It’s not about changing history; not really. One does change history, yes, but that is not the point, at least in the conventional sense. Normally we change history to alter present circumstances, after all. Here, however, we change history to alter the future, with the present remaining not fixed, but largely conceptualized as a somewhat indifferent midpoint between the two poles – strangely unimportant to the actual story being told.
On the other hand, the apocalypse is set in 1999, which is to say that it was our own impending eschaton – the end of the world we were thoroughly fixated upon by 1995. We’re less than a year out from Doctor Who’s ridiculously and pointlessly millennial American reboot. Bowie was about to launch on tour with Nine Inch Nails to promote Outside, the start (and sole piece) of his millennium-ending superproject. It’s the year that Seven hits, more murderous paranoia piling up in the cultural gutters. The greatest magician of the age is finishing up his diagnosis of the previous century’s grisly denouement, turning his attention to the task of birthing the new aeon. I go to CTY for the first time, the beginning of a genuine realization that yes, I had a tribe, it was just geographically mis-distributed. AOL was in its boom years. It was, in other words, strange fucking days.
The game’s present, meanwhile, is 1000 AD, squarely in the middle ages, which are portrayed as a standard JRPG technological medieval aesthetic – the sort of thing where there are stoves and refrigerators but no cars or airplanes, and the government consists of a hereditary monarchy whose castle is surrounded by a forest full of monsters. There’s both a tomboy princess (water-affiliated and your first healer) and a steampunk inventor (also female, satisfyingly, as is the later prehistoric barbarian). Making up the past is 600 AD, i.e. also the middle ages, portrayed as such in a more traditional European fantasy milieu (by the time the Byronic Magus with purple flowing hair shows up in that timeline the game’s doing enough genre fusion that it doesn’t jar), which is a terribly cute conceit. Rounding out the timestream are a 2300 AD “domes in a radioactive wasteland” dystopia, a 65,000,000 BC “dinosaurs and early humans” set piece, and a late addition of a 12,000 BC timeline that’s basically Atlantis with the serial number filed off. (Which, notably, means Chrono Trigger is a retelling of The Time Monster made by actual Buddhists.)
The relationship between this and our world is strange. It’s modeled on ours without having any particular connection to or relationship with it. It does not seek to reflect any particular concerns with our world. There’s a vaguely ecological bent to Lavos and the destruction of the world, but it’s vague to the point of being essentially contentless. Past that, this isn’t a game that’s about anything as such.
This is mirrored, in a key sense, in its production. It’s silly to try to identify where the notion of the AAA game began – the term arose in the late 90s, yes, but the idea of the tentpole game that’s designed with the clear intention of it being a hit has been around for ages. But to date the bulk of the self-consciously big games have either been major franchise players like A Link to the Past or Final Fantasy III or have had clear technological jobs to do like Starfox or Donkey Kong Country. Chrono Trigger, on the other hand, was simply designed to be a big game on its own terms. Its creative team was a self-conscious “dream team” consisting of FInal Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii, and manga artist/Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama.
It’s hardly the first game to take the auteur approach – I should have called last week’s post Sid Meir’s Civilization, technically. But it’s still an unusual way to root your game, and for the most part something to celebrate. Instead of pitching itself on the basis of a beloved company mascot or the tantalizing promise of future technology, Chrono Trigger pitched itself on the basis that it was going to be good. And it is. In fact, it’s very good. It smooths out the most annoying parts of the JRPG formula, most obviously random encounters, and makes it so that it’s generally easy to avoid tedious fights against yard trash monsters when revisiting areas. Its system is streamlined and elegant. The world expands outwards gracefully. It’s the first JRPG I played through to completion, borrowing a copy from a friend early in college during my retrogaming phase.
But the auteur focus of the game’s production is curiously counterbalanced by the game’s most striking plot twist, in which Crono, the main character, sacrifices his life during the traditional unwinnable fight against what will eventually be the final boss. He’s brought back, of course, but it’s still striking how much this twist serves to undermine the notion of a protagonist in the game. For one thing, it’s actually optional whether you bring him back. Properly it’s optional whether you play most of the game, as you get the option to initiate a fight with Lavos pretty early on. In practice, you’ll die horribly if you do so, but once you get to where Crono dies you can make it to the level needed to manage the final fight off of side quests. For another, after you bring him back he becomes an optional party member instead of a mandatory one, further emphasizing the fact that he’s fundamentally non-essential to the narrative. And no wonder – he’s a classic silent protagonist with no discernible traits or motivations other than the fact that he is the one to whom the plot happens.
He is thus revealed as fundamentally unnecessary – an empty structural contrivance whose removal at worst alters nothing and at best marks the actual maturation and completion of the work. And this is reinforced elsewhere in the game – Frog’s backstory involves a heavily subverted notion of “the legendary hero,” while Magus, whose backstory is firmly that of a heroic protagonist, spends the bulk of the story skulking about and acting like a supervillain, and looks like a sad sack vampire when he finally joins your party.
There is something profoundly liberating in this escape from the logic of the heroic. Central to both narrative and video games, the heroic is a stifling banality – a trap into which far too much otherwise promising logic falls. At the center of the trap is, of course, egotism. The heroic is necessarily an individualist narrative, and to think of ourselves as existing within it we are forced to accept that someone – generally ourselves – is the most important element of that story, and that the story could not exist without them. This is dangerous nonsense.
The problem of the heroic is of particular importance, however, to the notion of changing history. Take the most elemental history-changing fantasy, killing baby Hitler. Not only does this elevate Hitler to heroic dimensions, it imagines an individual hero taking a decisive action that is then singularly responsible for the whole of history that follows. In many ways, this is the essential tension that makes changing history such a tricky metaphor. On the one hand is the essential conservatism of saying that history must be the way that it is. On the other is the bias towards heroism of saying that individual action can change it.
In the middle, meanwhile, is Chrono Trigger. There is a clear “ideal timeline” – the ending brought about by beating the game for the first time. But this is neither the default timeline, in which Lavos arises in 1999 and destroys the planet, nor an inevitable one. Indeed, much of the game’s appeal comes from the “New Game+” mode that opens after you beat it the first time, in which you can replay it with all your levels and items intact such that you can defeat Lavos at any point in the game, unlocking a bevy of alternate endings. These endings are by and large inferior scenarios to the “proper” ending, but they’re often amusing ones, and getting them all is one of the game’s basic appeals.
The result is to turn the past less into something to change than something to explore. And this is further emphasized in a cutscene attached to one of the late-game sidequests, in which one character muses on the possibility that the gates the characters have been traveling through are not a mere consequence of Lavos’s existence, but the product of some “entity” who “wanted to relive its past.” And yet the Entity is absent – indeed, it’s postulated that if its identity were ever to be revealed that would mark the end of the journey.
The implication is clear: the purpose of the past is to excavate its secret histories, yes. We knew that. But within these secret histories the ones that matter are the ones in which we ourselves are absent. The past exists not to be remembered, but to be explored and discovered. The 16-bit era of our nostalgia leads only to eventual destruction. It is the one we do not remember and did not experience that matters. Or better yet, the one unearthed by later visitors without our involvement at all.