college and my dreams of studying Japanese because I was young and foolish. I had enlisted in the Air Force and was living in California, far away from my home in Massachusetts where I'd lived for 20 years and far away from Japan where I would have been studying abroad if I had continued my college curriculum. Due to the nature of the relationship I was in, I did not feel I had the freedom to communicate with my friends and family on the phone or by computer. I also did not have the freedom to pursue new friendships with my classmates and fellow service members there in California. I was extremely isolated and lonely. I was depressed, but I didn't know how to handle it. It was in this dark time when I met Sora.
Aladdin was my favorite Disney film growing up.
This first time playing Kingdom Hearts I was outrageously jealous of Sora. This 14 year old kid gets swept out of his humdrum life in Destiny Islands and begins exploring these fantastic worlds with characters I had adored since I was a child. I wanted to fight Jafar alongside Aladdin. I wanted to play mini-games with Pooh and Tigger that revolved around "hunny" and bouncing. I wanted to tree-surf with Tarzan and fly with Peter Pan as we crossed swords with Captain Hook. I wanted to summon Bambi, Simba, Mushu, Tinkerbell, and Genie. I wanted to swim alongside Ariel, whom I had been smitten with since first seeing her and hearing her sing when I was 9 years old. Sora was living this childhood fantasy and I was pretty miserable in my life. Although I was able to live this dream vicariously through Sora, I would have given anything to switch places with him. I wanted an escape from the darkness of my own life.

I'm 31 now, and still a bit jealous of this...
The second time playing Kingdom Hearts was around Christmas of 2005. I had decided to dust off the old keyblade in preparation of Kingdom Hearts II coming out in March 2006. This time was profoundly different than the last. It triggered a nearly opposite reaction, which I believe in part was because I knew the ending that was being foreshadowed, but also due to something a bit closer to my own heart. This time I saw Sora's journey more for what it truly was, and I found I was not at all envious of Sora. In fact, I felt quite sorry for him. You see, Sora and his two closest friends, Riku and Kairi, spent their days on Destiny Islands dreaming of finding an escape to another, more exotic, world but when they finally get their wish their own home is snuffed out by darkness. Everything they had known was cut off from them and they were separated. Sora spends the rest of the game trying to find his friends and restore the Destiny Islands. The purpose of his entire journey is to set things back the way they were after wanting them to change for so long. 

Now, he does meet a wide variety of new friends along the way, and each relationship I believe makes him stronger, but he never gets to stay long and appreciate his new friends because he's so dedicated to finding Riku and Kairi and stopping the darkness from swallowing up more worlds. In this context, I saw that his friendships with the Disney characters were fleeting as he was always forced to move on to get closer to his true goal. Unfortunately this ultimate reunion with Riku and Kairi is marked by sadness as all three are separated again in order to protect the worlds from being consumed by Darkness. It's a very sad story and it's hard not to tear up when saying good-bye to the friends you spent so much time looking for. 

What I discovered is that the music doesn't make me cry because Sora's story is sad. 
It makes me cry because I am Sora. 

You can see the resemblance best in this picture of me circa 2003.
When I play Kingdom Hearts or listen to its music now, it reminds me of how I felt about my life when I first played it. I was like Sora when I left behind the only home I knew, and also like Sora I was completely cut off from that world. There was no going back for either of us - at least not without fighting for it. We could only look forward and face what was ahead of us even though it was often unpleasant or difficult. Even if we could go back, everything about us was changing and different. Sora and I both grew strong and independent through these ordeals. Simply returning home and reuniting with our friends wouldn't erase the things we'd seen or the person we would become due to our various struggles in life. In essence that era of my life was my coming of age story, and in many ways Sora mirrors that time with his own trials against darkness.

When I left home at the age of 20, I thought I was an adult. I decided to leave college, get married, and joining the Air Force among other adult decisions of lesser impact. I realize only more recently that I was not. So Kingdom Hearts is symbolic of my own loss of childhood innocence and ignorance. The game and its music continue to be a subconscious reminder of how I suffered and endured to become the stronger, confident, more adaptable and happier person that I am today. 

I chose to share this story about myself to illustrate how powerful music can be in our lives as well as how deeply one can bond with fictional characters and circumstances. It demonstrates that the best games have a combination of great music, good story-telling, and memorable characters with whom you can identify. These are exactly the types of games I seek out and enjoy most. I'm so shocked to discover just how emotionally invested I am in Kingdom Hearts. I'm grateful that I got to play such a great game and got to know Sora at a time when my entire world was changing so drastically, and I with it. It certainly helped me cope with my own life at that time. I can't promise Kingdom Hearts to have this powerful an effect on everyone, but I can promise that it is a game that may become timeless that everyone interested in gaming should enjoy at one time or another in their life.


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  1. You know, I don't have nearly the emotional tie/bond with this series that you do, but I still got misty-eyed at the end of KH2, when Sora re-unites with Riku and he yells (something to the effect of) "I looked EVERYWHERE for you!" and you can feel the weariness in his voice. Probably the most powerful scene in the series for me.

    1. I'm planning on re-playing KH1 & 2 this summer. My thoughts of KH2 were that the gameplay was fantastic. Worlds better than KH1, but the story of KH1 in general is a lot ... simpler. The more games this franchise adds, the more confusing and convoluted everything feels. Kingdom Hearts (1) had a very easy to follow plot. Kingdom Hearts 2 mostly confuses me, but it did have an incredibly good ending; definitely the ending that Sora was fighting for over these 2 years or so.

    2. I also think KH: Birth By Sleep was about 10x more confusing than KH2, but at least 2x better gameplay even still. It's like the quality of the gameplay is indirectly proportional to how much this fictional universe makes sense.

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