The Kingdom Hearts series is known for its convoluted plot and its rampant memeability, but its themes are a big part of what turns casual players into true fans. For such a seemingly lighthearted video game franchise, Kingdom Hearts deals with tricky and sometimes uncomfortable subjects that a young audience would have a hard time connecting with. The loss of innocence is one such theme, and it’s present through much of the early arc of the series. In addition, the games confront identity and the fight to establish or reclaim it. This makes sense – we change as people when we lose the most innocent parts of ourselves, so it’s only natural to want to know who we are and who we’ll become without those parts.
Identity as a concept is, like the loss of innocence, something we all face, but the struggle for it, the corruption of it, even the right to it, are extremely complex. Even adults have difficulty grappling with these ideas. The childlike appeal of the series almost becomes a spoonful of sugar – Kingdom Hearts uses its bright and colorful style and young characters to create a safe space where its older audience can relate to and explore ideas that are much too complicated for kids.
Two of Hearts
The topic of identity is first presented by way of Riku Replica in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, a Game Boy Advance title released in 2004. The game’s antagonists, a questionable group of shadowy figures called Organization XIII, study Riku as he fights his way through their stronghold and they use this data to create a replica of him. The replica is essentially a clone made from inorganic material, and he looks, sounds, and fights just like Riku. It becomes immediately clear that they are inherently different people, however, when Riku Replica (or Repliku, as he’s known in fandom) dismisses Riku as a coward. Repliku insists that he’s unafraid of the darkness in his heart and is willing to use it to fight, making him the stronger of the two.
This does actually make him stronger than Riku for a time, and the replica is proud of this fact because it sets him apart from the original. He’s so proud of his individuality that when the Organization decides to give him real Riku’s memories, he not only protests but is terrified of the idea. After all, giving Riku’s memories to Repliku will make him afraid of the darkness inside of him, and that is the distinguishing factor that, for Repliku, makes him different. He’s horrified that he’ll become a copy of someone else instead of a unique person.
In a very short time, Repliku, who was only meant to be a tool, establishes an identity for himself that he clings to and fights for. By the end of the game, he battles Riku not because the Organization has commanded him to do so but because he sees it as the only way to make sure he can continue to exist as his own person. He’s certain that he can’t be more than a shadow while Riku is alive.
But just as Repliku is fighting to cement his identity, Riku is fighting to accept his. He knows that there is darkness inside of him, and Riku struggles to figure out what that means without Ansem’s influence to sway him. In Chain of Memories, the events of the first game are fresh in his mind, so Riku is convinced that the darkness within him is something he not only has to deny but also condemn.
Unlike Repliku, he refuses to use the darkness as a weapon; he can acknowledge that it exists, but he can’t knowingly engage with it considering his actions in Kingdom Hearts I. The fights he has with Repliku are as much a representation of him fighting against his identity as they are a representation of Repliku fighting for his. He and Repliku are mirrors in this way: Riku is fighting his darkness rather than accepting it while Repliku cherishes his darkness as the thing that makes him a whole, separate being.
Repliku’s story lays quite a bit of groundwork for this idea of asserting and fighting for personhood, but the idea is further explored to heart-wrenching effect in Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. When it was first released in December of 2005, Kingdom Hearts II threw its fans for a loop – the story begins not with Sora but with a completely new character named Roxas. It is only after 2-4 hours of playing as this character that we discover that Roxas isn’t a “real” person. He is Sora’s Nobody.
Nobodies are an interesting commentary on identity in their own right. They are the sentient shells that are left behind when a person loses their heart and turns into a Heartless. This happens to Sora for a short time at the end of the first game when he tries to save Kairi, and in the moment when this occurs, Roxas is formed. He is discovered by Xemnas, the leader of Organization XIII, who decides to use him as a tool in his plan to create a new Kingdom Hearts and “recomplete,” or regain a heart and become whole again. Because he is Sora’s Nobody, Roxas slowly begins to copy his abilities and his memories, thus giving the Organization a Keyblade wielder of their very own. What Xemnas and the others don’t account for, however, is Roxas starting to develop his own identity.
When he is first formed, he exists in a vegetative state much like Ventus does at the beginning of Birth by Sleep, but as he goes on missions and develops a friendship with his fellow Organization member Axel, his personality blossoms. He even starts talking about his feelings — which Nobodies, beings who by definition lack hearts, are not supposed to have.
The fifth entry in the series, 358/2 Days, was released in 2009 and takes place parallel to Chain of Memories and leading up to Kingdom Hearts II. It tells Roxas’ story and that of Organization XIII in much more detail, and it’s here that we meet Xion. To further ensure they’re able to reach their goals, the Organization creates another replica, this time a girl that they call Xion. Her purpose is to copy Sora’s powers from Roxas so they have a backup Keyblade wielder should he fail or fall. Xion is much the same as Roxas at first: She starts out blank and listless until Roxas begins courting her friendship. Soon she too blossoms, and she, Roxas, and Axel become yet another tragically doomed trio of friends.
Things begin to fall apart for them very quickly — Xion becomes curious about where she comes from as she feels instinctively that she and Roxas are not the same, even though Xemnas says they’re both special. She eventually stumbles upon Naminé, who has the power to create and erase people’s memories, and Riku. Through the two of them, Xion learns that she is a puppet who is not just copying Sora’s memories and abilities from Roxas but erasing them from him as well. If she continues to exist, Roxas will be destroyed and Sora, who has been asleep so that Naminé can restore his memories, will never awaken. After winning a fight against her, Riku (who is trying to protect Sora and make sure his memories are returned to him) calls Xion a sham, and it sends the already vulnerable Xion into a spiral she is unable to recover from.
Eventually, Xion decides to give up. She chooses to reintegrate with Sora to give him back the memories that reside within her, but there is a cost. Because she isn’t actually real, the memories of her existence will fade away in those who knew her. Knowing this, she still forces a fight with Roxas, who briefly forgets her name the moment he beats her, confirming that she will indeed disappear from her friends’ memories. In the end, Xion found fighting against her destiny to be too much to face. For her, any identity she could claim didn’t really belong to her so she decided to let go and fade away instead.
Spirit like Nobody’s Business
Roxas has the complete opposite reaction when he discovers the truth about his origin. Like Repliku, Roxas wants to be his own person. He clings desperately to his life and his friends. He fights viciously for them, even going so far as to set out to destroy Kingdom Hearts (the opposite of the Organization’s ultimate goal) and to defeat Xemnas so he can have his life back. “I am me!” he insists when Riku calls him Sora during a fight to needle him. “Nobody else!” Roxas wants more than anything to be acknowledged as his own complete being.
Even after he’s placed in a digital version of Twilight Town while Sora begins to re-absorb his memories (this being where Kingdom Hearts II picks up), and even after his memories are erased, Roxas continues to fight to retain his identity. The more he remembers as Sora comes closer and closer to waking up, the more he pushes back against the fate that Xion submitted to. He fights until the very end; it is only when he is standing in front of Sora who is moments away from waking up that he resigns himself to his destiny.
Still, his determination won’t allow him to completely give up. In a boss fight added to Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, Roxas and Sora fight each other inside Sora’s heart in what is essentially a battle for the right to live. Roxas fights hard, wielding two Keyblades to Sora’s one, but ultimately Sora wins. It’s an absolutely gut-wrenching moment that resonates deeply if you have the wisdom to understand what’s truly going on. Otherwise, it’s just a very cool battle.
Riku’s Heart of Darkness
While Roxas fights for his identity, Riku is coming a step closer to accepting his. Thanks to his fight with Roxas at the end of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, Riku doesn’t look like himself during Kingdom Hearts II. To win that fight, Riku had to tap into the darkness in his heart and use that power to overcome Roxas’ strength, and the result is that his body takes on the form of the person who put that darkness there: Ansem. Afterwards, though, Riku is unable to return to his own form. He spends the majority of Kingdom Hearts II in Ansem’s body, an interesting twist considering Ansem spent all of Kingdom Hearts I in Riku’s body, but this is also a crucial step in Riku’s journey to finally accepting who he is.
Riku is literally forced to live with his darkness when he’s inside Ansem’s body. He’d been suppressing it while fighting against the Organization in Chain of Memories, but when he finally decides to tap into it, there’s no going back. He hides himself throughout the course of Kingdom Hearts II, wearing one of the Organization’s long hooded jackets to keep himself and his shame covered as he wrestles with being stuck in his darkest place. It is only when Sora, Kairi, and the rest of their friends reassure him that he’ll always be Riku, no matter how he looks, that he’s able to begin reckoning with himself and regain his own form.
A Light within the Shadow
Kingdom Hearts: 3D Dream Drop Distance (2012) is a few games after 358/2 Days, and in it, Riku and Sora begin their Mark of Mastery exam in preparation for the return of Master Xehanort. At this time, Riku appears to be a bit more settled in his own skin. His unique attacks and special moves are powered by his darkness, and he isn’t hesitant to use them, nor does he appear to be in danger of returning to his Ansem form when he calls on them. He has clearly come to accept that the darkness is a part of him but does not define him, and it is perhaps this realization that both light and dark power can live within him peacefully that leads to him passing his Mark of Mastery exam while Sora fails.
By the time we come to Kingdom Hearts III, released in 2019, Riku is clearly a stronger, more self-assured person. He traverses through the Realm of Darkness with Mickey Mouse, completely unafraid of their environment the way he’d been the first time he was trapped there. Finally, Riku is aware that he’s in total control of the darkness inside him. “You’ve done years of growin’ in almost no time at all!” Mickey tells him. It sparks a realization in him, and we as players understand that Riku at long last recognizes his true identity and has accepted it. Riku reaffirms the sentiment himself, saying “My doubts and fears are gone.”
Riku goes on a long and complicated journey throughout Kingdom Hearts, and it is his character that demonstrates some of the series’ strongest and most complex themes. Learning to accept all the parts of who we are is something that many of us struggle with as adults, and Riku has mastered it by an early age.
There are so many other themes explored in the story of Kingdom Hearts that are just as difficult to untangle. The basic plots of these games are confusing enough. Considering its themes as well, it only follows that the series’ target audience has to be older. After all, what writer would dedicate so much time and energy to crafting stories that their audience is incapable of understanding?
Which Kingdom Hearts theme resonates most with you? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to Let Your Geek Sideshow!