Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep – Harboring a Dark Heart

Kingdom Hearts is an odd series. It started in 2002, and has now ballooned to seven games, five of which aren’t numbered games despite being fairly important to understanding the overarching plot, giving nerds yet another chance to whine about a series being too complex when they refuse to engage with most of it.

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the series, it features Final Fantasy characters and Disney properties clashing and mingling in a wondrous synthesis of fun gameplay and strange setups for conveying messages about friendship. The particulars of the player character(s) and enemies change a bit with every entry, but the main character is always the wielder of a Keyblade, a weapon that can also act as a key to open locked objects and open one’s heart. The first enemy type, Heartless, are the souls of those without hearts, while the second, Nobodies, are the bodies left behind when particularly strong-willed people become Heartless.

The series dabbles in symbolism, with the balance of light and darkness at the crux of a great deal of it. The Darkness is a force working parallel to that of Light, and often functions as a corrupting influence on hearts, while also manifesting as a Stand-like power of an antagonist of the series. In Birth by Sleep, it also exists in the literal darkness between worlds, that being space; its rather vague definition leaves room for interpretation by characters as to what the darkness in one’s heart really is, and whether or not it should be purged from that heart.

Birth by Sleep was a PSP title, and thus rather under-appreciated in the West, despite being quite a fun little romp. I know quite a few people who picked up a PSP just to play it, but now, thanks to the HD ReMix collections on PS3, you can now avoid dropping money on a one-game system (or emulating it, since PSP emulation has made staggering progress as of late) to touch on it.

In fact, I’d like to take a paragraph or two to say that if you’d like to get into the series, or have played the numbered games but refused to touch games that made you buy another system, it would be wise to just pick up the HD ReMix collections for PS3. Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD ReMix contains Kingdom Hearts and its direct sequel, Chain of Memories, while Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMix has Kingdom Hearts 2 and the game I’ll be talking about here, Birth by Sleep, a prequel that takes place ten years before KH1. 1.5 also has a collection of HD-remastered cutscenes from the DS interlude game, 358/2 Days, that happens between Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2, and 2.5 has the same for Re:Coded, an episodic puzzle game also from the DS.

And finally, in the days leading up to Kingdom Hearts 3, there is a 3DS game called Dream Drop Distance that might also be worth your attention. So many people have 3DSes for stuff like Smash, Fire Emblem, and Monster Hunter that I really don’t think a whole lot of folks will have to complain about needing one! And if you lack one, it’s not a terribly bad idea to grab one!

In short, don’t whine about having to pick up a whole bunch of systems. You have no excuse anymore if you have a PS3.


In any case, I’d like to discuss Terra’s portion of the game, because while all three of the protagonists have their own slight perspective changes on the same events, the differences aren’t sufficient to spark three distinct enough dialectic cascades to justify the three-part structural-mimicry of an article I was hoping it would provide. Terra, the first character I played as, also resonated with me in a very simple way; our hearts are not as one, but nonetheless they are closer than the rest.

Light and dark, undeniable forces in Kingdom Hearts, play a particularly large role in Terra’s arc. Denied the right of being a Keyblade Master due to his inability to suppress the darkness, he seeks out Master Xehanort, who has gone missing at the same time as a spate of monster attacks across the inhabited worlds of the universe. In seeking Xehanort, he also seeks redemption in the eyes of Eraqus, the father figure who decided he was unfit to be a Keyblade Master.

After consorting with the villains of multiple worlds in search of him — a point which Aqua tries to confront him about upon their brief reunion — Terra finds Xehanort, and the man espouses to him the virtues of controlling his internal darkness instead of attempting to destroy it; shortly thereafter, Xehanort stages a kidnapping in order to force Terra’s hand into utilizing the darkness. He takes Terra under his wing, granting him Keyblade Master status, and Terra sets off to seek Vanitas, a boy in a mask that seems to be the source of the Unversed monsters attacking people.

Hades attempts to wring yet more darkness out of Terra while he’s in Olympus Coliseum, and Experiment 626 (Stitch) from Deep Space makes him realize that his memento of friendship, the Wayfinder that Aqua made for him, is very important to him, a fact he lost sight of in his missions. In Neverland, he fights Peter Pan before realizing he’s jumped to conclusions about who the bad guy is, after which he visits the Destiny Islands and meets Riku, his analogue (in etymology and narrative role) in the trio of friends from KH1, and turns him into a Keyblade wielder.

Warned by Xehanort that Ventus is intending to force the truth out of Eraqus, Terra returns to his home to find Eraqus attacking Ventus. He unleashes the darkness inside him to defend Ventus, and strikes down Eraqus before he realizes what he’s done. Xehanort reveals his intentions and summons Terra to the Keyblade Graveyard, where he threatens to kill Ventus and Aqua, and kill the last light inside of Terra.

Fleeing the now ruined Land of Departure, Terra reunites briefly with the rest of the trio before they split up and begin fighting their own battles; Terra faces Xehanort, filled with rage, and strikes him down. However, Terra’s darkness, and the pillar of light from Vanitas and Ventus fighting, gives Xehanort an opening to transfer his heart to Terra’s body. The newly-reborn Xehanort goes to leave, but Terra’s armor coalesces and bars the way, bound only by his lingering will. When Terra-Xehanort is struck down, the Lingering Will places its Keyblade in the ground and kneels once more, before it is consumed by a wave of light; Terra is then heard swearing to Aqua and Ventus that he will make things right one day.

Darkness dwells in the heart or vicinity of everyone. Doubt, jealousy, envy, anger… negativity is bound to sapience. Kingdom Heart gives literal form — albeit a fluid and vague one — to this abstraction of emotion, in the form of the Darkness and the forms it takes as enemies. The darkness can overtake anyone, because everyone reacts to things, and not always in ways that are the right way.

If I were to exist in Kingdom Hearts’ world, I couldn’t be a hero. My existence is more clearly defined by the negative emotions that permeate me than the positive ones that I cling to. I do my best to use my resources to help people when I can, and that does make me happy, but I still suffer from clinical depression, which skews my emotions a fair bit. Alongside the obvious depression and the resulting existential crises I sometimes succumb to, I get to deal with the anger that comes from seeing the difference between a situation and how it could be better, and often being unable to affect change.

These emotions would mark me as, at best, someone in the position Terra finds himself in. The parallels between the trio of Ventus, Terra, and Aqua and that of Sora, Riku, and Kairi are manifold; relevant to this topic is Terra and Riku sharing the trait of a heart close to darkness.

Darkness is a nigh-irrevocable mark on your heart that comes from within, and the teeming masses of Heartless throughout the series are indicative of the ubiquity of (near-)human negativity, but those with a strong will, and particularly those who possess the right to a Keyblade, must be ever aware of the darkness in their hearts in a manner that others are never required to be.  All of this is obfuscation, of course, for the plot convenience of the Darkness making masses of minions of the chaff and making proper use of the grain; the chaff being, of course, a vaguely defined off-screen population, turned into the entry’s preferred enemy type, and the grain being any character that gets screen-time.

In Kingdom Hearts, for example, Sora voluntarily turns himself into a Heartless to free the heart of his friend Kairi. It’s an amazing scene, but it’s also a major development in a game that wasn’t really intended to encompass the breadth of the following series’ still-developing nuances.

To make a long point succinct, the rules surrounding the darkness in one’s heart have been vague from the start, but have solidified, and with varying mentor characters comes different ideas on how one’s darkness should be treated. Eraqus, Terra’s original mentor, believes all darkness should be purged from the heart; he and Xehanort fought on this point (shown in Ventus’ story), leaving him scarred and more staunchly set in his ways. Xehanort, of course, believes that power is absolute, and given that darkness grants more power, it should be utilized whenever possible. Mickey believes that light and dark are intertwined, and neither can exist without the other, which is the position I find myself taking as well.

At one point, Xehanort makes an odd claim about Eraqus; he claims Eraqus has succumbed to light, a thought that rang true more thoroughly than I had expected. Light isn’t often what comes to mind when succumbing to things is the topic, thanks to the positive connotations of the word, but, in my opinion, it’s a danger just the same. In this context, Eraqus prevents Terra from advancing to Master based on extremely strict standards on the darkness in his heart, and later on, plans to destroy Ventus, and Terra for defending him, due to Ventus’ role in Xehanort’s plans. The act of denying Terra advancement only serves to concentrate the darkness in his heart, making him more vulnerable to evil influences, and deciding to kill Ventus at the slightest sign that he may become dangerous is hardly what I’d expect of a man meant to be the paragon of the forces of light.

Attempting to quash the darkness in one’s heart, as Xehanort explains, does nothing but make it all the more likely it will build up and overtake you in the end. Raising someone to believe that they shouldn’t be allowed to express, or even have, negative emotions that don’t conform to an arbitrarily acceptable set of feelings isn’t admirable at all. People have feelings. They aren’t all clean or admirable, but they are very real, and bottling them up or refusing to acknowledge them is toxic. Nonetheless, Eraqus raised Terra in an environment where the negativity he felt was not allowed, and it festered.

Succumbing to light is reminiscent of how I’ve seen people react to things in real life. Folks I know (including myself) feel like they can’t express any negativity, or they’ll get less sympathy or respect for whatever point they were expressing. Not even on the depth of tone policing sociopolitical dissent, just a large subsection of people deciding that if you’re not being mostly or entirely positive, you’re not worth people’s time.

Frankly, fuck that.

Everyone has a balance to strike, and I hate the constant social pressure to force positivity for the sake of respectability. I’m a negative person, and I can’t be positive all the time or I’ll have a meltdown. This creeps into my criticism, obviously. As much as I’d like to be more positive, I can’t control my reactions to media, just whether — and how — I express them.

So, like Terra, I have to contend with my negativity every time I brandish these words of mine, and see that I do my work without causing undue harm to people or causes I care about in the process. However, I won’t ignore my negativity, because that won’t make it go away, and unlike Terra, no shadowy forces will utilize the darkness in my heart to enact some crazy apocalypse. If I do have to face my darkness, it will be metaphorical, and it won’t be done alone.