Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sora's Sacrifice

This is part of an ongoing series about my favorite memories from video games. You can find the original list and table of contents in last month's post or by clicking here. Please be aware that these posts are going to be full of spoilers which may ruin the impact of these events on anyone who wishes to experience them on their own in the future. I’m sorry that my schedule got out of sync. I plan to be back on track for weeks to come, now.

#7 - Sora's Sacrifice (Kingdom Hearts)

I spent some time in February working on an article about how much I can relate to Sora, the main character of Kingdom Hearts. I was not talking about any of the other games to come out of that franchise, but the original game as I first played it when it was released. Although I cannot speak as highly for the other members of the “Kingdom Hearts” family, the original game remains a treasure in my game collection. I’m tempted to replay it again this summer based on this and the previous article I’ve written about it. It wonderfully blends the Disney movies I grew up with and the Final Fantasy styles of story-telling with gameplay that has come to define the “active RPG” genre. It’s a great adventure story that culminates in a very bittersweet ending. I doted on all this back in February as you can read here.

One side of the Kingdom Hearts story is about Sora’s struggle to reunite with his close friends, Kairi and Riku. When Sora’s home world is enveloped in darkness, they are both lost to him. His primary personal goal is to get them back. On the other hand, Riku chooses to accept the darkness and comes to resent Sora over the course of the game. He can only see Sora having fun with his new friends (Donald Duck and Goofy) and doesn’t realize how much Sora is struggling to get back together with him and Kairi. Riku is manipulated by Maleficent and comes to be a primary antagonist to Sora. He shows up to taunt Sora several times about his inefficiency at helping Kairi, who is trapped in a comatose state. Riku’s story is the mostly untold story of a tragic anti-hero who is also trying to do the right thing, but mostly going about it in the wrong way.

This all builds up to its boiling point at the unusual, original world, Hollow Bastion. It’s there that Riku fills Sora with enough self-doubt that he temporarily relinquishes control of his legendary weapon, the Keyblade to Riku. Riku triumphantly announces he was always meant to be the rightful wielder. This is where Sora really shows his true colors, though. The following events are what make Sora really shine as a character as he discovers his inner strength and steps up to face Riku. When Sora next sees him, the Keyblade returns to him and Sora explains that his connection to his friends (all the Disney friends he’s made as well as Riku and Kairi) is what makes him stronger, not weak. Riku proceeds to draw him deeper into the Hollow Bastion fortress where Kairi sleeps.

I spent a while playing Kingdom Hearts actually thinking that Riku is making a good point – that Sora is getting easily distracted by the Disney side of things and not focused on his true goals of finding his friends and saving the universe. I think that’s mostly a result of poor choices of words in the game’s script because the Sora that shows up to Hollow Bastion is pretty intense on both accounts. Riku’s taunting finally manages to get to him, and he loses the Keyblade, and with it the power to fight against the darkness. Nevertheless, Sora decides he can’t give up and he presses onward. His determination to succeed ultimately regains him the Keyblade and reunites him with his friends on the doorstep to Kingdom Hearts, which is a source of ultimate power sought after by the villains.

Sora means serious business.
Here is where the quest comes to its climax. The door is incomplete without the light from Kairi’s heart which is oddly absent from her comatose body. Riku explains her heart is locked away within Sora’s heart. Riku now has his own Keyblade which has been forged from the power of people’s hearts, particularly the other Disney princesses’ hearts. He claims it has the power to unlock people’s hearts to the power of darkness and plans to use it on Sora to get at Kairi. An intense battle ensues – for me it is the most difficult battle in the entire game (excluding a certain optional battle). The fight really gets me all worked up and drawn in. Riku is extremely fast and with his newly formed Keyblade, he hits hard.

The emotional significance of this fight is how worked up it manages to get you. Riku is not a villain and the game does not lead you to hate him. If anything, the game makes you care about him in a way similar to how Sora cares about him. I pity him. He is confused and needs help. He has also sided with the villains in an attempt to do the right things, but at what cost to himself and the worlds around him? Despite being the tragic anti-hero, the fight that ensues, Sora’s Keyblade to protect the Light vs Riku’s Keyblade to unleash the Darkness, is so challenging it always gets me into a frenzy. It builds my emotional state so high because I really, really want to knock him off his high horse, even though I do not hate him as I would a true villain. The character of Riku is the perfect rival to test Sora’s resolve, and the player’s skills. Despite how worked up this moment can get me, this isn’t THE moment. It’s the precursor to the scene that follows.
Sheepish grins are now warning signs of noble sacrifices.
When Riku is defeated and gone, Sora is left with two problems. First, he must seal Kingdom Hearts away from the villains, but the door (and keyhole) is incomplete without Kairi’s power. Second, he’s found Kairi, but she remains comatose. There is a brief emotional lull here as Sora, Donald and Goofy all ponder the problem. Then it happens. With nothing more than a sheepish grin to his closest allies, Donald and Goofy, he picks up Riku’s discarded Keyblade and stabs it into his heart. He decides on his own that bringing Kairi back is more important than his own preservation. Sora unlocks his heart to darkness, which releases Kairi, and transforms Sora into one of the mindless creatures of darkness he’s been seeking out and destroying. This is the “Mickey Mouse” way of saying he dies and is reborn as something evil.

With a player’s emotions running high from the mostly unwanted (but satisfying) battle against Sora’s best friend, the next scene immediately transfers all that emotion into the most shocking moment in the game. Sora’s self-sacrifice is the ultimate test of his loyalty to his friends, and his faith in their ability to carry on the quest without him. I struggle to express how much this impacts me every time I experience it. He’s just a boy! I proclaim. How could he be this noble? If the Keyblade chooses its wielder based on the strength and conviction of their heart, it’s clear now that it would have always been Sora and never Riku, despite what Riku tried to have Sora believe earlier. This single moment defines the very core of what the “Kingdom Hearts” story is trying to tell.

This game really plucks my heartstrings in a lot of ways. It sings to my nostalgia for the old Disney films and the beloved characters from both Disney and “Final Fantasy.” It tells a fascinating story of one boy’s journey against all odds to do what’s right. It is a great game with an interesting story, but what it does best is really suck me into that one moment where all three friends are reunited again. I truly wish all the games in the “Kingdom Hearts” series were like this for me. They all have their strengths and are good games, but there is something special about Kingdom Hearts and something amazing about this one moment. It’s as if the game itself has the power to unlock my heart and fill me with an extraordinary amount of anguish and sadness over these fictional characters. It is a testament to what a game can make you feel, and help you discover about yourself, when it’s done right and strikes you in just the right way.


Related Links
TOP Ten Most Memorable
Sora's Sacrifice on Youtube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e24MHDM0dBQ
Origin of Sora's Sheepish Grin - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRmtPjXyjgc

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