Sunday, September 5, 2010

Kingdom Hearts and My Gender Identity

I was a sophomore in high school when I heard rumors and started reading articles about a video game collaboration between Disney and Square Enix. The initial reaction amongst gamers were typical: What kind of love-child will such a union make? Will it be good? How could Square allow itself to align with something as "family-friendly" (minus the hidden sexual innuendos found in various Disney films and VHS covers) as Disney?

Kingdom Hearts logo

After a year of hype, skepticism, and curiousity, Kingdom Hearts was released in late 2002 and went on to becoming a huge commercial success. The cheerfulness and light-hearted nature of the Disney worlds and characters balanced nicely with Square Enix's depth of storytelling and plot, bringing together a game that was enjoyable on many different levels.

Shadow, the lowest form of Heartless

The story of Kingdom Hearts revolved around the concept of darkness residing within the hearts of people. If someone allows their inner darkness to consume them, they become creatures called Heartless, entities devoid of emotion. They become purely instinctual beings bent on seeking other hearts to corrupt and turn into Heartless. Think of it as the Disney version of the zombie plague, a bit violent in nature but not nearly as gory or grotesque in appearance.

Kingdom Hearts II took the concept even further by introducing creatures called Nobodies. As darkness turns a person's heart into a Heartless, another process occurs simultaneously that turns the remaining body and soul into a Nobody. While the strength of a Heartless is determined by how much darkness is within the heart, a Nobody's strength is determined by its will. If the will is strong enough, a Nobody can retain an appearance strikingly similar to their former self. Strong-willed Nobodies appear human, are able to think and make decisions, and even have memories of their former selves. Nobodies in general, however, do not have emotions because they are without hearts. They often will use their memories as a way of pretending that they still have emotions. And yet, without hearts, Nobodies know that they are not meant to exist.

Dusk, lowest form of Nobody

As a transgendered person, I know what it's like to be both a Heartless and a Nobody. All the light and hope that was given to me in the first four or five years of my life began to dim as I got older and became painfully aware that I was different. I hated wearing dresses for as long as I could remember, had no desire to play with Barbie dolls or wear makeup, and I was more interested in playing sports and games than being attracted to boys. While many girls enter a "tomboy" phase in their early childhood, most of them outgrow it once puberty hits or by early adulthood. I, on the other hand, despised my body as it started taking on a more female appearance. For me, puberty was the beginning of my inner darkness.

What kept the darkness from possessing my heart was my imagination. In my heart, I was Aladdin singing 'A Whole New World' to Jasmine. I was young Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone to become King of Britain. I was the hero rescuing the damsel in distress from out of the hightower. In my heart, mind, and soul, I was everything that my body could not be. Instead, my body had to adhere to the expectations of society and culture. People tried to make a Princess Aurora out of a Prince Phillip and being a child who longed to be accepted and loved by others, I did the best I could to be that princess.

However, the darkness weighed heavily on me again sometime around high school when I realized that I was not a princess but I could not be a prince either. After being told for so long that having a female body disqualified me from "Prince" status, the imaginary world that kept my heart full of light began to crack. And thus was born my Nobody, the female body that was able to interact with people and the world around me but lacked a heart. She was able to trick herself into being in love, forming relationships with family, friends, and coworkers, all the while aware of the emptiness inside her.

My Heartless, on the other hand, was what many would call a "man-hating lesbian". I figured that if I couldn't be a man, then I might as well call them out on all of their nonsense and emasculate them to the fullest extent without risking getting knocked in the face. I grew up in a perspective where so many guys were breaking girls' hearts, so it pained me to be the shoulder they cried on while I yearned to say, "If I was him, I'd never make you cry."

Roxas (left) and Sora (right), one incomplete without the other.

As the player progresses through Kingdom Hearts II, they come to realize that Roxas is Sora's Nobody, created from when Sora sacrificed his heart for Kairi's back in the first game. Even though Sora escaped his brief life as a Heartless and returned as his former self, Roxas was already born and completely oblivious to his prior existance. Unlike normal Nobodies, Roxas contained some essence of Sora, thus allowing him to feel emotions.

Roxas and Sora becoming whole

After countless battles and struggles, Sora is not only reunited with his long-lost friends Riku and Kairi, but he at last meets Roxas and becomes whole again. In learning to accept and embrace myself as the prince that lived in my heart for so long, I too am finally whole. Although the darkness remains ever present in the world today, the light in my heart will continue to endure and shine on for the world to see.

Whoever said that you can't learn about life through video games clearly has no clue on the subject at all!