How Kingdom Hearts Handles Trauma and Resilience
Kingdom Hearts is a lengthy video game series, which debuted in 2002 and is currently ongoing (“Kingdom Hearts”, n.d.), that is the meeting between Disney and Final Fantasy, directed by Tetsuya Nomura. Given the longevity of the series, many of the characters experience traumatic events and tragedies. That said, the story of Kingdom Hearts features many original characters and cameo appearances to create a rather unique blend for story-telling in a compelling way, and the characters are given time to show their responses and resilience to their situations.
The Destiny Trio
At current in the story, there are at least three established trios of original characters that are involved in the overarching plot. These trios were given names, likely by the fanbase, and are as follows: the Wayfinder Trio, which includes Aqua, Terra, and Ventus; the Sea Salt Trio, which contains the characters Axel, Roxas, and Xion; and finally, the Destiny Trio, which consists of Sora, Riku, and Kairi (Fates Chance XIII, 2018). This article will reference the Wayfinder trio and examine how the actions of those characters laid the groundwork for certain resolutions in Kingdom Hearts III. However, the focus will predominantly be on the Destiny trio and the situations in which Sora, Riku, and Kairi find themselves. There will be potential spoilers for Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, Kingdom Hearts III, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, and Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road.
What is Trauma?
Before delving into the situations that shape Sora, Riku, and Kairi into the roles they fulfill throughout their journey, it is important to have an idea of what trauma and resilience are in order to better understand why the situations that the Destiny Trio goes through is meaningful to their development. This definition will also put into perspective some of the parallels between the Wayfinder Trio’s and the Destiny Trio’s stories. The definitions for trauma and resilience will also provide the basis for this Kingdom Hearts analysis.
In a psychological context, trauma is defined as:
“Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident…or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea,”.American Psychological Association
Prolonged exposure to traumatic events can lead to chronic trauma, which happens when there are either multiple traumatic short events, or a long traumatic event without time to process what is happening in a stable place, such as with a licensed psychologist. The effects of chronic trauma can interfere with a person’s ability to trust, lead to anxiety, and outburts of anger. Chronic trauma can also affect a person’s ability to have stability in their life (Allarakha, S., 2021).
The Various Impacts of Trauma, Responses, and Trauma Denial
Trauma can have an affect on the body as well as the mind. It can cause the heart to race, impact the limbic system, and can lead to chronic diseases or other issues. Trauma can also cause hypervigilance, in which there is an overreaction to perceived danger when there is none, loud noises or sudden movements, and hypervigilance can lead to sleeplessness and muscle tension as well. Cognitively, trauma can lead to misinterpreting a situation as dangerous because said situation bears a resemblance to the traumatic event. There can be excessive, inappropriate guilt that the individual affected by trauma may experience about the event, leading to the individual assuming responsibility about the event. In addition, trauma can cause intrusive thoughts, which involve experiencing unbidden memories around the trauma, which can lead to strong emotional or behavioral responses in the individual, as though the trauma itself is present (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014).
Since a traumatic event can have such an impact on the mind and body, an individual may experience a combination of six responses in order to keep themselves safe. The responses are: fight, flight, freeze, fawn, flood, and fatigue/flop (Munier, 2021). Each response determines how a person reacts to the traumatic event, as outlined in the images below:
In addition to the trauma responses, there is also a phenomena known as trauma denial. Trauma denial is, on the surface, denying that the trauma happened or exists. However, a deeper definition is, “Trauma denial is a defense mechanism that allows you to bury, suppress, and avoid dealing with what happened. You also may adopt emotional avoidance behaviors that help you to avoid anything that evokes unpleasant feelings, (Ferrara, 2022). Trauma denial can be the brain’s way of handling something severe, such as a reality collapse. It often happens when the trauma is so severe that it is safer for the affected person to suppress and bury what happened or is happening to them. In the short term, trauma denial can help the afflicted person carry on through difficult situations related to the trauma, but, in the long term, it can cause those in denial to prolong their suffering, to the point that their body will carry the trauma. Also, long-term trauma denial can greatly impair the ability to heal from the trauma, as those who are in heavy denial will need to first acknowledge the trauma in order to being to heal from it (Lebow, 2021).
Now that trauma and the different types of responses to it has been defined in a psychological context, it is time to examine trauma’s counterpoint, resilience. In a psychology, resilience is, “…the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands,” (“Resilience”, n.d.). Furthermore, the American Psychological Association suggests that outside factors, such as living environment, can influence one’s resilience. Research posits that resilience can be fostered and obtained through practicing more positive adaptation techniques.
Research also suggests that resilience has six attributes. These attributes could be considered to be the six pillars of resilience and include: growth mindset, emotional intelligence, community connections, self-expression, embodiment, and choice and control. These pillars make up the foundation that resilience is built from. Growth mindset relates to how someone could see the opportunity to grow despite the trauma they experienced, and emotional intelligence is the ability to remain engaged with their difficult emotions after a traumatic event. Community connections refers to maintaining connections with a community or friends rather than isolating, and self-expression is the ability to express the emotions that someone feels. Embodiment is a mindful awareness of the body and its breath and movement, and, finally, choice and control relates to knowing certain events are in the traumatized person’s control and choosing to respond to the events that can be controlled (Schwartz, 2016).
Trauma, its responses, and resilience are all shown extremely well within the Kingdom Hearts series. These psychological definitions will help display these themes in the series as it relates specifically to the Destiny Trio–Sora, Riku, and Kairi–who are the main characters in the series’ current events, though generational trauma is also hinted at with the interplay between the events of the Wayfinder Trio and the Destiny Trio as well. Using the lens that has been established by the preceding paragraphs, it is time to examine the story of Kingdom Hearts to see how the story events within affect Sora, Riku, and Kairi, after establishing what happened to the Wayfinder Trio.
Traumatic Events in the Kingdom Hearts Series
This section will be dedicated to outlining the events of the Kingdom Hearts series, from the first game up through Melody of Memories. There are many moments within the series that could be defined as traumatic for Riku and Kairi, but especially for the main protagonist, Sora. Even some past traumatic moments from other characters’ times in the series influence the current events that the Destiny Trio faces and respond to within the story. For now, it is time to move onto the events of Birth by Sleep in order to see how the Wayfinder Trio’s actions in response to their traumatic events establishes the beginnings of the main protagonists of the Kingdom Hearts series, Sora, Riku, and Kairi.
Setting the Stage with Manipulation in Birth by Sleep
Birth by Sleep is a prequel to Kingdom Hearts and explains part of the reason why Sora, Riku, and Kairi are able to traverse the worlds and why they had the potential to become Keyblade wielders (DChiuch, 2010). The main villain of the Dark Seeker Saga, which is the name given by Nomura to describe the events from Birth by Sleep to the final moments in Kingdom Hearts III‘s DLC, Re:Mind (“Dark Seeker Saga”, 2023), is shown to be an old man named Master Xehanort. A lot of the corruption and trauma inflicted on the Wayfinder Trio is caused by Master Xehanort himself.
Given the plot in the mobile game Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road, Xehanort could be reacting to the trauma of losing his entire class of fellow Keyblade wielders, save for his friend Eraqus, who became a Keyblade Master alongside him. However, the story of these two, and what makes Xehanort such a good villain likely deserves a separate analysis. Eraqus, unlike Xehanort, guides the main characters in Birth by Sleep, Terra, Ventus, and Aqua down the path of light in the hopes that they, too, can achieve the rank of Master and work toward protecting the worlds from the ever-present threat of darkness. However, a lot of Eraqus’s flaws drive Xehanort’s goals of creating the χ-blade (pronounced in the games as “chi” blade, though Xehanort also acknowledges χ can be pronounced as “chai”) via means of a Keyblade War, closer to victory.
Terra is a young man who is about to take his Mark of Mastery alongside his friend Aqua. From the beginning of his time on screen, it is clear that he admires Eraqus as a father figure and master, and wants to attain the Mark of Mastery to make Eraqus proud. However, due to meddling on Xehanort’s part, the power of darkness is easier for Terra to give into during the test, and, as a result, Terra is not given the title of Keyblade Master. Instead, he earns Eraqus’s stern reminder that darkness should not be trifled with. Seeing Terra’s disappointment at failing his father figure, Xehanort encourages Terra to explore the other worlds, much like those preparing to take their Mark of Mastery exam in the days of old used to, in order to broaden his horizons and really take in Eraqus’s warning. Terra, desperate to prove himself to Eraqus, agrees, unaware of Xehanort’s ulterior motives, and sets off from the Land of Departure to see if the darkness is really as bad as Eraqus claims.
During his journey, Terra, without meaning to, helps the dark deeds of most of the less trustworthy characters he meets. For example, he was tricked by Malificent to steal Aurora’s heart by being controlled with the power of darkness to fall into a trance and do her bidding. This failure happening so closely to his failed exam really allows some anger and resentment against Aqua to start building in Terra and allows more darkness to enter Terra’s heart, despite his efforts to follow the light. When Terra and Aqua do cross paths, Terra acts coldly or uncertain towards her, and is further humiliated when he discovers that Master Eraqus has sent her to watch over his actions and to bring Ventus back home. Shortly after this moment, Terra is drawn to a strange island, where he sees two young boys sparring with wooden swords. He takes a moment to enjoy the reprieve and remember how he and Ventus used to spar. Then, he notices that one of the boys in particular, Riku, seems to possess the power to be a Keyblade wielder, so he does an inheritance pact with him.
Terra is even further manipulated by Xehanort, and, rather than continuing to seek Eraqus’s praise any longer, Terra chooses to protect Ventus from his Master. In a fit of regret and rage at Eraqus’s unwillingness to listen to him, or even acknowledge him, Terra ends up watching Xehanort strike a lethal blow against his Master. By this point, Terra realizes he’s been tricked by Xehanort for his entire journey and decides to go fight with his friends, even though he’s more steeped in darkness than light. Unfortunately, Terra has his heart and body taken over by Xehanort, which was part of the old man’s plan all along, since he needed a younger vessel in order to carry out his plans. However, right when all seems lost, Terra’s Keyblade armor stands up to Xehanort in Terra’s body and fights him. This entity later becomes known as the Lingering Will. In Terra’s last conscious moments, he vows “I will set this right.” It is implied that Eraqus was able to send his heart into Terra in the Last Episode cutscene.
Ventus is shown to awaken on Destiny Islands, after connecting with a brand new heart, appearing wrapped up in a white cloak, being held by an old man before ending up in the Land of Departure under Eraqus’s tutelage. In addition to this, Ventus, unlike Terra and Aqua, is too young to take on the Mark of Mastery exam and is still in training. He gets taunted by a kid around his age in a helmet that he’ll never be allowed to leave the Land of Departure, because he will never be seen as experienced enough or old enough. Ventus fires a comeback and a stiff glare in opposition to this boy, but later has this notion reinforced when Xehanort makes Terra running off after his exam failure out to be the final time Ventus will see Terra. Furthermore, Xehanort lies to Ventus that Terra never actually saw Ventus as a little brother and the connection that Ventus shares with Terra and Aqua will continue to wane as they go on with their lives without him. This bullying and lying forces Ventus to speed off after Terra in an attempt to reaffirm that what Xehanort and the helmeted boy said was wrong.
However, when Ventus runs into Terra, he is met with frustration and an insistence that he should return home. This only pushes Ventus to further explore the worlds, as he can handle himself. When he, Terra, and Aqua end up fighting off a giant Unversed together, he breaks up Terra and Aqua’s argument by offering them to tickets to Disney Town, as he was given three tickets–one for himself and two chaperones. They all share a laugh about this before Terra and Aqua both resume their argument by parting ways, leaving Ventus alone. He resumes his quest to bring Aqua and Terra back together again by chasing after someone he thinks is Terra, only to find out that he was chasing the kid who antagonized him at the beginning of his journey.
When Ventus finds the boy in the helmet again, he ends up defending two kids on the Destiny Islands, as his antagonist saying that the land was doomed to fall to darkness one day, and that he and Ventus were equally fated to finish their fight. The helmeted boy then claims that if Ventus wants to find out the truth, then he should come to the Keyblade Graveyard, where Xehanort waits for them. When Ventus decides to listen to the kid, he meets with Xehanort and suddenly has it explained to him that he had all of the darkness removed from him, and Vanitas, the kid who was taunting him throughout his journey, is that darkness personified.
Once Ventus realizes the truth of his former Master’s words, he starts screaming and lashing out in anger, in other words, reacting to the literal flashback he experienced due to having his memory restored. He crosses blades with Vanitas, and sparks of light and darkness swirl around them. Xehanort eggs them on so that he can see the χ-blade formed again, but, Vanitas suggests that Ventus hold on to his anger to prepare for the Keyblade War, when his friends could show up. In a panic, Ventus returns home and tries to explain his plight to Master Eraqus, but, he is confused when Eraqus realizes what Ventus is, and raises his Keyblade with intent to erase the plight once and for all. Ventus stands still, ready to accept his fate, only to be saved by Terra, who forces him to run. Ventus ends up returning to the islands, wondering why he, Terra, and Aqua could not have had a life more like the boys he saw playing there in peace. He goes back to the Keyblade Graveyard, ready to do what he must.
During the events of the Keyblade War, Ventus’s inexperience shows. He is fighting to keep up with Terra and Aqua, and is simultaneously consumed by rage against Xehanort and fear over what will happen to him if he and Vanitas fight. In a fit, Ventus slashes at Xehanort, only to be frozen solid by an ice spell. Inside his heart, Ventus fights with Vanitas and subdues him within, but in so doing, fractures his heart. Back on the islands, a young Sora and Riku are staring at the night sky when a meteor shower starts, and Sora tells Riku that he senses a heart that is in trouble, and asks what he should do. Riku suggests that Sora opens his heart to the person in trouble, and it is in this way that part of Ventus’s heart finds a safe place, remarking that this heart feels familiar.
Aqua is caught between her duties as a new Keyblade Master and her desire to keep her friends safe. Under the request of Master Eraqus, she watches Terra slowly lose himself to darkness, unable to save him from falling further into it. She then has to also bring Ven back home, which causes both Terra and Ventus to be mad at her. She continues on her quest, refusing to give up on her belief that the light always finds a way. Along the way, she meets a young Kairi in Radiant Garden and places a magical protection spell on her and tells her to look for the smallest light, even in the deepest darkness. She also meets Riku and Sora on the islands, and realizes that Terra has already done an inheritance ceremony on Riku. As for Sora, Aqua is reminded of Ventus with his personality, and tells them both to come to the other’s aid in the future whenever they need it, taking comfort in the prospects of future Keyblade wielders.
Despite a fairly hopeful journey with a lot of upsetting moments, it is within the events of the Keyblade War that Aqua encounters the most traumatic events in her story. She is taunted by Braig, an antagonist that knows more than he lets on, that she will not be able to save her friends, and witnesses Terra’s final fall to darkness. She then catches Ventus’s frozen body before it hits the ground from a fall that would have shattered it. Aqua is forced to turn her home, the Land of Departure, into Castle Oblivion to keep Ventus’s sleeping body safe, promising to wake him up as soon as she can. In one final attempt to save both Terra and Ventus in some capacity, Aqua dives into the Realm of Darkness and throws both Terra and Ventus out of it, making sure to send both her Keyblade armor and one of her Keyblades with them, along with their wayfinder charms, promising to save them once more. Unfortunately, Aqua is fated to wander the Realm of Darkness, fighting off hordes of monsters during her time there. Due to time passing differently in the Realm of Darkness, Aqua promises to spend the rest of her life fighting to be the light in the darkness for whoever needs it.
Acute Trauma in Kingdom Hearts
In this game, we are introduced to Sora, Riku, and Kairi, who are all in the throes of puberty and figuring out the world they live in, and whether or not the Destiny Islands are all that is out there in terms of the land they all inhabit. Sora is presented to the player as a boy who is defined as a lazy boy by his friends Riku and Kairi when he awakes from a nap and a weird dream on an afternoon at the beach, but who is shown to be positive and cheerful despite his friends ribbing him. Riku appears to be a hard working boy, who is quick-witted, and slightly older than Sora and Kairi. Riku and Sora have a clearly defined friendly rivalry, with Kairi either encouraging their rivalry or egging them on actively. In the brief time spent with Kairi, she is energetic, believes in luck, and has a bit of a fiery personality. Kairi is also observant, given the fact that she shares a moment with Sora where she tells him about her fears about leaving the island to try and find her home world, then follows her admission of fear up with “Riku’s changed…Sora, don’t ever change.”
The events of the story of Kingdom Hearts pick up after the good-natured events of building the raft and securing provisions with a storm that makes Sora fear for the raft, and, when he makes it to the play island, he notices Riku and Kairi’s boats docked and becomes concerned. When Sora finds Riku at their hangout spot, he becomes confused when his friend starts talking about a door while he sinks into darkness, and Sora falls into the pool of darkness faster than Riku does, because of his fear. Sora suddenly becomes shrouded in light and is out of the darkness and back at the spot where he found Riku, only to realize that Riku has vanished and that the shadows from his dreams are suddenly swarming the island. Sora’s next worry is finding Kairi and making sure she’s safe. When Sora finds Kairi, she is standing at the far end of the secret place Sora, Riku, and Kairi shared as children with their drawings on the walls, where a door is outlined in light and bursts open to let out a wave of darkness as Kairi reaches for Sora, blasting her toward him, but, right as he would have caught her, Kairi fades out of existence.
Having lost both of his friends, Sora must suddenly face off against the monster from his nightmare, and, despite his triumph over the monster, he is sucked into the force that is tearing up his home in front of him. Afterwards, Sora finds himself in another world, chosen by a Keyblade, and in search of his friends and a way back to the Destiny Islands. His journey starts in Traverse Town, where he meets Donald, Goofy, Aerith, Leon, Yuffie, and Cid. These people help him in his search, by travelling with him, in the case of Donald and Goofy, who are also looking for their King, Mickey, under the circumstance that their ship runs on happy faces, so “no frowning, no sad faces”, or suggest where to look next. As Sora goes from world to world, looking for his friends, he has moments where he thinks he sees Kairi, but it turns out to be a hallucination, learns magic, and fights against the darkness that attacked his home, which has taken the form of creatures called Heartless, and, there are at least three moments where he is challenged by Riku, who taunts and bullies him about finding Kairi.
Sora eventually confronts Riku one final time, figures out that Kairi has been safe inside his heart, and decides to give up his heart to free hers, and faces down hordes of Heartless, and, eventually, the man who brought the Destiny Islands to darkness, Ansem. Right when all is being restored, Sora is able to find Riku, who becomes trapped on the other side of the Door to Darkness with King Mickey, and sends Kairi back to the islands, despite being able to return with her, so that he can continue on to find and return Riku to the islands and help Donald and Goofy reunite with the King again. Despite the hardships and loneliness Sora faced on his first journey, he is still upbeat and positive.
Riku’s journey in the first Kingdom Hearts game is significantly darker than Sora’s. He begins by leaving the islands through a dark portal and wakes up in the realm of darkness. He eventually finds his way to Hollow Bastion and is manipulated by Maleficent, who acts motherly towards him at first, to eventually use Darkness to control the Heartless. He becomes less playful with Sora and more antagonistic, where he taunts Sora for being weak; he lies and almost kidnaps Pinocchio for Malificent’s use. He believes Malificent when she gaslights him by claiming Sora values his new friends in Traverse Town more than him. In the end, Ansem starts to take over Riku’s body, but could not take over his will, and Riku holds Ansem back while Sora saves Kairi. He is determined by the end of his first journey to find the road out of the darkness and into the dawn.
Kairi spends most of her time separated from her body, but has moments where she seems to be able to experience what Sora is seeing during his journey. She had to fight off the darkness away from her heart and is revealed to be a Princess of Light, and has an unknown destiny thrust upon her. She is forcefully separated from Sora and Riku without really knowing if or when she will see them again.
Gaslighting in Chain of Memories
Sora’s journey continues when he stumbles across Castle Oblivion where he is warned that “To find is to lose, and to lose is to find.” by a cloaked man who explains the rules of the castle–in order to find Riku and the King, Sora will need to traverse across his memories, and, as he ascends the castle, he’ll lose his memories. Hearing this does not faze Sora. Instead, he chooses to find Riku, no matter what, however, it quickly becomes clear that his memories from his time travelling the worlds is portrayed differently from what he experienced.
In between climbing the castle floors, Sora fights off more cloaked figures, one in particular who takes every opportunity to taunt and physically hurt him, known as Larxene. Before a battle, Larxene forces Sora to “recall” a girl other than Kairi on the islands, going so far as to steal the lucky charm that Kairi gave him, and replace it with a fake. Once the gaslighting is complete, Sora forgets Kairi, who is still waiting for him and Riku to return home. In addition to Larxene’s antics, Sora battles with Riku, who seems to be taken with the darkness again, multiple times, during which Riku tries to make Sora give up on his goal.
Eventually, Sora uncovers that the castle is being used by Marluxia, and Marluxia is using Larxene, a clone of Riku, and a girl called Naminé, who has been rewriting Sora’s memories the entire time that he’s been in the castle. It is here that Sora finally lets some of his inner rage show. In spite of losing most of his memories and his outbursts, Sora continues on to the top of the castle, reassuring himself that promises were stronger than memories, where he determines to save the other girl, not worried about the fact that she was able to actively manipulate his memories. He thwarts Marluxia and saves Naminé, while also giving the Replica Riku a purpose to protect Naminé. Because of his perseverance, Sora is given the choice to be put into a sleep state to have his memories restored by Naminé, but, in exchange, he would forget about everything that happened in Castle Oblivion. Sora chooses to fall asleep, determined that when he woke, he’d return to finding Riku, the King, and the way home.
Riku’s journey also continues with him, teamed up with King Mickey, finding Castle Oblivion. He immediately notices a strange smell of darkness and wonders if Sora has also found the castle. Unlike Sora, Riku did not have his memories messed with, but, rather, Riku had to face the darkness he forsook within himself once more. As he works his way through the castle, ascending the basement to the main floor, Ansem appears and belittles him for fearing the darkness, as well as taunts him to use the darkness, because that is Riku’s true power and personality.
Riku fought through floors of the castle, worried about Sora, but unable to find him. He faces off with different cloaked fiends, who tell him at the midpoint of his journey that Sora has perished by their hands. Riku is determined to not believe this, and when the castle begins to shake when Sora defeats Marluxia, Riku takes hope that Sora is still alive, and becomes determined to finish the work he started in Castle Oblivion to finish overcoming the darkness in him and doing whatever he needed to find Sora and keep him safe.
Kairi was not physically present in this game, which can be said for most of the series, but she still suffers consequences from Sora’s actions. She is still waiting for Sora and Riku at Destiny Islands, with no way to communicate with them. Her life must continue on as normal without her friends.
The Beginning of Chronic Trauma and Continued Manipulation in Kingdom Hearts II
Sora, Riku, and Kairi continue to experience trauma as their journey continues, though everyone remains separated. The tension has been raised, because, once again, the fate of the worlds have been threatened by the appearance of Nobodies, strange beings that exist when a heart is destroyed. Heartless usually also have a Nobody counterpart. The major twist in events is that Ansem, Seeker of Darkness was actually the Heartless of Xehanort, whose Nobody Xemnas, is threatening the worlds by trying to build a Kingdom Hearts to become something, as opposed to the nothingness that consumes him with his Organization XIII–thirteen particularly powerful Nobodies that Sora has partly seen in Chain of Memories, though was unaware of it at the time. Once again, Sora and his Keyblade are required to save the worlds while he also attempts to find Riku and his way back to Kairi.
Sora encounters some worlds that are different from before, and he revisits old friends. He fights his way through even more Heartless than before, though, this time, he’s rather unfazed by it. He becomes stronger, and seems unstoppable, though he is worried about Riku, as he never seems to even find a hint of his friend in any of the worlds he helps. Sora discovers that Kairi has been forcibly taken from the islands, and he has to find her yet again, then he’s worried about Riku and Kairi’s safety.
In one particular tense moment, after battling one thousand Heartless, Sora is maliciously belittled as he is informed that destroying Heartless with a Keyblade releases the heart Heartless are formed around, which is the Organization’s goal. Immediately after hearing this, Sora collapses and angrily asks “What should I do? What’s the point?” In this moment, it is Maleficient who saves him from the fight, only to be icily taunted by Saïx, who let Sora know that the Organization were the ones who kidnapped Kairi and demanded to be shown just how much Kairi matters to Sora and seems bemused when Sora literally begs Saïx on his knees to take him to Kairi. At the end of his journey, Sora defeats all of Organization XIII, only to become stuck in the furthest shores of the Realm of Darkness with Riku, and they seem to truly reconcile their differences.
Riku is faced with some self-doubt, as he had to use his darkness powers, taking the form of Ansem, Seeker of Darkness, in the process, in order to help Sora wake up. He dons a black cloak and keeps his identity hidden from Sora as he keeps Sora moving forward in the background where he can. He moves the situation towards the light while working in the shadows, but, when he finds Kairi and Sora at Organization XIII’s base of operations, he tries to disappear from Sora’s presence out of shame. Kairi stops him and forces him to show his true self to Sora, and, an older, blindfolded Riku is revealed to the player and Sora. After the self-destruction of a mysterious device restores his body, he is finally able to remove the blindfold that he was wearing for a year.
Kairi forgot Sora while he slept for a year and is still waiting for Riku to return. The other islanders who were connected to Sora and Kairi simply did not believe he ever existed. When she remembers Sora, she sends a message in a bottle out to sea, hoping to reach him somehow. Kairi gets caught up in the larger elements of the events happening around her. She is kidnapped by Axel, who is a rogue Organization XIII member and is held at the World that Never Was as a means to get Sora to act in the way that the Organization needs. She actively chooses to fight back where she can, though this fact is not shown too well outside of a few brief moments in the game’s cutscenes.
To conclude the journey, Sora and Riku find a way out of the Realm of Darkness. A message in a bottle reaches them on the shore, and is revealed to be the letter Kairi sent to Sora from the islands. A door of light opens and sends both Riku and Sora back to their home, but a different letter has been sent by KIng Mickey, asking Sora and Riku to return to the Mysterious Tower and Yen Sid to undertake a Mark of Mastery Exam.
Development and Lapses in Dream Drop Distance
At this point in the Kingdom Hearts series, Sora and by extension, Riku, have thwarted fairly big forces of darkness in the worlds, twice. Instead of staying in the islands, both Riku and Sora heed the plea of King Mickey’s request and are once again thrust into events that are seemingly bigger than they are. From wistfully dreaming of a world beyond their home, both Sora and Riku are now thrust into the world of Keyblade wielders on the path to becoming Keyblade Masters by way of a Mark of Mastery Exam, set up by Yen Sid to wake the seven sleeping worlds. Their new journey starts on a raft caught in a storm, as though they had just left the islands like they had planned when they were younger. After this test, Yen Sid warns them that the sleeping worlds will feel as real as that event, and to not give into the dreams.
Sora is truly conflicted in this game. He travels through the different worlds, clearly frustrated and determined to do what he believes to be right, in spite of the consequences. This causes him to make some of the same mistakes that were present in Terra’s journey. Sora is openly angry at moments where he is betrayed, and, especially when he is reminded that he is in a dream, not the real world, so none of what is happening should be affecting him so badly. Sora refuses to fall prey to those reminders, and instead does what he thinks will benefit the world that he’s trying to wake in order to gain the Power of Waking and become a Keyblade Master. In the end, Sora nearly gives into the Darkness and Xehanort, as it is revealed that he was, once again, manipulated in the task he had been given and controlled and played right into the plans of the wrong side. Sora nearly uses the connection to his friends to do something powerful, but it was too late for him. By the end of this conflict, Sora’s resilience through always being willing to grow, being in touch with his emotions, remaining connected to his friends, and feeling like he is in control of his fate has been heavily eroded.
Riku, by contrast to Sora, remembers that he’s in a sleeping world, seems to be fairly well grounded, and is sure of himself. He keeps a cool head, but is still needing to remember not to be gentle with himself for the mistakes he’s made in the past. When he wakes up in Yen Sid’s Mysterious Tower and realizes that something is wrong with Sora, Riku is worried and appalled, but, he acts in a grounded manner by using the Power of Waking to dive into Sora’s heart and drive out the Darkness. The twist in Riku’s role in the game is that he noticed the Organization tampering with the exam and became Sora’s Dream Eater, determined to protect Sora from the corruption.
Kairi once more is not present in this game. She must be brought up to date about all the goings on in the worlds and decide whether or not she is going to join Sora and Riku in the fray against the Darkness. She is not really shown in the game at all, aside from a couple of end game clips.
In conclusion to the Mark of Mastery, Sora appears hopeful, only to be disappointed when Yen Sid names Riku a Keyblade Master. He very quickly changes his mood to congratulate Riku, but is also told that he has lost all of his powers that he gained over the past two journeys. He remains determined to regain what he lost, and seems still happy enough to do what he can in the fight for the Realm of Light. Riku is tasked with traveling with King Mickey to find one of the lost Keyblade Masters of the Wayfinder Trio, who was lost to the Realm of Darkness. It is here in this game that pieces of the trauma from the past begins to effect events in the present.
Re-traumatization in Kingdom Hearts III
This game marks the conclusion of the Dark Seeker arc of the story. Unlike other games in the series Kingdom Hearts III has less light-hearted moments, and events in the plot are much more serious. A lot is expected of the warriors of Light, especially Sora, who begins his journey trying to figure out where to start.
Sora is constantly shown the horrors that the Heartless do to the world in a situation where he is powerless to stop it. He slowly gains his power back, but is also ridiculed by The Real Organization XIII, especially Larxene for a third time. He is consistently frustrated and let down when his friends, like Yen Sid, Donald, and Goofy don’t seem to trust his ideas or insistence to help. Sora is instead pushed to recover the Power of Waking so that Xehanort can be stopped. This frustration is visible, especially in the Keyblade War. The smile that has seen him through two world saving adventures vanishes, replaced with tears at the death of his friends, especially Riku and Kairi, that turns to a rage fueled determination to set things right, even if it means breaking the world to do it. Using this rage and his connections to other people’s hearts, he is able to rewrite time and retrieve Kairi from the Final World, and he pays dearly for it, forced away from the worlds he just saved. In this sense, Sora has regained some of his resilience from the previous adventures.
Riku is mostly out looking for Aqua with the King, and, when she is found, she has been in the Realm of Darkness for ten years and gives into it after fighting against a massive tower of Shadows, known as the Demon Tide. She turns to her rage and resentment of this fact and attacks Sora, who immediately calls Riku to his aid. Together, they are able to return Aqua to the Realm of Light. In terms of traumatic events, in the last few moments of the Keyblade War, Riku decides to plant his Keyblade in the ground in front of Sora, telling him, “You don’t believe that,”, determined to protect Sora still, in response to Sora’s doubts about his own power and whether he’ll see Riku again.
Kairi is training with Axel to become a Keyblade wielder in a place that is time locked. She notably writes a letter to Sora, but doesn’t send it to him. She chooses instead to tell him when she sees him again. In the last few moments before the Keyblade War, she shares a paopu fruit with Sora, intertwining their destinies permanently. She says that she’s determined to protect Sora this time, but ultimately ends up being the motivation that the villain, Xehanort, uses to spur Sora on to fight and dies on screen in front of Sora at Xehanort’s hand. After returning to the Realm of Light, thanks to Sora abusing the Power of Waking, she watches him fade from existence before they could kiss.
In conclusion to the Dark Seeker Saga, Kairi begins to let her heart be searched while she sleeps for a year to see if her connection to Sora will help them find him. Riku sends the Wayfinder Trio into the Realm of Darkness to look for Sora, and Terra, Ventus, and Aqua insist that they won’t be swayed by the despair in that realm, because they are not alone anymore. During the year that Kairi is asleep, Riku begins to have dreams about where Sora might be and is getting used to his role as a Keyblade Master, finally able to use the power to protect what matters most for good. As for Sora, despite winning the Keyblade War, he is doomed to vanish from the Realm of Light, away from everyone he knows, but, his viewpoint is, “They can take your world. They can take your heart. Cut you loose from all you know. But, if it’s your fate…then every step forward will always be a step closer to home.”
A Glimpse of Childhood/Complex Trauma and New Beginnings in Melody of Memory
Melody of Memory is the most recent game in the timeline for Kingdom Hearts series. It is considered a filler game that, much like Chain of Memories, sets up some of the story for the next numbered Kingdom Hearts installment. Much like the title suggests, this is a rhythm game that chronicles all of the music from the series, and the plot is essentially that Kairi is remembering her initial journey with Sora and following his connections with others while she has her heart analyzed for the year that everyone searched for Sora, shown at the end of Kingdom Hearts III. In this sense, there are no real interactions with Riku or Sora that develop their characters.
However, once the player makes it through the story progress required to beat the game, there is a cutscene that informs a lot of Kairi’s memory issues in regards to her past, and it is rather traumatic, given her perceived age at the time, which lines up with the times young Kairi was seen in Birth by Sleep. As Radient Garden was falling to darkness, Kairi was placed into an ark in an effort by Xehanort in Terra’s body to seek out a Keyblade Wielder. Xehanort makes it very clear that if Kairi ends up in a place that is ruled by neither light nor darkness then the mission was a failure and the worlds are presumably doomed. On top of this flashback to that event, Kairi is tormented by a version of the old man Xehanort that destroyed her in her mind, who insists that she’s still not good enough, which, she actively fights against, but nearly falls to in combat again. This danger causes Sora to connect to Kairi’s heart through the Final World, but he is unable to speak, which gives away his location to Xehanort.
Afterwards, Kairi and Riku discover that Sora has been sent to a place called Quadratum, the other side of reality for the Realm of Light, and they manage to open a way to it. Kairi is eager to follow Riku through the portal that the Fairy Godmother opened, but, Riku shuts down her attempt by insisting that she’s not ready yet. It is implied that Kairi will likely spend her time in training, though, it will likely also provide her a pathway to truly processing what happened to her, Sora, and Riku.
Moments of Resilience within the Trauma
Throughout his journeys, Sora takes Donald and Goofy’s rule about “No frowning, no sad faces” seriously. He consistently smiles his way through the situation, usually no matter how dire, save for at the end of Kingdom Hearts III. While the smiling and constantly staying positive can be seen as potential toxic positivity, as it comes across as always positive all the time, it seems that Sora staying positive is a defense mechanism throughout the trauma of ending up in a new world with no one he knows in his home world potentially being alive, losing his two best friends from childhood, never seeing his mom again, and then being thrust into matters of life and death with the future of the worlds at stake, multiple times. While Sora’s optimistic attitude can be a little overbearing, it also seems to keep Sora grounded, right up to the point of the Keyblade War, where, no matter what he did to ground himself, it didn’t work. He’s determined to be a reliable friend, willing to carry hurt of others, because he views it not as traumatic, but as a part of caring. Throughout his life, Sora openly accepted the hearts of Ventus, Kairi, Roxas, and Xion into him, and kept them all safe by sharing their emotions and pain. Once he releases Ventus, Roxas, and Xion from him is when we as the player see just how expressive Sora can be as well.
Sora seems to have had a stable upbringing in the islands, despite being a child with a single parent, so it could be posited that Sora staying positive as a defense mechanism is either a fawn response or trauma denial, if his father being absent from his life caused any complex trauma. It is likely that Sora can remain so unchanged by the events that happened to him during his adventure, despite being so affected by the trauma he experienced in his journey, because his possible previous trauma made him more susceptible to the new trauma, (Breslau et al., 1999), and that, up until the very last events in Kingdom Hearts III Re:Mind, Sora relied on his predominant trauma denial defense to mitigate some triggers while being resilient about other things. However, Sora does exemplify the six pillars of resilience throughout most of his journey, and even regains it after it was crushed in Dream Drop Distance. All of the characters he connects with by the end of Kingdom Hearts III learn from his resilience and seem to grow into their own as harder challenges arise. For example, Sora never seems to lose hope in his friends, even when they betray him, and he is stably assured of who he is as a person, at least, right up to the point of him losing his powers and having his identity thrown into question with very little time to process it.
Despite everything he’s been through, we can see the resilience that Sora has adapted into his life from the very opening lines of Kingdom Hearts III. He remains true to his word. He’ll keep fighting to find a way home, no matter what, and it is very possible that Sora’s identity has been restored to him at the end of the Dark Seeker Saga. It could be that we will see a different, more balanced side to Sora as his story continues, once he can reconcile everything that he’s done and what he’s been through.
By the events of Kingdom Hearts III, Riku has developed from a manipulated teenager who nearly was possessed by one of the main villains of the series to a level-headed, well-rounded Keyblade Master. He has a habit of clenching his fist in scenes where he wants to protect Sora from some of his decisions, but, in the end, Riku decides to trust Sora and listen to the plan he has to save Kairi. In the fallout of Sora disappearing from the Realm of Light, Riku remains calm, and, when there is a possibility of saving Sora, Riku takes a calculated risk by following the strange dreams he has and goes to where Sora is.
Kairi grows into a person who is willing to fight for what they care about by taking up arms to do so, which is something of a contrast of her character treatment as a damsel in distress in Kingdom Hearts. However, despite this growth, Kairi is shown to be clearly under powered in comparison to her opponents, even though she proves to be a decent fighter. In addition to this stark reality setting in, Kairi has to deal with physically losing Sora at the end of their parts in the Keyblade War. It will be interesting to see how Kairi continues to fight in the face of her trauma in the future.
The series of Kingdom Hearts has a plethora of trauma and tragedy within its storytelling. Dark moments, like losing one’s home and friends, which are seen in a few different games, and being manipulated are used to further character development through their resilience or lack thereof. Riku specifically, much like his predecessor, Terra, adapts more resilience techniques, plus some of what he learns from travelling with King Mickey and Ansem the Wise and Sora’s attitude to grow into a grounded person. Kairi is surrounded by dark, tragic moments, and, like Aqua, chooses to fight through it with her light. However, gaining this ability to fight what has traumatizes her has left Kairi more serious and not as optimistic or light-hearted, and needs the space to process everything that’s happened to her, once she is safe enough to do so. Sora seems to stick to his own resilience, sure of himself despite his circumstances, and it has yet to be seen if the trauma he’s faced via manipulation, gaslighting, loss, and war changed his personality at all.
It is also worth noting that the traumatic events of the past that set up the story of the Wayfinder Trio is resolved by the Destiny Trio being resilient enough despite their circumstances to break the cycle that was forming in Birth by Sleep. Terra and Riku are both manipulated by Malificient and, essentially, Xehanort. Both realize at the last moment and choose to fight against it. Riku, however, finds King Mickey and is afforded the chance to redeem himself in spite of his mistakes. Ventus and Sora fight to keep their friends together, both to the determent of their well-being. However, Sora finds a way to use the hurt and rage he feels at the injustice that happens to his friends and around him to make a difference, rather than be immediately destroyed by it. It is interesting, though, that despite Sora channeling his emotions in a slightly healthier way, he is doomed to the fate of being separated from his friends. It is possible that this happened because he broke the cycle that the Realm of Light seemed to be trapped in with Xehanort manipulating so many things in the background. Notably, Sora does not cut down Xehanort in a fit of rage, but rather allows Xehanort and Eraqus, who hid inside Terra’s heart, to resolve their differences and, in so doing, is deemed worthy of wielding the χ-blade by both of the Masters.
Aqua constantly fought against whatever trials she faced, but allowed moments of uncertainty and inexperience to be her downfall. At the end of her struggle before returning to the Realm of Light, she ends up giving into what has caused her so much trauma and pain. While Kairi can be seen making some of the similar mistakes as Aqua, due to her inexperience with wielding a Keyblade, especially when she is pitted against such formidable foes that Sora and Riku have beaten on at least two separate occasions, and she struggles with the uncertainty of her childhood memories, she, unlike Aqua, keeps fighting to find the truth and refuses to falter for Sora’s sake. As the series progresses, it will be interesting to see how Kairi processes what happened to her in the past, as well as what role she will play in the future, once she completes her training.
It is clear, from the trailer to Kingdom Hearts IV, that certain aspects of Kingdom Heart‘s plot and how it affects the Destiny Trio moving forward has changed. Quadratum is shown to be close to the real world city of Shibuya, and it is explained as a sort of after life for people like Sora by a girl who watches Sora wake up, so it is questionable at current as to whether Sora’s power of connection will work to draw his friends in the Realm of Light to him, beyond the portal that opened for the Fairy Godmother and permitted Riku to actively search for Sora at the end of Melody of Memory. Yes, Sora must find his way home once more, but, he certainly isn’t alone despite the distance he’s travelled and continues to resiliently hope that he can find his way back, and his friends appear to be doing the same in their continued search for him. In conclusion, the way that the Kingdom Hearts series presents traumatic moments and how it shows the paths key characters take to handle their trauma creates an uplifting and relatable feeling for the player. It is one of the few long running game series that consistently manages to tackle the themes of trauma, complete with showing rather realistic responses to the trauma, and resilience in such intricate, faceted, and hopeful ways.
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