One afternoon is all it takes for a game to pull you into its world. I sat on the dirty carpet while nearby freeway buzzed with cars. Distracted by the fumbling of buttons, I took in the scenery. My eyes constantly darted around the screen, taking in all the details of a beach. I was young, 6 years old. The television whispered the song above to me, and I closed my eyes. I took a step into the sand on the screen and felt the warmth creep into my bare feet. I learned how music can carry you away in that one instant.
Before you read anymore of this post, listen to that video. Try to think of a warm summer’s day and take one step forward into a sandy beach.
How about that? It sounds nostalgic, doesn’t it. Even to this day, what pulls me into a game’s universe is not its inhabitants but its sounds.
A short summary
This is Kairi’s theme, a motif for one of the main characters. It’s from the Original Sound Track, OST for short, of Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts was originally a PS2 game that came out in 2002 from Square Enix. It’s a weird mix of both Disney characters and Final Fantasy combat. It ended up becoming an unexpected and fast-paced action game that was such a big part of my childhood. Underneath all of the fighting the singular constant was the strength of Kingdom Heart’s music.
Ranging from the cheery flutes of the Disney levels to the mournful violins of its characters’ themes, Kingdom Heart’s music has the ability to move its players by literally playing heartstrings. For example, you would hear snippets of Under The Sea from “The Little Mermaid” and be compelled to happily hum along. A few levels later, you catch glimpses of Kairi’s theme and be left with a weight in your chest.
Kairi’s theme makes its appearance multiple times throughout the course of the original game. It felt as though you were looking through a scrapbook of your childhood. The piano is played tenderly, hinting at simpler times.
This theme would pop up again and again as you play. First on the island where you start, and any times the main character remembers his time there. In this manner, Kairi is the purity of memories and childhood innocence. Yoko Shimomura, the composer of the game, took great care in selecting the right instruments to capture that feeling.
However, that same melody heard in Kairi’s theme would be echoed later in another character in a later sequel.
Kairi and Xion
If you listen closely, you’d pick up bits of Kairi’s theme and think to yourself, “Huh, interesting”. From just one melody, two songs are suddenly related. This one feels more tragic, as though your childhood was short-lived. This is Xion, Kairi’s clone in a sense. Her story ends in tragedy. Her childhood is short. Her existence is fading. In an instant, you move from tender reminiscence to sympathy for someone who never existed.
That play on melodies is exactly what enthralls me every time I play a Kingdom Hearts game. As you’re waling away at minions of the darkness, you pick up on auditory cues from Shimomura on how to feel. You’re not just playing, but also listening to the music.
It’s those moments of reflection, when the song just happens to reference melodies of other people or are so moving, that a game captivates you. They’re entertainment, you play to have fun. But yet, why do you still feel sad when you play certain games? It’s the songs that can flood your eyes and it’s songs that can pull the corners of your mouth away into a smile.
All of a sudden, the door is open. Close your eyes, and take the first step onto the warm sand. Just like I do every time I hear Kairi’s theme again. Games welcome you into its relationship. Its music permit the entry.
If you have any other times that music moved you, whether it be OST or otherwise, I’m curious to hear!