The latest in the Boss Fight Books series, available tomorrow, is Kingdom Hearts II by veteran games writer Alexa Ray Corriea. In the exclusive chapter excerpt below, she discusses one of the most intriguing aspects of the Square-Disney crossover's plot: eschewing boy-girl romance in favour of themes of male intimacy.
When I played Kingdom Hearts II for the first time, one moment stuck with me above all else.
Before the final string of boss battles, after reuniting with Kairi -- a brief hug and the murmured words "this is real" -- Sora prepares to continue his trek through The World That Never Was to find Xemnas. Ansem, tall and ominous in his black coat, watches this exchange from a dozen feet away. Silently, he turns and begins to walk away, only for Kairi to run after him and demand, "Riku, don't go."
At this point in the game, the player knows that Riku has taken on the visual appearance of Ansem, the main antagonist of the first Kingdom Hearts. After being possessed by Ansem, Riku retained part of his darkness, and leading up to this moment has been learning how to harness that power without becoming evil. Sora spends every free moment he has in Kingdom Hearts II looking for Riku, inquiring with everyone he meets about his whereabouts and lamenting his absence. Riku, meanwhile, has been dodging Sora, afraid to appear before him wearing Ansem's face.
But the moment Kairi speaks Riku's name, Sora's face twists, displaying a confusion and pain we haven't seen before. Kairi beckons Sora forward and takes his hand, placing it on Riku-Ansem's.
A slow, almost mournful song plays in the background as Sora closes his eyes, and looks past Ansem's guise to Riku, the friend he has so desperately searching for. Taking Riku's hand in both of his, Sora falls to his knees.
"It's Riku. Riku's here!" he cries, weeping and visibly shaking. "I looked for you! I looked everywhere for you!"
The scene reminds me of a moment earlier in Kingdom Hearts II, where Saix kidnaps Kairi. Saix calls Kairi "the fire that feeds Sora's anger," assuming that harming the girl will rankle Sora, leaving him emotionally vulnerable. This statement is wildly incorrect: Sora's fervor for Riku far outweighs his fervor for Kairi -- or for anyone else in the game. Riku is Sora's fire.
Sora and Riku's reunion is the big emotional payoff of Kingdom Hearts II, while meeting up with Kairi doesn't even get a fraction of this attention. That's because there is no traditional romance in Kingdom Hearts. Rather, we get a picture of intimacy between two young men, two best friends. It's exceedingly rare that any kind of media portrays non-romantic love between two boys so deeply -- too often this kind of bond is dismissed as sexual or nothing at all -- but Kingdom Hearts excels at painting that picture.
As Kingdom Hearts's main storywriter, Tetsuya Nomura seems keen on positive portrayals of male intimacy. He worked on the main premise of Final Fantasy VII, which featured a handful of close and complicated relationships between male characters. Cloud's relationships with Zack and Sephiroth -- two former brothers in arms -- colour our experience in his shoes.
In Final Fantasy VIII, the rivalry between Seifer and Squall is borderline flirtatious, with Seifer's antagonism towards Squall nearing obsessive. These male relationships would continue to play a role in future Final Fantasy games even without Nomura's involvement -- the camaraderie between Braska, Auron, and Jecht in Final Fantasy X, for instance, or the budding mutual reliance and respect between Snow and Hope in Final Fantasy XIII.
But in Kingdom Hearts II we see this love in its purest form, as we watch Sora break down in relief and joy over Riku's return.
The relationship between Sora and Riku is not the only intimate male friendship featured prominently in Kingdom Hearts II. There is also the bond between Axel and Roxas.
When Kingdom Hearts II begins, Roxas has already left Organisation XIII and is trapped in DiZ's Twilight Town simulation with no memory of his status as a Nobody. Through flashbacks, we learn that Roxas had grown unhappy during his time with Organisation XIII, and upon learning about his connection to Sora, decided to search for and meet him. Axel is aware of Roxas's plans to leave and does not alert the Organisation to Roxas's departure -- the others view his leaving as a betrayal.
Throughout Kingdom Hearts II, we see the same flashback a handful of times: Roxas walking away from Axel and saying, "No one would miss me."
"That's not true!" Axel shouts behind him, then drops his voice and murmurs, "I would."
After encountering a brainwashed Roxas in Twilight Town, he is saddened to hear that his friend does not remember him. He becomes increasingly upset when Roxas continues not to cooperate with him, and in Roxas's second fight with him it feels as though his anger is turned more on himself than on his former comrade. When we watch Roxas's flashbacks of Axel pleading with him not to leave the Organisation, we hear the sorrow in the latter's voice as he says he'll miss Roxas.
Counter to everything the Organisation has been led to believe, Roxas inspires true emotion in Axel: friendship, sorrow, understanding, compassion, love.
If Nobodies can regrow their hearts, what emotion more powerful than love can jumpstart their reconstruction? Roxas is the driving force behind Axel and influences his every decision, even when Roxas no longer exists as a separate, complete human being.
When Roxas is reabsorbed by Sora, this does not deter Axel from trying to see him again. Spurred by the desire to see his friend once more, Axel attempts to kidnap Kairi and use her to lure Sora to him. Then, so he says, he will separate Sora into a Heartless and Nobody once more, thus reincarnating Roxas and allowing him to again be his own free being. This plan goes awry, however, and Axel eventually gives up his plans to harm Sora.
Instead, Axel moves from attacking Sora to protecting him. If he can't bring Roxas back, he settles for the closest thing: standing by the human Roxas is a part of. Axel takes up this duty with a fierceness not present in the rest of his actions. While he calmly accepts responsibility for Naminé from DiZ and goes about his kidnapping business, he approaches the task of protecting Sora with fervour.
He wouldn't have done this if Roxas were not in the picture -- Axel makes it clear he's not into Sora's plans or his duty to stop Xemnas from summoning Kingdom Hearts. Axel's behaviour shows that he sees his self-worth only within the context of his friendship with Roxas. Without Roxas, Axel does not value himself or his own existence, as evidenced by his readiness to sacrifice himself to save Sora.
As Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Axel travel in the Corridors of Darkness -- the spaces through which you move between worlds -- they are attacked on their way to The World That Never Was. The number of Nobodies that descend on the group is so overwhelming that Sora can't beat them back. To save Sora and clear a path for the trio to escape, Axel uses up his life energy in one final attack that destroys all of the enemies.
Axel's final sacrifice takes place over a long cutscene in which we watch Sora kneel over Axel's prone body, trying to figure out some way to stop his destruction. With his dying breath Axel tells Sora how much Roxas meant to him. "I wanted to see Roxas," Axel rasps. "He was the only one I liked. He made me feel like I had a heart. It's kind of funny. You make me feel the same...."
We see Axel one more time in Kingdom Hearts II, in some sort of afterlife, or dream space, sitting on top of the Twilight Town Clock Tower with Roxas. Axel knows this is the last time he'll ever see Roxas as Roxas, and as he says goodbye he sheds a single tear. This is the only time we see Axel cry, and the second time any of the characters original to Kingdom Hearts cry in the game.
Sora crying for Riku, Axel crying for Roxas. The boys are the only ones who cry because their vulnerability is tied up with their dependence on each other. These are the believable relationships. These are the characters whose relationships players are never supposed to doubt. The emotion is raw and crystal clear in both of these scenes. We never see this level of emotion in Sora's reunion with Kairi. It just isn't there.
Axel defies his status as a Nobody and his duty as a member of Organisation XIII to ensure Roxas goes free. His new heart is born from his love for his friend, as is his determination to protect Sora. Part of what makes Roxas and Axel's relationship so beautiful is this outright rejection of their Nobody nature -- they feel for each other and they let each other know it.
Throughout most of Kingdom Hearts II, Sora and Riku are not as free to express their affection. Still, every interaction between Sora and Riku illustrates just how well the two know each other, and it's this instinctual knowledge of one another's behaviour that keeps them dancing around each other for most of Kingdom Hearts II.
Which is why the game's ham-fisted implications of a romantic love triangle between Riku, Sora, and Kairi are so unconvincing. While the narrative wants you to believe these two are destined to become lovers, any implied Sora/Kairi mutual affection comes off simply as friends bound together by happy childhood memories. Riku and Sora spend all of the first Kingdom Hearts looking for this girl, but at the start of Kingdom Hearts II it's clear they are more invested in one another.
Kingdom Hearts II begins with Kairi on Destiny Islands without Sora and Riku. Despite Sora's promise during the ending events of the first Kingdom Hearts that he would find her again, he has still not returned home or even bothered to contact Kairi. Instead, his search for Riku led him to Castle Oblivion and the events of Chain of Memories, which resulted in Naminé dismantling his memories and wiping memories of Sora from everyone he knew.
So as Kairi walks home from school with Selphie, she's nagged by memories of a missing childhood friend whose name she can't remember.
Selphie prompts her, asking if she means Riku -- but no, Kairi says. It's not Riku. It's someone else.
Meanwhile, that someone else is hopping from world to world looking for Riku, taking no time to stop by Destiny Islands to let Kairi know he's ok. Everywhere he stops on his journey, he asks the same question: Has anyone seen Riku? Why not ask for directions back home to Kairi? Despite the game's flashbacks and shoddily shoehorned-in visions of Kairi, she's just not Sora's priority.
Sora's constant search for Riku makes it clear that this is the relationship we need to be paying attention to. If there is supposed to be romantic love between Sora and Kairi, it's not present in the writing. Their reunion is brief, and their conversation is clipped and bland. Kairi tells Sora she came looking for him because he never came home, and Sora's reaction lets us know that he knows he screwed up. Sora apologizes to Kairi, and even as she hugs him, his response to her presence is anemic compared to the complete emotional breakdown he has when Riku is revealed.
Even after Riku's abominable behaviour, and even as he spends a majority of Kingdom Hearts II desperately avoiding Sora, his friend is still overcome to the point of tears when they meet. Sora does not rebuke Riku, he simply asks him why he has been avoiding him.
Earlier in the game, there is a scene in The Land of Dragons in which Riku appears, cloaked and hooded in the same black trench as the Organisation XIII members, and corners Sora alone on a snowy mountain. Sora, mistaking Riku for one of them because of his clothing, engages him in combat. Riku uses the sword he used in the first Kingdom Hearts, a red and purple blade called Soul Eater, and Sora immediately recognises it.
After Riku runs away, a bewildered Sora asks himself if that really was Riku, and why he would have attacked him. Despite all this, Sora is later relieved to learn that yes, Riku is in fact alive, and brushes away his transgression.
Sora is a benevolent guy throughout these games, but it's not like him to give a free pass to his opponents. But even after confirming it was Riku who attacked him, Sora seems to let it go. And despite the atrocities committed at Riku's hand in the first Kingdom Hearts, Sora still sets out in Kingdom Hearts II passionately searching for the lost Riku. He is the only ones who gets Sora's all-encompassing forgiveness.
After their tearful reunion, the pair even fight together. The final boss sequence of Kingdom Hearts II could have easily pitted Sora solo against Xemnas. Instead, Sora teams up with Riku, and the two pursue the villain across four separate stages.
As you play, you guide the pair on a small spaceship of sorts on the heels of a massive mechanical dragon. Once the dragon is defeated, the two face off against Xemnas, who wears a suit of armour and sits on a throne, throwing buildings at them. During these segments of the fight, you execute combo attacks that see Sora and Riku team up to deal more powerful blows. In one such combo, Sora grabs chunks of a floating building while Riku surfs on these pieces and then slams them into Xemnas.
In the final stage of the battle, Sora and Riku square off against Xemnas face-to-face in a moderately small bubble of space. One of Xemnas's most common attacks involves grabbing Sora with an electrical field and holding him in place while he slowly drains the boy's health. During these segments, players are given full control over Riku as he makes his way across the battlefield to rescue his friend. "Rescue" is even the word used for the command you must input to free Sora.
It's one thing to have these boys tell each other how they feel; it's quite another to see them act it out in a climactic battle sequence. It establishes the two of them as a team for later Kingdom Hearts games such as 2012's Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, which allows you to switch between Sora and Riku as you play. The team-up is also cathartic for the player. After Sora spends so much time lamenting Riku's absence and his emotional outburst when he finds him, it's poignant to watch the two of them in combat together, side by side for the first time in the game.
The team-up offers an insight into the dynamics of their friendship. Giving Riku more of the heavy lifting in their combo attacks -- breaking the buildings and hurling them at Xemnas as well as having to rescue Sora from the electrical attack -- sets him up as the more protective of the two. Sora is active while Riku is reactive, and in the same way he spends all of the game trying to avoid Sora, he spends the final battle allowing Sora to set up powerful attacks for Riku to execute.
By having Sora be incapacitated and requiring rescue says something about how the developers want players to view their relationship. In the end, Sora will always need Riku. Riku's presence makes Sora more confident, makes him stronger and more sure of himself. We see more of this feeling in Dream Drop Distance, where Sora fails his mission and needs Riku to bail him out, but the first seeds sprout in Kingdom Hearts II.
Setting the boys up as partners in the final boss fight -- literally your final act as a player -- telegraphs to us that the game is about Sora and Riku's friendship. You can't tell either boy's story without the other. Their friendship, Sora's desire to find Riku, and Riku's desire to protect Sora by only helping him from the shadows, is what drives the story forward and what lays down the game's emotional foundation.
Following the final battle, as they sit on the edge of oblivion, Sora and Riku confess their feelings to each other. This climactic scene isn't Sora and Kairi confessing their love, nor does it involve her in any way. We see her again in the very last scene welcoming Sora back to Destiny Islands, but the sweetness of her homecoming words is outshined by this exchange between the boys on a dark beach. They have won the fight, and they don't know if they will be able to return home. And so, in their relief, exhaustion, and anxiety, they lean into each other for support.
While Riku and Sora are not in love, the boys' friendship is one of the deepest and most moving relationships of any kind that I've seen in a video game. And part of why it works is because it's not a romance. Without sexual tension or expressed desire of any kind, these relationships appear as the deepest forms of male intimacy: mutual dependence, connectedness, and respect.
Riku says he is jealous of Sora because he always follows his heart. Sora says he has his "share of problems too," and one of them is wanting to be more like Riku.
"Well, there is one advantage to being me," Riku teases. "Something you could never imitate." When Sora prods him what it is, Riku says, "Having you for a friend."
"Then I guess I'm ok the way I am," Sora responds. "I've got something you could never imitate too."
Kingdom Hearts II is the tale of these broken bonds becoming whole and being used as power against the creeping darkness. As Sora says in the first Kingdom Hearts, "My friends are my power." Kingdom Hearts II proves that for Sora and Riku, this will always be the case.