Why ‘Chrono Trigger’ Holds Up in 2018: A Fresh Perspective
This past month, I embarked on a journey unlike any other: a blind first playthrough of Chrono Trigger. I had no expectations, no context, and no experience with this game – but I had heard great things over the years. Often, in gaming conversations, Chrono would come up and I’d be the one person who couldn’t join in the nostalgic reminiscences. Now, I see why this game remains relevant – even 23 years and countless console generations later.
It’s worth immediately pointing out that I streamed this game, nicknaming characters after my friends and viewers on Twitch, which made each character more loveable and important from an empathetic perspective. As Ben Vollmer astutely pointed out in his recent piece, “The Nuzlocke Challenge and Emotional Attachments in Video Games,” the naming of characters in games is the first and most important step towards bonding with and growing more attached to characters. It sets up, in Ben’s words, a dichotomy between challenge and emotional investment. The fact that Chrono allows for customizable names for characters is no accident.
I loved Chrono in large part because of its dependence on temporality. I’ve always been a sucker for narratives like Doctor Who and Pendragon, where worlds wildly change in consequence to time travel. Chrono handles its time travel in the best way that I have ever seen such a narrative develop. The game links together more than half a dozen timelines in a way that forms a formidable chain from which increasingly epic narratives can be hoisted.
To write about the story itself would not only misrepresent the experience of the game, but would also take longer than the game takes to play, so let our focus be structure.
Chrono begins with a singular eponymous protagonist, who is thrown into the multifaceted nature of his world, experienced at multiple levels of time at the same time. Time travel quickly frames the otherwise routine nature of classical JRPG battle styles. Chrono stands apart, however, with respect to the integration of battle and narrative mechanics throughout the story’s unfolding.
And sure, we are exposed to more main characters than could be realistically appreciated in the scope of an essay such as this. But to gloss over the characters is a neccessary act of omission, given how noteworthy the plot and gameplay are in how they battle for the player’s main attention source. That is, games have higher stakes than other kinds of stories. Not always, but they have a greater potential to prove themselves than film or books.
As Patrick Holleman argues in his brilliantly detailed book, Reverse Design: Chrono Trigger, the very structure of Chrono’s story reinforces its main themes. Here, I take him to mean that the otherwise unrelated events of the game’s several timelines are interwoven threads that, juxtaposed, produce a more linear narrative than a usual story devoid of time travel. This is only shocking as a realization because we, as players, are moving through – from our perspective – a very non-linear sequence of events in time.
Holleman’s book also clarified a feeling that was in the back of my mind frequently throughout my playthrough of Chrono: the passage of time is asymmetrical. In Reverse Design, Holleman argues at length that Chrono is in fact two games at the same time. There is the first game, which he calls “The Tragedy of the Entity,” where the player embarks on 13 main quests, culminating in the epic battle with Lavos.
In “The Tragedy of the Entity,” the player is given no real ability to change history – even with the ability to travel through time at a button’s press away. The story climaxes with the main character’s death, rendering him a tragic hero in the archetypal sense. And it’s refreshing to see a game so boldly kill off its protagonist. It reveals a maturity to the writing.
In the second game, what Holleman terms “The Comedy of the Sages,” the story opens up into a multidirectional, non-linear path. Here, the player is presented with open-ended side quests for each character to complete. The game rewards you handsomely for embarking on these optional quests. But for all intents and purposes, this is itself a fresh game, almost a “part two” to the main Chrono narrative.
The nice thing about being a tragic hero in a game about time travel, Holleman argues, is that your friends can save you from your fate. This means actually changing history in significant ways. This means that the second story (stories?) in Chrono is much more localized, more personal, and ends on a much more triumphant note (hence, comedy) than the first arc.
But there is also a structural trick that Chrono plays on us, as players. The game feels ridiculously fast paced sometimes, in terms of chronology. You might wonder how so much can happen back to back while playing. This feeling indicates what Holleman points out as the asymmetric passage of time in Chrono. The game gets away with a double move: with one hand it feeds you plot, and with the other, it accelerates past the “everyday,” boring activities of day-to-day life. That is, you’re always changing the world while playing. Nothing is low stakes. Everything you do matters.
Aside from this initial structural move, one might argue that time travel narratives are often glossed over without much critical eye due to convenience. Stories with time travel usually rely on time travel as a deus ex machina, a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for writers. But in Chrono this trope works because, by leaving out the boring parts, a more clever narrative is allowed to take control of the story’s pacing. Above all, Chrono pairs up its heavy moments in complex ways. Everything is connected.
Returning to Holleman, Chrono links a kind of “chain” of climaxes. There are, he argues, eleven possible “climactic” moments in the game – some of which occur simultaneously from the player’s immediate perspective. More accurately, two stories are running in parallel at the same time. Both stories continue towards their inevitable climax, he argues, even while we’re not watching them. And yet, both stories are thematically linked in reference to Lavos. Lavos truly ends time for the player.
As a final note, it would be remiss to write about Chrono and neglect to praise the music. In an absolutely mind-blowing video, 8-Bit Music Theory unravels the cryptic layers of how and why Chrono’s music is so perfect. Seriously, it might be one of the top 5 game soundtracks of all time. I could dedicate an entire article to it, but 8-Bit Music Theory says more than any article ever could.
For me, ultimately, Chrono Trigger was a timeless – pardon the pun – experience. It provoked nostalgia for feelings that I never even had as a child. It felt instantly like the classic that it deserves to be. I will never forget the journey that the game takes you on, both in terms of plot and emotion. It’s almost as though the developers wanted to make a game that would hold up forever – whether in 65,000,000 B.C. or in 2,300 A.D. And they did. They made a game that, from my fresh perspective, will always remain relevant to the discussion of videogames as art, literature, and a storytelling medium.