This is an unedited version. the final version of this article was posted on Takethis.org
"Just let go of everything and fade into the darkness."
"Is there any point in continuing this fight?"
"No one can save you. And no one wants to."
-Aqua, Kingdom Hearts 0.2:
Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage
"No one cares about you."
"People would be so much happier without you here."
-Me, when depression takes hold
- Spoiler alert -
If you have not played Kingdom Hearts 0.2 (Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage), be aware this article discusses the game at length.
My significant other was actually the first one to start playing Kingdom Hearts 0.2. I dismissed it as just another add-on, hold-over game from Square Enix that offered more possibly unnecessary exposition to placate overeager fans like me as we anticipate Kingdom Hearts 3’s release. I was not having the best mental health day, so when I heard a distant voice say: "Is there any point in continuing this fight?" I stopped folding laundry and followed the sound into the living room, hoping it wasn’t an auditory hallucination.
I had to pause, because those exact words were spoken inside of my head just moments before I heard them from the other room. There was my strong female hero, Aqua, desperately trying to hold onto any positive memory, battling past demons of a dark realm, as well as literal versions of herself. The sharp words can be heard anywhere in the darkness, as they echo through the vast space. They start up practically whenever she stops moving, meaning, whenever the player stops controlling the character.
Aqua’s entire arc is based around how much she values her friends and largely, the only thing keeping her alive is their spirit and desire to protect them from all harm. From play the previous games, we know that their current state is rather dire. She is barely succeeding protecting one of them, while the other is lost to ultimate evil’s control. It’s clear that a sacrificial trope is Aqua’s only possible fate.
If I could, I would have reached into the screen, put my hand on Master Aqua’s shoulder and said: “Hey maybe you’re being too hard on yourself.” I felt a sad kind of kinship. At that moment, I even felt guilt for taking this piece of lore for granted. How could the game creators have been so accurate?
I thought of a designer hunched over their desk, creating the realm of ultimate darkness Aqua was currently lost in. Perhaps they imaged the metaphorical pit they felt they were in after a particularly hard break up? I thought of the person who wrote the dialogue. Was this wording a direct pour from inside their mind, as they labored over creating the perfect game, feeling like nothing would be good enough to match impossibly high fan expectations? What other kind of bullying had they been subject to in their heads? And with mental health stigma being an even bigger problem in Japan than it is in the U.S., I think my hypothesis wasn’t too far off.
How incredible was it that all those creators chose to take this established, beloved, tough, yet feminine character, and use her as a vessel to bring attention to this important topic. That her incredible journey of loss and pain should became the vector by which others can feel less alone, while gaining insight to reflect onto themselves.
Unlike the other Kingdom Hearts episode’s connections to mental health, which were notably more subtle, the relevance of the subject in this story was unmistakable. Aqua is literally stuck in darkness... which is how I, and I know others, often refer to depression. She battles awful thoughts about herself and all of her hard-earned achievements: "Are you really worthy of being a Keyblade Master?”, and "Your bonds of friendship only tie you down." She pushes against all her worst fears as she worries that she is no longer loved and no one will ever care to help save her from the darkness. She feels lost and alone, so no matter how tough she starts out being, and as she moves further into the realm, she spirals - making it harder and harder to disprove those dark thoughts.
Aqua eventually doubts every aspect of her existence as she descends further into her mind, unable to fight off her most negative beliefs about herself. She continuously reminds herself of everything she could have done better, and the further she goes, the harder it is to continue to see light. In the meantime, Xehanort (the primary villain in the Kingdom Hearts series,) has the perfect opportunity to exploit her vulnerability and use her to complete his evil scheme. Exhausted from struggling against herself, Aqua loses the ability to feel anything at all. Finally, she gives into her thoughts and sacrifices herself for her friends by literally transforming herself into one of villain’s puppets.
Then, this happens...
What if the fate of all of light and darkness truly resided with you? If the mistakes you made impacted the balance of ultimate good versus evil? I suspect, the weight of that would be crushing, no matter how positive of a person you tried to be. Aqua comes to doubt every aspect of her own existence, only to ultimately begin to understand that she has lost the ability to feel any pain at all. This final realization is what causes her to begin to transform.
So, what inner turmoil turns Aqua into a puppet for evil Master Xehanort (i.e. be ‘Norted, as the internet calls it)?
The most important piece to note here still, is where Aqua’s sacrifice ultimately comes from. For those of us who have felt that death would be the best solution in order to get out of our current situation (Of course it never is), ending one's life in order to save a more innocent, perceived to be better friend’s life, might seem to be a reasonable way out. As though it would end her struggle while still fulfilling her higher purpose.
Aqua, like many of those who do give into those thoughts, does not see herself as the reason everyone was safe for so long, or the true reason why darkness ultimately did not take over at the end of Kingdom Hearts 1.5. To herself, she has become a miserable shell of angry thoughts, whom she now perceives to be her true self. Worn down without respite from her consciousness.
Yes, I am saying that Aqua’s transformation into a Xehanort puppet/being Norted is more than a sacrifice of her life for her friend’s – it’s the equivalent of suicide attempt.
Whether she comes back at all will be uncertain until we see and finish the new game, but her choice to turn away from light is disheartening to those of us who have heard negative-self talk and work so hard to keep up the good fight, pushing those inner thoughts away. I hope we see Aqua return and inspire those of in the clutches of depression once more. To continue where some of us have stopped dead in their tracks after hearing the ever-familiar: "Just let go of everything and fade into the darkness." I am hoping against hope that she will push through. I need her to push through.