Some got married. Some came out. Some simply got older and began looking differently at the world and the game series they loved. Devoted Kingdom Hearts fans waited 13 years for the big sequel to 2006’s Kingdom Hearts II, and in that time, their lives took some dramatic turns.
Jaime bonded over the original 2002 Kingdom Hearts with her best friend when she was 10. She’s 26 now. “Neither of us would have ever thought, in a million years, that we would be married before Kingdom Hearts III, “ she told Kotaku over email.
Alice, who first started playing Kingdom Hearts at age 8 and is now 24, came out as bisexual and transgender since she first played the series. “If I told myself that, ‘Yes, you were gay for Riku,’ and, ‘No, you weren’t just crushing on Kairi and Namine, you wanted to be Kairi and Namine,’ I would have saved myself so much grief later on,” she said.
Josh, who started playing at 10 and is now 26, was diagnosed with depression, and still finds hope in the story of Kingdom Hearts.
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“Kingdom Hearts, for me, was my childhood,” he said. “A story of kids defeating their demons was endlessly inspiring to me. Laying eyes on the Kingdom Hearts III title screen hit me with a wave of nostalgia and left me feeling that same hope I felt as a kid, knowing I could overcome my brain chemistry.”
Last week, Kotaku asked Kingdom Hearts fans about how their lives changed while waiting for this game. We heard from dozens of Kingdom Hearts fans who wanted to tell the stories of how their lives intersected with their fandom for the series. They told us some extraordinary stories. One even pointed out to to me that he met Kotaku’s Maddy Myers when the two cosplayed as Kingdom Hearts characters while in high school and that he then introduced me to Maddy while we were in college, forging a lasting friendship with someone who eventually also became my coworker—all in the time between Kingdom Hearts II and III.
Some fans discovered that the fantasy world of Kingdom Hearts soured for them over time. Leo was a diehard fan of Disney and Kingdom Hearts growing up, playing the first game in the series when he was 10. He remembers crying when he finished the last of the Hundred Acre Wood side levels—he was so invested in the characters that once there wasn’t anything left to do it felt like Winnie-the-Pooh and all his friends were effectively dead, he said.
Leo, who is 26 today, said that as an adult he was unable to afford the console he’d need to play Kingdom Hearts III, but has also grown disaffected with Disney. “Basically any time Disney buys up a new thing I just become more and more worried about the impending dystopian future where five companies control everything,” he said.
Disney isn’t the only corporation that Leo has become wary of. After learning of the working conditions in Amazon warehouses, he canceled his Amazon Prime membership. With Kingdom Hearts, the temptation to return to the world of its characters is stronger, even if he has taken moral stands against corporate practices he finds immoral in the past.
Leo still feels connected to these characters, and said that he would play the game if he could afford it, if only because he played the other two. In the nearly two decades since the release of the first game, though, he’s become more aware of business practices of large corporations that don’t sit well with him, like Disney lobbying for extreme extensions of copyright law. “I don’t know, maybe it’s unreasonable, but a game that evangelizes Disney makes me feel really uncomfortable,” he said.
Indi, a thirty-year-old fan from Panama, said that playing games like Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts as a kid helped her understand her gender identity.
“My favorite Final Fantasy character ended up being Cloud, as I identified with him, especially because of the crossdressing part of the game,” she wrote of Final Fantasy VII’s protagonist. “Kinda made think that I could also be a girl, even if I was a guy.”
“I guess I was a pretty quirky kid,” Indi told Kotaku over email. “I hung out with the ‘nerds,’ but I never actually fit with them all that well, for I was the ‘girly boy’ of the party,” Indi said. “Kingdom Hearts was with me during my darkest hours, as a kid, having to struggle with bullying (black ‘gay’ kid in a school full of straight white male jocks, who happened to be extremely racist) and an absent father,” she said. “Kingdom Hearts was there for me to remind me that life still had good things.”
Indi said that she suspected that she might be transgender from a young age, but that coming to terms with that in Panama’s “macho society” was difficult. For years, she repressed those feelings. Societal pressure wasn’t the only obstacle to transition for her, as Panama law was also a significant impediment.
“Panama is a country where homosexuality was illegal until 2008, and is extremely underdeveloped on healthcare for trans people,” she said. She told Kotaku that she had trouble finding other trans people and a doctor able to treat her, and wasn’t willing to transition through self medication.
“Finding doctors who were actively willing to attend trans people was extremely hard for me,” she said. “Not to mention the cost of medication and other expenses, my insurance doesn’t cover for these things, so it all comes out of my own pocket.”
Indi came out and transitioned last year, after multiple years of therapy. She will soon start hormone replacement therapy. It’s just a coincidence that these changes happened so close to the release date of Kingdom Hearts III, she said, though she finds it comforting to think about.
“I also find it extremely heartwarming, that now that I am finally beginning my transition and truly starting to enjoy life, is when Kingdom Hearts III finally comes back to my life. As if it was just there, waiting for me to finally choose for my own happiness.”