When you picture a hero, what comes to your mind? Is it a stoic character? Is it someone with a cynical sense of humor? An anti-hero? Are they clad in spandex and believe in doing everything for the greater good? Are they as old as time itself? Maybe someone young who has to suddenly tackle the world? The idea of a heroic character differs from person to person, and when I picture a hero, I think of Sora. But the thing is? We don’t really see protagonists like Sora anymore.
If you spare a glance at the current line of FINAL FANTASY titles, their leading protagonists are often someone who embodies ambiguity. They are engulfed in mystery, and a lot of cover art depicts them with a cold, reserved, and distant disposition. It’s unfortunate we get a recycled Cloud Strife doppelganger with a few tweaks added here and there.
If we look at the Final Fantasy series line-up visually, think of some of the recent characters added to the series. For example, Lightning. Nothing against her as a character for her kickass battle moves, but she doesn’t look friendly or approachable on a glance alone for people who have not played it. Noctis, while more on the shy and reserved side doesn’t stray far from the impression Lightning gives you either.
I’m not saying these characters have to look gentle and kind like Kirby, oh no, but their personalities are starting to run flat. They’re predictable. We have a feeling where their growth is headed. We get a clear image of their actions and behaviors toward others. If we can figure out that much, it’s a problem. But let’s step away from Final Fantasy and turn the focus to other well-known, anti-hero characters.
Take Dante from DEVIL MAY CRY: pain in the ass with an insufferable mouth to boot. It’s hard not to be charmed by him through these traits because he’s wild and funny. The most we understand from Dante is the complex relationship with his brother Virgil. Beyond that? We don’t really see much beyond his exterior throughout the series.
Here’s another take: BAYONETTA. Who doesn’t love that glamorous witch with guns on her heels? We get glimpses of her past in the first game, but there’s the keyword to it: her past, not so much her present. We find out what defines Bayonetta and the adoration she possessed for her family. As excellent as games are, there could be more Bayonetta beyond amazing battle sequences. Sure, there’s a limitation to the shooter, hack-and-slash genre, but seeing more to their leading protagonists wouldn’t take away from the game.
These are only some protagonists, and, of course, heroes come in all different forms. I love Dante, and I love Bayonetta, but Sora’s emotional capacity for understanding, sympathizing, caring — that’s a hero we rarely get anymore. Even from a visual standpoint, he smiles and looks friendly. Now, granted, KINGDOM HEARTS has a lot of games. Some are better than others, so it stands within reason we would see character development at some point. Despite characters like Riku, Kairi, Axel, Aqua, and so on, nobody hits the concept of being multi-faceted quite like Sora.
I noticed games, especially when they focus on male protagonists, often don’t like to make their characters emotionally vulnerable. When we get an insight into their past, or when someone they know dies, it’s the only time we get to see them break loose. Anguish, grief, and sadness are all wonderful emotions that make a character human, but not often seen as it should be. Sora diverges from the male-centric image of “toughness.” Yes, he can physically hold his ground, but emotionally? He’s absolutely open about it.
There have been several instances where Sora flounders with his own feelings. Sora allows us to see him over-the-moon with joy when he’s with Donald and Goofy. He provides his perspective on desperation to save Riku over and over again. He’s not afraid to express himself boldly and wholeheartedly. Like in KINGDOM HEARTS: DREAM DROP DISTANCE, there’s that very touching scene that involves Sora returning to Traverse Town. He searches for the Dream Eaters he’s befriended and disheartened when he doesn’t see them. But the minute he hears the (adorable) call of his Meow Wow, he’s utterly happy. The Dream Eaters swarm, and he’s enveloped in affection. Sora eagerly returns their affection right back.
But you know that guy ritual — that handshake when they greet one another I get it, but hugs normally don’t happen. Sora, on the other hand, gains personal reassurance through direct contact, through hugs, and it’s pure. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and while that can be seen as a weakness, time and time again Sora demonstrates how empowered he feels against his enemies because of all the love he’s ever gotten through his friends and all the love he’s given them.
It’s Okay to Cry
You know the expression? Big boys don’t cry. Real men don’t cry. It’s such a shame too, especially the descriptor of “real men.” Men are men. What behaviors are needed to make them “real?” It’s ridiculous. Crying is an expression, a breaking point of an event that triggers a profound sadness or even happiness. Boys should cry. Men should cry.
And Sora? He cries. It doesn’t strip his identity, we helped him kick ass plenty of times. We know he’s strong, but even he’s prone to breaking down. The manga, as old as it is, depicts scenes with Sora, which show him more emotionally receptive than what the game could provide. Cutscenes are limited, I suppose.
Sora doesn’t conform to leading male protagonists’ expectations. He is emotive, more than most heroes generally are. Granted, one scene in the game was more of Roxas crying than Sora. The manga’s run explored Sora’s reactions and mood whenever he was closer to finding Riku and Kairi. The (old) PlayStation games can’t really capture micro expressions that well, whereas the manga adaption can.
Regardless of the video game version and the manga, Sora freely expresses his emotions and vulnerability through tears. He surprises Hayner and the rest when he cries as Roxas, but they mostly worry about him rather than tease him. Sora breaks down in front of Riku when he found him at long last in The World That Never Was. It’s a raw moment to be reunited with the one person he’s been tirelessly looking for. It’s an overwhelming flurry of emotions — closure, relief, happiness — and he expresses it through crying, and it’s truly what makes Sora, Sora. He’s someone who cares so much and will absolutely show it.
Embracing the Kid Inside
So many games have characters face that turning point when their party member usually tells the hero/protagonist they need to “grow up.” Contexts can vary through these situations, but the one thing about KINGDOM HEARTS I personally enjoy is that the characters learn it themselves. Nobody is rushing them to mature; it comes to them.
Sora changes over time, but one thing’s for sure: he never allowed the kid inside of him become forgotten. His friends and everybody he meets in different worlds don’t expect him to change, neither do they want to. They favor Sora’s wholesome personality, his pure and passionate heart, and how much he wants people to have second chances. We have seen Sora give others the benefit of the doubt where others disagree with him. There’s a child-like innocence to Sora who strives to see the good in everybody.
Sora is someone who wants to bring happiness, who wants to act like a goofball, and who also wants others around him happy. We’ve seen it happen plenty in his interactions with Riku. From making a funny face after Riku was dramatically lamenting, to wearing Groucho Marx glasses and a party hat after Riku willingly dived into the perils of the Realm of Sleep to save him.
Imagine Riku’s internalization that the one person he risked everything for to wake up was joking around with silly glasses and having a tea party. Essentially, that’s the main point. He’s a doofus. He stays a doofus and his friends still care about him all the same. Stay gold, Sora.
Unwavering Devotion through Thick and Thin
Many heroes often don’t give up on someone who they’re fighting tooth and nail for, even when their party members encourage them to let them go. And they do sometimes or get betrayed, or there’s a death involved. In KINGDOM HEARTS, Donald and Goofy cast their doubts about Riku (mostly Donald) but accompany Sora as per the King’s orders. Even though Riku repeatedly engulfed himself in darkness and dismissed Sora’s attempt to save him in the first KINGDOM HEARTS game, Sora does not relent. Not even for one second.
Riku has hurt him plenty, emotionally and physically, but that never put a damper on Sora’s headstrong determination. Nor did he harbor any ill-will or resentment whenever Riku physically knocked him down or even when Sora started to question his worth in Hollow Bastion and lost his keyblade.
If anything, it only encouraged Sora to reach that breakthrough to have their friendship restored. And while it will never be the same (when it just started as an innocent rivalry between two teenagers whose biggest goal is simply constructing a raft to set sail from Destiny Islands), Sora wants to build his friendship from bottom-up.
KINGDOM HEARTS II and KINGDOM HEARTS: DREAM DROP DISTANCE provides us the fighting sequence against Xemnas and its HD version. It’s a testament of trust and the results of Sora’s endeavors to prove his best friend was still there. Although Riku struggles with his guilt, Sora took him back in his life in spite of Riku’s command of darkness and all. They fought Xemnas, and Riku took a heavy hit from him to save Sora. In the end, they thwarted him together through their combined efforts. It’s Sora’s tenacity that really defines him throughout the series.
Losing the Title
KINGDOM HEARTS was first released in 2002, and we’ve been pretty much on this journey with Sora for over 16 years. Oof. Time flies, doesn’t it? Mostly every game revolves around Sora, give or take KINGDOM HEARTS χ, BIRTH BY SLEEP (sort of), and 358/2 DAYS.
We were always led to believe it would be Sora who would become the Keyblade Master; it’s not like we got to play as Riku often or even seen most of his progress overcoming darkness through his eyes. It was an incredible plot twist that Yen Sid named Riku the true Keyblade Master and not Sora after all this time.
I’ll admit, I felt like I should’ve seen it coming and was filled with pride for Riku. But I was worried during that pause. How will Sora react? Disappointed? Willing to accept Yen Sid’s decision but will the game cut to a scene where Sora’s wondering why he wasn’t chosen? No. Instead, he’s brimming with pride and admiration for Riku’s new title. Goofy sums it pretty well right after Sora congratulates Riku:
Goofy: Gee, Sora, you’re kinda acting like it’s you that passed.
This could have easily taken a different direction and created tension. No, he’s happy about the honor Riku deserves. He understands that he’s not ready according to Donald and by Yen Sid’s assessment, but that doesn’t dishearten him. Many games could have used this moment and spun it out of proportion for the sake of plot, but thankfully, DREAM DROP DISTANCE did not. It demonstrates how far Sora has come, and how much his sacrifice for his best friend led to such a great honor and redemption. That’s the reward Sora desires: saving, not claiming a title.
What’s Next for Sora
If you heard screaming in the distance when the new trailer for KINGDOM HEARTS 3 came out, that was probably me. Or your neighbor; maybe they’re fans too. KINGDOM HEARTS 3 is finally right around the corner, and I cannot wait to see what the game has in store for Sora. Considering the game is going to conclude the “Dark Seeker Saga,” this might be the last time Sora’s going to be around. I’ll be upset, yeah, but it makes me grateful that I got to experience ten plus years of content and ten plus years of Sora being the best person he could be.
KINGDOM HEARTS means a lot to people, and if it really is the end, I’m happy to have walked this journey with Sora. We traveled with him, we watched him mature and were there with him through his rough patches. He showed us kindness, compassion, and let us see his world with nothing but positive hope. If this is going to be it, let’s make sure we see Sora’s journey through the end one last time. And maybe, just maybe, we will see more characters like him in the near future.