Reverse Design: Chrono Trigger.
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At the heart of Chrono Trigger is the question of whether or not events are inevitable. Every element in the game is used, at one point or another, to deal with this question: story, gameplay, even art and music. This doesn’t mean that the game makes the question (or its answers) obvious. Chrono Trigger is a sly and deceptive game. Even while the game is showing players one answer in the plot, it’s giving them another answer through the gameplay. More than a decade before anyone was writing about “ludonarrative dissonance,” the designers of Chrono Trigger had confronted the problem, worked it through, and deliberately used it as a resource. Because they expected players to simply overlook the (seemingly) inevitable disconnect between story and gameplay, the Chrono Trigger team decided they could manipulate the player through this expectation. Right up until the jaws of tragic defeat snap shut on the main character, the player expects something different. But then, as players are handed the sad answer that fate is inescapable, they get a second answer: the tragedies of history can be averted, after all. The gameplay becomes harmonious with the plot, and we have a comedy that follows and undoes the tragedy before it. That’s the real genius of Chrono Trigger: it can offer us two different answers to its central thematic question. It can show us two different but equally persuasive worlds, and it can do this both through story and gameplay. The reason that Chrono Trigger can do all of this is because it is really two different games.
Those two games are what I’ll refer to as the Tragedy of the Entity and the Comedy of the Sages. It’s important to note that this division is not simply a literary one; not only are the two parts of Chrono Trigger written differently, but they also play very differently, or else the difference wouldn’t be very ingenious at all. Chrono Trigger is special because the designers knew that if they could use the gameplay to preserve and embellish the surprises in the plot, they would have accomplished a unique form of storytelling, idiosyncratic to their craft. Accordingly, this book will analyze how Chrono Trigger was created to deceive, surprise, and delight the player. First, a brief overview.
The first game, the Tragedy of the Entity, is a guided tour of the tragic history of Chrono Trigger’s planet and its many eradicated inhabitants. It takes place across the first thirteen (linear) quests. This game is tragic in the colloquial sense of the term; it’s a sad and affecting story. It’s also tragic in the classical sense of the term; the hero of the story is propelled by a tragic flaw towards his inevitable doom. What makes Chrono Trigger interesting in this regard is that the Crono’s tragic flaw—and really his only characteristic at all—is that he’s the hero and player avatar in a videogame where the objective is defeating an overpowering evil. Crono has no choice; it is his destiny to face the monster Lavos whether he can defeat it or not. The only real difference between Chrono Trigger and most games is that losing to this monster doesn’t force the player to load a previous save file. Instead, the stakes of his loss (specifically, at the Ocean Palace in quest twelve) are carried out in the story of the game. That is the reason Crono dies.
The problem with this kind of tragic inevitability is that while readers, viewers, and listeners are accustomed to the feeling of powerlessness that a tragedy instills, people who played videogames in 1995 were definitely not. Thus, in order to keep players engaged without compromising their vision of a tragic story, Chrono Trigger’s designers set about continually deceiving and surprising the player by using various game design methods. If the players are always a little bit off-balance, they won’t realize the oncoming tragedy until they’re already hooked. The moment of triumph for the designers is when the tragedy seems at once surprising and inevitable. This takes more than just good writing, however. It also takes very clever use of the aspect that makes videogames unique: gameplay. Chrono Trigger has the distinct advantage of speaking two languages: it is a game that tells a story. Game designers, independent of game writers, communicate a lot to their players with things like dungeon pacing, the difficulty of bosses, giving them new towns to explore, teaching skills, or even through the way they display information in the user interface.
Chrono Trigger has the distinct advantage of speaking two languages: it is a game that tells a story. Game designers, independent of game writers, communicate a lot to their players with things like dungeon pacing, the difficulty level of bosses, seeing towns that have not yet been explored, teaching skills, or even through the interface!
The great trick of the Tragedy of the Entity is that in one language it tells players that they are victorious: they win battles, collect items, level up, and jump through time. In another language, it tells them that everything they’re doing is actually meaningless (to say nothing of entirely linear). At almost every turn the party’s efforts to change the past are stopped by the game’s main antagonist, Lavos, who warps history to suit himself. The player really ought to have realized that the inevitable showdown with Lavos might not go so well, but the player doesn’t because the game keeps him or her off balance, using a variety of gameplay and story techniques. By the time the player figures it out, it’s already too late. The feeling that the party’s defeat was inevitable breaks on the player as a grim and surprising realization.
The second game that makes up the content of Chrono Trigger is the Comedy of the Sages, which begins at Death Peak. This is a comedy in the classical sense of the word, a dramatic work with a reasonably happy ending. Specifically, the Comedy of the Sages is a comedy of intervention, a kind of comedy with a long historical tradition. In a comedy of intervention, the dramatic action comes close to tragedy, but the characters are saved by a concerned outsider. Works like Euripides’ Alcestis, Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing and Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future are comedies of intervention. What makes Chrono Trigger unique is the fact that the comedy of intervention begins only after the tragedy is complete. That’s the beauty of time travel, after all.
The remarkable thing about Chrono Trigger’s game design is that the intervention—by the three Gurus of Zeal—not only changes the tone of the story, but also changes the style of the gameplay. During the Tragedy of the Entity, the game is almost entirely linear. The party moves from point to point and era to era with hardly any alternatives at all. During the Comedy of the Sages, thanks to Balthasar’s time machine and Gaspar’s vision of the various helpful quests, it’s possible to move freely through time, tackling the quests in any order that the player wishes. Moreover, the objective of each quest changes. In the Tragedy, the goal of most of the quests is to find and defeat Lavos or his alleged creator, Magus. Those quests proceeded in a very classical console RPG fashion: map-town-dungeon-portal, map-town-dungeon-portal, and so on. The results of those quests are historically insignificant; the player changes nothing from one era to the next. In the second game, the quests are not about destroying Lavos, but about helping minor bystanders. Usually, these people are connected to a party member somehow. The quests break the earlier cycle, and can often be short and involve lots of time travel puzzles. The best part is that those quests have a real, tangible historical impact.
This book will deconstruct exactly how the first part of Chrono Trigger uses differing gameplay and story cues to create a surprising, yet seemingly inevitable tragedy. After that, it will deconstruct how the second part of the game undoes the damage of the earlier tragedy by giving the player the game they thought they were playing in the first place.
The most important thing to understand about Chrono Trigger is its quest structure. The previous book in this series on Final Fantasy VI focused primarily on systems that stretch across the entire game. By and large, the interesting facts about FFVI arise from the large statistical trends which emerge from those systems. Most first-time players won’t notice how deep those systems go, because most of the really important information is buried deep in complex formulas and huge tables of information. Chrono Trigger is different. Everything a designer needs to know about Chrono Trigger is right on the surface, and every individual piece of information is fairly simple, but the various pieces are glued together so finely that sometimes it’s difficult to know where one begins and the other ends. The party’s first arrival in the Kingdom of Zeal is a good example of this. That first trip is amazing, but it’s likely that a casual player doesn’t even realize that the Zeal section completely breaks the pattern the game has established—it has no dungeons, no explicit quest, and only one mandatory story scene. That is just one example of the genius of Chrono Trigger; because it is so artfully made, players don’t notice the design tricks which are right in front of their faces. Understanding the design of Chrono Trigger is a matter of breaking the game down into its individual pieces and seeing how they fit together.
The fundamental pieces of Chrono Trigger are quests. All RPGs are filled with quests, but sometimes those quests can be vague, misleading, poorly crafted, or even just tedious. Sometimes the quests are just filler material between story sections. In Chrono Trigger, the quests are very tightly written, and usually cleverly designed. Part of why Chrono Trigger is such a masterpiece is that the designers were very careful to introduce, prepare and then test every long-term skill the player would need to use to achieve success going forward in the game. If the player didn’t develop these skills on time, the pacing of the game would be ruined, and the overall narrative spell would be broken.
Before we get to the first quest, I want to note that this is an attempt to completely reverse-engineer the design of Chrono Trigger. Accordingly, there are many parts of the analysis that don’t explicitly support the thesis of consonance between the theme and the gameplay mechanics. Obviously, some things in the game needed to be simple, orthodox RPG design ideas. Like all games, Chrono Trigger must be playable before it can be artful. Regardless of the support these elements lend or don’t lend to the theme, the game takes pains to pace itself really well. There are lots of places in quest descriptions where I have highlighted a good design idea and how it is executed, just for the sake of examining good design. That stuff is important too!
Next - Chapter 1: Quests One through Four.