Friday, December 8, 2017

In Defense of Kingdom Hearts: A Series’ Maturity


I hate the unbridled scorn for Kingdom Hearts.

“I never even looked into this title because I assumed it was a kids [sic] game. I mean, it has cartoon characters, right?”1

“I just don't like the whole Disney idea. So, how corny is it?”2

“I always felt like it was more of a cash grab than anything else.”3

Comments like these run amok in the gaming community. Even fans harshly criticize the series!

“[T]he story has gotten so ridiculous…”4

“[Y]ou have a convoluted, conjecture happy [sic] plot,”5 which is “…needlessly disorienting…”6

“They kinda kept adding random details with so many side games that at this point, the story just really isn't all that good anymore.”7

I hate that people look down on Kingdom Hearts. I hate how it’s become trendy to poke fun at the series. But you know what I hate the most?

I hate that so many people are missing out on how special this series is.

I have a confession. I’m a huge Kingdom Hearts fan.

It seems like just admitting that takes courage these days.8 We Kingdom Hearts fans constantly brace for the inevitable:

“You actually like Kingdom Hearts? It’s just a stupid kids’ game!”

But it’s not. I truly think it’s a work of art.

Oh, but I can hear the comments now: “You seriously think something with that many plot holes, repetitive story lines, and incomprehensible dialogue is a work of art?”

Yes, I do. I won’t argue it’s perfect (and I plan on discussing its shortcomings another day). But the series really isn’t as bad as everyone thinks it is. The problem is that most of Kingdom Hearts’ critics haven’t truly experienced the series and all it has to offer.

Kingdom Hearts is woven with threads far deeper and more meaningful than most other games I’ve played. It’s made me laugh. It’s made me cry. It’s given me life lessons I treasure.

These games aren’t just for kids; they provide so much depth that I can’t stop talking about it.

Let me give you glimpse at the tapestry Tetsuya Nomura has woven.

Philosophical and Ethical Maturity

Philosophy is at the heart of Kingdom Hearts.

Kingdom Hearts asks hard questions—and lots of them. Sure, it sounds weird, but the same series with all those Disney characters also tackles questions such as “What is the nature of mankind?”9 and “What is the nature of good and evil?” In fact, that latter question is the focus of the entire Kindom Hearts franchise, as the series examines whether light can prevail over darkness or even if light can exist at all without darkness.10

Kingdom Hearts also addresses complex ethical questions like what constitutes a human being and how they should be treated, topics that are central to important discussions such as AI ethics11 and the abortion debate.

But Kingdom Hearts doesn’t just tackle mature concepts such as philosophy and ethics. It’s also a relationally mature series.

What do I mean by that? Well…

Relational Maturity

American culture has totally lost all sense of phileo (friendship) love—both what it is and how important it is. All we can focus on is eros (romantic) love. Romantic love is everywhere: romantic comedies, romantic films, romantic (and often downright erotic) content in games and literature and all over the internet. We take it for granted. We’re inundated with it.

But haven’t we seen the “boy meets girl” story enough? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to enjoy something different, something besides romantic love and all the drama that can go with it?

Enter Kingdom Hearts.

There are no canonical romantic relationships in Kingdom Hearts. The closest this series gets to a drama-riddled love-triangle is in the very first game, which is a mostly good-natured competition between two boys for their mutual friend’s affections. (This theme has not returned to the series in the fifteen years since.)

I believe this lack of romance is intentional, allowing the series to do what it does best: highlight just how important a friend’s love really is.

Kingdom Hearts is, at its core, a story about friendship. Almost every game focuses on a triad of friends and the trials they must overcome. Terrible circumstances and differences in opinions challenge these friendships or even tear them apart. Each character is left to sort through the rubble of choices and their dire consequences.

In the original Kingdom Hearts, Sora finds himself in a strange world, separated from his two best friends and hounded by the terrifying beasts that destroyed his home. His relentless search for his friends is rewarded when he reunites Riku.

Although Sora’s delighted to find Riku unharmed, Riku has been poisoned by Maleficent’s lies. Riku believes that Sora has been wasting his time with new friends and no longer cares about him or their mutual friend, Kairi. The rift widens when Riku discovers Kairi has fallen into a death-like slumber, while Sora hops from one world to the next with his “new friends.” Determined to prove his own devotion by rescuing Kairi at all costs, Riku pushes further and further away from Sora,12 forcing them to clash repeatedly. Riku slips into darkness while Sora tries to follow the path of light, both of them desperate to wake Kairi. As the end of the game looms ever closer, their friendship seems lost for good.


And that’s just the first game. The rest of the series doesn’t let up on the feels, either.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is even more tragic, following the tale of three young apprentices: Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, each of whom makes incredible sacrifices trying to protect the others.

This next section will contain spoilers.


You have been warned.


When their master is manipulated into attacking Ventus, Terra steps in to defend Ven. Their master refuses to stand down, and Terra is forced to kill the man he considers his own father. With guilt still haunting him, Terra hunts down the man responsible, Xehanort, to ensure the man can do no more harm to Terra’s loved ones. Although Terra falls to Xehanort’s schemes, he fights to protect his friends until the very end.

Knowing he is key to Xehanort’s plans, Ventus eagerly chooses to sacrifice himself rather than put Terra and Aqua in danger.

In the final battle against Xehanort, Aqua attempts to rescue her friends only to have Ventus and Terra stripped from her arms. In a final effort to save Terra, she finds herself banished to the shadowy Realm of Darkness, doomed to walk alone until she perishes or her memories fade completely.


The third friend triad feature in Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. This game chronicles the friendship of Roxas, Axel, and Xion, three members of a mysterious group called Organization XIII. While Axel is secretly manipulating events to keep his younger—and more naive—friends alive, it’s not enough to save them.

Roxas and Xion find themselves entangled in the Organization’s nefarious plans to try to take over Xion’s mind and use her as a puppet for their own designs. Xion eventually chooses to sacrifice herself rather than succumb to that fate and hurt anyone in the future—but at the cost of her very existence. All memory of her disappears, even from her friends’ minds. Adding insult to injury, later in the series Roxas sacrifices himself under similar circumstances, leaving Axel—who had been so desperate to save them both—all alone.


These characters’ bonds are palpable. Their friendships are their treasures, their motivations, their core. These characters know they wouldn’t be who they are without their friends. And it’s these friendships that make them strong and that make the world a better place.

“It’s always about your friends, isn’t it?” one of the villains taunts Ventus during their clash.

Yes. It is. Because “[m]y friends are my power!” as Ventus proclaims.13

And that is the crux of Kingdom Hearts.

Even though the series’ protagonist, Sora, is relatively weak and completely ignorant of the overall plot—he knows virtually nothing about the deep lore of the Kingdom Hearts universe nor the antagonist’s grand and terrible schemes—his priorities are clear. His focus is always on his friends.

If they need help, Sora will be there for them.

If they’re in danger, Sora will do everything he can to save them.

Even when he’s at his lowest point, Sora understands that it’s no legendary keyblade that gives his life meaning; it’s the love he shares with his friends. “I don’t need a weapon. My friends are my power!” he says, echoing Ventus’s proclamation.14

Emotional Maturity

Kingdom Hearts is almost obsessed with expressing the value—and weight—of memory. Two entire games (four, if you count remakes) center on how vital memories are: how they make you who you are, how they’re our only real connection with our friends. Once our memories are gone… who are we? Did our friendships really mean anything at all?15

But Kingdom Hearts doesn’t just use memories as plot points. Kingdom Hearts discusses what we should do with those memories… even the most painful ones.

Ironically, one of the most emotionally mature moments in Kingdom Hearts occurs in one of the (arguably) most shallow games, Re:coded [sic]. In the final cutscene, a girl named Namine confronts Sora about some particularly painful memories that have been locked away in his subconscious. It's imperative that Sora explore these memories, she says, but doing so will be difficult… and possibly more than he can bear. Namine’s words reveal just how emotionally mature this series can be:

“At times, the pain can be wiped away, but there’s also pain that always stays with you. There’s only one way to deal with that: you face it head-on, and then you accept it. And if it happens that the hurt is too great for you to bear it alone, well, then you turn to a friend close to your heart.”16

Kingdom Hearts doesn't pretend to have answers, but it does have advice for how to move on from the most painful of memories: confront them, don't ignore them; and walk through the healing process with a friend.

But maybe none of that means anything.

After all… it’s just a kids’ game.

Or so they think.


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Notes and References:
  1. spazzz2k [sic], “Is this a kids’ game?” [sic], January 15, 2008, on GameFAQs.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  2. Akax, “So, how corny is it?” [sic], May 26, 2008, on IGN Boards, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  3. Gameclouds, “Why is the Kingdom Hearts series so incredibly popular and successful?” [sic, February 7, 2016, on Reddit.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  4. Wes- [sic], “KH3 Director: ‘Must have played all other games to appreciate story’” [sic], July 26, 2016, on IGN Boards, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  5. Traeyze, “Why is the Kingdom Hearts series so incredibly popular and successful?” [sic], February 8, 2016, on Reddit.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  6. Patrick Lee, “Unchained X might be free-to-play, but it’s Kingdom Hearts in every way” [sic], AV Club (blog), May 6, 2016 (12:00 a.m.), accessed December 6, 2017.
  7. splitmindsthinkalike [sic], “The ‘Convoluted’ Story of Kingdom Hearts,” June 23, 2015, Reddit.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  8. TheGamersJoint, “Kingdom Hearts Fans in a Nutshell!,” Video, directed/performed by TheGamersJoint, (2017; YouTube.com), Web.
  9. Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, PlayStation 3, Square Enix, 2013. Video provided by Gamer’s Little Playground, “Kingdom Hearts Game Movie (All Cutscenes) HD 1.5 Remix 1080p,” Video, (2017, YouTube.com), Web.
  10. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, PlayStation Portable, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep ‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  11. Glenn Cohen, “AI Are People, Too — It's Time We Recognize Their Human Rights,” Video, directed/performed by Glenn Cohen (big think [sic]), Web.
  12. Kingdom Hearts, PlayStation 2, Square Enix, 2002. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts:‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  13. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, PlayStation Portable, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep ‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  14. Kingdom Hearts, PlayStation 2, Square Enix, 2002. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts: ‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  15. Kingdom Hearts Re:coded [sic], Nintendo DS, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by Kingdomdragon, “Kingdom Hearts Re: coded [sic] Sora VS Roxas,” Video, (2015, YouTube.com), Web.
  16. Kingdom Hearts Re:coded [sic], Nintendo DS, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by ATRILEY, “Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded [sic] ‘The Movie’ +Secret Ending,” Video, (2014, YouTube.com), Web.
All photos and videos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Kingdom Hearts and all related names and terms are the property of Square Enix Holdings Co., Ltd., which I am not affiliated with in any way, shape, or form.

From Him, To Him

Friday, December 1, 2017

How I Name Characters, Part 2: Word Associations Are My Friend


YOUR CHARACTER NAME NEEDS TO BE PERFECT—

—claims the internet, and I can already feel my heart rate rising.

“[The name] has to suit the character’s personality, makes [sic] sense for the era and, most important, be super awesome...” Oh, and by the way, “[y]ou need a name that ‘fits’ your character too” (Klems).

I’m already feeling overwhelmed. Anything else I need to consider? Oh, I know. How about rising anxiety, crippling uncertainty, and heck—throw in the kitchen sink. Or maybe the towel.

You’d think names make or break a narrative with this kind of advice.

Sure, finding the right name for a character can be hard, even without the crippling insecurity and perfectionism. I used to get stuck writing stories because I was too busy agonizing over how hard it was to come up with good names.

But I don’t suck at it as much as I used to. That’s because I’ve learned more than just one trick on how to generate cool and clever names. Yes, methods besides over-analyzing the character’s first initial.

Trick #1: Check for Meaning

Sometimes I’ll be lazy and search by name meaning on my trusted companion, Behind the Name, to find a meaning that relates to the character. This is bread-and-butter advice for writers; it’s a quick and easy way to express who the character is.

For instance, I once named a character Cailen—an embarrassing misspelling of what was supposed to be Cailean (Memory problems. What ya gonna do?). Cailean is a Celtic name that means “whelp” (Campbell, “Cailean”), another word for a young puppy. Since “whelp” is often used as an insult (implying an inexperienced child), it fit the young, naive, inexperienced Cailen perfectly.

He’s also the kind of character who makes you go, “Awww”

I like this trick because it works whether a reader knows the meaning of a name or not (Writer’s Relief Staff). Consider the following names, which sound as strong as they mean: Berk (“solid, firm, strong”), Jarek (from yaru: “fierce, strong”), or Magni (from magn: “mighty, strong”) (Campbell, “Names with ‘Strong’ in Meaning”).

And for those few times readers do know the meaning or even take the time to look it up, it’s pretty satisfying for them. I always feel like the author just shared a little secret with me. And who doesn’t like that?

Best part about this trick? Using it ironically. Remember my antihero criminal Cassius? His full name is Cassius Naevius Flavius: a fancy-sounding name that roughly translates to “vain man with a mole on his body” (Campbell, “Cassius”; Campbell, “Nevio”). Obvious jokes aside, the name highlights Cassius's tragic irony: he vainly struggles to rise above society’s labels and laws, while that same society keeps him in his place by refusing to see who he truly is or could become. In other words, they take him at “face” value.

*Cough* Moving on…

Trick #2: Play with Words

If I want to imply a name’s meaning rather than stating it, I might modify a preexisting word and use that as a name.

Long before I had exposed myself to Harry Potter and good old Remus, I had a character with a wolfish disposition whose name was also Lupin—the word lupine (“pertaining to or resembling the wolf”) without that pesky final e (“Lupine,” Dictionary.com).

I’ve also had fun with portmanteaus, combining two or more real words to form a name. For instance, if I wanted a character to evoke the image of both a bear and a wolf, I might make the character’s name Beolf.

Maybe that’s why I always imagined Beowulf as a huge, muscly, shaggy-haired guy…

Huh.

Trick #3: Get Inspired

Sometimes I’ll straight-up steal from people.

...For inspiration, of course. What did you think I meant?

I’ll start with a preexisting base word (or name) that captures the essence of what I’d like the new name to sound like. This method is pretty similar to the previous one, only this time, I pay more attention to how the base word sounds and less on what it means. This usually gives the name an even more subtle flavor.

I used this trick while coming up with a villain name recently. I started by assembling a pallet of words I liked: requiem, nocturne, and nocturnal. I wasn’t planning to directly reference these words’ definitions; I just liked how they sounded, so I used them as a base to begin my brainstorming...

...And my imagination took it from there.


Put It All Together

Regardless of the method I’m using, I’ll start by opening a new document and type out any inspiring words. As you can see with Nocture's brainstorming session up there, I’ll experiment by taking out syllables and adding new ones in. Sometimes I’ll toy with alternate spellings too. If I like the direction a certain name is going, I may tinker with it a bit longer, exchanging some syllables for more new ones.

In the end, I’ll have a long string of names and one winner, which I’ll use for the character I’m currently working on.

What about the other dozen or so names I’ve just created? I’ll save them for the future, either to use as-is or to serve as inspiration for a new brainstorm.

For instance, after I’d finished Nocture, I needed a second name. I liked the mystique Nocture’s name evoked, and I particularly liked one of the names I’d made during the Nocture brainstorm, “Nocten.” That name also brought to mind Prince Noctis from Final Fantasy XV, which was an appropriate connection, since my character was also a noble.

So I had “Nocten” and “Noctis,” but I knew it needed a little more. The final piece came in the form of a friend’s character, Nicht. I loved the sound of that hard “-cht” and knew it’d be the perfect addition to my new character’s name. In the end, I added the “-cht” to Nocten, making his name Nochten; “Nocht” for short. (After all, “Noct” is already taken. :P)

Regardless of what trick I use, creating names can be a long and arduous process. Still… I kind of have fun coming up with new names.

Which is a good thing, ‘cause I’ve got at least seven characters in TVB who need new names right now. And that’s not counting all the characters who remain nameless.

Hoo boy. Best of luck to all us namers out there.

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Works Cited:

Photos (in order of appearance):

From Him, To Him