Saturday, December 19, 2015

Through the Looking Glass

Growing up has been portrayed countless times in fiction. It's always a curiously painful experience, but rarely is it painted in at outright negative light. Peter Pan argued that growing up was lame, and had a land of eternal youth to prove how great childhood is, but the children from that movie still chose to grow up and leave their childhood behind, despite the joys of youth and the loss of these joys as one turns into an adult.

Two experiences in games, games that I played at the dawn of my adolescence, have portrayed the concept of coming into adulthood quite well, perhaps unintentionally.

Warning: there are spoilers for the games that follow. Those games are Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts II.

Example one:

Zanarkand, as Tidus knew it.
Final Fantasy X begins in the city of Zanarkand, a magnificent metropolis with advanced technology seemingly powered by water. The main character, Tidus, is a celebrity in this society, a superstar athlete who plays the fictional sport of Blitzball. He's the son of another famous athlete, and his troubles are the epitome of first world problems - he has a legacy to live up, his father was famous and neglected him as a child, and he's an adult that misses his deceased mother - but overall, he has it made.  He is wealthy, famous, and beloved.

This all changes when a monster known as Sin attacks the city, swallowing Tidus and spitting him out in a foreign land. The land is known as Spira, a place that Tidus has never heard of.  The most bizarre aspect of being flung into Spira is that in this world, Zanarkand is a city everyone knows as a society that was destroyed a thousand years ago. Determined to return home, one thing leads to another and he eventually ends up joining a summoner on their pilgrimage to Zanarkand, wanting to discover the mystery behind its supposed destruction and his appearance on Spira. Along the way, he is constantly learning about the land of Spira, its customs, its history, and the people who live there. He is very much ignorant of the world, especially of the hard lives that people face, and has to have others guide him almost every step of the way. He eventually does reach Zanarkand, and it is, indeed, a city in ruins.

The ruins of Zanarkand.
The Zanarkand he knew never existed. Along the way, he discovers the truth behind the city he grew up in and the reality that he thought he knew; his Zanarkand was known as Dream Zanarkand, a complicated illusion physically manifested by the dreams of the souls of those who lived in the real Zanarkand. It was an idealized version of the city in its prime, with even its inhabitants being complex dreams given physical form. Tidus realizes that he will never return home, because the home he remembers was never real. He is left with the ruined Zanarkand, the world he was placed in against his will, and he has to find a way to accept that this is his new reality.

Example two:

Roxas, during his life in Twilight Town.
In Kingdom Hearts II, Roxas is a boy who lives in a place called Twilight Town. He's a normal kid that has a group of friends that he regularly hangs out with. He attends school, enjoys his summer vacations, has hobbies that he likes, places he likes to go, and people that he loves. He is, for all intents and purposes, the very definition of normal. This all changes when monsters in white begin to show up in Twilight Town, followed by the appearance of mysterious hooded figures that only he can see and a man who claims to know Roxas, despite having never met him before.

In a twist reminiscent of the major plot revelation of The Matrix, Roxas eventually discovers that he is living in a fake Twilight Town, a digital replication of the real thing. His life was fabricated; everything he knew exists, but in a different form, in the real Twilight Town, without him. Roxas's memory was altered, his past life erased, and he was given the life he always wanted. In reality, Roxas was being used by Organization XIII, a group of criminals, and spent his days furthering their nefarious goals. His real identity, and his real past, are anything but what he thought they were, and far from what he wanted or expected from life.

A glimpse of Roxas's dark past, where he struggles to find his identity.
This particular metaphor has another layer to it. Without delving into the overly complex story of Kingdom Hearts, the basic gist of it is that Roxas himself was born from a different character's heart. He doesn't actually exist, instead being the shadow of another person. A large part of the message of the series, at least surrounding the segments concerning Roxas, is finding a sense of identity and coming to terms with reality and who you are. Eventually, Roxas accepts the truth, and merges with his "real" self, returning to the person he was originally supposed to be.

So, what does any of this have to do with childhood or growing up? Everything. Leaving childhood is a lot like entering into an entirely new world, with its own rules and values, much like the new realities that Tidus and Roxas must deal with in the worlds that they are thrown into. The scariest part of adulthood is looking back on the world that you thought existed, and realizing that this "new" world - the world of adulthood - was, in fact, the "real" world the entire time, with your childhood world existing as an illusion born out of lack of knowledge and childhood perception. You're left with the reality that you now exist in, despite never asking to be there, and you must find a way to cope with and accept this reality.

Tidus reaches Zanarkand in the real world, only to find it in ruins.
Playing these games in my early adolescence, the theme of accepting reality resonated very strongly with me. In our lives, we are thrown into our own version of Spira. Sometimes, we even return to where we came from, only to find it unrecognizable, or at least very different from what our childhood selves remember. Growing up is a sad and painful journey, but it's also a beautiful and enlightening one. For everything we thought we knew and everything we can't return to, we learn something new and gain new insight, abilities, and perspectives. We find new places to live in and new people to love. It's a painful farewell, saying goodbye to our childhood, but accepting the new world in which we live can be a very fulfilling experience. We learn so much in the world of our adulthood, and we meet so many people and form so many bonds that we could not have done had we remained in our childhood world.

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