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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Complicated and Messy: Kingdom Hearts, Plot, and Being A Teen Queer

Kingdom Hearts feels like a wild game of pretend played with every random thing the players had lying around. That's also what my experience of being a queer teenager felt like.




I'm trying to understand the plot of the Kingdom Hearts series but it's just not happening. It just won't stay straight. This is a long term deficiency for me. I didn't understand Kingdom Hearts 2 when it came out, and most of the explanations I heard after playing it just confounded my teen self more.

I don't think the blame lies with the me now or the me then. After all, a lot of characters real important to KH2 were, it turns out, introduced in a couple other games, for a couple of other game systems that I did not own. I convinced my parents to get a Playstation 2 on the grounds that I could get a bunch of games I liked (Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy) for it, play DVDs, and even play Playstation games on it! It was backwards compatible! And I could even borrow games from my friends, so that was another money saver.

Then Kingdom Hearts went and released a bunch of games for a bunch of other expensive platforms.

So, I didn't play them, and subsequently hadn't the fuckest notion what was going on at the beginning of KH2, or at the end for that matter. Oh, the basic lore I could follow, sure, because "it's a fight between light and dark" and "when people get taken over by The Dark their souls and bodies split apart forming two separate monsters" is pretty straightforward, as is "there's some anime twinks and also Maleficent from that movie trying to like swallow the worlds in darkness or whatever, and that's bad."

The specific identity of the anime twinks eluded me though.

It turns out that's probably also not a huge deal, though, because "identity" is a bit of a queer thing in Kingdom Hearts. Lots of people posing as other people who are fragments of other people possessing some other people and occasionally combined with other people... and so on. Like it turns out that there's multiple folks running around that are fragments of the protagonist Sora. That sort of makes sense, what with the whole Heartless/Nobody mind/body dualism thing, but then it also turns out that Sora maybe, if I'm understanding correctly, is sort of a fragment of some other guy? Alright! And then his boyfriend Riku is maybe a fragment of some other dude who gets possessed by a shard of a third dude that was possessing a fourth dude I... think? Riku is a veritable twink/twunk cosmic matryoshka doll.

So Kingdom Hearts the series not only fragments across many games released on many platforms, but also features fragmentary characters making their way through a fractured cosmos of countless Disney worlds all sort of collapsing into one another, searching for, if I'm understanding The Lore properly, fragments of an ultimate weapon that unlocks the primordial god-stuff of the titular Kingdom Hearts.

Gawrsh.

This is a cosmology that feels a bit more complicated than the Light/Dark binary the first game pushes so hard. That's in keeping, though, I suppose, with the general register on which the story operates: a fabulous game of pretend played by extremely imaginative children with whatever toys they had lying around.

This is a useful framework for games that mash Final Fantasy characters up with Disney characters and sort of graft them all together with a soap-operatic story of cosmic angst. The series has, among other things, a fixation on dreams, and the narrative certainly follows the strange dream logic of children engaged in free play. Of course, the games I played with my friends and with myself using my own toys were themselves influenced by the plots of Kingdom Hearts and various Final Fantasy games... but maybe part of what attracted me to those games in the first place was their child-logic, the way they seem to run on glorious gibberish.

A lot of what goes on makes more sense from this perspective, I suspect, than any direct reading of plot and character. You pick up your Squall Lionheart action figure and plop him down next to your Beast figure in the "Hollow Bastion" you've cobbled together from whatever you had around the house. "My name's Leon," the Squall figure confidently misidentifies himself. Beast growls.

As you play characters switch sides, become the protagonists or the antagonists as the possibility of a new plotline seizes your interest. They take on new forms: Sora is Roxas now! But, well, you've still got both the Sora figure and the Roxas figure, so maybe Sora and Roxas could meet? Even though they're sort of the same person? As the series progresses this seems increasingly to be the logic: hey, that sounds cool, let's throw it in. The series in that sense also has something I recognize well from my childhood: a deep affection for the big soap opera cast of characters, an affection that simply wouldn't allow anyone to be written off the show permanently!

Within that kaleidoscopic spectacle, though, I think KH and similar creations manage a madcap vitality that's often lost in, like, most other media? 

I'm tempted here to describe these alternatives as "corporate produce media" but that's a bit hypocritical. Kingdom Hearts is only possible in a world where Disney has grotesquely mined and bought out public culture (mainly in the form of fairy tales), fiddled around just enough to make it "theirs," and sold it back to us accompanied by hysterical admonitions that we must respect "their property". (Don't you dare post a video of Elsa singing!) Square Enix is not much better with their shameless nostalgia grabs. They're all part of the literary equivalent of enclosure of public lands, and the introduction of attacks in KH3 based on actual Disney Park rides just demonstrates all the more clearly that this is, in one sense, one big damn advertisement. This is one way that Kingdom Hearts differs from a child's toybox drama: Disney owns ALL the toys, and guards them jealously from the other kids.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Somehow video games still remain a bit of a gutter medium not unlike comics or toy-oriented kids cartoons, capable of stumbling past the kind of focus testing CEO horseshit that sands the edges off so many blockbusters for example. KH3 still, despite its obvious corporate mandate, seems just a bit... off? Still kind of bizarre. And oh boy, if the grisly vampire of mass media capitalism has strangled much of the games industry now, things were still REAL weird in the 90s and 2000s when Kingdom Hearts was conceived and birthed.

And oh boy did I love it. Right around the same time that I was discovering the joys of jumping onto an anime halfway through its run on Toonami or later Adult Swim, I first encountered the notion of games with cool cinematics. Sure, some of my weird semi-educational Star Wars games had cinematics in them but they were diegetic story cinematics, understood as being in some sense "what really happened."


What was this strange thing I watched, perched on the bed beside my friend in his attic room, peering at his small tv? There was operatic singing! There was extremely abstract dialogue! There was a flower petal turning into a feather turning into a GUN that was also a FUCKING SWORD!

This wasn't a video game, I realized.

This...

Was ART. For MATURE VIEWERS LIKE ME.

The adolescent storm and fury of the opening of Final Fantasy VIII still thrills me. It so unabashedly disregards your comprehension. You don't need to comprehend it, you just need to have Big Big Feelings about it, and boy did tween Sam have a LOT of Big Big Feelings.

My brain and body coiled like a spring of tension and frustration and excitement, submerged in hormones and incredibly baroque fantasies, and waited to explode with those Big Big Feelings as soon as I encountered a powerful enough trigger--something like, say, the opening of Kingdom Hearts 1. "I've been having these weird thoughts lately, like is any of this for real? Or not?" Sora intones in voiceover while he sinks, cryptically, into the ocean. In a flash we're shown a beach scene, and a catchy pop song starts playing, the singer Hikaru Utada crooning that "lately you're all I need" as a huge tidal wave rises up behind some white haired boy who looks like he was born with perfect eyeliner, who looks directly into Sora's (your) (my) eyes and holds out his hand and

Now's probably a good time to note that I wasn't really consciously aware at this point in time of the full extent of my queerness. 

I wasn't fully conscious of many things, in fact, or not the way an adult is. When I think back on my adolescence it's... well, frankly, mostly I try not to think about it much at all? Struggling with a body that my probably-autistic kinda genderfucked brain didn't seem to relate to, flailing around in a series of social scenarios that I navigated with bad grace, and lost in the collective psychosis of the George W Bush administration, my teen years sucked. 

My big out was fantasy, and you could call that escapist but rewatching this opening I don't see an escape. I see something diving as deep as possible into the Big Big Feelings of adolescence. I see catharsis, and raw material through which I could articulate and externalize what otherwise remained bottled inside me.

It's precisely Kingdom Hearts' own semi-articulate gibberish that makes this possible. Like, look at that obviously queer reading I'm doing up there. I'm not particularly interested in whether or not such a reading, where Riku is the masculine fatale reaching out to tempt Sora, is literally true within the narrative, is "representation", or is "intentional." I'm way more interested in the simple fact that the game introduces Riku before Kairi, Sora's ostensible love interest, and introduces them desperately struggling toward each other while an emotional pop ballad plays and a giant not-at-all-metaphorical wave swamps them both. I'm more interested in the fact that this doesn't quite jive with the text of the game, where Sora is questing after Kairi ostensibly (something that leads Riku to become jealous). 

There's a weird fragmentation to the story and its abstract, symbolic presentation. It's sort of all over the place. It's not straightforward. It's not a straight story. It's kind of a queer story. Do you see?

I'm not saying this to sully the precious childhood memories of your youth or whatever, I'm trying to be as honest as I can to something that I experienced, but only in this muddled, repressed way, in a way uncomfortable in a culture that never recovered from Bush-era evangelical repression.

I was aware on some level, while playing this nonsense game where you hit weird monsters and anime characters with a "Keyblade" with the help of Goofy and Donald Duck, of feelings of attraction. I as a teen was attracted to Kairi, and conscious of Sora being attracted to her. But on some level I was also attracted to Sora (I was reflexively embarrassed of my parents seeing me playing as Mer-Dolphin!Sora for this reason), and attracted to Riku and attracted to Sora's weird submerged subtextual attraction to Riku, and kind of wanted Riku to be my boyfriend in the same way I deep down wanted my best male friend to be my boyfriend, but, and this is the important bit, I did not believe any of that was true, and would've laughed such a suggestion off.

I had already encountered the "What? No, that's weird," response when asking friends simple (I thought) questions like "Do you ever wonder what it's like to be a girl?" And besides, desires were messy and I had learned that they were probably Bad, so why not focus on something straightforward like cool anime magic instead? I experienced Kingdom Hearts as someone uncertain of myself and my feelings, but also completely overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what I was experiencing on a daily basis, and the game in its own bizarre, anachronistic way rose to meet me.

It rose to meet me in a much more direct way than even other Japanese Role Playing Games like the Final Fantasy games. I only recently realized, on rewatch, that there's something a little bit gay about that opening of Final Fantasy VIII, what with Seifer and Leon Squall using their swords that are also guns to give each other identical face scars, marking each other as rivals... or lovers??? Well, that's one reading, and I'm not discounting that reading at all, but it's a very fanfictional understanding of queer sexuality as adversarial. For Teen Sam, Seifer just came across as another preppy asshole, the kind of person I loathed dealing with on a daily basis at school. I didn't get adversarial sexual tension as a teen the way, more familiar with a particular set of narrative conventions, I do now.

Riku reaching out to Sora, looking directly into his eyes while Sora struggles against the tide to reach him, though... THAT I understood. It employed practically the same visual symbolic shorthand that the FF8 opening uses to depict Squall with his straight love interest Rinoa, for goodness sake! I may not have gotten it consciously, but on the precognitive level of affect and emotion, I for sure felt it. The game was reaching out to me in its strange adolescent way.

I wish now that I had been able to play some of the other side games, because reading up on them now I suspect I would have found much to relate to. That child's game quality allowed for a fluidity to identity and reality within the whole series that feels very adolescent, and does genuinely feel queer. 

Sora spends most of the first game carrying Kairi's heart around inside him, driving him on. So, there's attraction between the two, but it's also a queer attraction where Sora and Kairi are entangled together. (Is this what the opening scene where Sora and Kairi watch together in shock as a second Sora plunges from the sky into the sea alludes to?) Sora, discovering that Kairi's body has been reduced to an empty shell without her heart, releases it by stabbing himself with his keyblade, shattering himself in the process into a Heartless... and a Nobody. Kairi restores him with the power of their connection (love, or is there some other sense in which Kairi and Sora are aspects of each other?) but the whole event leaves remnants in its wake.

The primary remnant is Namine, a female character generated when Kairi's identity attempted to split and create a Nobody and, finding nothing to generate it with, developed out of the matter Sora's body. Namine is, thus, a queer merger of Kairi and Sora, and it's honestly pretty hard for me not to read her as trans given that she's literally created from a male character's body? I could say similar things about Roxas--created from Sora's memories--and his counterpart Xion--also created from Sora's memories, but presenting as female! Sora and Kairi thus act less as independent characters and more as a gnostic syzygy, a creative duality of paired male and female blending into each other, emanating various other entities.

Oh and don't think I'm just going to let the other weird gnostic shit in these games slide without at least a short aside. As with the queer themes, I'm less interested in the literal diegetic intentionality of any of this shit than pointing out that a lot of stuff in these games seems to emerge as an ambiguous mix of Light and Dark, in a way that feels more out of William Blake than anything else. I'm still not clear on what exactly "Kingdom Hearts" is or whether it's really "good" or not, so that's wild. And there's the fact that, for goodness sake, the game refers to Sora, Donald, and Goofy as a "trinity", and names the ultimate weapon with the highly Byzantine Christian Greek letter "Chi".

Yes, the ultimate "keyblade" in this continuity is... literally called... the "χblade". Pronounced exactly how you'd think.

It's. A fucking pun.

It was at exactly the moment I learned of the puntastic χblade that I decided I had to write this article, by the way. Kingdom Hearts isn't really Homestuck exactly, so much as it is what people who haven't paid close attention think Homestuck is, but that little delightful bit of pedal to the metal absurdity does feel on par with Homestuck's more mindbending pun-based worldbuilding ("8^y"). I couldn't resist.

And it doesn't stop there. Organization XIII, the primary villains of KH2, all have X's in their names. So, Roxas, Sora's Nobody, is an anagram of Sora with an X added into it. Except, aha! They're not really Xs at all, but more χs! And they're apparently called the "Recusant's Sigil" or "Mark of Heresy" and can be used by the villain Xemnas to monitor anyone marked that way. So, Xemnas literally takes a bunch of "nobodies" and just sort of assigns them names that literally bear a mark he can use to monitor and control them. That's... I mean I don't even have to make an effort to read that as trans OR as Gnostic, it's just right there on the surface?

The thing about all this stuff, though, is that it doesn't necessarily add up to a coherent picture the way other stuff I analyze does. When I argue that Kaworu and Shinji are canonically queer in Evangelion or that Homestuck is Gnostic I really am making an argument that there's a coherent throughline and overarching thematic argument, and I'm just not super confident in making that claim about Kingdom Hearts. As much as I wanted Riku to be my boyfriend, or found Dolphin!Sora weirdly appealing, the game is at best muddled in its queer subtexts.

That's nothing new, though. Kingdom Hearts is, after all, loaded up with Disney villains, who have long been queer icons. Ursula, Jafar, Hades, and Maleficent, all positively oozing camp, show up in the first game alongside anime hotties like everyone's favorite one winged angel Sephiroth. These are also not characters that are straightforwardly queer, but they have been adopted as such by a community that for many decades was considered to belong to the dark just as much as any Heartless.

And Kingdom Hearts in its muddled way makes these readings possible. As characters blend together, take on new names and new forms, split off and emanate like Gnostic aeons and archons, the franchise enters a weird liminal space where a multitude of realities are possible. Maybe Sora isn't always a boy, maybe two times out of five they're a girl! Maybe sometimes Sora is seeking out Kairi, and sometimes Sora and Kairi are more like cosmic counterparts, anima and animus. Maybe Riku, Sora, and Kairi are just in one big poly tangle together. Maybe Jack Sparrow gets into a swordfight with Peg Leg Pete!

And maybe that captures something of what an adolescent experience of queer gender and sexuality is: liminal, confused, fluid, and jumbled together with all kinds of other random associations, constructed of what materials are to hand, desperately, inarticulately, always in a rush of Big Big Feelings. While the strategic narrative of queerness coming out of the Bush years was that we are "Born This Way" and shouldn't be condemned for an essential and unchosen nature, this is not ultimately how I experienced queerness or much of anything else as a kid. I experienced everything instead as a jumble of stimuli buffeting me like ocean waves, but also as a kind of free play in which I grabbed whatever was nearby, whether it was Disney cartoons or Final Fantasy games, and used them to imagine possible selves.

I think that maybe Kingdom Hearts tries to assert, with things like Sora and Kairi reaching out to each other with their hearts, that there is some core self that shines out from amidst clouding distractions. Nevertheless, the way the games and their worlds and their characters and their lore are constantly multiplying, fragmenting, and merging again suggests to me that identity itself is not essential but a makeshift game. In this, I think Kingdom Hearts embodies the experience of adolescence and all its confusions, doubts, absolute daft absurdity, and tantalizing potentiality.

This Has Been

Complicated and Messy

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1 comment:

  1. Amazing Article. The observation that KH is like that of a child like fantasy world is spot on. Also it really does seem to be a story about questioning what is taboo. In KH sora was against darkness. In KH2 he was content with being the darkness. In KH2 sora was getting rid of nobodies. in KH3 he was saving nobodies. It was the progress of tolerance and acceptance.
    If you are a fan of extreme analyzing then you should check out my latest video. https://youtu.be/4WozxCWQIYw It's about Xemnas's Hidden agenda in KH2. I think you are really going to like the last chapter in which I talk about what I believe the moral Nomura was trying t teach with the inclusions of Nobodies into the story. I reading this has made me realize I should start posting by videos as blogs as well. It was a great read, and you have awesome perspective.

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