Today I discuss the roots of my aspirations to become a video game designer. It explains what inspired me to want to do this, even without me realizing it until later on in life. I submitted this as an assignment for my CTIN-190 class with Jeff Watson as well.
When I was younger, I actually wanted to be a physicist. I remember having a book on physics that delved into the wonders of the natural world; the static and dynamic, motion and force, relativity and energy. These concepts fascinated me in ways and for reasons I could not grasp as the time. Looking back, it’s clear to me that I was simply entranced by the mechanics and inter-workings of the world; how they functioned and, more importantly, how they worked together. But something that I failed to understand for a long time was how those mechanics, the building blocks of our world, could be used to enact change. I didn’t know that they could save lives or that they could save mine.
Back then I witnessed many stories: novels, films, and other narratives, including video games. The ability to be engrossed in those stories was much more without thought than today. After all, I’m glad that I’ve maintained my child-like wonder throughout the years, but now I understand what it means to be enveloped in a game’s world. There are exceptions though, times when I knew I was engrossed in something more. One of those times involved a video game that I would never forget. It would define who I was. It was Kingdom Hearts.
Now, many a fanboy and fangirl will harp about Kingdom Hearts for this reason or that. But I honestly don’t know what they see in the game. Not that I think that it is unworthy of praise or deeper understanding. It’s just the how found my own meaning through the game, a definition of who I am. How could anyone possibly have the same experience as me if it was core to who I am? I will touch upon this later, but suffice to say, that these ideas would be the foundation for my future aspirations. Kingdom Hearts itself would ensure that.
The game has meant more to me that almost any other game. Not because I think it’s the best or that I think it’s best of it’s time. (Although I would argue it is up there on my personal charts). It has meant the most to me because of what it taught me. It laid the foundation for my future, and the realization of my aspirations many years later. For those of you who haven’t played the game, I’ll delve a bit into the game itself.
Kingdom Hearts is a highly acclaimed video game developed by Square (now Square Enix) and public by Disney Interactive Studios in 2002, when I was six. With over one hundred members from both companies, the game sought to create a game within three-dimensional space in the same vein as Super Mario 64. However, in order to rival the Mario franchise, the idea was to use Disney characters to fuel the game’s interest. Director Tetsuya Nomura, formerly a character designer for several Final Fantasy titles from Final Fantasy VI up to the time, insisted on creating a whole new cast for the story.
In the interest of not digressing, it is suffice to say that the game ended up with a new set of lead characters who would travel and visit different Disney worlds and meet various Disney characters, many with their original voice actors. Many Final Fantasy characters would also make appearances throughout the game, Moogles being of one type that served as part of the game mechanics itself. (They formed the synthesis and some item shops). The story tells about the journey of Sora. He is a young boy from Destiny Islands who comes to possess the Keyblade, a unique Key-shaped weapon that is used to defeat the Heartless and release their hearts. The game plays as a third-person platformer where you use basic attacks, magic spells and combos of and with both to defeat enemies in a similar fashion to a 3D brawler. The Heartless, the main enemy of the first game in the soon-to-be-series, were abominations created out of the darkness in all men’s hearts. When one’s heart is overwhelmed by darkness, you become a Heartless. In one sense, Sora serves as a keyblade wielder who must travel throughout different worlds and defeat the Heartless alongside his Disney companions Donald Duck and Goofy. Yet, although this is one aspect of the journey that would lay the foundation for the rest of his actions, his main goal is a very simple one: he wants to find his friends,
In the beginning of the game, the Heartless consume Destiny Islands (as the Heartless tend to do this to worlds). During this attack, his two friends Riku and Kairi are split up from him. The game very much is a journey of reconnection. Sora wishes to find his friends so that he can be with them again.
This has been one of the most prominent ideas of Kingdom Hearts, one that would affect me very much. I played the game when I was seven years old, a time I often reference (largely due to the reasons presented here). At the time, I was going through a lot of tumultuousness in my life. I had just moved away from one side of town to the other and was about to go to a new school, John F Kennedy Elementary. Over the next several years, I would go to yet another elementary, where I would be bullied; go back to JFK; go to a middle school, where I was separated from from my JFK friends; and then shoved back into a high school with those kids whom I had then been separated from for over three years. It was a time where I would meet literally hundreds of people and not be connected to them for longer than a quartet of years or less and be wrenched from their social sphere.
The ideals of friendship in Kingdom Hearts were very much a topic that concerned me very much back then. After all, my friendships were often brief. However, what Kingdom Hearts helped me realize, was that my friendships, despite short-standing, were strong. Kingdom Hearts is very much a story about adventure. It’s about going from world to world and meeting new characters and new people and face new problems and new enemies and then leaving them behind to do it all over again. It had it’s share of action and combat and cinematic storytelling. It practically retold and reenacted the stories of our Disney youth. But more than that, it told a story about friendship. About companionship, trust and bonds. It told a story about a young boy who would realize that when he found his friends, he never really was without them. Sora realizes that a piece of Kairi’s heart is within himself. The game says to the world that all our hearts are connected, no matter where we are, no matter how far from each other. Bonds that bind are bonds that break, but until broken will last forever. It did exactly what physics did for me. It changed my understanding of the world and entranced me, without me even knowing what it was teaching me. It laid the foundations for the future because when I did realize what it was teaching me, I realized more about who I was and what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a physicist for nearly ten years after that book. But when I realized how Kingdom Hearts could change the very fabric of my being, I knew that it was what I must do. I knew how it had entranced me, even then I did. But more than that, I had realized the potential and power of a well-crafted adventure. Specifically, that of a video game.
Novels have done the same thing. Film has done the same thing. For the first time in my life, I realized that finally was a time I could point and say, “This is what it means to make a video game.” You can change lives. Throughout my youth, I was often depressed and suicidal. Even now, I really am. But my heart has never been stronger and my belief in the video game industry and the possibilities that abound throughout it will never be. If you can save my life with DVD from a decade ago, then that is what I want to do to. My journey in Kingdom Hearts, as I traveled foreign worlds and slew fantastical monsters, spoke to my real journey through my everyday life. It laid the foundations for me to discover my own path, my own life, my own being.
Today, it has become an artistic and social phenomenon. The franchise has only grown and deepened it’s characters, gameplay, and mythos throughout the years. The fanbase has become a fanatical cult of fan artists and storytellers with merchandising eating it all up. Music, backpacks, pencil toppers and more abound. It has inspired thousands of youth to the power of video games and the power of characterization and storytelling.
So in the years since I’ve played the game, even without playing the game and without the cultural expansion, I have learned to understand more about the game and what it has said to me as I reflect on it more and more each passing year. It laid the foundations for me. Now, I’m going to try and lay the foundations of others. I stand on the shoulders of a giant named Tetsuya Nomura as well as a hundred or so other giants from Square and Disney Interactive Studios. They saved my life so I could save others.