What Kingdom Hearts Taught Me About Depression

Months after the release of KH3, and I’m still thinking about what KH means to me and all of the messages to be learned from it.

Kingdom Hearts is a story about a lot of things: love, friendship, balance, good, evil, etc. It’s about the use of mix media in storytelling. It’s even a lesson in loss. There are so many different ways to read the story/stories of Kingdom Hearts. More and more video games have used its ability to convey mental illness through interactive storytelling. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the story and how the balance of light and dark is a discussion of negative emotions in relation to positive emotions, and ultimately depression.

The first thing someone has to understand about the Kingdom Hearts series is its masterful statement that dark begets light, light begets dark, and everything is a cycle. Nothing is absolute.

However, this is not a realization that comes from the get-go. You, as the player, discover this alongside Sora and Riku. Their journeys through the darkness of depression are starkly different.

In KH1 Sora is told right from the beginning that nothing is absolute and that light and dark are to sides of the same coin. But just like Sora, we the players will need time to learn what that truly means and eventually learn to accept it. We must learn that despite what everyone says about darkness/depression being bad, we must accept it, live with it, and understand that it is not absolute if you don’t want it to be.

Dealing with depression, dealing with the darkness, is hard; but there are always ways to find strength from it.

Riku’s story of depression is the most compelling (as is his story arc). I actually see Riku’s story arc as an allegorical coming out story that tackles depression and accepting who you are. But you can ignore the fact that I see Riku as a queer character and focus on the depression part if you want. Riku has one of the brightest lights in the entire series. This is said by Terra in Birth By Sleep and is alluded to visually by the opening in KH1 which is mirrored in KH3 when Sora must defeat the Lich heartless and finds Riku’s light/heart first.

riku cutie

However, Riku’s light, positive emotions, and good intentions beget darkness. All he wants to do is “protect what matters most,” aka Sora, Kairi, and his friends.

But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Riku allows this need for the power of light to create darkness. He wants to be so good, so strong, that he forgets himself. He becomes jealous and self-deprecating which he hides with arrogance. But little by little he loses himself to absolute depression and darkness.

However, he finds the reason for conquering his own darkness, even for a brief second – his best friends. He lost himself in his depression, let himself become violent, and then realized that he went too far.

From here, Riku actually falls deeper in depression/darkness. He hides in it. He hides in his shame. He accepts his darkness, knows it is a part of him, but wallows in it.

It takes three things to make him see darkness in a new…well…light. One, it takes another person in darkness to admit his mistakes and abuse (Ansem the Wise); two, Kairi’s acknowledgment of his struggle and forgiveness; and three, a silly smile from Sora – his light.

From this point, Riku accepts his darkness and depression in a completely new way. He understands that this darkness will always be a part of him. He also understands that it is not a bad thing. He finds his own strength, his own light, deep within the darkness. His depression is there. But rather than be ruled by it, Riku uses it to help relate to others, save others. He finds a perfect balance.

Yes, he has darkness and negative emotions, but he also has light and positive emotion and love. And he’s okay with that. So, he uses his strength to withstand negativity to help others (Sora and Aqua) navigate through their own depression.

sora cutie

Let’s talk about Sora. Ultimately, Sora goes from an incredibly bright kid in KH1 to a young man that accepts darkness as a reality and is fine with it by the end of KH3. He begins his journey as light – as someone unequivocally “happy.” Meanwhile, his best friend slips into deep depression without him noticing.

Sora’s path is simple: darkness/depression bad, light/positive emotion good. However, by the end of KH1, he’s starting to notice that his role is not to banish darkness but to save others from it when they need to be.

In KH2 we start to see a huge change in Sora’s understanding of dark and light. He begins to violently reject the idea of darkness. Others are commenting on the darkness within Sora (Roxas), and I believe he begins to see darkness in himself, and that scares him.

So he fights the very notion of it. How could HE have darkness? How could HE be depressed? He has friends. He has love. Why would there be any unhappiness within him?

But as the story progresses he begins to realize that maybe having darkness is not some end all bad. He sees Riku’s struggle with darkness. He meets Roxas, the version of him who is a result of darkness. Sora settles in the darkness because he finds, like Riku, albeit a little different, he has a personal strength within the darkness. 

Sora falls into depression by DDD and struggles to deal with it. He knows his friends are his power, but he doesn’t realize that it is not his friends’ ability to give him power and light, but rather his own ability to make connections through the darkness that makes him powerful.

Sora’s story is a story about how depression can hit the brightest of people, how you can save yourself, and how ultimately, sometimes you can let yourself be healed by others.

In KH3, Sora is becoming more aware that this darkness within him, these negative emotions, are his own. And he’s scared. He’s scared by what everyone has told him despite seeing Riku and Aqua’s journeys right in front of him – this overall narrative that darkness, that depression, is a loss strength that results in being alone.

He views his darkness and depression as a loss of all his connections to his friends. It’s interesting that the more he does for others, the more he sacrifices himself. Sora is afraid of losing others, but he’s more afraid of others losing themselves. However, at the end of KH3, rather than disparaging his fate of depression and darkness, he chooses to put his faith in others.

This is the first time Sora has actually relied on others despite his insistence that his friends are his power. He accepts that he will spend time alone, but knows that he will find his way home because his heart tells him that his powerful friends, his connections to the light, to positive emotion will save him eventually. But he will have to work on his own darkness for a while first.

“They can take your world.

They can take your heart.

Cut you loose from all that you know.

But a step forward is always a step closer to home.”

At this point in Sora’s journey, we don’t know what this will mean for Sora and we’ll see that in KH4 and beyond. I do think Sora will, like Riku, find a balance and a power in that balance.

Balance is key!

No pun intended, but that is the truth. Depression sucks. You can’t always control it. Sometimes it controls you. Sometimes you find strength in it. Sometimes you find strength from it. Some don’t have it and can heal others, like Kairi. Others let it rule them and may become hurtful like Master Xehanort. Some find the balance like Riku. Others are still figuring it out like Sora.

But in the end, darkness and depression exist. It’s not always a bad thing. It’s just a reality, just the other side of light. Everyone’s journey is different. It’s up to you to figure out how you will live with it. That journey may take a long time, or none at all. But as the keyblade masters say, let your heart be your guiding key and you will find your way home.

Leave a comment below on how you view the relationship of darkness, depression, and light!

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