Finding Fantastic Drinks (Part 1): I Can Run a LARP… Right?

Finding Fantastic Drinks (Part 1): I Can Run a LARP… Right?

Like a lot of folks my age, I’ve got a complicated relationship with the Harry Potter universe. There’s a lot wrong with the initial source material, and that’s before you even touch on the miasma of bad choices that surrounds the author and her recent expansions to the universe. All that said, though, nostalgia’s one hell of a drug by itself. When you add in the Harry Potter universe’s rich worldbuilding and its tantalizing promise that, if only you had a wand of your own, you too could easily fold yourself into the mythos, it had (and in some way still has) an incredibly powerful draw. (more…)

Sail the Nebulae: Seedship and Queer Escapism

Sail the Nebulae: Seedship and Queer Escapism

I fantasize about space travel in small moments throughout the day. The idea of sailing the nebulae, onwards to the next star, then the next, is intoxicating. I’m romanticizing, I know. Space is harsh, bleak. It will kill us without thought or conscience if we don’t approach the challenge of traversing its vastness with sober thought and care. But the appeal of leaving behind capitalism, leaving behind patriarchy, of trading gender binaries for stellar binaries—that appeal is strong, and it endures. (more…)

Breath of the Wild Got Me to Actually Do My PhD

Breath of the Wild Got Me to Actually Do My PhD

I’ve been playing video games for most of my life and I have never, ever, even once been any good at them. My mum is great. So are my brothers, but I have the kind of self esteem that tells me if I can’t do something Right™ the first time it’s because I’m a terrible horrible loser of a person and that I should never ever try again ever because everyone will find out how much of a loser I am and then they’ll hate me and go away forever. (more…)

Kingdom Hearts III’s Plot Problem is STILL Its Women Problem

Kingdom Hearts III’s Plot Problem is STILL Its Women Problem

A lot of us have that one series or property that we consider formative to who we are. Maybe it’s Star Wars or a horror movie we’ve watched once a year every year since we were six, or a game we’ll replay over and over to re-experience the magic of that first playthrough, but we all have that one thing that deep in our hearts we consider home. For me, since I was 14, it’s been the Kingdom Hearts series. I met my high school friends through the first game, and almost two decades later we still met up to talk about the eleventh (don’t hold me to that number) installment of the series, Kingdom Hearts III.

I grew up with crushes on Axel and Aqua, and I think we can all recognize that Riku and Sora’s deep friendship is made of the sort of stuff that even the best romantic dramas often lack. As confusing and convoluted as the story can be, I will always be grateful for the many hours of conversation it’s given my girlfriend and me as we try to work out whether the Master of Masters is a lying jerkface who orchestrated a string of tragedies on purpose.

A crop of key art from Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance. Sora and Riku perch on a clocktower. Sora grins and Riku smiles. Both hold their keyblades on their shoulders. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, Square Enix, 2012

Of course, I had my copy of KH3 preordered before Amazon even had a real release date. This actually turned out to not matter when I ended up at GameStop at 8:45 the night before release to pick up a copy from there instead, as one of the lucky ones who got their hands on the game three full hours in advance.

The game is largely everything that I wanted and needed it to be after a decade and a half of waiting. The nostalgia hit me in the face almost instantly with the excessively beautiful rendition of “Dearly Beloved” and the soothing artwork of Sora standing on the beach. The opening is a quick visual summary of everything that’s happened throughout the long series, a lot of which I imagine might be hard to follow if you haven’t played All Ten Games before it. The graphics are stunning, the music is incredible (the Twilight Town theme? Pure bliss), and the fighting mechanics are fun and easy to pick up. It’s almost a perfect game. It could have been a perfect game. But Kingdom Hearts III didn’t seem to like some of its worlds and characters very much, and that fact shone through the sparkling veneer very clearly.

For anyone who has no idea what the Kingdom Hearts series is about (valid), it’s a video game amalgam of Disney characters and settings, Final Fantasy characters, and original characters. They all have adventures together involving an increasingly complicated plot that takes literal hours to explain in full, but which is centered largely around Sora and Riku, its main leads.

And the fact that I can only single out Sora and Riku as its leads is one of the problems of the series, and more specifically, Kingdom Hearts III.

Kingdom Hearts II saw its most prominent female character, Kairi, mature into a confident teenager determined to stop waiting around for Sora to return. She’s given a keyblade of her own and fights back to back with Riku during the last stretch of the game. The implication, at least to my 15-year-old mind, was that the next game would see her come into her own as a proper Keyblade master, fighting side by side with Sora and Riku and taking a more central role in the story.

Unfortunately, Kingdom Hearts III goes the opposite way with her, regressing both her personality and appearance by several years to that of a timid pre-teen who’s writing letters she won’t even send to a boy she seems to be pining after. (See Tia Kalla’s fantastic article on the series’ treatment of women as a whole and why it’s been a constant problem.)

And I want to make this abundantly clear before the mob shows up: I love Kairi. She has always been full of potential and I am desperate to see her become a central character of the story, but KH3 leaves me feeling like the team actively dislikes her. Kairi is infantilized, shoved to the side, and stripped of all the strength she began to show in KH2. She’s spontaneously killed off in the final act, only to be used as a set-up for the next game in which she likely won’t have a strong presence either, seeing as she and Sora have once again been separated. Could the next game focus on her as a character entirely separate from Sora’s story and just as important? Absolutely. But historically, that’s never been the case and I’m not holding my breath now.

I wanted to see more of Kairi in KH3, and I wanted to feel like she is as important to Sora and Riku as they are to each other. But Kairi and Riku didn’t speak two words to each other or even really acknowledge each other’s presence throughout the game, and Sora and Kairi didn’t really have much contact either, with only one or two key scenes where they properly interact. The game goes so far as to undermine the sentimental “Paopu Fruit” scene by at first having Sora crane his neck to figure out why Riku is sitting alone a few yards away. Kairi, meanwhile, tried to get his attention and keep it for longer than 30 seconds.

The truly unfortunate thing is that the writers for KH3 showed that they’re capable of writing female characters who are important to every friend in their specific trio equally, such as Xion and Aqua. But Sora didn’t seem to seek her out to spend time with her even during the Paopu Fruit scene, and she and Riku don’t interact in the entire 10 hours of cutscenes. The “Destiny Trio” is effectively Riku and Kairi revolving independently around Sora.

Even Kairi’s design in KH3 suffers. She seems much shorter and physically smaller than she did in KH2 in comparison to the other characters, whereas in KH2 she was roughly the same size as Sora, who has not gotten taller or slimmer in between the games.

Kingdom Hearts, Square Enix, 2019

But Kingdom Hearts III didn’t only have a problem with Kairi: it seemed to dislike its Disney worlds as well. While Monsters Inc. and Toy Story (two Pixar properties) have fully-fleshed-out original storylines that thoroughly incorporate Sora and his friends, the Disney worlds feel thinner, with short stories that Sora barely gets to be part of.

In Arendelle, Frozen’s world, Sora spends the majority of the plot attempting to catch up to either Elsa or Anna, only to reach a location in time to witness scenes from the movie. He barely interacts with any of the protagonist princesses, and he gets hurled off the icy mountain at least twice during his attempt to reach Elsa (spoiler: he never actually gets to really talk with her).

In past KH games, we’ve gotten party members from Disney worlds to hang around with us throughout the plot. In Space Paranoids, you have Tron in your party, and in Beast’s Castle, Beast becomes your party member. But in Arendelle, where I expected we might get Anna or Elsa or even Kristoff we get… the giant frozen snowman.

Corona, Tangled’s world, is at least a little better in that it gives you small interactions to have with Rapunzel during the first half of the world, such as splashing her with water or ferrying a crown of birds to her. It immerses you in the world and makes you feel like Sora is legitimately part of the story. But too quickly, you’re ripped away from the main characters for long stretches of time until the last twenty minutes of the world are spent trying to catch up to Rapunzel and Flynn in the tower for the final scene and boss fight.

By contrast, the worlds of Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Hero 6 suffer from too little story and would have benefited immensely from short scenes with characters interjected in between swaths of exploration. Big Hero 6’s world, San Fransokyo, has a story that feels rushed and brief, leaving the majority of your time spent in that world to explore the city and play Hiro’s minigames. The Caribbean world introduces what seemed like an interesting subplot for Sora when Tia Dalma approaches him asking him to release her from her human form. I waited excitedly to see where that plot would go, only to find that when you catch up to the leads again, Calypso’s already been freed and Sora’s left with nothing to do outside of beating the boss fight. The plot is once again too short, with most of the time spent in that world allocated to exploring the islands looking for ingredients, chests, and lucky emblems.

A top-down shot of the Caribbean world in Kingdom Hearts III. The camera is at the top of a hill, looking down through foliage at the clear blue water. A ship pokes into frame from the right. Kingdom Hearts III, Square Enix, 2019

There’s something telling about the fact that in both Monstropolis and Toy Box, the two worlds with exclusively male leads and no active female characters in sight, are the two best-developed licensed worlds. It’s possible that the lack of development of the Disney worlds is strongly tied to the series’ general dislike of focusing on female characters as a whole, given that outside of Big Hero 6, the neglected worlds all feature strong female leads.

It’s even more obvious that Kingdom Hearts III is rushing through the Disney worlds the further into the story you get. Once we reach the last third of the game, starting with the Keyblade Graveyard, the plot picks up and takes off on a wild ride that’s engrossing to the very end. But the first two-thirds of the game are almost a chore to get through, which makes me feel like they were a chore to develop.

Kingdom Hearts III might not feel as hollow as it does if it focused on its female characters at least half as much as it focuses on its male characters. If nothing else, it could have delivered on the promise of KH2’s Kairi, who seemed determined to strike out independently of Sora and forge her own story.

I’m hoping that future installments of the series (because oh yes, there will be more) will take a little more care to develop the areas that aren’t directly related to the core cast of characters, particularly when that cast is predominantly male. I want to enjoy playing all of a Kingdom Hearts game, not just its male-led areas.

I also hope that future installments will finally push Kairi into the center of the story as one of the New Seven Lights, giving her more agency and development and a stronger presence that’s less dependent on Sora being around. Nomura’s teams are clearly capable of writing interesting female characters, as evidenced by Final Fantasy VIII and The World Ends With You; it just seems to be a matter of them actually wanting to do it.

Video Games are Reshaping My Relationship with My Chronic Illness

Video Games are Reshaping My Relationship with My Chronic Illness

It’s been over a year since I first started experiencing symptoms of a new chronic illness, as yet undiagnosed and mostly dismissed by doctors. I’ve lived with chronic mental illness my whole life, but this is the first major chronic physical illness I’ve developed. I am fatigued all of the time, with deep muscle pain that, over the past year, has spread from my legs into my arms and wrists. When my illness is particularly bad, I cannot eat. I feel nauseous, I get cramps, I can’t stand or walk for too long. In the last twelve months, I’ve also started a master’s degree on top of work, and I’ve continued to cope with mental illness and ongoing trauma. It’s been a rough year. (more…)

My First Game: Harvest Moon – Back To Nature (1999)

My First Game: Harvest Moon – Back To Nature (1999)

The earliest memory of my first game is sitting on the cold, hard, ceramic floor as a child, watching my older sister play our PlayStation 1. I remember a farmer running from his farm to pick up some herbs and bamboo shoots from the deep green ground by the blue waterfall near the entrance to the Spring Mine. There were two pretty girls walking around—one had bubbly pink hair, and one had her orange hair braided. My eyes were glued to the TV screen. (more…)