My hat goes off to Michael P. Williams immediately, for it is nothing but ambitious to write on Chrono Trigger. For one thousand readers, one thousand Hamlets; for one thousand players, one thousand Cronos. Released by Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) on the Super Nintendo in 1995, the videogame is considered one of the best JRPGs. Essays on Chrono Trigger have interpreted it through Existentialism, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and The Gospels. Even had Williams’ book collapsed into gibberish or said nothing new of Chrono Trigger, it would still have been founded on a great choice.
As I mentioned in reviewing Boss Fight Books’ EarthBound, capturing videogames in text is no easy task, especially for a broad audience, as you have to onboard them to the medium, the genre and the game itself. Williams’ book on Chrono Trigger seems best suited to those who have played the game at least once, or who know what a RPG is, or who gamed on the SNES in the nineties. It’s not like we’re talking about stacking creeps or using the TP scroll in Dota 2, but if Williams mentions a Triple-Tech, um, I hope you know what that means.
JK, here we go: mechanically, Chrono Trigger walks a balance between upholding, streamlining and innovating upon JRPG conventions. As ever, the player manages a party of characters who can either attack, use a Technique, or use an item when battling enemies. Victory earns the player gold, item drops, experience points. Experience points lead to a level up, and with it increased offensive and defensive power. Gold can be used to buy items or better equipment. Chrono Trigger streamlines the formula by amongst other things reducing the number of characters in the party and by giving each character a definitive magic alignment (Crono, for example uses lightning magic). Its innovations include walking away from an NPC to close non-crucial dialogue; seamlessly integrating non-random (and therefore avoidable) combat with the environment; allowing two or all three characters to pool their Techniques into Double- or Triple-Techs that strike the enemy with amplified force; and a New Game + mode in which the player begins anew while retaining his or her stats from the previous playthrough.
Dull as that may seem, as a GDC lecture by a designer from Halo 3 pointed out, tweaking small variables, such as the reload time of a sniper rifle in a first-person shooter, can have large impacts on the emotional feel of the game. The Triple-Tech lends itself to the pleasure of suffering enemy blows while preparing an inescapable, ornate attack. New Game + reinforces the game’s narrative doubly in that it allows players to achieve the thirteen or so possible endings and reinforces the conceits of time as fraying loop and of Lavos as a final boss acting on a time scale surpassing human comprehension. Or, here, you could just watch this playthrough, too. It would be a shame to not at least sample the game’s vivid imagery, based on designs by Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame.
Narratively, Chrono Trigger begins with the sound of seagulls and firecrackers; balloons rise from the fairgrounds of a small village celebrating the turn of the millenium. You play the silent protagonist Crono, who goes to the fair to meet his nerdy friend, Lucca, who will exhibit her new invention, a teleportation device. At the fair Crono bumps into Marle, a runaway princess wearing a pendant. When Marle tries out Lucca’s device, the pendant reacts and she is sucked into a time portal. Crono follows after, jumping to 600 A.D., a mediaeval period in which humans are at war with the Mystics as lead by Magus. Upon visiting the castle, Crono finds that Marle has been mistaken for her forebearer Leene, who has been kidnapped. When Marle disappears, Lucca, having followed Crono back through time, explains that—and remember Back to the Future here—Leene will be killed, thus nixing Marle. Crono and Lucca head to a suspicious cathedral nearby, where they discover monsters disguised as nuns. They are joined in battle by another hero, Frog, a former knight transformed by Magus into a anthropoid frog. When Leene is saved, Marle reinstantiates and returns with Crono and Lucca to 1000 A.D. Crono is—get ready for irony, all you who want your videogames to be literary—accused and tried for kidnapping Marle. In escaping prison, Crono et al. must jump through another time portal. They wind up in a post-apocalyptic 2300 A.D. and discover that the world ended in 1999 A.D. when a parasitic monster who had been sucking on the planet’s lifeforce erupts through the surface, raining down chaos. Mistakenly believing this monster, named Lavos, was created by Magus in 600 A.D., Crono et al. journey back in time to save the world.
This is at best a third of the story, but hopefully it suggests the game’s pattern. Every time period, 1999 A.D. excepted, lends a new figure to your party: Frog in 600 A.D.; Robo in 2300 A.D.; Ayla, chief of the paleolithic humans, in 65,000,000 B.C.; Magus, whom you later learn is not exactly an enemy, in 12,000 B.C. Every time period re-articulates a conflict between humanity and its other and develops your understanding of Lavos in its different stages of parasitic gestation. 12,000 B.C., for example, forefronts a conflict between earthbound humans living in poverty and magic-using humans who live in an opulent floating city in the sky … a floating city powered by Lavos’ energy. A powerful enough parasite converts other organisms to parasitic behavior.
Chrono Trigger is not unique in that its plot convolutions a fortiori seem to exist for the purpose of providing new MacGuffins to fetch and new dungeons to explore. You’re just going to have to take my word for it that, compared to other works in its genre and to contemporaneous works, Chrono Trigger does this quite well. For example, in order to fight Magus in 600 A.D., you first have to mend a broken mythical sword. In order to do that you need to obtain a red rock from 65,000,000 B.C. What seems like padding actually serves two purposes, one narrative, the other ludic. This quest introduces the major characters in the time period, so exposition is out of the way when you return for another more crucial quest which explains when and how Lavos came to Earth. If you read the lore scattered throughout the later game, you discover the red rock is an evolutionary and oneiric catalyst, connected with both Lavos and Marle’s pendant. And it occurs after your party unlocks its potential to learn magic and before you face Magus. Thereby, the red rock fetch-quest shows you where to grind when grinding will be the most fun and rewarding.
But to return again to plot convolutions. I sense in my fellow millennials an embarassment about enjoying videogames. Against poetry, where it’s popular to talk about just how late to the party we are, we share our birthdays with videogames. Yet videogame writing invariably lands upon ‘nostalgia’. As adults, the argument seemingly goes, we must provide some intellectual lattice to recuperate a childish enjoyment of videogames or to share that enjoyment with others. Not so with Rabbit, Run, Revolutionary Road or Cathedral. As if stories of aimless satiated white heterosexual middle class surbanite males were any less fantastical, insular, destructive or childish than stories of traveling through time to save the world.
That a rift between high and low separates videogames and established arts-media is no news. However, the rift widens increasingly within videogames as well. Videogames like Dear Esther and Gone Home, which have no enemies to defeat and mete out their discrete, thematically-unified narratives via audio diaries, have attained critical success. However, I’m one of those annoying people who thinks the ‘literary’ is merely one genre among many, rather than the good which all works should strive toward. I don’t think we need to view Gone Home as the mature game we play unapologetically as mature adults while Chrono Trigger we fondly remember, but hold at arm’s length. I find it more productive to view each game as typifying different solutions to the same issue: a black and white person-versus-person conflict is too simplistic. Gone Home does this by by eliminating clear nemeses and all clear goals. You explore a house trying to find out what happened. But Gone Home does this at the risk of not being much of a videogame.1 The literary genre cannot easily be transfered from prose writing into videogames because the literary extohls stories in which ambivalent protagonist inhabits an inscrutable world, unable to set or achieve goals, with no skills to accomplish any goals they do set. Since videogames rely on affordance2 in the fictive world such that obstacles can be recognized and overcome to reach goals, literature is antithetical to videogames. Chrono Trigger avoids the problem of an oversimple narrative by proliferating nemeses, and unlike Gone Home, does so without straying away from game and into guided virtual tour.
How to receive and interpret Chrono Trigger, then, if comparing it to realistic and literary narratives is fruitless? Williams decides, and I think this is a pretty cool choice, to apply The Hero’s Journey as theorized by Joseph Campbell. A limit to Campbell’s approach, though, as Williams points out, is that Chrono Trigger often nominates multiple heroes along with the above-mentioned multiple nemeses. Remember how I said above that in order to fight Magus in 600 A.D. you have to mend a mythical sword? That sword is called the Masamune, and it is to be wielded by Frog and Frog alone. Frog is the hero of 600 A.D., and I feel the sheer length of and mythos behind the Masamune quest supports this. Similarly, two optional late game quests for Robo establish how much he is the hero not only of 2300 A.D., but a hero throughout time in that he and only he can turn a desert into a forest through a four-centuries-long labor. And oh yeah, for the duration he’s compressing tree sap into a piece of amber, which he will gift to you in my favorite moment of the game.
Intriguingly, for every piece of evidence Chrono Trigger provides for this or that character being a hero, it also provides evidence against them being a hero. Crono dies in the middle of the game, and while the sacrifice is certainly heroic, resurrecting him is optional. If you do resurrect him, he is no longer required to be in your immediate party and in his absence other characters may have caught up with him in power. Frog’s heroism could achieve one kind of closure by defeating Magus, but again, optional. If you forgive Magus, Frog becomes a different, perhaps better, kind of hero. While Robo has, in my opinion, some of the most poignant heroics in late-game, his pretext for signing on with you in the first place is rather slim. More than any other character he is unable to pass for contemporaneous.
For Williams, Crono’s death is where The Hero’s Journey is interrupted, complicated and temporarily replaced with a collective hero. Williams makes a good case for Crono being the game’s narrative and ludic center for the majority of Chrono Trigger:
Crono is the powerhouse of the game, having participated in every battle and having gained all those hard-fought experience points. Characters not in our active party, by the way, are awarded 75% of the EXP earned in battle, but there are restrictions on how these points are applied to their leveling up. In short, the characters who battle the most are the strongest. Moreover, without Crono, two thirds of the game’s triple techs are inaccessible. He is not only the linchpin of our plot, but the battle system itself.
And while I split with Williams in that I approach Chrono Trigger as an ensemble piece from first to last, and think he still puts Crono too much at the center by making the collective’s journey about his resurrection, Williams argues for his perspective clearly, which is no mean feat. Furthermore, major props to Williams for his ability to deftly interweave Joseph Campbell with Aristotelian dramatic structure with Patrick Holleman’s bipartite division of Chrono Trigger.3 This indicates to me that Williams is willing to engage with videogames both from theories native to and outside of the medium, and to do so without being showy.
At any rate, Crono’s placement and the games’ narrative structure is only one part of Williams larger engagement with Chrono Trigger, namely an investigation into how the player’s motive converges with and diverges from Crono and company’s motives. And Williams is at his most engaging when he analyzes character motivation. For example, Williams points out that Magus fights not for altruism but for revenge, and when I read that
Robo reveals his serial number to be R-66Y, but we will discover that his true name is Prometheus. In an ironic twist on the Greek myth, the fire-affinitied Lucca brings the spark of life to Robo.
the book allowed me to appreciate the game anew. Yet, as Williams finds when applying cultural analyses to the game, the characters seem conveniently blind to linguistic and ethnic difference. Yet in Williams’ faulting of Chrono Trigger for lacking a 1:1 correspondence with the ethnic conflicts of our reality,4 he doesn’t note how Chrono Trigger creates a fantasy class conflict between humans in 12,000 B.C. Williams diminishes hair as a symbolic marker of ethnic difference while priveleging skin-tone. Leaving aside reality and focusing on Chrono Trigger, he is not off in doing so: Crono’s hair is red, Lucca’s is lavender and Marle’s is blond. However, as an exception to the trend, some skybound citizens in 12,000 B.C. are distinguished by a silver-bluish hair from the unkempt brown hair of the earth dwellers below, an unkempt hair like the dispirited and famished dome dwellers in 2300 A.D. Williams is more on point when theorizing Chrono Trigger via gender and sexuality, though he unfortunately devalues Agape, reducing all to Eros: Crono’s care for Marle is Oedipal because she replaces his mother in a dream sequence; Magus’s care for his sister Schala is incestuous; Frog’s care for his mentor Cyrus is homoerotic; Lucca’s care for Robo is robophilia. Yes, it is cool that Williams applies theories of gender and sexuality to Chrono Trigger, but he seems unintentionally wedded to a Freudian Mommy-Daddy-Me discourse.
Williams’s analyses can range from the fanciful and humorous—as when he digs into Chrono Trigger‘s judiciary, dynasties, economy and technological development (this portion of the book can be read at Kotaku)—to the weighty—as when he compares Chrono Trigger‘s cataclysms to real-life counterparts of the Fukushima nuclear plant, the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack, and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The Chrono Trigger we understand in the West is an intensely cross-cultural product, so the inclusion by Williams with two different localizers, Woolsey and Slattery, of two versions of the game is revealing. How so? Williams often suggests that Chrono Trigger can be a lens through which to compare and contrast the apocalyptic visions of the West with those of Japan. And since the West draws so much of its apocalypticism from Biblical sources, the choice by the localizer, Woolsey, to call a malevolent machine the Mammon Machine and to name three gurus in the game Gaspar, Melchior and Belthasar become disproportionately important.
Williams’ concluding and perhaps controversial claim is that time travel is not central to Chrono Trigger‘s fairy tale. Its inconsistencies, he suggest arise from paradoxes (such as whom time effects or does not effect) and from the design-by-committee nature of game development. Rewinding time is not mechanically central like it is in Braid. Nor is fast-forwarding time central as it is in civilization-building games. Is time travel merely pretext coalesce as many exotic locales and characters under one umbrella as possible? I should point out that many videogames in the nineties coagulated exoticisms with no pretext whatsoever, and that the technical limitations of the 16-bit SNES must be factored into criticism. Why does Super Mario Bros. 3 contain a desert world, an underwater world, a giant world, etc.? Chrono Trigger at least provides a diegesis which permits suspension of disbelief if one doesn’t look too close. Nevertheless, Williams benefits the reader by looking close, pointing out the derth of negative unforeseen consequences for Crono’s meddling, but also observing that, “while our party members can change the world(s) around them for the better, the residents of those eras who reap the benefits will never realize it,” thus giving the game a tragic edge that it avoids confronting.
Asking what Chrono Trigger would be like were it developed today has been the most rewarding and joyous part for me in reading Michael P. Williams’ book. Would procedurally-dungeons increase in difficulty if you overkill enemies and clear rooms too quickly? Would three players be able to control one character in the party via the Internet? Would an online, dynamic economy raise the price of Iron Mail as more players come to demand a limited quantity, or allow players to sell excess items to each other ? (The outcomes of Diablo III‘s Auction House, Team Fortress 2‘s hat economy and Eve Online‘s financially ruinous wars suggest that Chrono Trigger‘s economy was better off for all its simplicity.) Maybe instead of visiting only seven time periods, you could watch and intervene in evolution, plate tectonics and the rise and fall of civilizations. Maybe there would be more sad endings which suggest the immutability of the future, as in a 12 Monkeys with Crono instead of Bruce Willis. Such possibilities will have to remain such. Chrono Trigger‘s official sequel, Chrono Cross, was an abomination, yet Square has clamped down on fan attempts to develop the IP with cease and desist letters.5
Which returns us to the assumption that realism is for adults while fantasy is for children. Fantasy begins with an event that reveals the untenability of the habitual. If the adult player is irked when Chrono Trigger prevents him or her from leaving the fairgrounds after Marle disappears in a portal, as is the adult’s right, to instead continue living with mother, I recommend The Sims instead. If the adult player is irked when Chrono Trigger forces him or her to agree with Marle that the party ought to defeat Lavos now that it knows the about the apocalypse, there’s no need to recommend another game. We adults are already playing the game of pretending nothing is wrong, if the IPCC’s latest report on climate change is to be relied upon. The JRPG’s loop of infinite refusal, in which the player cannot ignore the miraculous event and the threat it poses to the unity and justifiability of everydayness, is far and away more compelling than a loop of infinite acceptance would be. Perhaps the highest praise I have for Michael Williams book on Chrono Trigger is that it takes the game’s fantasy seriously.
1. For more back and forth on whether or not Gone Home is a game, see Brian Crescente’s “When is a game not a game?” One of Gone Home‘s designers argues that the freedom and variability of interpretation are key to Gone Home being a game; however, since interpretation can accompany viewing a movie, reading a text or reflecting on any act or event, it will not distinguish what is a game from what isn’t.
Bioshock Infinite is an interesting boundary case for the dichotomy I’ve set up, as it is a AAA game with both a convoluted time travel story, traditional FPS mechanics, but also a literary ambition.
2. I use affordance, legibility and scrutability all to hone in on the same concept. In order for a gamer to successfully reverse engineer the rules which govern a videogame’s fictive world and thereby play, the elements or objects of that world must be distinct from each other, must operate with some level of predictability, and must suggest the level of their significance to the whole game. For example, during the playtesting of Portal, the designers found that play-testers would neglect to pick up and carry a cube with them to the end of a stage. To resolve this, they put hearts on the cube, named it the weighted companion cube, and created audio bites which reinforced the cube’s importance. At the end of the stage, the player is forced to incinerate the companion cube, foreshadowing that incineration is a crucial act. The discussion around affordance is liveliest around stealth games such as Mark of the Ninja, Thief, and Metal Gear Solid, wherein gamers learn when they can and cannot be detected by guards that hold varying levels of artificial intelligence.
3. A classic feature of JRPG progression is for the first part of the game to be linear, with few chances for player choice to seriously deviate from that line, thereby allowing maximal time to create atmosphere, introduce characters, onboard the player to game mechanics, etc. In the second part, a majority of quests are optional, can be done in any order or not at all. Some may flesh out a certain character’s backstory and hence require that character to be in the party, but otherwise there is greater freedom as to whom you play with. Part of analyzing JRPGs is figuring out how different works in the genre execute or alter this bipartite division. For example, in Final Fantasy III, The World of Balance is linear and narrative while The World of Ruin is almost entirely open in that you can face the final boss as soon as you can fly an airship. Final Fantasy XIII‘s hyper-linearity and very late shift to open-world contributed to its mixed reception.
4. There is this fascinating little eddy in Chrono Trigger the book which opens on a meta-theoretical commentary worth having, I think. Williams undertakes a census of NPCs’ gender so as to analyze gender imbalance in Chrono Trigger by era. In a footnote used to describe his methodology, he counts as “citizens of their home era” the three “time-displaced” Gurus, Melchior, Gaspar and Belthasar.
First off, both within and outside the fiction of Chrono Trigger, one must decide how to negotiate between each critical theory’s claim to fundamentalism. For example, is feminism a universal fight against a universal patriarchy, such that it is more fundamental than cultural differences between the U.S.A. and Japan, or do Japanese gender relations structure a different kind of feminism than U.S. gender relations, suggesting that nationality and post-nationality is fundamental? Opting to say that no one theoretical approach is fundamental but rather that they all complicate each other is more pluralistic, but one then has to run through all the combinations in an increasingly large Punnett square, for example: Japanese male, U. S. male, Japanese female, U. S. female.
Secondly, while Chrono Trigger deserves the critique it receives for its narrowness, it feels like an oversight to not expand on time-displacement. Through time travel, fantasy affords a category of exile—temporal in addition to spatial—which reality cannot. For both the gurus and many heroes in Chrono Trigger, their leaving behind a home epoch is not voluntary. Several of Williams other insights on characters could be catalyzed under a hybrid between postnational criticism and science fiction if he did not segregate the two. What, after all, makes a temporal epoch a “home” period? Is Magus more or less ‘at home’ in 12,000 B.C. than in 600 A.D.?
5. Chrono Cross is so bad that I not only refuse it as canonical, I refuse all later interpolations into Chrono Trigger, such as cut scenes and added quests, which attempt to align its lore with that of its successor. Much like fans of Alien who loathe Prometheus, or fans of Star Wars episodes IV-VI who loathe episodes I-III, I believe that technological limitations and plot lacunae enriched rather than inhibited the fictional universe, and that perhaps the rights-holders to these universes are not the best custodians of them.
Chrono Trigger, by Michael P. Williams. Los Angeles, California: Boss Fight Books. 194 pages. $14.95, paper.
Jeremy Behreandt lives in Madison, WI.