Remember playing as a child? Maybe you liked playing with dolls or action figures, using your imagination to enter into their world. Or maybe you liked costumes and dress-up, running around like your favorite superhero having adventures.
The Kingdom Hearts franchise took this childhood reality and put it into video game format. The basic premise is simple: mixing the elements of Final Fantasy games and tossing in your favorite Disney characters, from Simba and Ariel to Buzz Lightyear and Jack Sparrow. What’s not to love?
These romps into the varied Disney worlds are held together by an overarching story involving main character Sora trying to reunite with and/or save his friends from some baddies. 1
Ever since I first heard of the game’s basic premise, I was sold. As a child, this was so much like how I played! I would imagine visiting the worlds my favorite characters lived in and joining them on adventures. Inevitably, the hero and I would end up becoming friends and defeating the villain. (Obviously.) And I am sure that these childhood moments of entering into a story are not unique to me.
The newest edition to the video game franchise, Kingdom Hearts III, is finally here. It’s been a long time coming: fans have been waiting for thirteen years for a proper sequel to Kingdom Hearts 2, first released in December 2005.
So why do people care about this long overdue sequel?
As a Jesuit, looking at this level design, I cannot help but smile. It is so much like Jesuit spirituality that it’s actually kind of funny.
When a person makes the Spiritual Exercises, the retreat designed by St. Ignatius, retreatants follow the life of Jesus by accompanying him throughout the major moments of his life. Praying with individual stories from the Gospels, the retreatant inserts him- or herself into the scene and engages the senses. What does it look like? How does it feel? Participating in the Gospel story, the retreatant interacts with other people and sees how it unfolds in the imagination.
In much the same way, the Kingdom Hearts games place the player in another world, one that is in some ways quite familiar (since they know the Disney stories) and in other ways quite new (because they are actively entering into it for the first time). They are thrust into a whole new world and have to adapt to the world and the situation there. They become a part of the story of Toy Story or Aladdin. The characters’ actions make a difference in the world and become a key part of its universe.
Of course, this is an imperfect analogy. Kingdom Hearts is not a video game version of the Spiritual Exercises. The Gospel stories of the Exercises draw on our memories and experiences, and they build our faith as we journey together with Jesus in prayer. In Kingdom Hearts, the stories are familiar, not unlike the Gospels, but this Disney world is not equally a source of personal reflection and growth.
Still, playing the game gives us a chance to enter into our imaginative fantasies from childhood. We are given the narrative and the setpieces. Even more, we get to be heroes alongside those of the original stories. And it gives light to our imagination, although it is bound by the constraints of a particular storyline offered by the game. In fact, the storyline of the game may not touch on what made the narratives so important to us to begin with, or they may be more superficial. But even amid all these limitations, there is still value in engaging our imagination and entering into the world.
What I think we learn from these games, on the most basic level, is that our imagination matters. Even when we have to follow the set course of the game and cannot drastically change the outcome, playing still matters. We can continue to see things with new eyes and know the people in the story all the better for these moments of imagination.
So, keep on playing, my friends. And use your imagination. May it take you to infinity, and beyond.