The first Kingdom Hearts game was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2002, and for the last 20 years, the series has captivated hearts and addled minds all over the world. Most of the series’ 13 games follow a young boy named Sora who, along with his companions Donald Duck and Goofy, visits new worlds based on iconic Disney and Square Enix properties.
The group battles creatures of darkness called Heartless and they protect the light at the heart of every world using Sora’s Keyblade — a magical, key-shaped sword that only people with strong hearts can wield. Keyblades are the only effective weapon against the Heartless. Mickey Mouse is even a regular character in the series and is a Keyblade Master in his own right. The Disney name, as well as the innocent, guileless nature of the main protagonist Sora, might convince anyone who hasn’t played the games that Kingdom Hearts is for children. Of course, the very surface “Light is good, darkness is bad, the power of friendship will save us” plots don’t do much to dissuade people from this notion.
This perceived lightheartedness is undoubtedly the draw that has lured so many streamers and content creators to the series in the past few years. After all, Kingdom Hearts’ fun and carefree appearance seems like a wonderful escape from the stress of a global pandemic. The irony is, of course, that the story of these video games is complicated and at times incredibly heavy. So while it may arguably have been true that the first entry in the series was targeted to kids, it’s clear that the core themes of the series are far too complex for a child audience.
Sora, Riku, and Kairi Face Destiny
Loss of innocence is a theme that runs through a number of Kingdom Hearts games, starting with the very first one. Here it is rather simply represented by the literal loss of the Destiny Islands, the home of Sora and his best friends Riku and Kairi. One stormy night, a swirling, ominous void rips the islands apart before sucking them into the darkness. Donald and Goofy, Sora’s eventual travel buddies, see this happening from another world, and Goofy exclaims that a star is going out. The visual imagery is easy to understand — the trio’s home literally blinks out of existence, and they’re left with nowhere to return to — but what the imagery stands for tells the real story, and understanding that requires maturity and insight that only come with age.
After losing their home, Riku is possessed by a Seeker of Darkness, Kairi is completely lost, and Sora, the youngest at heart if not by age, is chosen to be a wielder of the Keyblade and defender of the light. The trio’s greatest worry up to that point had been collecting materials to build a raft. They suddenly have much bigger, much scarier things to worry about.
Eventually, the Destiny Islands are restored and the trio returns there together. When Riku and Sora are sitting on the trunk of a tree in their customary spot, looking out at the ocean once again, Riku remarks that nothing ever changes. The fallacy in that statement is visually obvious – he and Sora are both taller, his hair is much longer – but again, the visual imagery serves to illustrate what isn’t so obvious just by looking: He, Sora, and Kairi have all changed as people. They know for sure that there are worlds that exist outside of what they previously believed. They know that those worlds can be dark and that the people they meet won’t always have their best interests in mind. Their home is restored, yes, but it’s been touched by darkness, as they all have. It will never be the same and neither will they.
Terra-fied of Xehanort
This theme shows up again in the’ sixth game, Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep. It takes place about a decade before the events of the first game and tells the story of three young Keyblade wielders — Terra, Aqua, and Ventus — who also lose their home, their innocence, and even themselves to darkness. Birth by Sleep isn’t nearly as gentle in its exploration of the loss of innocence, however, and this is due to the introduction of the series’ main antagonist, Master Xehanort.
Xehanort is a terrifying enemy and he has a direct hand in the loss of innocence of this game’s trio when he destroys their home world, the Land of Departure. He casts it into darkness to goad Terra into meeting him for a final battle, just moments after striking down the trio’s teacher and his former friend, Master Eraqus. This grand gesture causes disillusionment in the three protagonists, much as the destruction of Destiny Island does the same for Sora, Riku, and Kairi. But even before that point, Xehanort spent the entire game manipulating and corrupting the characters in a much more personal, individualized way.
Xehanort uses Terra’s naivete and his need for approval to groom him. Xehanort is old and weak; he sees Terra as the perfect new vessel for his heart, so he reassures Terra that the darkness inside him isn’t wrong. He encourages Terra to use it, despite what Master Eraqus has been teaching him. Terra has no reason not to trust him though, especially as he’s a Keyblade Master, a figure of ultimate authority and righteousness. Xehanort uses this blind faith to exploit him, manipulating Terra with minimal effort until eventually, Terra is completely at the mercy of Xehanort.
Terra tries his best to fight back, of course, but ultimately he’s no match for a Keyblade Master like Xehanort. For a long time after their clash, his heart is shuffled between the body he can no longer control and an enormous Heartless known as the Guardian, which Xehanort can call forth and use in battle. It is only during the events of Kingdom Hearts III, 10 years later, that Terra is finally able to take his body back. By then, however, any innocence he once had is long gone. He, Aqua, and Ventus are able to return to the Land of Departure after it is restored, but Xehanort’s manipulation and the consequences of it will stay with him for the rest of his life.
Xehanort’s Manipulation Continues
As excellent as he is at working under the radar, Xehanort is also capable of getting his hands dirty. One of his ultimate goals is to use the fight between pure light and pure darkness to create the legendary χ-blade (pronounced “key” or “chi” blade), so he sends a swarm of Heartless after a scared and pleading Ventus, telling him to use the power of darkness to save himself in hopes that the χ-blade will be forged in the clash.
When Ventus refuses to do so, Xehanort decides to rip the darkness out of Ventus himself, causing significant damage to the boy’s heart. Ven lives in a vegetative state until his heart heals and is strong enough to sustain him again, but even then he isn’t free of his former master’s machinations. Xehanort eventually forces Ventus, now a being of pure light, to fight Vanitas, the being formed from his extracted darkness, in order to create the same χ-blade he wanted before.
The clash succeeds and creates the χ-blade, and it also merges Ventus and Vanitas back together. Ven manages to destroy the χ-blade before Xehanort can get it, but again he damages his heart in the process. It finds its way to a young Sora to rest and to heal, but Ven’s body falls into a deep slumber until Sora is able to wake him up 10 years later. Like his best friend Terra, his heart eventually rejoins his body, but he is changed by Xehanort’s corruption. He will never be the same as he was before Xehanort came into his life.
Keyblade Master Aqua
Even Aqua doesn’t escape Xehanort’s schemes. She is forced to fight Terra-Xehanort (as he is called in this new, younger form) when she discovers he has taken over Terra’s body and suppressed his heart. Aqua is the most mature member of the trio and a Keyblade Master herself, but even she is no match for Xehanort’s power, especially in a stronger body.
The three of them – Aqua, Terra-Xehanort, and the newly created Guardian Heartless containing Terra’s heart – all accidentally fall through a portal into the Realm of Darkness during their fight. Aqua, in a last ditch attempt to save her friend, sends her Keyblade and protective armor back through the gradually dwindling portal to the Realm of Light with Terra-Xehanort in tow, leaving herself trapped in the Realm of Darkness. Even knowing that Xehanort is in control of Terra’s body, she refuses to let him languish in the darkness where Terra will never have a chance to come back to himself, so she stays behind instead.
But it changes her. Aqua is strong in body and in heart, so it takes a very long time, but she eventually succumbs to the darkness. Sora and Riku are able to save her, but by then she, like Terra and Ventus, has lost 10 years of her life. She’s lost all hope of rescue or of seeing Terra and Ventus again. She is forever changed by the things she’s endured thanks to Xehanort, and though she is able to return to the light and later to the Land of Departure, she isn’t the same girl who left there years before.
After the events of Kingdom Hearts, Riku spends a good amount of time in the Realm of Darkness, much like Aqua does. She even rescues him while he’s there (though he doesn’t know it until much later). A lot happens to Riku in that first game. He is used by two separate adults as a tool to meet their own ends, and it leads him to do terrible things. Ansem coerces him into opening a door that lets the Heartless overtake Destiny Island. He is manipulated by Maleficent into believing that Sora has replaced him and Kairi with Donald and Goofy, and thus has no problem doing things that undermine or foil Sora’s plans when they cross paths on various worlds. He is even forced to battle Sora, his very best friend, at the end of the game.
Riku does regain control of his body to save Donald, Goofy, and Kairi from a horde of Heartless soon afterward, but by then, he’s already been robbed of the innocence he once had by two people who most definitely knew better. In the game’s final moments when Sora, Donald, and Goofy arrive at the Door to Darkness and struggle to close it, a newly autonomous Riku appears behind it and helps Sora close it from the other side. After all he’s been through, he traps himself within the Realm of Darkness in order to keep the Heartless from invading the Realm of Light, almost as though he’s atoning for what he’s done.
This loss of Riku’s innocence in the first game is particularly important because it serves as the catalyst for his search for redemption and, ultimately, the reclaiming of his identity – another core theme of the series. The rest of the series becomes, for him, a journey to find out who he is after losing an important part of himself and coming to terms with who he really is.
Loss of innocence is a recurring theme in the Kingdom Hearts series for good reason – it happens to everyone eventually and can leave us feeling bereft and afraid. So while it’s true that you don’t have to be a certain age to be upset about what happens to these characters, to understand what happens to them requires some insight that really only comes with age and life experience.
It’s clear, then, that Kingdom Hearts, despite its childlike, playful packaging, is actually a story meant for an older, more experienced audience. Exploring such fraught and complicated topics by way of characters like Sora who are, after everything, optimistic and hopeful makes wrestling with these ideas a little easier and a little safer.