Friday, March 28, 2014

5 Lessons Kingdom Hearts Has Taught Me

Author's Note: Seeing as today is the anniversary of Kingdom Hearts, I decided I would share an award-winning article I wrote a couple years ago about the ways that this series has effected me as an individual. This article has been featured on and won 1st place in a non-fiction writing contest on

As this is an all-encompassing article, beware of **major spoilers** for 358/2 Days and Birth by Sleep, as well as some minor spoilers for Dream Drop Distance and other Kingdom Hearts games.

There’s a special something about Kingdom Hearts. For years I’ve tried to put my finger on the definition of this something, but I’ve never come up with a satisfying answer. One thing I know for sure is that—personally—no other video game franchise has been so influential and thought-provoking as this one. A deceptive depth underlies its simplistic, Disney-esque feel. Its characters have grown on me—and almost grown up with me—to the point where I regard them as “old friends.” The lessons I’ve learned from this franchise as a whole can’t all be listed here, but I’d like to highlight some of them, none-the-less. They have touched my life and influenced my convictions, and for that I believe they deserve recognition.

Lesson 1: Even Nobodys are Somebodys
I want to highlight Xion in particular for this point. Xion’s story is easily the most heart-breaking in the franchise. She comes into existence as nothing more than a tool to further the Organization’s schemes. In the most literal sense of the word, Xion is a true “nobody”—a being who never really existed at all—just a physical embodiment of Sora’s memories.

And yet  Xion makes an impact on those closest to her—Roxas and Axel. These three form an unbreakable friendship—so strong, in fact, that Xion is willing to sacrifice her existence in order to see it protected.

Roxas, Xion, and Axel share a peaceful moment before the storm.
One of the most misunderstood scenes in 368/2 Days shows Roxas cradling a dying Xion. Just before her death, Roxas gasps out, “No! Xion… who else will I have icecream with?” Fans often joke about the naivety of this line, not realizing just how powerful it is. Xion has made such an impression on Roxas that, without her, Roxas can see only an empty hole in his life. Those simple memories of sharing icecream together on the clocktower have become more important to Roxas than anything else—his accomplishments, his standing in the Organization, even the truth about his existence. After all, it was Xion that encouraged him to find the truth behind his unanswered questions. With her death, that encouragement has also ceased to exist.

And yet, even whilst dormant in Roxas’ memories, Xion still manages to influence him. During Roxas’ final battle with Riku, Xion telepathically interacts with both combatants, ultimately setting her friend on a path to rejoining Sora and discovering his ultimate purpose. In the end, Xion lives on—in the heart of Roxas, which is truly the heart of Sora. Her influence helps to shape Roxas and grow him as a person. In this way, Xion is far more than a collection of embodied memories. She had more “heart” than most of the Organization. Her memory will forever linger in the mind of the one person that was closest to her.

All that to say this: I find Xion highly inspirational. She stands out from the cast because she proves a powerful point—that everybody has a purpose… even if it seems that that individual was “never meant to be” or “never should have been.” Without Xion, Roxas would have probably never struck out on his destiny to rejoin Sora, and Axel may have developed in a dramatically different light—one that did not expand his heart and emotions quite so much.

Lesson 2: Your Past is not Your Future
Riku wearing a blindfold to keep his Darkness at bay.
From the moment that Riku discovers the Darkness, he sets himself on a shadowy path to redemption. He stumbles between the Light that is his friends and the Darkness that lies buried in his heart. His personal journey is filled with self-regret, anger, and mistakes, and yet Riku never lets himself give up on reestablishing himself as a true friend to Sora and Kairi.

Looking at the latest installment in the series, Dream Drop Distance, it’s incredible to see Riku’s unwavering dedication to his friends—especially near the end, in which he takes up the Keyblade and goes to Sora’s aid. Looking at Riku’s early years, in which he openly humiliated, and even turned his Keyblade against, Sora, it’s difficult to believe that he’s even the same character.

It’s obvious that Riku has regrets about tampering with the Darkness, but he accepts his past and moves on. By the end of the Mark of Mastery exam, Riku realizes that his future doesn’t have to reflect his past. Does he still struggle with Darkness? Of course. Xehanort’s Heartless seems to haunt his every step, and yet Riku acknowledges this as his personal demon and grows stronger each time he does battle with it. His heart eventually becomes so powerful that when Xehanort’s Heartless approaches him for the final time, Riku is able to ward him off, simply by raising his Keyblade. In the end, his mistakes and his painful road to redemption give him a quiet strength that even Sora cannot understand, having never gone through the same experiences.
Riku shielding Sora from Xemnas' Ethereal Blades.
Riku is my favorite character for this very reason—he is relatable. I’m sure that, like me, a lot of fans look to him as a beacon of hope—that no matter the opposition, it can be overcome; no matter what the past holds, it does not have to dictate the future. Each day is a new opportunity to set things right. Each opportunity is a challenge to grow. Each growing pain makes you stronger as an individual.

Lesson 3: Trust Until Given Reason to Doubt
Sora’s name has all but become synonymous with naivety, and yet a closer inspection of his seemingly reckless behavior reveals something much deeper beneath the surface: trust. No matter who Sora encounters—whether it be angsty Neku or imperiled Alice—his automatic response is always either: “Can I help?” or “Let’s be friends!” Sometimes it’s both. In the same mouthful.

Sora reaches out to Namine.
This default trust is shocking, especially when you consider the amount of deception that Sora has encountered in his lifetime. In Kingdom Hearts, Riku—his best friend—betrays and fights against him. In Chain of Memories, Sora learns that Namine has been deceiving him all along, and yet he still chooses to protect her at the risk of his memory being lost. Unlike Roxas, who experienced similar deceptions his entire life, Sora never loses his faith in others. I believe that the answer to this miraculous trust lies in the fact that Sora holds deep-rooted friendships with those that he meets. He stands on a belief that a true friend is someone that you can trust unconditionally—and accept unconditionally. In that light, Sora finds it easy to trust and even easier to forgive a fault.

It is because of characters like Sora that I’ve begun to give others more trust and more benefit of the doubt. I hold a faith in my friends that says, “I trust you because you’ve never given me reason to doubt.” But, like Sora, I also understand that we are all imperfect human-beings. Forgiveness is a necessary ingredient, and it is certainly the fastest way to mend a broken or strained relationship.

4. Love is the Strongest Weapon of All
Sora embodies trust, optimism, and the importance of forgiveness.
Kingdom Hearts is full of love, although if you’re searching for it in a romantic sense, you’ll be looking in all the wrong places. Let me clear up my definition of love in order to explain this point. By my definition of love, I mean a selfless, unconditional, accepting love—not a boyfriend/girlfriend romancey-kind-of love. In Kingdom Hearts, this kind of love fills the game. When Sora proclaims that, “I don’t need a weapon. My friends are my power!” he’s speaking of this unbreakable bond of love that he shares with them. Sora realizes, long before any other character does, that the power of love is stronger than the Keyblade itself. Through his concern—his love—for his friends, Sora is able to heal the mental and emotional wounds of many characters, and even aid in the redemption of Axel and Riku. Though a mighty weapon, the Keyblade could never perform such acts.

The power of love presents itself in the father/son relationship that exists between Terra and Master Eraqus in Birth by Sleep. Although we are told little about either characters’ pasts, it is quite clear that Terra views the Master as his own father, even going so far as to call him such during his final battle with Xehanort. Perhaps Terra was an orphan, brought in—like Ventus—to Eraqus’ care when he was young. Whatever the terms of their first meeting, the results were magnetic.

Eraqus fades into the Light after a mortal injury.
Unfortunately, Eraqus suffered from excessive worry and lack of trust, having been betrayed by his friend Xehanort in the past. This fear leads to his strict aversion of Darkness and an almost scrutinizing surveillance of Terra the moment that his pupil shows outer signs of his inner Darkness.  Though his love for Terra never comes into question, Eraqus’ fears eventually lead to a severe misunderstanding and a deadly Keyblade battle with Terra, in which Eraqus is mortally wounded. As the Master’s life fades away, a strange phenomenon occurs. Both Terra and Eraqus simultaneously come to terms with each other, recognizing their personal faults and silently asking the others’ forgiveness.

After Terra’s own demise at the hands of Xehanort, his heart proves stronger than the evil one thought possible. It soon becomes apparent that someone new is residing in the former pupil’s heart—Master Eraqus. Even in death—even in the face of personal failure—Terra and Eraqus never lose the love that they have for each other. It is this act of love that gives Terra the strength to face years of helplessness, imprisoned in the confines of Xehanort’s dark existence.

Terra considered Eraqus his father. Artwork by Yobe Ninda.
“I'm not afraid of what the darkness holds now. Even if you do wrest control of my heart from me--even if you cast me into the deepest, darkest abyss--you'll never sway me from the one cause that pushes me to keep on fighting. Whatever the cost, I'm ready to pay it.”

With those words—and only the spirit of his beloved Master to guide him—Terra prepares for the battle ahead. He knows that he can win. The power of love has shown him that.

I am a strong believer in “overcoming evil with good” through the power of love, and Kingdom Hearts has served to reinforce this theory in my mind. No matter the fault and no matter the wound, love cures and makes right. Even the most wicked evils do not stand a chance in the face of it.

Lesson 5: We Are All a Part of Each Other
I thought it would be appropriate to close with this point, as it is one of the strongest underlying themes of the series: we are all a part of each other, and together we form something greater. “The three of us will always be one,” says Aqua, and even when she, Ventus, and Terra, are separated by death, Darkness, and deception, they never lose sight of this belief.

Wayfinders symbolize the eternal connection of friendship in Birth by Sleep.
Sora sums it up in a climatic pre-battle speech with his best friend Riku: “Although my heart may be weak, it’s not alone. It’s grown with each new experience, and it’s found a home with all the friends I’ve made. I’ve become a part of their heart just as they’ve become a part of mine. And if they think of me now and then… If they don’t forget me… Then our hearts will be one.”

This network of friends—linked through the power of love—leads to one individual sharing hearts with many others. In this way, nobody is an island unto themselves. With each contact made, a piece of one individual forever connects with another—influencing him, healing him, or harming him. When hearts grow strong, they form legacies, and those legacies keep friends and memories eternally alive. Lea had a thing or two to say about this topic in Birth by Sleep, “I want everybody I meet to remember me. Inside people's memories, I can live forever.”

In almost every Kingdom Hearts game, the main characters become separated from each other—forcefully or otherwise—for an extended period of time. Yet, throughout this separation, they never forget that they are together in spirit. Sora first realizes this after his reunion with Kairi, “I looked everywhere for you, but you were with me all along,” he says.

Seasalt Icecream is a symbol of friendship in 358/2 Days.
For me, this has served as a reminder to influence carefully. With each contact I make, I am—in some way—shaping each person I meet, and I want to shape them (or become a part of them) in only a positive way. Understanding this concept brings a huge responsibility into focus. I can say with certainty that Kingdom Hearts has given me a lot to chew on in this particular area.

More importantly though, I have been reminded that I’m never truly alone. I have people and friends who I have impressed and been impressed upon… People who care about me and want the best for me. People that I can open my heart to, or simply sit on a clocktower and eat some seasalt icecream alongside. It’s a good feeling, and it’s truly comforting to know that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life, just because you were in it.

I feel like I could expand this list forever. Kingdom Hearts has been a major part of my inner influence map, and its prominence only grows with each new installment to the series. I owe this franchise for a lot of things—expanding my creativity, getting me into Disney, introducing me to an amazing story filled with vibrant characters…

…But most of all, perhaps, I owe Kingdom Hearts for simply being a part of my life. It’s taught me lessons about friendship, purpose, destiny, and love that I will never forget.

The Destiny Islands trio watch the sun set as they dream about their futures.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Book Review: Precisely Terminated

In her first-ever novel, Amanda Davis tells the story of a dystopian future wrought with manipulation, danger, and helplessness. Even so, hope has an interesting role to play as well—through many sacrificial and kind-hearted characters—which sets this tale apart from most others in its genre.

The fictional world of Cantral is inhabited by various classes of people, all of which have been implanted with small microchips. These chips force obedience from their hosts, or cause their deaths if certain tasks and rules are not followed completely. As the only one in Cantral without a chip, Monica is the world’s one hope of freedom from these deadly devices and the supercomputers that govern them.

All-in-all, the world system in Precisely Terminated runs well with the story. As this dystopian tale keeps otherwise-complex subjects relatively simple, it’s a great entry novel for adults and teens alike who have never read the genre. Monica’s goals are instantly clear, and the workings of Cantral are easy to grasp and equally plausible. Some readers may feel a bit empty for answers by the end, as the novel doesn’t say much about how the world came to be in its current condition, but I have confidence that—with two books to go in the series—there’s still a lot of ground left to cover.

As a Christian author, Amanda Davis keeps her novels free of language, sex, and other blights that plague a majority of the secular YA shelf. Parents and readers should note that a sort of despair hangs over portions of the book, however, and that there are a few instances of violence that may give younger readers pause. For example, one character loses part of a finger to a whirling blade. It is also discussed that—in order to get one of Monica’s earliest chips—a council member had used a fan to slice open the skull of a dead girl. This mature content makes Precisely Terminated an excellent read for teens, though some of younger readers may be bothered by the few instances of graphic violence.

Though there are few references to Christianity at the start of the novel, by the end these things start to seep in. Between an entry in a character’s diary and a not-so-subtle hint from the author in the acknowledgements, it’s clear that Amanda plans to slowly pour more and more Christian allusion into her trilogy. I expect the second novel, Nobel Imposter, will contain even more.

A relatively small cast keeps this tale of light in darkness quite simple. The central characters are delightfully flawed and relatable, and I look forward to seeing new additions introduced to the core group. Through clever and creative devices, Amanda gives Precisely Terminated an interesting, but adrenaline-laced, edge. Most importantly, this is one dystopian novel that doesn’t leave readers in the depths of helplessness. Hope acts as a silent vigilant throughout the story, and by its end, the dawn of freedom begins to break over the horizon of despair.

I wish my best to Amanda and her journey as an author. She has succeeded in producing an eye-catching tale of courage, sacrifice, and faith. If you’re looking for a clean, exciting new trilogy to sit alongside your Chronicles of Narnia, Dragons in our Midst, and Sword of the Dragon series, then go pick up Precisely Terminated. It’s a great way to enter the dystopian genre without wading through all of the depressing, godless muck.

In the mean time, I think I’ll pick up Noble Imposter and see what trouble Monica lands herself in next…  

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Secret to Everyday Success

I just want to share some simple thoughts with you today about everyday success. Now I know what you’re thinking: this is going to be about being studious, going to bed on time, eating right, not procrastinating, and pursuing your education. Let’s be honest: that’s has been done a million times already. I’m not going to put you all through that again. Instead, I’m going to focus on an area that sometimes gets overlooked when we consider our success and our education.

Success starts with you. If you want to be successful in college and successful in life, you must choose to have personal success every day. I’ve been going to college for over four years, and I just want to share some things with you that motivated me to move forward when I felt discouraged, overwhelmed, and unmotivated.

I’ve discovered that there’s a key to everyday success. It’s not checking everything off your checklist, it’s not getting your assignments in on time, and it’s not eating three balanced meals a day (although I don’t discourage any of those behaviors). The key to everyday success is not happiness. It is choosing happiness. I know that sounds incredibly simple, but it’s true. Success begins with you—it begins with how you choose to view yourself, your situation, and your outlook on life. This was a truth that I learned at a critical point in my life, when I believed that circumstances created my mood. Bad days equaled sadness. Good days equaled happiness. And so on.

Let me let you in on something. Happiness is a choice. Yes, there are times when our circumstances naturally make it easier for us to feel good about ourselves and our day. But if we depend solely on circumstances to make us happy, how are we going to be successful when we feel bombarded by exams, rainy days, loss, and depression? One of my favorite quotations by Vivian Greene says, “Life's not about waiting for the storms to pass... It's about learning to dance in the rain."

Some of you may be thinking, “You don’t understand what I’m going through. It’s impossible to be happy. I feel so overwhelmed.”

And you know what? You’re right. Nobody will ever understand the exact pressures, struggles, and feelings that you face every day. But that does not change the fact that happiness is a choice you make. 

Pretend that at the beginning of your life, you were standing in a hallway with two doors. If one door represented a lifetime of happiness and the other door represented a lifetime of misery, which door would you walk through? I don’t believe that any of us enjoy being miserable. In fact, I think there would be a stampede for door #1. If you could choose happiness that simply, then why do you deny yourself happiness in the present? I know that making the conscientious choice to be happy each day takes a lot more effort than simply walking through a magical door, but the principle is the same. The only person who can deny you happiness is yourself.

So how can you have everyday happiness? There are two ways that have effectively helped me. The first is incredibly simple and perhaps even predictable: be thankful for what you have. Look at where you are right now—reading this post via computer or iPhone. Simply having access to the internet is a blessing in itself. Where are you reading this from? Likely a building of some kind—perhaps your home, perhaps your college, perhaps your workplace—all of which are blessings in themselves. And that’s just looking at this present moment.

None of us have perfect lives. Each of us has our own battles and struggles and difficulties. Some of us struggle with depression, self-esteem, fears, anxiety, and uncertainty. But next time you have to force yourself to get out of bed in the morning and greet a day that you’d rather just sleep through… remember that you were able to literally get out of your bed in the first place. There are a lot of people who have never been able to walk who would give anything to be able to stand on their own feet.

Being thankful is one of the most important keys to happiness at your disposal. Challenge yourself to be thankful for something different each day. Even in your darkest moments, there is something monumental to be thankful for—the clothes on your back, the strength in your body… Even if you lived from now until the end of time, you could never run out of something new to be thankful for each day. That is one of the greatest keys to happiness.

The last point I want to leave you with is what I believe is the second key to happiness—thinking outside yourself. The world as you perceive it is only as large as the individual lives that you care for. If you think only of yourself, your world will be defined by that, and it will become a small, overly-involved cycle of pursing endless self-fulfillment, only to find semi-satisfactory results waiting at the end. When you choose to think of others, your horizons expand. You begin to see the world from more viewpoints than your own, and it becomes a beautiful place.

When we worry, feel overwhelmed, depressed, or bitter, we become self-consumed. We focus inward and forget that there is a beautiful world surrounding us, filled with people that we can impact. Think about how many people you encountered today. What kind of interaction did you have with them? Even if you made the smallest contact with them, you have had some small impact on them and shaped their day in some way. You offer a piece of yourself to every person that you meet. What impressions do you give? What impact do you have?

Always think of others. Strive to do at least one selfless thing a day—whether it’s sending someone an encouraging text, complimenting someone, donating to someone in need, or volunteering. When you help others succeed, you help yourself succeed. If you are feeling discouraged and hurt, and you choose to show kindness to another person, you are doing one of the strongest things you possibly could. You are acting against your nature to nurse your own hurts and choosing to focus on someone else. That takes great strength and it says a lot about your character.

In order to have a successful future, you must choose to make everyday a success. You will not always succeed, but facing and overcoming failure will be a greater part of your success. Demand your right to fail. Accept the challenge that failure poses, and choose to pursue your dreams and education regardless. Because if there is no chance of failure, success is an empty, meaningless thing.
Make everyday a success. Choose happiness. Find something to be thankful for each day. Do a small act of kindness for someone each day.

The future is yours. 

Embrace your dreams.