These Weird Thoughts: Kingdom Hearts III: ReMind, Yozora, and Fan Expression

This is going to contain full spoilers for Kingdom Hearts 3 and its recent Re:Mind expansion. If you’re still planning on playing the DLC (it is very good), give that a shot before reading on.

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“None of this…makes sense to me.”

Picture the scene.

It’s a city at night. Sora, the hero of Kingdom Hearts, has encountered a Mysterious Figure around whom the portentous winds of destiny swirl like a maelstrom. The Mysterious Figure looks similar to Sora, almost eerily so, but they are distinguished by a unique aspect of their appearance. They speak of unseen adventures that happened before we arrived, and wield weapons that are like, and yet also unlike, that which Sora wields. And when the two fight, this new character defeats them handily, demonstrating a martial superiority over our hero that leaves us with no doubt that they are a force to be reckoned with, but not without taking time to show us that this Mysterious Figure cares for and respects Sora on some level.

I’m describing the final moments of Kingdom Hearts III Re:Mind, of course. But I could just as easily be describing countless examples of Kingdom Hearts fanfiction that I’ve personally read — and written. Re:Mind’s evoking of the aesthetics of fanfiction characters through Yozora is the expansion’s most interesting creative choice, and offers a more nuanced ending to the experience than I think most would have expected from Kingdom Hearts III.

Re:Mind, from its outset, is an expansion that is in conversation with it’s audience. It looks at how fans reacted to the original release, the things that they resonated with and the things they felt were lacking about it and responds accordingly. Players who wanted more of the emotive and resonant final hours of the game got exactly that (and a chance to run around the gorgeous Scala Ad Caelum). Players who found Kingdom Hearts III a disappointment in the challenge department got the new Data Organization fights, 13 of the most well-designed and engaging boss battles in the series history. If Re:Mind simply offered these things, it would be a great treat for fans, but there’s another subset of the fandom that Re:Mind explicitly wants to talk to: the True Lore Fiends, the ones for whom the Secret Endings are the most exciting part of each game, the ones who spent days endlessly speculating as to the mysterious identity of the Blonde Haired Kid. The ones like me.

When I was around 13 years old, I completed Kingdom Hearts II for the first time and was subsequently launched into the pool of Fandom in a way I had never been before or since. I hung out on Kingdom Hearts fan forums. I concocted wild fan theories with other fans. I hungrily devoured all Kingdom Hearts content I could find, including cutscenes from titles exclusive to Japan at the time, like Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix+ and Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories. And once I exhausted that well, I wrote Kingdom Hearts fanfiction.

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KH-Vids.net looks very different now from how I remember it, but this website was the only way I was able to see 2FM+’s amazing secret ending back in the halcyon days of 2007.

(Note: I’m going to use “fanfiction” throughout this piece, but I want to make clear that this is in no way exclusive to traditional prose: fan art, fan games, cosplay, and any other form of fan expression falls under the banner of “fanfiction” for this work. It’s all storytelling done by fans, after all.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a series so beloved by younger people, this was a vibrant community of young writers engaging in amateur art, developing their skills and expressing themselves through stories of their favorite characters…and the new ones they meet along the way. Because for whatever reason, one of the most popular types of fanfiction for KH (or at least the ones that I read/wrote) was the type that involved Original Characters created by the author, that often — though not always — took the form of Self-Insert characters for that author. Stories of characters with special powers and secret destines who fight against and alongside Kingdom Hearts mainstays, even surpassing them to take on a life of their own. It’s easy — maybe reflexive, even — to mock the efforts of these fledgling writers, but I don’t think that’s fair in the slightest. Not only is fan-fiction a thoroughly worthwhile medium in and of itself, and the Original Character an extremely valid mode of self-expression, it’s practically a fundamental part of KH fandom. And Re:Mind understands this. From the moment Yozora walks on screen in the Secret Episode, the game is communicating in the language of fanfiction in order to pass on the creative torch of Kingdom Hearts to it’s fandom, and it accomplishes this with an elegance that belies the franchise’s reputation for nonsensical storytelling.

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When Sora and company first arrive in Toy Box, the characters of Toy Story mistake the keyblade wielder for Yozora, emphasizing the connection between the two and the fact that Yozora is a design “remix” of Sora.

Yozora was first introduced to players as the protagonist of game-within-a-game Verum Rex, a visual riff on director Tetsuya Nomura’s unfinished Final Fantasy Versus XIII that appears in KH3’s Toy Story world. While the comparisons to Versus XIII protagonist Noctis are perhaps the most obvious (we’ll get to that), visually the character bears a more striking resemblance to Sora and Riku. His attire feels to me like something of a blend between those two, rocking a darker version of the jacket-vest-shorts combo (slightly more emo versions of KH outfits was it was all about in 2008) Sora and Riku wear, even taking the time to work in those Plaid flourishes that I am All About. His hair is identical to Riku’s, and his video game “Verum Rex” is apparently Latin for “True King”, echoing the recurring Crown imagery related to Sora throughout the series. Even his name is a twist on “Sora” that is only slightly less on the nose than the one used by my 14-year old self (It was “Aros”, incidentally. I know, I know). There’s one thing in particular that sets him apart from those two: his eyes.

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Yozora has heterochromia — for our purposes, it’s basically when someone’s eyes are different colours — which is a common enough signifier of importance in fanfiction to have become something of a meme (this is not to say it’s unique to fanfiction — far from it — but jokes about characters with heterochromia usually come part and parcel with jokes about Original Characters in fanfic) and is the element of Yozora’s design that ties it all together. He’s a kind of chimera of existing Kingdom Hearts designs with the addition of a “special” element, and it’s a mode of character design that cropped up a lot in the fanfiction I read. If I remember correctly, my own pet character was basically just Sora except they dressed in black and had what I’m sure I thought was a totally badass scar across their eye. All of this is to say that Yozora looks like he’s just walked off the set of a Kingdom Hearts fan film, and he…kinda has.

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Yozora’s dialogue and actions throughout this scene are emblematic of several stock Kingdom Hearts fanfiction tropes that I remember well from my time reading it. I haven’t read or written a Kingdom Hearts fanfiction since I was around 15 years old — a long time ago — so what I’m describing here may not be reflective of how things currently are in that scene. Regardless, this is how I remember KH fanfiction, and it’s certainly how I remember writing it.

Yozora references prior adventures, as well as his accidental appearance in this world, potentially a reference to the tried-and-true plot of an author being sucked into the world of the game. He has a vague, unexplained connection to someone Sora has encountered, referencing the tendency for KH original characters to be related to members of the existing cast, and, most tellingly of all, his mission is a spectacular combination of my two personal favorite stock KH fanfic tropes: defeating Sora to prove how much cooler and stronger you are than him, and rescuing him to…prove the same thing, usually. And in quite an astonishing break from series norms, you’re fully expected to lose this fight, and let Yozora come out the victor. Yozora even manages to do something no KH villain, no matter how powerful, has been able to accomplish: steal Sora’s Keyblade and use it against him. The idea of this happening in a fight with Captain Hook or Luxord seems ridiculous, but of course a character like Yozora can casually play with the iconic weapon of the series. He’s a fanfiction character. They can just do that. The series’ rhythms have completely given way to those of the fanfiction, and in so doing, the series is passing the torch of the narrative on to the creators of said fanfiction. The cutscene where all of this happens is even titled “Falsus Rex”, which is more Latin that apparently roughly translates to “Deceived King”. Sora, here, is under the false illusion that he is still the protagonist of this story, that the story is still his, but it isn’t: by the end of it, there’s no doubt that this cutscene is Yozora’s story.

It’s worth noting at this point that there’s something of a question mark over whether this figure we’re controlling throughout all this even is Sora: Yozora certainly doesn’t seem to think so (“Why are you using Sora’s name?”), and the story of the expansion leading up to this point suggests that he may be right. Re:Mind reinforces a connection between Sora and Master Xehanort through the reveal that Xehanort’s time-travel and Sora’s Power of Waking are the same — both characters exist beyond themselves, spreading themselves into different minds and forms, like a viral idea. I think the Sora here is not the literal Sora we know and love, but rather the idea of Sora that exists in Yozora’s head, the same way each person who plays Kingdom Hearts or sits down to write Sora in their fanfiction will have a slightly different conception of the character. Yozora doesn’t defeat the actual Sora here, he defeats the idea of Sora that exists in his head.

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And then Yozora wakes up in his car, and suddenly, the whole encounter is framed as his dream. He even echoes the opening lines of Kingdom Hearts 1, words that cast everything that followed in a dreamlike atmosphere that the series never truly broke from. The epic clash between two heroes we witnessed is reduced to the imaginings of a young man sleeping in the back seat of their car. This is what Yozora meant when they said “This isn’t what I really look like” — “Yozora” is the idealized, fan-fiction self-insert self of this boy. He didn’t defeat Sora, he just imagined a better, stronger version of himself doing it. The story of that clash hasn’t been written yet, doesn’t exist outside his head (This could also be why the fight has two endings — the boy is still working out the details). It’s a sad, somber note for the sequence to end on because it echoes the fate of a lot of fanfiction.

The sad truth is that because of the nature of serialized fiction released with little guarantee of a receiving audience, many of the imagined fanfic sagas that exist in our heads never quite get the chance to come to fruition. Sometimes it’s because of a lack of response, sometimes it’s because people change and grow outside of the stories they set out to tell, but much of the time it’s simply because writing is hard work. Letting your own stories play out with the infinite production values of your own imagination is so much easier than actually attempting to describe those imaginings through prose and dialogue, and oftentimes we aren’t quite able to manage it. My own planned KH fanfic saga didn’t get through its first few chapters before I abandoned it. Even writing this article in a way I’m satisfied with has been a struggle, simply recalling all of my ideas and putting them in an order that makes sense and reads well remains an enormous challenge for me.

Yozora awakening from the dream of his clash with Sora into an environment that directly echoes the trailers for Final Fantasy Versus XIII, itself a pipe dream of a story that we only have glimpses of, is a sobering reminder of the fate that meets not only many fanfics, but also many creative endeavors in general. While Noctis’ story eventually got released as Final Fantasy XV, that game is a very different beast from what Versus XIII was supposed to be, if only because any clear vision for Versus never seemed to materialize outside of a few scattered concepts. But now, Nomura seems to be taking another stab at it, in some form, which leaves the ending feeling a little more optimistic than it initially appears. Yozora and Nomura’s dream of a Versus Epic hasn’t materialized yet, but it still can. The epic that exists in your head can still be made.

These final moments of Kingdom Hearts III serve as an ode to these fanfiction original characters and the epics they belong in, finished or otherwise, and exist to, in some way, pass the torch of the series onto its devoted fandom. It’s not like this will be the final Kingdom Hearts game: we already know that a mobile game exploring the backstory of Master Xehanort is on the way, and there will undoubtedly be more besides. But it feels like it could be, and I think that’s what is important.

Yozora is a story waiting to be written, but does it have to be written by Nomura? Does it have to be told in the next big-budget Kingdom Hearts on the PlayStation 6? I don’t think so. To me, Yozora’s dialogue is fodder for fanfiction more than anything else. What strange world has he fallen into? What trials did he face? Why wait for the next game to answer those questions? Why not answer them yourself? Re:Mind, through the design of Yozora and the construction of this final scene, says that there’s no reason why the next Kingdom Hearts story — the next Versus Epic — can’t be yours.

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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015)

The closest comparison that comes to mind is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which also shifted gears to directly acknowledge the fandom of the series by making the player and the player character one entity across multiple bodies. It was an interesting idea, but as is so often the case in Metal Gear, it felt too blunt, too heavy-handed to really work for me, and ultimately the execution of that idea cast the player as a mere participant in the hero’s journey, rather than a unique and creative voice in their own right.

The secret episode of Re:Mind, by contrast, fully concedes to the player and their vision. Yozora, the representative of the Kingdom Hearts fandom, brings Sora to his world, a world rich with its own history (the “trials” Yozora mentions undergoing) defeats him handily (unless you’re one of the precious few who can claim to have overcome this incredible challenge), and effectively claims the mantle of the series for himself. The arena is significant as well: we transition from a night-time version of KH3’s Final World to Sora’s Station of Awakening — one of the most significant visuals in the series to longtime fans — which is then tapered over by downtown Shibuya. One of the most important pieces of iconography in the series is considered secondary to the experiences and expression of the fan creator. It accomplishes the goal of metaphorically passing on the creative torch of the franchise to the fandom without ever breaking with its own narrative coherency. On a surface level reading, you can take this scene merely to be a trailer for the next Kingdom Hearts game. But once you peel back the surface, it’s hard not to find a surprisingly sophisticated moment of Kingdom Hearts addressing it’s most devoted fans.

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This is still one of the best images in a series responsible for a huge amount of my favorites in video games.

I was somewhat cautious of Re:Mind. I really liked the original secret ending of 3, for how strange and incomprehensible, yet thematically clear it felt. I was concerned that any elaboration on that ending would dilute that, in much the same way that I felt Final Fantasy XV’s Royal Edition failed to understand what was so special to me about that game. I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong, because Re:Mind is an even more touching capstone to the series. If the original secret ending told its audience that Kingdom Hearts will be fine without them, then Re:Mind tells it’s audience that Kingdom Hearts belongs to them as much as it does its creators, and that whatever happens next, you’ll work it out together.

I’m not ok, and that’s ok. Video games! (She/They)

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