How Kingdom Hearts helped me assert my gender identity

By: Latonya Pennington March 18, 20200 Comments
title screen for the Kingdom Hearts Unchained mobile game

Content Warning: Discussion of dysphoria.

Spoilers: Xion’s arc in Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days and Kingdom Hearts III.

As a fan of the Kingdom Hearts video game series who couldn’t play any of the games more than once (my console was stolen), the mobile game was the next best thing. As I started the game and chose a union to join, I felt like I was returning to a familiar, comforting world. Then the “create your character” screen came up, and that comfort turned into gender dysphoria. 

When I played Kingdom Hearts Union X Cross (then called Unchained X) for the first time in 2016, I felt pressured to play as my assigned gender (female), due to the lack of options for both Black female video game characters and non-binary characters. As someone who was still exploring their gender identity and expression, this was extremely stifling. 

On one hand, since there are only a handful of playable Black female video game characters, creating a self-insert Black girl for Kingdom Hearts Union X would be the closest I’ve gotten to playing a Black female character in an action role-playing video game. On the other, the experience of playing as my assigned gender was triggering. Not only was the character creation limited to “girl” and “boy” bodies, but the clothing, hairstyles, and accessories were gendered as well. 

Title screen for Kingdom Hearst Union X mobile game

The storyline for Unchained X was originally set centuries before the events of the Kingdom Hearts series, but after the game’s 2017 rebranding as Union Cross, the storyline would retell the centuries-old events and then move on to the aftermath. Furthemore, despite being a mobile spinoff, Union Cross would end up connected to the plot of Kingdom Hearts III.

In addition to being made especially for mobile devices, Kingdom Hearts Unchained X was aimed at newcomers to the franchise. However, the self-insert aspect of the game intrigued me as a long-time Kingdom Hearts fan. I liked being able to imagine what it would be like to be a cool, kickass version of myself in a video game franchise that I loved.

I originally wanted the short hair and formal Alice In Wonderland-inspired suits that were restricted to boy characters, while the “girl outfit” was a more Alice-like dress. This outfit and hairstyle were some of many “avatar boards” that you could earn by playing the game and leveling up or purchasing them with in-game currency or real world money. Ultimately, I settled for creating a Black girl character because I literally didn’t have any other choice. While Video Game Me kicked butt with a big, sparkly ponytail, a giant key, and a nice yellow dress, she wasn’t the “me” I wanted to be in a video game. 

Author's femme avatar in 2016

Despite that, playing as female somewhat made up for Kingdom Hearts’ lackluster treatment of their female characters. Both Natalie Flores’ essay and Dee’s article here at AniFem go into detail about how the majority of Kingdom Hearts‘ women are regulated to supporting characters or killed off.

In fact, Aqua and Xion are the only two Kingdom Hearts female characters that receive any character development. For me personally, Xion’s narrative became especially impactful by reading her as a trans girl while playing Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days/2 from late 2018 to early 2019.

In Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, Xion is one of the three main protagonists of the game and the 14th member of the mysterious group Organization XIII. While Xion is eventually revealed to be a Replica (i.e., an extension of Sora made from his memories of Kairi), part of the game is about her trying to define herself on her own terms.

Xion, in Roxas' arms. subtitle: All those hearts that I've captured...Kingdom Hears...Set them free.

This is especially poignant given that the majority of the other characters literally see her differently. One Organization XIII member, Saix, sees Xion as a hooded doll and is very cruel, calling her “the creature” and an “it” as the story progresses. Another character, Xigbar, sees her as Ventus, a male character from another Kingdom Hearts game. Even Axel, one of the game’s other protagonists, initially saw Xion as a hooded doll until she became his friend. Once he knows her, he sees her as a girl.

Xion’s story seemingly ends in tragedy, as she decides to sacrifice herself to save Roxas from disappearing. Yet even in her last moments, Xion is seen by Roxas as the girl she wanted to be, rather than the male extension of Sora she was made to be. Happily, Xion is brought back in Kingdom Hearts III and reunited with Axel and Roxas.

Reading Xion as trans in Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days showed me that I didn’t have to be limited by the gender binary in video games. Since Kingdom Hearts Union X involves creating a self-insert character, I eventually realized that I could use it to reclaim gender queerness as best as I could. This is similar to those who use fanfiction to reclaim the queerness they see in Kingdom Hearts’ characters.

Axel, Roxas, and Xion embracing

After upgrading to a new phone in December 2019, I decided to redownload Kingdom Hearts Union X to test its online gaming capabilities.This time, I started with a Black “male” avatar, but eventually played enough to get the hairstyle and clothing for my ideal non-binary video game character.

Instead of a sparkly girls’ ponytail, I went with a “boy’s” pink mohawk. Instead of a dress, I wore a dashing outfit that made me resemble Alice In Wonderland‘s White Rabbit. For a final touch, I named my character after Faris, a Final Fantasy V character interpreted by myself and others as transgender

Although I gradually lost interest in Kingdom Hearts Union X, this game is the closest I’ve gotten to playing a Black non-binary video game character. While creating my ideal self in a Kingdom Hearts mobile game might not seem monumental, it is one of the ways that I have been able to affirm my gender identity in a world that continually denies it.

Masc nonbinary game avatar from 2020

Since I can rarely be addressed as Black and non-binary in real life, I use fictional worlds to give myself a space to exist. As a whole, video games have made some progress when it comes to appealing to LGBTQ+ players, such as The Missing’s happy ending for its trans female protagonist J.J. Mcfield, but there is more work to be done.

For non-binary people of color players like myself, it would be great if we could create a character beyond “boy” and “girl” and have a greater variety of skin tone options. For now, we must work with what we have to make our ideal selves, but maybe someday we won’t have to.

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