Thinking of You, Wherever You Are

Growing up and growing apart with Kingdom Hearts

“A scattered dream that’s like a far-off memory…
A far-off memory that’s like a scattered dream…
I want to line the pieces up…
yours and mine.”

I like to believe that everyone, at some point in their life, experiences something that blows their world wide open. Maybe it’s a song featuring a sound they’ve never experienced before or a movie starring an actor that catches their eye. No matter what it was, art has the capacity to change and expand our worldview, and for me, a young boy growing up in a farmhouse in Connecticut, Kingdom Hearts tore the limits of my reality apart.

Even if you’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game, chances are you’ve heard of the franchise and its wacky combination of Disney properties and the Final Fantasy series. As someone who grew up playing fairly standard gaming fare (Crash Bandicoot, Mario, and Pokémon titles were mainstays in our household), stumbling upon one that featured a spiky-haired boy wielding a key and fighting off uncanny creatures named Heartless captured my imagination — and hasn’t let go since.

While the clash of such distinct worlds kept me swinging that key for hours and hours on end, it was the story — or, more specifically, how the story made me feel — that continued to bring me back. Every time I heard “Simple and Clean” at the start of another playthrough, I could feel my pre-teen soul exploding in my chest. That achingly earnest song, combined with visuals of Sora losing Kairi and Riku, never failed to stir something within me— it still does, as a matter of fact.

Kingdom Hearts and its many sequels are ostensibly about growing as a person and embracing the fact that your friends are growing as well — even if that means they’re growing apart from you. In the first game, Sora easily recognizes that the path of light is more righteous than the path of darkness, which Riku chooses.

The two have been best friends since they each arrived at the Destiny Islands, and this is the first time we see that their personalities have the capacity to drive them apart in a meaningful way. It’s potent stuff, especially for a very sociable boy who had yet to learn that friendships can really grow, diminish, or fall apart completely. I like to think that watching Sora come to terms with the fact that Riku had changed helped me understand when some of my friends did the same.

I played Kingdom Hearts II for the first time after a close friend of mine, also a big fan of the series, moved out of state. Playing Roxas’ introductory chapter wreaked havoc on my prepubescent soul. Even at such a young age, I truly felt the sorrow that comes with losing friends and coming to terms with a new reality — or, in Roxas’ case, unreality. KH2 is a much deeper experience than the first game in many ways, a true leap in terms of graphics, gameplay, and story presentation. It’s also a significantly more mature experience, with the main antagonists literally being called Nobodies and debating whether or not they have hearts. 

As someone who was just getting in touch with their emotions in a meaningful way, I felt for the plight these villains faced. After all, nobody wants to be nobody. We all want to feel emotion and be cared for by others, something that Riku realizes when he finally steps back into the light. When you think about it, the story could have ended here and it would be pretty perfect. The Destiny trio are reunited, Kingdom Hearts is sealed once more, and the threat of the Nobodies is eradicated. But we all know that didn’t happen.

The many sequels to Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II arrived in a blur for me, caught up in the whirlwind of puberty and growing into myself. For some time, the series faded into the back of my mind, especially as I went through the ups and downs of high school. I still sat down to play them when I could, but they never really landed quite the same way those first two games did. Then, Kingdom Hearts III was announced.

The promise of one final adventure to wrap up the saga got me so excited for the series again. Even with its many delays, I remained excited and hopeful that my favorite franchise would return better than ever. While waiting, I played all of the mainline games again and again, and I arrived at something of an epiphany as I did so: the series has always been there for me.

There was still wonder in the world waiting for me

When I was a young boy just learning of the wider world beyond my home and school, Kingdom Hearts was there. When I was beginning to discover the deep wells of emotion that reside within me, Kingdom Hearts II was there. When the angst of my teenage years arrived and I began to feel things like loss and sadness in full force, Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep was there. When I longed to return to some sense of familiarity after being away for my first year of college only to find out that even familiar places and people change, Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance was there.

And when I reached one of the most difficult points of my life, unemployed and depressed in a city I barely knew, Kingdom Hearts III was there. I won’t claim that it saved me, but it reminded me of the way I felt those many years ago in that farmhouse in Connecticut, showing me that there was still wonder in the world waiting for me.

You see, I grew up with the Kingdom Hearts games, but they grew with me as well. From whimsical adventure to thoughtful meditations on loss, predestination, fate, and everything in-between, the series has never shied away from evolving and changing to meet its players where they were. While these games are a joy to play at any stage in your life, growing up with them by my side has given me a place that I can always go when things get tough or I need a reminder of the magic that life holds. 

It’s almost impossibly rare to come of age at the same time as a piece of art, and if you have the chance, you must embrace it. I barely realized what this series means to me until I began looking back on it, only to understand that it had always been there — a key that could always unlock something deep within me, ready to be wielded when I needed. 

Sora’s friends are his power, and I’ve come to understand that him, Riku, Kairi, Donald, Goofy, and the entire crew are mine as well. I can always rely on them, no matter where I am in life — and they’re always with me.

By Jeff Zoldy

Jeff is a games & pop culture journalist from North Carolina. He has bylines at JumpCut Play, JumpCut Online, Overlode, Into The Spine, and GameRant. He is also a member of the NC Film Critics Association. In his free time, he enjoys gaming, kayaking, and watching too much anime. You can find him on Twitter @jeffzoldy

One reply on “Thinking of You, Wherever You Are”

“It’s almost impossibly rare to come of age at the same time as a piece of art, and if you have the chance, you must embrace it.”
This is a beautiful line. Not having grown up with KH, I haven’t shared this exact journey, but it makes me think about the series I saw through my entire childhood – and maybe it describes how I saw video games as a form flourish and change overall?

Leave a Reply