Dive to the Heart: An Impassioned Plea for KINGDOM HEARTS 3

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2002. It is my birthday. I am turning eight years old. It’s a Friday, so I’m spending much of the day in school (second grade, when I attended a small satellite school with around 30 kids per grade, so I knew everybody there). I am unaware that, half the world over, a video game is being released that would, in less than a year’s time, find its way into my PlayStation 2, and subsequently, my heart. Unaware that, as of today, I share a birthday with one of the most formative pieces of media I will ever encounter.

It’s summer now. We’re spending a week at my grandparents’ home in North Carolina. It’s a lengthy drive – around eight hours from our home in Jacksonville, Florida – so to keep me entertained, my parents have bought a portable VHS player for the backseat of the car. I love movies, already at eight years old, so this is particularly effective. I bring some favorites along with me – mostly Disney films of the Renaissance period – as well as a few new ones. Among these new VHS tapes is Mickey’s House of Villains, a Halloween themed collection of Disney short films with a loose frame story involving Mickey’s family-friendly nightclub being overtaken by classic Disney villains. It’s July; clearly the calendar holds no sway over my decisions.

I place the cassette into the portable player (the screen is roughly the size of a large smartphone screen; it feels like a theater screen). The pre-film advertisements begin to play (remember those?). Near the end of them, a thirty second ad plays. It enraptures me. Maybe it’s the soaring orchestral music, something I don’t hear often, but love whenever I do. Maybe it’s the brief glimpses of Aladdin, my favorite movie at the time. Or maybe it’s something else entirely, some strange alchemy of these disparate elements.

In any case, it is clear: I must play Kingdom Hearts as soon as I can.

As summer ends, I find myself in a new school. I’ve never had to make friends before; I’ve been surrounded by the same 30 people basically from infancy up until this point. I’m not good at it, I find. I feel very alone.

By December, I’ve rewatched the Mickey’s House of Villains VHS so many times, I can recite the opening few shorts in their entirety. This also means I’ve watched that thirty second teaser for Kingdom Hearts more times than I can count. The hype, as I would one day come to call the feeling, was at a fever pitch. And lo, on that most joyous day for well-off children in America, a copy of the game, in all its faux-holographic glory, was waiting underneath the holiday tree.

2003. The game is slowly consuming all my gaming time. There is a brief sojourn into The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which I receive as a birthday gift, but for the most part, I spend my ninth year on this planet playing Kingdom Hearts. Playing it on normal difficulty and completing Jiminy’s Journal (except for that damn Sephiroth fight). Being made to turn off my PS2 when I’m on the 46th match of the 50-match Hades Cup tournament, losing all of that progress, hard-won over several hours that day. Struggling to play through it on Proud Mode. Memorizing the unskippable cutscene before the second boss fight against Riku, an incredibly difficult fight that I would often lose within seconds of starting, only to have to listen to the full five minute dialogue again (“It is I… Ansem… the Seeker of Darkness!!!” will ring through my ears for decades).

This is the video game-y aspect of 2003. The gameplay, the challenges, the victories, all the ephemeral things that occupy my hands holding the controller. It is not the thing that worms its way into my heart and soul. That would be Sora. That would be Donald. That would be Goofy, Kairi, Riku, Leon, Cloud, Tifa, Yuffie, Cid, Aerith, Ansem, Mickey, Jack, Aladdin, Ariel, Tarzan, Alice, Beast, Belle, Pooh, Gepetto, Pinocchio, Jiminy, Hercules, Phil, Peter, Wendy… the list goes on. These characters speak brazen, operatic orisons of friendship and these invisible bonds between people, and after so many hours of my life this year spent with them, I start to feel it too.

2004. I’ve exhausted the bulk of Kingdom Hearts. I replay it from time to time, because I have nothing but time and often spend it revisiting favorites. Revisiting old friends.

One day I see a commercial on TV for a new Kingdom Hearts game – Chain of Memories, for the GameBoy Advance. It ignites heated discussion among my relatively few Kingdom Hearts­-playing friends. We argue about whether it’s “Kingdom Hearts 2” or “Kingdom Hearts 1.5”. I don’t remember what side I take in this argument; I only remember the debate itself.

The game comes out in December. Once again, I receive it for Christmas.

2005. I am not quite as enraptured by this game. It is lovely, to be sure. I play through all of it, twice. I eagerly discuss it with friends. But I move on, much sooner than I did with the original. I think it is the lack of voice acting. Something about this game doesn’t feel as personal. Reading the text of my friends’ speech is less engaging than hearing them talk.

It’s okay, though. My best friends this year are really into this game, even more so than I am, and I’m glad to have something to talk about with them. I do wish they had all been this excited about the first Kingdom Hearts, but I don’t mind.

Fortunately, it is not long before whispers of Kingdom Hearts 2 reach my ears. I am 11 years old now, a nascent web cretin, and plugged in to video gaming news. I am beginning to follow the cycle of hype for games from announcement to teasers to trailers to release. This is the game I have been waiting for.

2006. It is my birthday. I am turning 12 years old. I am holding in my hands the glorious faux-holographic case for Kingdom Hearts 2. I insert the disc into my PlayStation 2, battered and worn from years of use, but loyal and still functioning. I have never been this excited for a video game – or even, in fact, for a movie, or book, or piece of media at all. This dwarfs all those experiences (my copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix feels slighted).

It starts, and I hear that gentle piano melody – “Dearly Beloved” – over the title screen. I pause and just sort of breathe in the moment, before excitedly advancing through the New Game menu. The game starts, slowly, with a fairly lengthy opening cutscene. It drops me in the shoes of a new character when I am finally given control. This is a strange experience. I was expecting Sora. I do not have long to dwell on this, as my brother has swimming lessons, and – since I am 12 – I must accompany my mother and him to the pool. I take the dense strategy guide for the game that I received as an additional gift along with me, and as I sit in the bleachers I idly flip through the pages, not yet as spoiler averse as I will one day be. The images of Sora, Donald, and Goofy in worlds both old and new excite me. It really looks like exactly the game I wanted it to be. I cannot wait to get home and keep playing it.

I soon find myself disappointed. The opening hours of the game – the only part I am able to play before sleeping, as I have school the next day – don’t feature my friends at all! It’s all these new people. Who even is Roxas, and what reason am I given to empathize with his bizarre ennui? I’m 12 years old, ennui isn’t a thing for me (yet)! Where’s Sora?

I go to bed frustrated. Happy birthday.

I trudge through the week, finding school much less engaging than I usually do, knowing what it is keeping me from. My best friends this year are new best friends for me, a change from the stable of them that I’ve had since third grade. They don’t really play video games as much as I do, and they definitely don’t play Kingdom Hearts. Though I’d like nothing more than to talk to them about Kingdom Hearts 2 all day, they just aren’t into it. They like making movies, though, and I love hanging out with them. They make the school days go faster and the weekends last forever. Later, I will go to film school with one of them, and talk to the other every day despite living hundreds of miles apart. I love my friends.

The weekend comes and I dive more fully into Kingdom Hearts 2. Sora finally shows up, and the game grows on me. It’s a long game – roughly double the length of the original – and I spend a great many hours in the coming weeks simply completing it once. These are hours spent with friends, old and new. By the end, even Roxas, a character who at first represented only an obstacle to reunion with actual friends, has become like an old friend himself. I restart the game almost immediately after completing it, and find that this time, I love playing through the final days of Roxas’ summer vacation. Once again: it’s visiting old friends.

2007. Once again, I have exhausted the veritable feast of content within Kingdom Hearts 2. It was a wonderful experience, but it is now in my past. I revisit it from time to time, as with the first game, but have largely moved on to other games. But I have so many questions left over from that game. I enjoyed spending time with my friends, but the story left me confused and uncertain: where do we go from here?

One of my friends this year is in the same place. I’ve sort of reverted back to the groups of friends I had two years ago, my new group from last year having been absorbed into other friend groups. I feel somewhat intimidated by them, to be honest, so I’ve sought refuge within old friends. It’s nice to have that, but I do find myself wondering if I actually like most of these friends.

It is September. Square Enix announces three new Kingdom Hearts games. I read the headline for this piece of news and very briefly feel that same sense of elation that I felt when I saw Kingdom Hearts 2 for the first time. It fades, quickly, as I read on, discovering that the only one of them to feature Sora will be a Japan-exclusive mobile phone game. The other two will feature mostly new characters, or characters notably distinct from the friends I’ve made in the prior games. I remember Chain of Memories, and feel disappointed.

I put Kingdom Hearts 2 into my PlayStation 2’s disc drive and start a new game.

2008. I haven’t looked much into those upcoming games. I’m sure they’re still coming out, and I’ll probably play them eventually, but I’m not super excited for them or anything. I play a lot of Halo these days. Lots of Halo, and lots of World of Warcraft.

I don’t really have many friends this year.

2009. Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days releases in September. I think it’s a stupid name. I am not interested in playing it, even a little bit. Why would I? It’s ridiculous. Those games are ridiculous, anyway. There’s no subtlety or subtext to them at all. It’s just a bunch of angsty teens whining about friendship for 40 hours. I’ll pass. Now would you kindly pass the BioShock disc?

I sometimes wonder why I don’t have more friends.

2010. It’s June. I’m watching Nintendo’s E3 presentation. They’re talking a big game about their new handheld, the 3DS. It’s a little silly, but I kind of like it. Nintendo’s games are usually the most fun to play, anyway.

Buried in the list of upcoming games for it is an untitled Kingdom Hearts game. Interesting. I haven’t thought about those games in a long time. Did they ever release those spinoff titles? I look over at my PS2, a thick layer of dust having formed on top during its years of disuse. It’s still plugged in to my TV. I dig Kingdom Hearts out of my drawer of games and put the disc in the drive, and start a new game.

I’ve been wondering, lately, if I actually have more friends than I think. I just need to remember that they’re my friends.

It’s December. I’ve played through both Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2 this year. I missed them, it turns out. It didn’t take long to get back into them. I very quickly reacquainted myself with the old friends contained within. Man, I love these games and these characters and these worlds and all the rest. Why’d I ever stop?

It’s Christmas. I get a copy of 358/2 Days and Birth by Sleep, the two spinoff games I missed. I’m excited, this time. I start playing 358/2 Days, but I don’t make it very far this year, because I don’t spend as much time playing video games as I used to. I’m getting invited to things a lot more these days, and – in a move that is quite shocking for me – I’m actually going to them. Turns out a lot of my friends are really cool.

Actually, wow, I have a lot of friends now.

2011. It’s January. Tetsuya Nomura, the director of most games in the Kingdom Hearts series, is announcing in greater detail the Kingdom Hearts game for the Nintendo 3DS: Dream Drop Distance. This looks really good. Sora’s back! And Riku! The spin-off games were great, but I miss my old friends – this is awesome.

The game gets delayed a few times. It’s pushed out of this year, which is a bummer. I’m briefly disappointed. But I don’t actually mind too much, because – as before – I’m not spending as much time playing video games as I used to. I’ve actually kind of stumbled my way into somehow being friends with basically my entire high school class? I have no idea how this happened. But I am able to be comfortably in most any room, any group, any conversation. This is revelatory for me. Making friends has always been difficult for me, but I’m way better at it now, and it seemed to happen overnight.

I wonder what is responsible for that.

2012. I’m graduating high school in a week. I’ll be going to film school in the fall with one of my oldest friends, and I am beyond excited. For now, I’m going to a graduation party thrown by another of my good friends. It’s a party for much of our class, and the guest list is pretty lengthy, but I feel really touched to have been invited. I feel like a part of this big, wonderful group of people in a way I never have before. Not long after I walk in the door, a seemingly random group of people assemble at the front door for a group photo. This isn’t a group of people that always sat together at lunch, or always hung out after school. We’re all just friends. But this moment feels profoundly… right, to me. I can’t place why. But in this moment everything just feels at peace with the world.

It’s a week later, and I’m walking across the stage at graduation, beaming. I’ve always been bad at hiding smiles, but paradoxically have always felt like I’m supposed to be more composed than that, so I’ve always ended up doing this weird half suppressed smile… thing. But not today. Today I’m smiling unreservedly. Not because I’m graduating high school – though I am thankful for that – but because I’m graduating at part of this class.

I love these people. I love my friends.

It’s July. I’ve spent the last month and a half hanging out with the same group of six weirdos practically every other day. It’s been an incredible summer. Today, though, is the day that Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance finally releases. I’m there when the store opens. I’m at home shortly after, shoving that cartridge into my 3DS. There is no moment of rediscovery this time; just pleased reunion with old friends, just as expected. Unlike before, they hadn’t left me this time.

2013.

2014.

2015.

A lot happens in three years. I make new friends with a new, scary ease, in an environment where I am constantly surrounded by new, interesting people. It’s so much easier to build close friendships in the trial by fire of film school production cycles. It’s intense, but remarkably smooth sailing. I don’t find myself drawn inward at any points. I feel well-adjusted for maybe the first time, ever. There’s a group photo taken at graduation in December 2015, and once again, just as when I graduated high school, I feel completely, wholly at home with this group of people.

Throughout these three years, there aren’t many Kingdom Hearts releases. Some re-released collections of previous games appear on the PS3, and I am thrilled to pick those up and revisit the games within. And honestly? The lack of the new games doesn’t bother me. They can take their time.

2016.

2017.

I’m back in Jacksonville. I took a job teaching at my old high school – something I’ve always sort of idly dreamed about doing, in the back of my mind, but never thought I’d get a chance to – and it’s been great. But I’ve discovered that I’m not very good at making friends anymore. It’s probably a function of not being in an environment where I am constantly exposed to new people, sure, but a reasonable explanation doesn’t really help with the difficult end result of that: I don’t know many people in this city anymore. I don’t feel lonely, really. I still talk to my friends every day, and I feel constantly connected to them, even as they’re in other cities. While I don’t know many people here, I do have several close friends here, friends that I cherish the opportunity to see as often as I do. But still, something feels… weird.

It’s now that I notice how long it’s been since we’ve had a truly new Kingdom Hearts game. They say Kingdom Hearts 3 is coming out in 2018, which would make it a game I’ve waited 12 years for.

But honestly? I think it’s arriving right on time.

This series, with its bold, brazen focus on such universal themes of friendship, has shaped me as a person in so many ways. But most critically, it has helped me work through periods of my life where I feel disconnected from people, whether through my own faults or no. I would have welcomed Kingdom Hearts 3 with open arms had it arrived at any point to date. But I haven’t really needed the game until now.

Square Enix, please don’t let me down. I could really use a visit from my old friends right about now.

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THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD is the latest battleground in the ongoing war for the soul of gaming

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The age-old debate about video games has been settled. The only ones who continue to hem and haw about classifying interactive audio-visual experiences as art are those same people who balked at comic books, and rock music, and rap music, ardently refusing to acknowledge the scores of people globally for whom these forms are critical pieces of cultural knowledge and understanding. We’re at a place where one can confidently claim, “video games are art,” with no need to defend the statement. Finally.

The questions now are not ones of classification, but of purpose and nature. What should we do with games, and what is core to the form? What makes a game? These questions are trickier. Some of the more vibrant debates being had continue to revolve around the maligned genre derisively referred to as “walking simulators” – games more or less devoid of active gameplay and defined instead by the player’s ability to freely roam and uncover bits of narrative scattered among a detailed environment that conveys the story of what happened (in better cases, the story of what is still happening) there.

That many of these games – Gone Home being the most famous – also center on issues of identity and representation (Gone Home is ultimately a story about a young teenage girl coming to terms with her identity as a gay woman, and the burgeoning romance she experiences) only obfuscates the artistic debate here. Battles over social justice and the poor treatment of women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals in the gaming industry are important, just as they are in the culture at large. But these are broader cultural battles that go well beyond the scope of video games (even as the video game industry has more trouble with these things than most – see 2014’s GamerGate hate movement, and the alt-right individuals it fostered who later became critical members of the Trump machine). These debates are over the soul of society; the debates over the soul of video games are different debates, buried beneath these stronger, more visible (and, admittedly, more important) ones.

Within this walking simulator debate is the key debate, the one that reveals the core tension of contemporary video gaming: that of story versus experience.

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Top Ten: THE WIND RISES

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The Wind Rises is a haunting moral quandary wrapped up in an exceedingly kind, beautiful film.

It’s a film that is not only not afraid to make the viewer uncomfortable, it actively revels in it. This is a Japanese film that stares directly in the face of the grim moral consequences of Japan’s militarism in the lead up to World War II, and refuses to blink. But it doesn’t condemn. It’s an achingly earnest, empathetic film that finds the human tragedy at the heart of Japan’s march to war.

When this film was released and slowly made its way around festivals (an agonizing year-long rollout leading up to the wide-ish release of the English dub nearly a year after its festival premiere), the conversation about it was heavily focused on whether or not this film “glorifies” Japan’s march to war. I read good arguments in both directions, but when I managed to finally see the film I fell very decisively on the side of “no, it super doesn’t.” Instead, I see this film as one about how good people can be moved to bad ends. It’s a movie about the corruption of ideals.

It is, in short, a movie about Hayao Miyazaki.

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Top Ten: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

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Inside Llewyn Davis makes you feel, without feeling.

This movie makes me feel like I’ve just spent an hour crying, but without making me shed a tear. It carves out a giant hole in my emotional psyche, leaving an empty void of feeling, and making me spend the rest of my day in a vulnerable, more emotionally worn state. But I don’t cry when I watch it. I don’t “feel sad,” necessarily. I feel the aftermath of feeling sad. That weird state of mind that you enter after you’ve cried, and the problem isn’t solved but you’re through the crying part? That’s what this movie does.

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Top Ten: HUGO

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“Actually, it’s a movie about making movies,” is a sentence that you will hear a thousand some odd times if you ever make a serious go of film discussion and criticism.

It’s one of those phrases that’s coded into the core of the language we use to talk about films, and it’s a go-to for any critic who thinks their knowledge of the director’s approach to filmmaking is the golden key to understanding a somewhat difficult to parse film. I’ve said it many a time – perhaps most notably about The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece (though most would apply the phrase to his subsequent film, Inception) – and rarely been correct in its application. It’s a neat analysis, but it seldom reveals thematic depths.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a movie about making movies.

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Top Ten: CHILDREN OF MEN

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In the wake of a major migrant crisis, authoritarian politicians rise to power as regimes are challenged and toppled on a seemingly weekly basis. Fear rules the day as people struggle to get by, all the while the hand of government squeezes tighter and tighter as more and more democratic norms and fundamental human rights are waived in the name of protecting the country from the demonized “other.”

I am not describing the world in 2017. I am describing Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece, Children of Men. But I may as well be describing 2017 for as similar as the world depicted in the film seems to be to ours.

This film was released in 2006.

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Top Ten: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

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When you’re in film school, you will constantly get the question, “What made you want to make movies?” You rehearse your answer, because you’re going to be asked it all the time, and you want to sound like you’ve thought about it. Often, the truth is that there really isn’t a definable thing. There’s a long spectrum of things that happened over the years, and a slowly dawning realization. But you give an answer anyway.

My answer was always The Blair Witch Project.

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Top Ten: THE WORLD’S END

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The World’s End is my answer to the question “Why not?”

This movie released in America in late August 2013 – little more than a week after I had started film school, proper, and a year into my college career overall. I love all of Edgar Wright’s films, and had been long anticipating this “conclusion” to his and Simon Pegg’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy. I was there on day one, of course.

I did not in my wildest dreams expect that this movie would be so critical to my life going forward, but I truly believe that The World’s End changed my life.

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Top Ten

Replicas of Oscar statues on display in Hollywood souvenir store on Hollywood Blvd

Way back in 2011, I had a list of ten movies that I believed were the best of all time. In 2012 that list changed a bit, with the arrival of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, but after that, the list remained static for four years. I would think, subconsciously, “oh yeah, those are my top ten,” even as I would rarely ever revisit them and wouldn’t think of them all that often. In my mind, I had done the work of ranking them, and that was that. That is, of course, ridiculous.

2012 through to 2016 were, by any reasonable consideration, the most transformative years of my life. I’ve spilled a lot of ink on the subject of how transformative 2009 through 2012 were (shout out to the Stanton Class of 2012 for making me a way better person through our shared experience in IB, that fiery crucible in which the only true heroes are forged), and I’ve spilled a fair amount more on how incredibly transformative the four following years were. But despite that, I never really sat down to think: how has this changed what I value in movies?

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2015 Movies You Might Not Have Seen (But Should!)

2015 was my last year of film school. It was a very busy year – we posted one set of films, and then developed, shot, and posted an entirely new set of films – but in spite of all that, I managed to see twenty eight new release films. I’ve always felt that, while working in the film industry would be (and will be!) an absolute dream, it would all be for nothing if I didn’t still get to go see movies in a theater on a regular basis. Getting to see a movie at least every other week was an important part of keeping me sane during this very intense year.

Unlike in years past, however, the twenty eight films I saw were almost entirely major wide release films, the bulk of them larger budget blockbusters. I don’t mind this – my tastes, particularly post-film school, have always trended more populist than anything else – but it also means that my top ten are pretty much films you’ve all seen already. For those curious, I ranked all twenty eight films I saw over on my Letterboxd page.

Instead of doing a big ol’ “TOP TEN OF 2015” post like I might have done in years past, I wanted to bring your attention to some films I really liked this year that didn’t do so well at the box office, and probably flew mostly under your radar. They’re films I think are super interesting at their worst, and very effective and surprising at their best. If you missed any of them, I hope you’ll give them a shot –they’re all worth your time.

So let’s get started!

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