“Yeah, there’s darkness inside me, just like you said. But darkness is my enemy! And you are, too, for making everything around here reek of it!“” -Riku, Kingdom Hearts 2.5
As a kid, I never owned a PlayStation. My family’s budget never prioritized a game console after they bought the Nintendo Entertainment System on sale in 1992. Having always been a huge Dis-nerd, I was dying to see Kingdom Hearts as soon as I heard about it. (This was also the peak of my chain-wearing phase, so clearly the protagonist Sora and I had a lot in common.) Once it came out, I ended up watching my friends play it, being too self-conscious about my poor reflexes to try playing myself.
Of course, I wasn’t disappointed: Kingdom Hearts created a world of its own, giving ‘good vs evil’ another dimension by layering it atop a ‘dark vs light’ battle. That battle, thanks to a bit of time-hopping, memory-wiping, Heartless lore, evolves into a battle Sora has with literal alternate pieces of himself. It was a battle I understood well.
When I was 19, I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Long story short, by 27 my mental health was so poor that I had to take a leave from work. Wanting to make the best of an awful situation, I started an IRL Twitch channel dedicated to educating others about mental health. I started playing Stardew Valley on stream, but one day I mentioned that I had always dreamed of playing Kingdom Hearts. My community was all for it; they encouraged me to learn how to use a controller properly (instead of my usual fighting game button-mashing). My husband, a fellow gamer, promised patience, and after finding a great deal on a PS4, we took off.
I was re-enchanted by the Disney characters from the first second. Yet as an adult, I noticed more of their complexity and perseverance in tough situations. There were many twists in my emotional journey as I embarked to complete the first game. I was terribly frustrated that my fingers were not working as quickly as my mind. Notably, I realized how similar the evil beings in the story (quite descriptively called “Heartless”) felt to my depression: they were aimless, everywhere, and hellbent on taking over my life.
Kingdom Hearts villains — especially the main villain, Xehanort — do well to keep Sora and his friends apart. Sometimes it feels like there is a Xehanort-like voice in my mind, saying things to keep me isolated and afraid. As a result, I’ve struggled in my relationships with family and friends. With a voice tearing me down like that all the time, how could I ever let anyone be close to me? Like Riku, I’ve lost friendships over it. My darkness has hurt the people I care about. My depression made me believe that I wasn’t good enough and didn’t deserve the friends I had. At the same time, like Sora, I wanted to help others no matter the cost to myself. But just like Sora or Riku couldn’t fight the darkness by themselves, I’ve learned that you never win against depression alone.
For many of us, it helps to seek new friendships with people who understand our struggles better. In Kingdom Hearts, Sora finds these friends in Donald and Goofy; they are the only ones who can truly comprehend what he has to face and how to support him in his complex situation. During the worst of my illness, I found a supportive community on Twitch. With them, even if I find myself close to rock bottom, I know I have a reliable source of support. That sense of community has helped us all to open up, and inspired us to keep fighting against the darkness.
The worst advice I have heard time and again for handling mental illness is to “buck up.” That’s never been helpful for me. So, naturally, I was upset when I watched Donald tell Sora, “You can’t come along looking like that. Understand? No frowning. No sad face.” Sora had just lost his friends and wasn’t sure he would ever see them again. I knew it was just a game, but it felt like Donald was telling me, “If you’re not faking joy, you’re not welcome.” And that hurt. But as I spent more time thinking about it, I considered what else Kingdom Hearts could have meant.
For me, spending time thinking about how unwell I was didn’t help me reach my goal of getting better. Sure, sometimes I needed to stay at home and feel what I needed to feel. But on the days that I was feeling stronger, I thought to myself, “What good could I work on spreading today?” If we want to keep going forward, we have to take the attitude of going forward – of taking our struggles in stride as part of our journey. I couldn’t let my thoughts, my past, or my hurt stop me. I think Donald was telling me to smile NOT so that I could pretend I was okay, but so that I could remain hopeful that things would get better for me.
I started my gameplay feeling like Aqua at the end of Birth By Sleep: about to give up, considering fading “into the darkness”. But, like Aqua, I was reminded that there are others fighting just like me, and that helps me stay motivated to push through. By the end of the thirty hours it took me to finish the first game, I was blown away by how deeply I connected with the characters and their struggles. Of course, I am not claiming that Kingdom Hearts “cured” my mental illness. But it did put my mind at ease. I saw my problems reflected in its story, and I saw brave heroes fighting the same fight I was. Despite the hand they were dealt, they chose to support themselves by supporting those they love.
I write this the day before starting a new job in the professional world. I’m smiling and pushing forward, because Sora, Riku, Kairi, Aqua, Ventus, Donald and Goofy showed me how. I write this because Kingdom Hearts inspired me to be the kind of person who wants to keep fighting.
I hope you are too.