Guest Post: The Fate of a Nobody: An Absurd Reading of Kingdom Hearts II

By Brian Crimmins   

Sufficiently Human’s latest guest post comes to us from Brian Crimmins, a game critic focusing primarily on older Japanese games. You can check out more of his work at Unwinnable, Hardcore Gaming 101, and most frequently at Indie Haven. You can also read more of his reviews over at his blog, Game Exhibition. 

[TW: This piece contains some discussion of death.] 

While the Japanese game scene has always been a place for developers to experiment, the mid-2000s in particular saw an explosion of creativity. Games had been established for long enough that they could work off each other and the surrounding cultural landscape, which is exactly what they did. We can see this in Metal Gear Solid 2’s deconstruction of videogames, Wind Waker’s farewell to the Zelda formula, and Persona 3’s rebuttal against the despondent Evangelion. Perhaps no game captures that spirit better than Kingdom Hearts II.

Like its contemporaries, the game filters themes of identity through a format the first game established. But it’s the Absurdist motifs in the game’s opening moments that interest me the most. How does Kingdom Hearts II depict the Absurd life? What is its solution to the Absurd? Does it even posit a solution? By applying Absurdism to Kingdom Hearts II, we not only develop a greater understanding of Absurdism, but also of the confusion and angst that its protagonist, Roxas, goes through, and the game’s statements on identity.

Along these lines, the game rebels against much of what we understand the Absurd to be. First, it expands our definitions of the Absurd to include it as a necessary feature of our existence. In other words, it’s not just the result of how we understand the world, but exists with us at a fundamental level, regardless of whatever context we inhabit. Second, although Roxas confronts the Absurd in a way he can’t deny, he never does anything with it. He doesn’t embrace the Absurd or move beyond it, but denies the problems it brings and takes a third option that many thinkers would regard as nihilistic.

Views on the Absurd: Kierkegaard and Camus

The Absurd, or simply “Absurdity”, is a philosophical concept that was first articulated in existentialist thought. It refers to the tension between our desire to make meaning out of existence and the inherent meaninglessness of existence. We realize Absurdity when we encounter something so outside the everyday that it resists any attempts to fit into our current understanding of the world. What such a revelation means and where we go from there is a point of debate among philosophers. It could be that the human mind is incapable of understanding the greater meanings behind existence, or it could be that existence truly has no greater meaning than the one we make for ourselves.

Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard and French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, two of the most prominent philosophers to write about the Absurd, take these respective stances. For Kierkegaard, the Absurd is at the center of what it means to be a Christian, for one can only truly accept God by confronting the Absurd. Yet, before we can understand his view of the Absurd, we must first understand his “ spheres of existence”, as it is between the second and third spheres that the individual confronts the Absurd:

  1. The (a)esthetic/particular sphere. This is the sphere of self-gratification. A person in this sphere of existence engages in activities purely for the enjoyment they will get out of them. Such activities can include both bodily delights (drugs, partying, etc.) and cognitive ones, like arts and literature.
  2. The ethical/universal sphere. A person enters this sphere when they abandon the self-gratification of the aesthetic and answers a higher purpose. However, this higher purpose is not God. Although it can take a multitude of forms, it is still bound to the realm of mankind, and thus is dictated by whatever social norms the individual lives under. That is why Kierkegaard considers this sphere a temporary one, and a transition into the religious.
  3. The religious/absolute sphere. According to Kierkegaardian scholar D. F. Sweson, in this sphere, “the personality is invalidated, and thus made free from the law of God.” When a person enters this sphere, they confront the limits of the ethical (i.e, the realm of mankind) and make a leap of faith from that sphere into God. For Kierkegaard, this sphere brings with it both psychological and religious fulfillment that the previous spheres do not equal.

It’s also important to note that entering one sphere does not bar one from enjoying life in the preceding spheres. For example, a person who has ascended to the religious sphere is still capable of leading their life in the aesthetic or the ethical.

But what compels a person to make the leap from the ethical to the religious? What does Kierkegaard mean by “the limits of the ethical?” In his eyes, the Absurd manifests when the corporeal and the divine conflict with one another. Because he sees God as infinite and human faculties as finite, such conflicts are inevitable. Although we can know that there are absolute truths to existence, these truths are not always understandable to the human mind, and they often reveal themselves as paradoxes. For example, we might have trouble reconciling Christ’s fully divine nature with his fully human nature. Or we might find that following our religious duties puts us at odds with what social norms tell us are right and wrong. Any attempts to comprehend these absurdities, understandable as they are, would ultimately prove futile, for they would go against the fundamentally absurd nature of human existence.

The natural response to the Absurd is anxiety, another key topic in Kierkegaardian thought. Although he largely only talks about anxiety as it relates to (original) sin, we can still make connections between his ideas about anxiety and the Absurd. D. Anthony Storm, commenting on Kierkegaard’s work in “The Concept of Anxiety”, says, “Anxiety is not itself sin, but is the natural reaction of the soul when faced with the yawning abyss of freedom.” When Adam first ate the apple, he realized that he had the freedom to make a choice: eat the apple or don’t. This newfound realization produced anxiety in Adam, which is precisely what led him to sin. We can see similar developments in Kierkegaard’s view of the Absurd; both Adam and the ethical person suddenly realize a newfound freedom. For the ethical person, this freedom is the ability to transcend human limits and become closer to God. Indeed, Kierkegaard asserts that anxiety can lead a person to God just as much as it can lead them to sin.

This ties into his ideal solution to the Absurd: a leap of faith. A leap of faith is when a person conquers their anxiety over the Absurd by abandoning human logic and putting their faith in the divine. It’s not a leap taken out of ignorance, but a sudden yet knowing choice that the individual makes. The person who takes a leap of faith does not resign their desires to nihilistic despair, or abandon the idea of there being a greater reason for why things happen. They put their faith in the idea that things must work out through divine or non-human means. I should stress the distinction between the leap of faith and the idea of trusting in God’s unknowable plan, as Kierkegaard frequently discusses the uncertainty facing those entering the religious sphere. They have no guarantee that things will work out or even that they will find closure on whatever matter is at hand.

Yet they still act on the faith that things must work out, all the while humanly knowing the possibility that they likely won’t. Rather than fatalistically resigning themselves to a divine plan, those in the religious sphere actively take control of their own fate by allowing themselves to trust in the divine. Because this solution brings one closer to God (thus answering his question of what it means to be a Christian), Kierkegaard sees it as the only true solution to the Absurd. Ignoring the Absurd would be out of the question, for it’s the same denial that leads one to try to understand the Absurd. And embracing the Absurd is outright nihilistic for Kierkegaard; it stops short of realizing true religious fulfillment.

It is here where Kierkegaard and the later philosopher Albert Camus diverge in regards to the Absurd. However, that does not mean they completely disagree on its nature. Like his predecessor, Camus views the Absurd as a necessary result of our relationship with a meaningless world. It precedes philosophy and exists on an emotional level, largely because our most fundamental desires run counter to the world we inhabit. We fear death despite knowing that we must all eventually die. We seek a sense of belonging in a world that would continue just fine in our absence. Ultimately, we try to make meaning for ourselves where none is to be found. And because our efforts to make meaning rely on the reasoning part of our psyche, they neglect the inherently emotional problem that is our relationship to the Absurd, dooming said efforts to failure.

For some, the irreconcilably absurd nature of existence would be motivation to consider suicide. Yet, this is not a solution that Camus advocates. In fact, some of his most important philosophical works were meant as solutions to suicide, and finding ways of living in a meaningless world. Thus we come to Camus’s philosophy of Absurdism. In his words, it is “lucid reason noting its limits.” An Absurdist embraces the Absurd and lives their life according to it. They do not try to make meaning of their actions or situations, but embrace their very meaninglessness. Unlike Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, which presumably only happens once, Absurdism is a process which one must continually reaffirm. The reward for this is a secure feeling of autonomy.

Camus illustrates this through Meursault, the protagonist of his novel, The Stranger. The novel is a first person narrative of Meursault’s experiences in Algeria, and it details what it means to live a life that embraces the Absurd. Because Meursault sees life as inherently meaningless, he doesn’t bother making meaning of it. He lives his life as it comes to him, making no attempt to fit his actions or the events of that life into a greater narrative. He attends his mother’s funeral; he starts a sexual relationship with one of his former employees; he kills a man he barely knows. The prose describing these events is sparse, reflecting little more than the immediate facts. We have little reason to believe Meursault is in poor mental health, or that he doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions.

If anything, Camus would have us read his life as an ideal mode of existence. Although his actions do little to help him win his eventual trial—he’s put to death—they do help him realize a greater freedom than winning ever could. By not clinging to any ideologies that attempt to understand existence, he’s immune to the emotional pain that comes from existence disrupting that system. Through this, he is able to free himself from society’s futile meaning-making games and realize a psychological freedom that only Absurdism would bring.

Although the embrace the of the Absurd bears some similarities to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, Camus would criticize his philosophy as dodging the problem. While he realizes the Absurd and how profound a problem it is, the leap of faith represents a failure to embrace the Absurd. By relying on an intermediary like God to cope with the Absurd, Kierkegaard displaces Absurdity as part of the human condition and creates meaning where there can never be any. In addition to neglecting the emotional component Camus notes before, the leap of faith renders Kierkegaard’s philosophy inconsistent and, therefore, ineffective.

Yet despite their differences, we can see important overlaps between Kierkegaard and Camus. Their philosophies are both philosophies of action. They’re both meant to solve problems they see as central to human existence. And like Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, Camus’s leap into the Absurd does not arise from nihilistic ignorance, but is a knowing act one takes after confronting the meaninglessness of existence. One could even go so far as to say the two writers’ only difference is where their philosophies end.

The Absurdity of Roxas

As the story begins, we see that Roxas’s life bears a strong resemblance to Kierkegaard’s description of the aesthetic sphere. He spends all his free time in Twilight Town with his friends, whiling away the last days of his summer vacation. Not being in school, he and his friends have no greater obligation to follow, so they spend their time in simple recreation. They eat ice cream together, make small talk, plan to go to the beach, etc. Even the gameplay reflects this, simulating banal activities like doing chores to earn money, or participating in the local Struggle (a type of sports game).

Yet for as normal as this world appears, it bears the unmistakeable mark of the Absurd. Throughout Kingdom Hearts II’s prologue, Roxas encounters increasingly strange events that rattle his concept of reality. The first of these is when some mysterious thieves steal not only photos with Roxas in them, but the word “photo” itself. These kinds of events only continue as the game goes on, such as the appearance of enigmatic, white creatures, time stopping for Roxas, and a shadowy doppelganger emerging from behind a waterfall. Each one upsets his view of reality, happening for no rhyme or reason. Although his friends try to rationalize it as something normal, we only know Roxas’s view of the world. Roxas cannot understand these events, nor can he ever hope to. As players, we view the world through the character we control. With Roxas being that character, we are inclined to believe his explanations above all else: that his reality is fundamentally unsound.

The player argument functions exceptionally well on a metatextual level. Twilight Town is coded with a plethora of references to the first game’s opening in Destiny Islands, yet each reference inverts the original’s meaning. While both Sora and Roxas encounter cloaked figures early in their adventures, only Sora’s enables his greater destiny as a hero. Roxas’s tries to keep such knowledge out of his hands and confine him to his boring reality. Where Sora works in exciting ways to help himself and his friend sail away from the islands, Roxas performs mundane jobs to the same end only to fail. Sora embraces his destiny, but Roxas fights against it. Even the name “Twilight Town” connotes an end rather than a beginning. Compared to Destiny Islands, which connote movement and purpose, Twilight Town connotes a Camusian stagnation and lack of purpose. By frequently inverting a scenario the player has already invested meaning into, Kingdom Hearts II can recontextualize the player’s actions and frustrate any of the player’s attempts to make meaning of them. Even if the player hasn’t played the first game, they’re reminded of it every time this one flashes back to Sora’s adventures in the prologue.

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The Absurd manifests most strongly in Roxas on a psychological level, as well. This is where Kingdom Hearts II begins to diverge from both Kierkegaard and Camus. Where Kierkegaard describes the Absurd as what happens when human limits approach the Divine, and where Camus asserts that the Absurd is the result of our relationship to existence, for Roxas, the Absurd is hard-coded into his very existence. Roxas only exists as a negation of Sora. However, the narrative carries things further than that. It uses this fact to structure Roxas’s entire being, right down to how it will end: becoming one with Sora again. This means that on an existential level, the meaning of Roxas’s life was always predetermined. But this meaning has nothing to do with him; Roxas holds no importance in his own right. As DiZ (the mysterious figure who constructed Roxas’s reality) puts it, he “should consider himself a tool, at best.”

As can be expected, these revelations cause Roxas immense physical and psychological pain. Whenever he encounters a moment of Absurdity, Roxas clutches his head with a pained expression on his face. It becomes too much for him to handle, and he calls out his friends’ names: “Hayner, Pence, Olette!” Ironically, while he does this to anchor himself in a reality he can actually understand, his friends only alienate him further and add to his pain from the Absurd. We can see this by examining Roxas’s conversations with them:

Pence: Wouldn’t it be weird if the thief wanted to steal the real Roxas or something?

Hayner: C’mon, get serious. Why would anyone wanna steal a bonehead like Roxas?

Hayner: We can’t be together forever… So we’d better make the time we do have something to remember.

Roxas: Huh?

Hayner: Gotcha!

(Hayner jokingly punches Roxas in the stomach and joins the other three.)

Roxas: Maybe we could study the stuff that’s happening to me. You know, the dreams—and the guys in white…

Hayner: Forget it.

Roxas: Why?

Hayner: You know, things have been weird with you and the town since the photos were stolen, right?

Pence: Well, tomorrow, we’re all gonna search the town and find out what’s been goin’ on.

(The characters investigate mundane rumors rather than the problems Roxas brings up.)

There’s a pattern that recurs throughout their dialogue. They unknowingly hint toward the truth of Roxas’s situation, but rather than investigate that truth, they try to return to their normal lives. For Hayner and company, this is an easy task as they have not been affected by the Absurd, Yet this can never be an option for Roxas. The Absurd touches him on too fundamental a level. His friends only serve to alienate him further, reminding him of what he desperately wants but knows on some level he can never have. This becomes most pronounced on Roxas’s sixth and final day in Twilight Town: he begins fading into Sora, and his friends are no longer capable of acknowledging his existence.

These developments hold profound implications for how Roxas can resolve the Absurdity he encounters. For one, it means Kierkegaard doesn’t apply. His philosophical work with the Absurd ends with a kind of subjective psychological resolution. Yet because the game’s metaphysics explicitly deny Roxas a self, he has nothing that can be resolved. Thus, he only has one option: he must embrace the Absurd for what it is if he hopes to live a fulfilling life. The parallels between Roxas’s situation and Meursault’s from The Stranger only make that solution more tempting. Like Meursault, Roxas confronts the Absurd while imprisoned in a false world, waiting for his inevitable death.

Unlike Meursault, however, Roxas never embraces the Absurd. He only runs from it as the story progresses, even as it becomes a less viable option. He even goes so far as to utilize the Absurd as a means of returning to his normalcy. Roxas pretends to remember being best friends with Axel (another cloaked figure, and a friend from Roxas’s past life who wishes to rescue him from this false reality), hoping to get him off his back. He uses the Keyblade (a symbol for Sora, and thus Roxas’s lack of self) to open the gate to the mansion, but only so he can explore it and understand his situation further.

Neither act works out for him in the end. If anything, they only harm Roxas by distancing him from meaningfully engaging the Absurd. He doesn’t engage Absurdity to ascend to the religious sphere, but to return to the normalcy of the lower ones. At the very least, he does it to undertake the impossible task of understanding the Absurd.

True, Roxas eventually finds resolution. We see that he accepts death when he first meets Sora face to face, and Roxas resolves his identity crisis by the end of the story. However, the fact that he finds solace through dying presents several problems. Namely, his solution fits neither Camus’s idea of living with the Absurd nor Kierkegaard’s idea of using it to reach the religious sphere. We have to remember that Camus’s entire goal with Absurdism is to find a way to cope with Absurdity in life. In criticizing religion as a meaning-making system, Camus notes, “It is absurd to hope for some form of continued existence after death given that the latter results in our extinction.”

Kierkegaard would raise similar objections: he was very critical of any solution to life that appealed to another world (e.g., the afterlife). Yet, this is precisely what Roxas does. By accepting that he will become one with Sora, he puts his faith in an afterlife that denies him the opportunity to become closer to God in this one. This solution would also put Roxas at odds with Camus, since he denies life’s inherent Absurdity by creating a meaning that lets him cope with his fate. In any case, his solution almost entirely sidesteps the problem of reconciling the Absurd in life.

By looking at Kingdom Hearts II through an Absurd lens, we understand Roxas in a new light. His angst is now the result of his denying the Absurd. For as strong a force as it is in his life, he never once reconciles it, and by failing to do so, he only brings further pain upon himself. Thus, Roxas illustrates just how necessary either the leap of faith or the embrace of the Absurd really are. More than that, though, we can begin to understand the Kingdom Hearts games that followed II in greater detail. The first Kingdom Hearts centers on the heartfelt message that the power of friendship can conquer even life’s hardest challenges, and while later games never abandoned that idea (Kingdom Hearts II goes on to affirm it by its end), these new ideas about the self as it relates to the Absurd complicate them. Later characters will exhibit greater conflicts of identity, wrestling with the emptiness lingering within them. So turning back here, to where it all began, puts these themes into focus. Through Roxas, we see the fragile nature of identity, the emptiness it creates, and what it means to confront it all.

Further Reading: 

  • Aronson, Ronald. “Albert Camus.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 3 June 2015.
  • Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1955. 49. Print.
  • Kingdom Hearts HD II.5 ReMIX. Version 1.0. Square-Enix. 2 Dec. 2014. Video Game.
  • McDonald, William. “Søren Kierkegaard.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 3 Dec. 1996. Web. 3 June 2015.
  • Storm, D. Anthony. “The Concept of Anxiety.” D. Anthony Storm’s Commentary on Kierkegaard. Web. 3 June 2015.
  • Storm, D. Anthony. “A Primer on Kierkegaardian Motifs.” D. Anthony Storm’s Commentary on Kierkegaard. Web. 3 June 2015.