Questionable Representations of Race in Kingdom Hearts 2

Though Kingdom Hearts one of my favorite franchises ever, I have always been bothered by the representations of race in the game. This has always been questionable territory for the game, and can be tricky to argue for or against because the races of the characters are generally intentionally ambiguous. This is due to the fact that the main trio travel across worlds and visit nondescript original locations (alongside the more familiar Disney worlds) and their home is an equally nondescript island paradise in the middle of nowhere. Though it seems to be a common opinion that Sora, Riku, and Kairi are of Japanese descent due to the production company being Japanese, there is no concrete answer to this question, Regardless, it is obvious that the majority of the characters in the game are depicted as light skinned.

In Kingdom Hearts 2, however, it becomes more apparent that there is a specific usage of dark-skinned characters to depict evil, or the ability to be corrupted and ultimately become evil. Though the main argument for this aesthetic choice is that they represent humanoid embodiments of darkness—a key concept in the game—the implications of this choice are still inherently problematic in suggesting that people with dark skin are also more likely to be devoid of compassion, sanity, or complex emotions. One example that stands out to me from the beginning of the game is the early representation of DiZ, a mysterious character who appears for the first time as a manipulative bad-guy. Since I’ve played through the whole game before, I know that he is actually on the side of the heroes, but what interests me about this reveal is the way his character is portrayed when he is assumed to be evil, and how he is portrayed when he discloses his true persona.

DiZ at the beginning of the game (assumed to be evil) versus his “true form” at the end of the game after being proven good.

As you can see from above, DiZ is originally shown as a character who is mostly concealed, but the little visible skin is notably dark. However, when he takes off his disguise and becomes “Ansem the Wise”, this persona is dropped, perhaps indirectly (and very problematically) suggesting that a black character can be neither wise nor good.

Another prickly example is the appearance shift of the character Riku. As the anti-hero protagonist, Riku has perhaps the most complex character arc across the course of the games, but the most drastic shift of his characterization is in Kingdom Hearts 2, where he gives up his physical form to the darkness in order to become stronger and save his friends. This is what happens:

Riku’s appearance in KH1, the first big chunk of KH2, and the ending of KH2 when he relinquishes the darkness from his body.

There are hints dropped every so often in the beginning of the game, but the big reveal of his new form is not until much later, and the power of friendship manages to revert him to his original appearance (and give him not one, but TWO vests). However, it is safe to say that this shift is questionable at best. In the first game, it was already clear that he was the most susceptible to negative emotions, so the change in his appearance seems unnecessary and doesn’t do much but reinforce the idea that dark-skinned bodies are inherently villainous, and light-skinned ones are in some way more pure or more worthy of redemption.

Though these are thoughts I’ve had for quite some time, Anna Everett’s Power of Play article reinforced my thoughts, particularly when she said: “these games draw heavily from racist discourses already circulating in popular and mainstream culture and arguably intensify these messages and lessons of racial difference through the power and allure of interactive gameplay” (142). Though she was technically talking about a different kind of game entirely (the urban street game vs. a JRPG), I think the statement is still very much applicable to Kingdom Hearts. It is not an uncommon trope for dark bodies to be demonized in media, and seems particularly potent in a game aimed at younger audiences. Though the game is pretty dated, it’s unfortunately very unlikely that this is a problem that will be fixed in the long awaited Kingdom Hearts 3.

Works Referenced: 

Anna Everett and S. Craig Watkins, “The Power of Play: The Portrayal and Performance of Race in Video Games” from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (2007), pp. 141–164

Source: Questionable Representations of Race in Kingdom Hearts 2

Kingdom Hearts 2: New Perspectives on an Old Favorite

I thought this class would be a great opportunity to replay Kingdom Hearts 2 before the long-awaited release of Kingdom Hearts 3 at some point this year. On top of having many years of separation from this game, this play-through will likely be a completely different experience for me in that I’m playing the revamped version: Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix for the first time rather than returning to the original Playstation 2 version. This means I am likely to encounter slightly different mechanics, visuals, and bonus story content that I am unfamiliar with.

 Source: Promotional photo for Kingdom Hearts 2.5 Remix

To start off with, something that has always been unusual to me (and to most people) about Kingdom Hearts is how it blends two incredibly popular and very different worlds with an entirely new one. From the image above, many characters are easily identifiable to nearly any audience: Stitch from Lilo and Stitch, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Jack Sparrow, Mickey Mouse, Mulan, etc. These core Disney characters are ones that most people either grew up with or had their children grow up with. Similarly, characters such as Cloud Strife and Zack Fair are just as identifiable to an audience of gamers, since they’re both major characters in the iconic Final Fantasy 7. With these familiar characters and franchises in mind, my first question about my replay in regards to our class was to wonder whether or not Kingdom Hearts as a whole is dependent on “Evocative Spaces” as defined by our Game Design as Narrative Architecture reading. In the specific case of Kingdom Hearts 2, I would say no, but the familiar imagery plays a major part in making the game even more strange than it already is.  Since the franchise in general was released out of chronological order, adding two vastly different universes to an entirely new plot line creates seemingly endless plot-holes and points of confusion.

Based on the very beginning portion of KH2, neither the Disney or Final Fantasy worlds do much but fluff up the Kingdom Hearts world. The first two to three hours of the game require that you unwittingly play through a summer vacation simulation from the perspective of a never-before-seen character (Roxas) while receiving flashbacks from the first game’s protagonist (Sora) – it becomes obvious fairly instantly that these two characters are related, but none of the other connections between characters of universes is immediately clear. This being said, it almost seems as though the “evocative spaces” present in Kingdom Hearts are almost pointless to understanding the actual plot.

I’m also interested in how opposite all of these worlds are thematically. In general, based off Jasper Juul’s interpretations of a game’s “fiction”, Disney is very positive, Final Fantasy has a tendency to lean into a darker, more negative zone, and Kingdom Hearts is overwhelmingly vibrant and colorful to disguise an overall depressing plot about darkness engulfing the human heart. Though I don’t believe Kingdom Hearts falls into either the “casual” or “hardcore” game categories by the polarized definitions, I think it’s strange to consider it as somewhere in between – especially since it’s technically a game aimed at a longer audience but is completely stocked with dark themes.

Source: Kingdom Hearts 2: New Perspectives on an Old Favorite