I’ve been having these weird thoughts lately… Like, is any of this for real, or not?
There’s no such thing as escapism without worlds to escape to. To pull us into their interactive getaways, some games let us roam through magical forests and arm us to the teeth with bows and fiery magic. Others let us fly in the clouds or take down drug cartels in slow-motion bullet time. Sequels notwithstanding, this is and always has been the modus operandi of the standard video game: to allow a player to explore a shiny new virtual world.
When it was announced in 2001, Kingdom Hearts seemed to take a different approach. Instead of allowing players to escape into worlds they had built from scratch, it borrowed its settings and characters from Disney films like Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast. To some, this initially read as a gimmick – an unnecessary collaboration aimed at teenyboppers and soccer moms. And even now, that evaluation wouldn’t be entirely false. From a marketing standpoint, there’s no doubting that the main motivation for creating Kingdom Hearts was to create a spectacle by mashing up mascots of the world’s biggest mass media conglomerate with the generic, androgynous heroes of the Final Fantasy series.
Gimmick or not, the collaboration worked. Within two months of its release, Kingdom Hearts became one of the highest-selling video games of all time, which is bank by even Square Enix standards. But regardless of its commercial success, Kingdom Hearts’ real impact was the way it altered the standard “worlds-from-scratch” method of escapism. By recreating and expanding on the Disney worlds that many gamers had already come to know and love, Square Enix didn’t throw their audience into a brand new world – they allowed them to play in a world they had already spent years growing to adore, with characters they already considered friends.
I’ve always wondered why we’re here on this island. If there are any other worlds out there, why did we end up on this one? And suppose there are other worlds… then ours is just a piece of something much greater. So we could have just have easily ended up somewhere else, right?
What do children dream about? My memory’s not perfect, but I remember little things about being a kid, like sneaking into the garage on hot summer days, where I would pretend that a small ventilation shaft in the wall was a portal to a cartoon world. I remember playing Power Rangers by myself in the backyard, roundhouse kicking at the air and imagining myself fighting bad guys alongside the pink and green rangers. Looking back on it now, I think my strongest desires at the time were simple – to escape from my world into an alternate reality or to somehow be granted secret powers that would save the world.
Those are cute memories, but they hardly make sense to me anymore. I don’t spend much time nowadays thinking about how awesome it would be to shoot laser beams from my palms or to fly a spaceship to planets made of ice cream. Maybe it’s because I know these things are impossible, but whatever the case, the sad truth of the matter is that I’m now a disillusioned adult. Those childhood dreams just don’t translate well anymore.
Kingdom Hearts’ entire first act is an effort to rebuild the illusion and sense of wonder that childhood brought. In the most literal sense, it immerses players in its interactive landscape. It accustoms the player to a game world built not on concrete settings, but on ambiguous worlds riddled with continuity gaps, where players fill in blank spaces with pre-rendered childhood imaginations. First stop: Destiny Islands, hometown of the game’s young, naïve, angsty protagonist, Sora.
Here is what we’re told before we’re introduced to Destiny Islands:
And that’s it. “Wait,” the jaded adult will say. Where is this island? Are there others like it on the same planet? What is the child version of Wakka from FFX doing here? This is our first introduction to Kingdom Hearts’ interactive language, where instead of learning about the new world around us, we’re forced to ask questions about it. And when we can’t answer those questions, we imagine ways of answering them, or, if it’s more convenient, we forget they exist altogether. It’s a manufactured ignorance, but a real one. And it feels a lot like being a kid again.
Take the premise of the first in-game quest: Sora, longing to explore the universe and leave behind his secluded island home, devises an escape plan with his friends. They’ll build a raft from driftwood and use it to sail to new universes.
While the player has already been exposed to Kingdom Hearts’ intentional ambiguity, this plan simply goes against common sense. Not only is it incredibly dangerous, but it’s absolutely, flat-out stupid. There’s no way a driftwood raft could hold enough rations to sustain three people for more than a day or two. Also, rafts can’t go to outer space. It doesn’t work that way.
Ever the faithful avatar, Sora pops in with some skepticism of his own: “How far could a raft take us?”
“Who knows?” Sora’s friend Riku responds.
“Who knows.” Wholly unsatisfying and slightly frustrating, this reply is a direct confrontation to common sense, skepticism, and maturity. It’s a cue for players to accept Kingdom Hearts’ universe. It’s the sign that we need to get over our mature need for explanations. And it’s a brilliant device for opening up the imagination.
By the end of the first act, Destiny Islands became for me a digital manifestation of adolescence, and Sora became a window to my childhood. And even if it doesn’t technically make sense, I started imagine my own youth as a place like Destiny Islands, where kids would race along the beach and hold pretend sword fights and experience young love; where they’d lie on their backs in the sand to look up at the stars and wonder about the things beyond. It got me back into a mindset that had been buried deep beneath years of skepticism and experience, back to a place where I could travel to ice cream planets and shoot lasers out of my hands if I tried hard enough.
I don’t need a weapon. My friends are my power!
The night before Sora and his friends float out to sea on their makeshift raft, a mysterious dark portal opens on Destiny Islands, bringing with it an army of shadowy creatures known as “Heartless.” At this point, the player should be through with asking questions. Something huge is happening, and Sora’s home is at stake.
It’s during this apocalyptic invasion sequence that Sora is granted great power in the form of Kingdom Hearts’ famous door-opening weapon: the Keyblade. There’s not much fanfare surrounding the weapon’s debut – with a quick flash of light, the blade is safe in Sora’s hands.
It’s not made to look like it, but from this point on, all bets are off. Having spent its opening scenes lulling you into a childlike mindset, Kingdom Hearts now sets out to grant your childhood dreams. You wanted to come into possession of an unparalleled power? Here’s the Keyblade! You wanted to explore new worlds? Here’s a portal that’ll suck you up to new planets! You wanted to make friends with your childhood heroes? Here’s Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and a bunch of other characters from a wide selection of Disney movies!
The universe I escaped into in Kingdom Hearts was a deeply personal place. When I first encountered my in-game sidekicks Donald and Goofy, I felt like I had known them my entire life — after all, I had grown up watching them in movies and on TV. What’s more, I began to feel over the course of the game that these larger-than-life, fictional Disney characters were actually beginning to see me on their level. I was the one whose courage and heart would save the universe, and even though I had always felt like they were so distant and so important on the big screen, in Kingdom Hearts they were my subordinates. They were in my universe, and not the other way around.
Kingdom Hearts isn’t the first game to give you powers or allow you to explore other planets. It is, however, the first game to thoroughly explore the possibilities of nostalgia as a mode of escape. This isn’t an easy task – in the hands of less capable developers, Kingdom Hearts could have come off as immature instead of endearing, cloying instead of powerful. Instead, through clever implementation of nostalgia, Kingdom Hearts accomplished a monumental task: it transformed childhood memories into a solid interactive experience.