There has been as much time between the release of Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts III than there was between my birth and the release of Kingdom Hearts I. That kind of delay in a sequel could easily tank even a serious game franchise, but Kingdom Hearts, the game that wondered “why has nobody ever had Mickey Mouse team up with Cloud Strife?”, isn’t just any franchise. Beloved for its Disney nostalgia; anime AF style; and its crazy plot filled with twists, betrayals, and dramatic turns way too intense for Donald and Goofy, Kingdom Hearts has become a phenomena and, supposedly, that story, the Dark Seeker Saga, is finally coming to an end.
For the last sixteen years and change we nerds have been following the story of Sora as he tries to protect the worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy from a host of weirdly adorable incarnations of evil and black coated hotties that all seem to come back to one man, Xehanort.
But who is Xehanort? How does everything manage to tie back to him? What plan could he possibly have that needs eight and a half full games, a mobile game, and a feature length animated movie to explain it all? And what does it mean to “get Norted?” Is it hipster lingo? Is it drugs!? ARE YOUR KIDS GETTING NORTED!?
Well fear not. Whether you’re just curious, want to pick up KHIII for the gameplay, or simply lost the plot about four spin-offs ago, I’m going to do my best to sort out the many, many Xehanorts of Kingdom Hearts for you.
If you completed Kingdom Hearts I on expert difficulty or 100%’ed it on Standard difficulty, you got to see the SECRET ENDING.
Titled “Another Side, Another Story”, this video was the stuff of pre-youtube legends. Utilizing the same kind of extraordinary CGI that Square used for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and FFX, Another Side, Another Story was intended as a concept trailer for ideas that might make a good sequel rather than a literal preview of the next game, not that the fans knew that as they began fervent speculation. Its job was to look awesome and get people interested in more Kingdom Hearts. It was filled with badass visuals and intriguing but meaningless lines of fake dialogue. Humorously, much of the awkward dialogue and unclear story beats of Kingdom Hearts II were attempts to make ASAS make sense. However, it is now apparent that not all of its connections to future games were reverse engineered and at least some of the ideas for Kingdom Hearts II were already beginning to take form.
Another Side, Another Story featured a line of text among its multitudes. “Who is Nobody, you ask? They are the nonexistent ones.”
This would be expanded upon, literally and figuratively by the enhanced remake, Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix, which provided a longer version of the video called Another Side, Another Story [deep dive] and introduced a new super secret, extra final boss fight against a figure called the Unknown.
Dressed in the already iconic black coat seen in ASAS, the Unknown was strongly implied to be a Nobody and, upon his defeat, dropped a final, heretofore unseen, page of Ansem’s Report confirming what a Nobody was.
Nobodies are what remains of a person whose heart has been taken by the Heartless, lacking a heart but not yet dead. Ironically this means that, just as the Heartless are misnamed hearts overtaken by Darkness, Nobodies are actually just bodies. Ansem’s final report stated that Nobodies, lacking hearts, have no Darkness of their own and no Light. They’re just nothingness that somehow survived.
Most Nobodies, we would find, are small creepy shell-creatures, similar to Heartless. However, in a small number of extreme cases, similar to Ansem remaining human in appearance as a Heartless, Nobodies would retain their shape and memories if the person’s will was strong enough. These humanoid Nobodies all dress in the Black Coats from ASAS and have names that are anagrams of their human names with an X added.
And so, at the same time that Ansem was revealed to be Xehanort and a Heartless, the often mentioned “Superior” of the villainous Organization XIII was SURPRISE! unveiled as Xehanort’s Nobody, an opposite number to Ansem named Xemnas.
The fandom immediately realized that this was an anagram for Mansex.
The trick about Nobodies is that, having no hearts, they can’t feel anything. As such, they generally long to become whole again and Xemnas was the man with the plan. The trick was simply to collect enough hearts that the thirteen members of the Organization’s would have to be among them. That meant building an artificial Kingdom Hearts by redirecting the hearts Sora saved.
Each of the Nobodies reacted to life without a heart differently allowing Square to offer fans a plethora of different tortured bishonen woobies. Though many of the Nobodies had vibrant personalities, the games explained that these were merely acts that they put on to soothe themselves. Xemnas was one of the most accepting of his condition. Though he frequently pined after the prospect of being whole again, he never seemed to miss his emotions, only the vague power that a heart could offer. Emotionless, Xemnas overcompensated with sweeping hand gestures and dramatic deliveries. His original portrayal was one of a sociopath who had forgotten what it was to feel joy or empathy and sought to conquer emotion. He played the tragic villain but not nearly so well as his subordinates.
But SURPRISE! the final Report in the absurdly named Organization XIII spin-off game Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (spoken as Kingdom Hearts Three-Hundred Fifty-Eight Days Over Two, if you believe that Square isn’t pranking you) revealed that Xemnas truly wanted to merge with Kingdom Hearts and become a “higher existence”, which would allow him to begin work on his “true ambitions”.
These ambitions were never realized or fully explained as he was defeated by Sora and Riku, but Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix did a great deal to flesh out the fan favorite Nobodies and Xemnas in particular. Here we saw more of Xemnas’ management style and a strange gap in his steely resolve. He would frequently retreat to the castle of his youth to ominously reminisce with a broken suit of armor he referred to as his ‘friend’ in his secret treehouse, the characteristically dramatic “Chamber of Repose”. But Xemnas had another obsession, an equivalent room he believed existed in his second fortress, Castle Oblivion, the “Chamber of Waking”. There, fellow nobody Xigbar correctly deduced, slept another “friend” of Xemnas’.
These additions to Xemnas’ character were, in some ways, contrary to his fierce single-mindedness in Kingdom Hearts II, however that may have been the point. Xemnas is merely Xehanort’s discarded body, and Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep would reveal that there was a larger story to that body. Xemnas, it seems, remembers a life that only his body, not his heart, experienced. As such he is pulled in two directions, to uncover his missing friend and to ensure the completion of the master plan.
Preying expertly on RPG players’ love of charts, Square assigned each member of Organization XIII a title, an element, and a weapon. Xemnas gained the least by this system, many of his answers being grandfathered in or somewhat obvious. From Chain of Memories he took the label “the Superior” as his literal title, extending it to “The Superior of the In-Between”. He also claimed Nothingness as his element, one of only a few members to eschew a Final Fantasy element type completely. As for a weapon, where every other member had a really cool one based on the Nobody insignia in some way, Xemnas had already been given a weapon in KH:FM, two lightsaber looking energy beams that were officially referred to as Ethereal Blades.
These were undoubtedly the least interesting of the Nobody weapons. Though they were actually put to pretty cool use in the final phase of Xemnas’ boss fight in KHII, they broke the pattern of the other members and brought no end of ‘hilarious’ jokes, releasing only half a year after Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith gave us a dual-wielding Darth Sideous. However, series creator Tetsuya Nomura has suggested the possiblity that this was taken into account.
After Kingdom Hearts II, it was revealed that SURPRISE! Xehanort had access to a Keyblade! Based on the story of Sora’s Nobody (yeah, he gets one too), Roxas, we know that the Nobody of a Keyblade bearer uses their Keyblade instead of a Nobody weapon. A line in a later game implied that Ansem only lost his Keyblade as a result of the Darkness in his heart, giving ammunition to both sides of the non-debate. Nomura has even stated in interviews that Xemnas may have simply chosen not to use his Keyblade for some reason. This does seem to contradict the fairly central idea of Kingdom Hearts II that Xemnas needed Roxas or Sora’s Keyblades to complete his plans, but it does seem to raise the possibility that Xemnas’ slow, sleepy drawl actually represents a being so colossally lazy that he just wouldn’t complete his master plan himself. However Square eventually decides to paper over this apparent plot hole, the armor that Xemnas uses in the second phase of his final boss fight was repurposed as the armor form of Xehanort’s Keyblade, seemingly confirming that he had at least some access to it.
One other badass aspect of Xemnas’ powers is that, as a being of pure Nothingness with power over Nothingness, he doesn’t so much cast magic the way his subordinates do as he can manipulate their very existence. In one phase of his final boss battle, the first of the two armored segments I alluded to above, he summons the slain member’s weapons out of Nothingness and, much clearer in the Final Mix rerelease, he threatens one of them with being stripped of their humanity and turned into the most basic form of Nobody fought in the game. He even shows the same power over the world he rules over, forming The World That Never Was, a kind of Nobody of worlds built from the remains of worlds whose hearts were taken by the Heartless, into a gigantic weaponized city before settling for a giant robo-dragon to serve as his throne/ship.
Though Ansem was seemingly presented as the inheritor of Terra-Xehanort’s thoughts, there is obviously much of the scientist in Xenmas as well. Where Ansem seemed obsessed with Xehanort’s passion projects, Xemnas inherited the memories trapped in his body and carried on his public persona, as it was he who retained connection with his conspirators.
Through Xemnas and the other members, we see a cult built around the idea of freedom from emotion but in need of the power of hearts. In 358/2 Days we see Xemnas address the Organization, promising them victory over their own Hearts once they reclaim them, essentially gaining the power and satiety of a heart and the objectivity of a Nobody. Written reports from members of Org XIII confirm that this is what Xehanort offered to convince Ansem’s other apprentices to follow him. It’s not a thread that’s followed much in the larger scheme, but it does have a certain tragic Youtube “debate me!” quality about it that actually makes them all rather sad figures.
From its inception and especially once KHII pulled back the curtain near the start of the game, Organization XIII was immediately awash in fan apologia, finding value in their quest to regain their emotions, wondering if affected emotions weren’t enough, and even raging at fate to imply that the game was wrong and that they must have emotions. In fairness, Kingdom Hearts II does features a number of scenes where Nobodies essentially try to give Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, only to be cut off by heroes reminding them that they don’t exist and don’t deserve sympathy, and the game to sides with them! So few expected the next development when 2012’s Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance revealed that SURPRISE! humanoid Nobodies fairly immediately begin growing new hearts built off the memories of their emotions.
Though it wasn’t the farthest out of left field reveal or the one that no one had ever suggested, I think this was one of Kingdom Hearts’ most jaw dropping reveals precisely for that reason. The series has always been willing to pull something wild out of its butt, but after over half a decade of supporting the facade theory more and more with each bit of information dripped out about the Organization, to turn around like this was massive.
But even this wasn’t enough for Kingdom Hearts. Indeed, KH3D followed this up with even more plot twists. It turns out that Xemnas never intended to get any of the Nobodies back their Hearts! Instead, the entire formation of Organization XIII was an attempt to gather up thirteen necessary vessels to SURPRISE! imbue Xehanort’s Heart into them!
Now Xehanort didn’t realize that Nobodies would begin to replace their hearts, one of the few things he hadn’t worked out, but, if Xehanort is a capable scientist, he is a master of improv and convoluted plans. And so, despite not knowing that such a thing was possible, Xehanort, or perhaps Ansem or Xemnas, put a plan into place just in case Organization XIII couldn’t be used for his purposes. He called upon a Xemnas from some unknown point in the time stream to be recruited into the Real Organization, a new collection of thirteen who were viable as new mini-Xehanorts.
You will find that, post Birth By Sleep, most victories and most losses in Kingdom Hearts can be summed up as ‘Master Xehanort had a backup plan for that.’
But Master Xehanort? That’s a little pretentious isn’t it? Well, yes and no. It turns out that, just as there’s an Ansem (the Seeker of Darkness) and an Ansem the Wise, there’s a (Terra-)Xehanort and a Master Xehanort. We’ll be talking about him next.