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originally published: 2022-09-27
republished here: 2024-01-16

This is a personal, dare I say, autobiographical memoir about why I chose to stop playing Kingdom Hearts 1.5 as it relates to my experiences with tennis.

When to Drop a Game

“I’m done playing Kingdom Hearts. I gave it a good, long try, I didn’t like it and now I’m not going to play it anymore.” And that could just be it. That’s all I would have to say, and that would be enough.

But in case it isn’t enough, I was playing the first game in the series, Kingdom Hearts 1. More specifically, I was playing the updated rerelease, so I suppose that made it Kingdom Hearts 1.5. This meant that it had the updated controls and graphics, I could skip the cutscenes, the game loaded faster, et cetera. I had all of the modern comforts that I had come to expect in re-releases of a game from 2001. I tried playing it with people on call providing advice on where to go and what to do. I tried it without anyone around to avoid being overwhelmed by the number of things happening on screen and voices talking in my ear as I mashed buttons hoping to get the right number of hits on the Heartless that continuously popped up again and again. I played the game for over 15 hours, and got more than halfway through the game before I decided that enough was enough, I wasn’t having fun, and that I wasn’t going to play it anymore. And I stopped playing Kingdom Hearts 1.5 despite the fact that there were points that were incredibly fun and interesting. I really enjoyed the Agrabah stage, with the Cave of Wonders being a wonderful playground of corridors and platforms that meshed together to form a story-accurate adventure.

But when I can only point to one level out of the seven I had played that I actually found enjoyable, the writing is on the wall. And so I’m done playing Kingdom Hearts. 

Friends will ask me to “please give Kingdom Hearts II a try” and I’ll smile, nod and say “I mean, maybe eventually I’ll get around to it…” lingering on the last word, attempting to gauge their reaction to see if they understand that what I’m actually trying to say is “No, I don’t plan on playing this second game because I did not enjoy the first one.” And I know that’s a poor way of looking at things, sequels can improve upon many flaws of previous games. Take Super Metroid, one of my favorite games, for example. You couldn’t persuade me to play its prequel Metroid II: Return of Samus to completion these days without the assistance of a walkthrough, save states, and extremely tight controls. I would be bored, and my lack of attention span would ultimately have me shelving these games far quicker than Samus could say “the baby”. But despite this, Super Metroid is an excellent game that I absolutely love. It’s a game that I would absolutely tell someone annoyed by the mechanics of Metroid II that “it gets much much better, trust me”. And when I get confused and annoyed when this hypothetical Metroid II shelver does not then proceed to play Super Metroid, who really is at fault, if anyone? They didn’t enjoy their time with the game the way I had. I had gotten into it before them and had my experience shaped differently because I played Super Metroid before I tried playing Metroid II.

I must apologize to the Kingdom Hearts fans out there, I just can’t grasp the appeal of the games. I admit, I have only played the first game, so perhaps I did it wrong, but where else was I supposed to start? Maybe I’m supposed to start with Kingdom Hearts: ReCoded, for all I know.  There have been plenty of videos attempting to unpack the plot of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, but I never got that far down the rabbit hole. I speak candidly when I say that the idea of anime children going on a quest to recover the heart of their friend was already a little cheesy for me even back when I would’ve been old enough to appreciate the plot of the games. And playing it now as an adult, the saccharine “show me your best smile!”-energy that the game presents was far greater than I would have liked. I did not really grow up on anime beyond 4kids dubs, and the Pokemon games. The distinct character designs in each piece of media were a cool change from the public television kid shows I so excitedly consumed, but I didn’t find myself pursuing anything beyond what was on at 8:00 AM on Saturday mornings. 

And Disney?  Sure, every kid born between 1970 and 2010 finds some sort of solace in Disney movies. But if you asked me what my favorite Disney movie was then, and what it is today the answer would be the same: “I don’t really know, I don’t think I have one”. I’ll scratch the back of my head as I say it, wondering to myself if you can really call something like The Incredibles a “Disney movie” in the same sense you can with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, the Little Mermaid, and all of the other animated classis of the 90s and early 2000s. I was not raised a Disney fan, and I am not an adult who can derive joy from going to Disneyland every year. Considering the anime tropes oddly coupled with the Disney characters, I cannot imagine I would have been playing the Kingdom Hearts games of my own choice, whether I was three, thirteen, or twenty-three. And sure, maybe there’s a world with the Incredibles in Kingdom Hearts III, or something, I don’t know, I haven’t paid attention. I’m sorry. 

But I digress. 

When one becomes disinterested with a game, but then feels that there is an obligation to continue with it for whatever reasons, there is bound to be friction. And that’s what happened with Kingdom Hearts 1.5, I dropped the game.

And you might ask why, and I’ll tell you. But first, I’m going to talk about tennis. More specifically, I’m going to talk about my days of high school tennis, playing in tournaments year-round, and establishing my interpersonal relationships while hitting those high-percentage cross-court shots. I would go to my private drills, and then make friends with the people my age who were there, away from the students at my high school who I saw on a daily basis. These were students who were like me. They loved smashing tennis balls at their opponent and feeling the exhilaration that comes with winning a minute long-rally. We were the same in all ways but one: money. With the necessary affluence that comes with the sport, I found myself slowly lagging behind the peers I once kept pace with. They had gotten into the game far earlier in life than I had, their parents had signed them up for lessons when they were as tall as the racket they’d use. They were able to afford extra 1-on-1 sessions, whereas I could not. They were able to regularly travel for tennis tournaments on a weekend-to-weekend basis while I often had to work at my gymnasium job, dry-mopping wooden floors after weekend basketball tournaments. I didn’t immediately feel this difference when I first took up the sport. I knew that the kids in my classes had all of the gear they needed, and while I could reasonably afford the necessary items as well, I knew something felt off. They all went to the same schools, schools with strong tennis programs that regularly touted having coaches who had previously taught at the collegiate level, who wanted a change of pace.

To be frank, my school’s boys tennis team was not as privileged. The coach, who taught band and thus also ran the marching band, had tenure for the four years I was on the team. She was a strong woman who took "no s***" as she put it, and had made her way to the state girl-tennis tournament in high school. These traits were good enough for the school to give her the position which had been unexpectedly vacated when the previous boys tennis coach left for reasons that were not revealed to us minors . She was well-liked amongst the band kids, but they all agreed that she could get very competitive and impersonal very quickly. She wanted the best out of everyone, but if you couldn’t be the best for her, you didn’t deserve a place on the roster. But that was for the band, of course, tennis would be different. I was never in band. All I can do is rely on the stories of others, and take their word that she was a caring and responsible leader who helped them learn and grow in meaningful ways that they’ll never forget. I’ve long since graduated and she moved away, so I’ll never know for myself.

Our team did not attract the named gated community children that so often go after the sport. And so the hobbyist players and their friends who showed up to practice in jeans were the ones who ended up as starting varsity players. These players, who were solely playing for the social engagement, would go up against the private Catholic school boys whose fathers would give them stern looks after volleying into the net after a cross-court approach shot. And when they lost 0-6, 0-6 they’d dejectedly walk off the court, and avoid looking our coach in the eye, or rather, where they expected her eyes to be beneath her polarized sunglasses, knowing that they’d be doing laps only at a marginally faster pace than at the previous practice. But after getting a few paces off the courts, they were smiling and laughing again. 

It was difficult to build camaraderie with these players who were a year, two years, or even three years older than me. It was a curious exercise in team building during my freshman year, my high school’s varsity team only had students that were older than me. Here I was, Mr. Overconfident 14 year old, walking onto the courts at tryouts and making that varsity team on my first go at it, displacing a senior who had worked so hard to transition up for his final year. How do you relate to people when there’s such a huge maturity gradient? My sophomore year, the ranks were being filled by juniors, and when I became that third year student myself the following year, the team featured 10 seniors, me and a lone eighth-grader who would go on to play Lacrosse the following year. The only other person from my high school who took drills with me was one of those ten seniors, and we spent three years carpooling to summer and winter drills, slowly but surely becoming friends. He played 1st singles his junior and senior years, and I would play 2nd singles right behind him. But time goes on, we get older and eventually leave high school, and like the other private drilling friends, my senior friend would go on to play D3 tennis. By the start of my senior year, with my peers in drills far beyond me preparing to go Division 3 or Division 2 in the sport, I found myself stuck in a depressing state of mediocre limbo. I was good, but I was not getting better. 

I could see the writing on the wall in the Fall of 2015, as I managed the Girl’s Tennis team. I was the only one who was qualified to manage the Girl’s Varsity team, the other manager, and my future co-captain, had never played a game of Varsity tennis in his life. As captain, it would become my duty to be a strong supportive teammate and positive presence for the brutality they’d soon face in their final year. I would have to be a leader for these other seniors who had all become friends on Junior Varsity the past two years. And in my private drills, I was now playing with the next batch of up-and-coming sophomores, freshmen and eighth-graders, left behind because I had chosen to spend my days working and studying. I was expected to be the “older player” that these new younger players would learn from as a leader on how to be “a good team player”. The previous summer I had been placed on a team that was never going to make the regional tournament, and was meant to be a learning process for the newer players on the team. I was on the JV squad in my final summer, watching with my hand wrapped around the chain link fence, as my former peers advanced on towards new heights. 

As the winter crept into the start of the new year, I could feel the dark tendrils of apathy wrapping around my knees. I had recently obtained a diagnosis of bursitis in my left one, which forced me to wear a brace whenever I played, in case I bent my knee the wrong way. So not only was there psychological pain in playing, but now physical pain as well. I was running out of reasons to play this sport I once loved so much. I saw my other friends joining the Ultimate Frisbee club, having played no more than I, and being on a team that looked reasonably competitive and thought to myself, “why am I not doing that?”. I no longer wanted to attend drills, or practice with my high school team as the start of my final season came to pass.

I did not win a single match during my senior season. I won a total of 12 games over sixteen matches my senior season. I dropped over 192 games over the span of three months. I wished it would rain so that matches would be canceled, so that practices would be canceled, so that I didn’t have to go. I wanted more than anything to do anything else, and when the afternoon announcements came playing over the speakers on cloudy afternoons, I’d attentively perk up in hopes of hearing “Boys Tennis has been canceled, please take your regular bus home”, all so I could avoid having to engage my coach and her repeated negs. 

“Why can’t you do that in a match?” she asked in an exasperated laugh as I hit another winner on one of my teammates. 

“I’ll do it in our next match.” I’d respond, confidently knowing full well that I was full of shit.

I remember my final moments of my final match of my final season. Down 0-6 0-5, 30-40 against a player who the year prior I had managed to get a couple more games off of. He throws a high serve, too high, and the timing on his swing is off. His arm jerks too quickly, compensating for pause in his arm technique. This pause has removed any fluid motion that provided him so many aces before, and he hits the ball late, causing it to fly into the net. His second serve is just as wicked as the first, he has the room to play with it given the score differential, and so he goes for a serve that is just as, if not more, intense than the first. I’ve seen this serve over forty times at this point, he got the timing right this time. The serve has a ton of slice and when it bounces, the ball will draw me far to the left, off the court. I’ll have to return it with a lob if I want any hope of staying alive and recovering to the middle. And it’s what I do, a clean lob, mainly a blocking shot with minimal backspin, but a lob all the same. I wish I had been able to put some kind of topspin to force him back to his own baseline, but I am too concerned with overhitting it, and ending the point on my return. It’s better to be beaten by your opponent than by yourself. As I’m thrown to the side and start recovering, I see that I’ve given him the perfect lob to smash down into the court to cap the match off for good. I can see it coming from a mile a way, every millisecond etched into my brain like an old film still. As I recover, I watch as he connects with the ball, a clean overhead that lands in the far corner of the court, the exact spot he needs to put it to ensure that I will never ever have the momentum to make a third shot if I were to somehow return it. It lands in the intersection between the baseline and the alley, and then bounces onto the neighboring court where the 2nd singles match is playing, forcing them to restart the point. I dropped my last game. 

On a team of seven, I am the first person done with my match. I approach the net, my eyes burning and red, shake my opponent’s hand, and then pivot on my toes and walk to the back of the court. The tears have no doubt been falling from the moment my hand touched his, but by the time I reach the baseline I am struggling to repress anything at all, teenage masculinity be damned. This is how my high school career ends. Not with a stunning upset from a heroic underdog story that I’ll recount to relive the glory days of a happier time, but with an ending just like every single other match. Another loss. It’s not close. And in my moment to myself, as I stare through the chain link fence at nothing but a mulch-covered wind-breaking hill, and contemplate the fact that I feel as though I’ve wasted almost seven years of my life up to this point, I hear from behind me, a little softer than usual,

“What’s wrong?”

“What do you fucking think? What do you honestly fucking think?” 

It’s all I can whimper out to her, I can’t turn around to face her. There’s droplets on the court, but it’s not raining. I wish it were. I wish it had been an hour earlier. 

She pauses for a second, puts her hand on my back, pats it once or twice, and then walks away to coach the remaining six matches. I get it.

I’m almost seven years removed from that moment. After that threshold, I’ll have been removed from tennis longer than I had been playing it. With these seven years I can say what I should have done, that’s the easiest thing to do. I had a fiery passion for a game that was slowly smothered until all that remained were gray little ashes on a pile of dirt. Every single moment playing tennis was a stressful mental affair that constantly had me in my own head, anxious of what would happen if I couldn’t be the best I could be. I would fall behind, lose all my friends, lose a lot of self-worth, if I didn’t win this next tennis match. I should have been honest with myself, that I was not deriving joy from any of this anymore. I should have quit. I should have done something else, anything else.

With these seven years I get the bigger picture. What was once such an integral part of my identity, “oh he’s the one who plays tennis”, is now no more than a small piece of the bigger puzzle of crafting a happy life. The most important thing I’ve learned from playing tennis is to seek joy wherever you can find it. I had the choice to quit, to find something else to occupy my time, but I didn’t. I felt like I owed so many other people my time and energy to ensure that our team could be the best we were. With that said however, I know now that I could’ve walked away from it all if I’d had the belief in myself to admit it. In the grand scheme of things, my time and energy on this Earth are fleeting. It would have been a better use of my time to be trying something new that at least could have had the potential to yield a new, positive experience. And hey, if it didn’t end up being that it cracked up to be, I could at least say that I had tried it, said it wasn’t for me, and then moved onto the next opportunity.

It is this justification that I am using when I say that I no longer want to play Kingdom Hearts. I was never really into it, but still, at the urging of a friend I gave it a try. I played it with an open mind and let myself experience the game for what it was. And there were moments where I really was having fun, moments like running around on Destiny Isles or running along the rooftops of Agrabah. But I hit a wall. I came to the conclusion that I had had enough. I was not going to be deriving any more joy from this experience. And so I did what I should have done seven years ago: I stopped playing. Games are meant to be fun. We use games as a means to keep ourselves entertained and amused. When playing games no longer provides that sense of fun, it’s up to us to decide how much more time we actually want to spend with that game before moving on. Maybe your tolerance is greater than mine. And it is perfectly okay to decide to move on after spending the time to completely come to the conclusion that something is not for you. You do not have to 100% complete a game that you were never really interested in in the first place, regardless of what your friends, peers, community, and society say. And neither do I.

These days I run, I study, I stream, I spend time with the people I care about, and I write. Most of these are all activities that I never did in high school (I studied, yeah, how else would I have gotten all the way to grad school?). I had not yet learned the happiness I derived from accomplishing these tasks on a regular basis. The bursitis-laiden knees I had developed from tennis are still with me, but they’re hardly a problem these days given the nature of the new sport I’ve fallen in love with, long-distance running. I still study, but now I focus more on the topics that I want to continue working with for the rest of my life. I get to live my childhood dreams of playing video games on the internet and having friends watch and play alongside me, doing the voices and having a wonderful time with the whole experience on a weekly basis. I have a wonderful, loving partner who listens to random thoughts I share with her and she in turn shares her thoughts with me. And I can express all of these sentiments through the words that I write. I love all of these activities, the practice, the process, the result, every stage of it.

I have somehow found a way to do these things that bring me joy because I know what it feels like to not be here. Some may say that it was because of my struggle that I am able to relish this feeling, but I cannot agree with their certainty. It’s possible that had I quit during senior year and done ultimate frisbee, I could be on a very different path in life right now. But that’s just one of the many choices in life that we all have to make on a daily basis. At the end of that path of this alternate timeline, there’s no guarantee that that version of me is as pleased with the version of myself that I am today. But if I were to concern myself with every single outcome, there’s a timeline in which I have somehow become the wealthiest man in the world by age 24. I could contemplate all the ways I could be happier with life. But that’s a joyless game, one not worth playing.

Kingdom Hearts 1.5 [40]