Twilight Town concept art
Special Topics In GameologySpecial Topics In Gameology explores a specific corner of the gaming world in a miniseries of articles. In this special end-of-year edition, we’re examining some of our favorite unsung odds and ends from across the games of 2016.  

There’s an abandoned mansion on the edge of Twilight Town. It’s settled at the outskirts of a small forested area, a clearing in the wilderness that borders the burg. It’s gated and locked away, an oversized keyhole barring its entrance. It’s the kind of place children make up stories about to scare each other, tales of ghosts and visitations and strange men in dark coats. In a place like Twilight Town, there isn’t much else to do.

Kingdom Hearts II opens in Twilight Town, and it’s the location of the game’s notoriously long and surreal prologue. On a casual playthrough, this opening stint takes about three hours, making this time in Twilight Town possibly the longest uninterrupted period you spend in any one of Kingdom Hearts’ worlds. Typically, the draw of this series is the ability to hop from planet to planet, exploring worlds themed after classic Disney movies. Kingdom Hearts II, however, begins by pumping the breaks, stretching out its introduction to paint a sustaining and disorienting portrait of this sleepy town that’s stuck between day and night, a portrait that unfolds along with the identity crisis of a towheaded boy named Roxas.

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He’s been having some strange dreams lately. In them, Roxas is someone else. Every night, he goes to sleep and sees the world through the eyes of Sora, the young hero of the first Kingdom Hearts. He experiences Sora’s life up to this point in time, a story the game relays to us through fuzzed-out clips from the previous game. After the first of these montages ends, the game’s prologue starts with Roxas jerking awake. “Another dream about him,” he mutters. The sun shines through the window of Roxas’ room. A train drifts past in the distance as the camera pans over a sleepy town in shades of brown and yellow. At this first glance, Twilight Town is idyllic.

It also proves to be unbearably dull. There are very few other characters (a problem that plagues all of Kingdom Hearts but feels more glaring here than it does in, say, Beast’s Castle). Your time here drags on, fillable only with tedious and unimportant time-wasting tasks, like a shallow skateboarding mini-game and a mandatory series of chores, that seem to exist just to demonstrate how simple and mundane Roxas’ life in Twilight Town is. This stretch takes place during the final week of Roxas’ summer vacation, and like any kid waiting for school to start back up, the prevailing feeling here is restlessness.

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I grew up on the suburban edge of Fort Worth, Texas, a small neighborhood where there was almost no foot traffic and where nothing of import ever seemed to happen. I would walk around our little streets and marvel at how little was going on, how few people I saw. Twilight Town is a similar sort of place, populated by adults you never see and kids who have nothing to do. Rows and rows of houses sit against the sun’s slanted rays. American suburbia, like the kind I grew up in, is based in escape. It presents itself as a haven from the vagaries of city living, an outside place to can raise a family in safety and comfort. But for a young, inquisitive person, a place like Twilight Town can feel less like a haven and more like a prison.

As it turns out, this is literally true in Twilight Town’s case. Weird things start happening to cut through the shroud of Roxas’ lazy summer vacation. Strange creatures start appearing around town, stealing pictures of him and pulling him into fights. Time freezes. Roxas starts hallucinating. A man in a black coat appears and tells Roxas he is not who he thought he was. The dreams of Sora get more and more vivid as the week goes on, until Roxas is so steeped in Sora’s memories that the lines between the two characters start to blur.

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On the sixth day, Roxas wakes up to find that most of the world around him has melted away. The few people that were around him are now gone, his friends fading away and replaced by monsters. In a crushing moment, Roxas’ best friends—Hayner, Pence, and Olette—walk through him before vanishing, drifted off to somewhere unknowable. With nowhere else to go, Roxas is drawn to the haunted mansion on the edge of town. At this point, it’s the only part of Twilight Town that seems real. It’s here that he’s presented with a series of life-changing revelations: Roxas is Sora—specifically, a fragment of him that split off when the series’ villains stole Sora’s heart (a person’s essence, in the game’s parlance). Sora, his memories broken and twisted by a group called The Organization, now lies comatose while a man going by the name DiZ tries to piece his mind back together and wake him up. Roxas’ memories of a simple suburban life in Twilight Town were a fabrication. His Twilight Town isn’t even a real place but a Matrix-esque computer simulation of the real town designed to keep him safe and hidden from The Organization. More than just feeling like a prison, Twilight Town is one.

Twilight Town concept art

Not many teenagers are confronted with the fact that they’re in the anime version of a Philip K. Dick novel, but beyond the fantasy melodrama, this is just another suburban coming of age tale. Roxas discovers the gap between the world he understood and the world as it really is, a disillusioning epiphany that leads him to lash out like Holden Caulfield at the awful phoniness of the adult world, here represented by DiZ, the menacing and cruel patriarch who created Roxas’ virtual prison and synthetic memories. DiZ brings Roxas to Sora’s unconscious body, telling him that for Sora to be complete, Roxas has to reunite with his other half, transferring Soras’ completed memories back to their rightful owner. However, Roxas will have to give up his own identity in the process. The world is a stranger and uglier place than Roxas could have imagined just a few days ago, and his memories of that world cannot be trusted. His Twilight Town was a lie, a fake that reflects all the mundane falsehoods we have to confront while growing up. For us, those falsehoods are rarely of the same gravity as Roxas’ falsehoods, but their destruction feels just as apocalyptic, and every friend lost in those days can feel just as alienating as having them walk right through you.

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The realization drives Roxas to a fury. He violently lashes out at DiZ, but he ultimately only has one choice. The player guides him to Sora, and Roxas reunites with his former self. Sora awakens complete and post-pubescent—his clothes a bit too small, his voice deeper. Roxas has begrudgingly embraced the future, letting go of childhood memories and identity, and Sora has grown, albeit at a great cost.

Sora emerges from the abandoned mansion in the real Twilight Town, confused and a little distraught. His faithful companions Donald and Goofy are with him and the game’s tone lightens up considerably, but Sora is clearly troubled. The melancholy of the prologue still lingers. He remembers this place, even if he doesn’t know why. It’s a darker, inverted take on the series’ signature nostalgia mining. It’s a tragedy felt in déjà vu, a reminder that the past is uglier than we might remember it. For this moment, before returning to Aladdin and Simba and King Mickey, Kingdom Hearts II indulges in sentiments that are surprisingly adult and sad. The loss of Roxas is a tragic metaphor for growing up and becoming what the world demands of you, with happy illusions shattered in the process. When Sora looks upon Twilight Town, the real one that Roxas’ prison was built to imitate, he feels the weight of this, though he doesn’t know why. It feels like a place that was home once, but now it’s just a waypoint, empty and unfamiliar. When I visit home, I feel the same way.

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Previously in the Neighborhoods series:

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