The following is by K. Newton (also known as "ideas"), and was posted on his Livejournal in six parts:
It's been archived and presented at the Chrono Compendium for safekeeping. Enjoy this penetrative look!
You know, when I sat down to write a series of articles about my Existentialist reading of Chrono Trigger, I initially started out with a bunch of explanatory text, background information and disclaimers. About a page into that mess, I decided that my efforts were futile. I am writing to an almost comically tiny audience with this series, and there's nothing I can do about it. Better to accept that and jump right in, I figure.
So for those of you who are in the know about Chrono Trigger and about Existentialism, here's the long and short: Although Chrono Trigger is by no means a heavyweight philosophical text, it has philosophical underpinnings and, more importantly, crafts a broad-ranging pastiche/satire of various pasts and futures as they are imagined in popular culture. As Umberto Eco writes of Casablanca, "the clichés are having a ball" in Chrono Trigger. What's more, the very format of the console RPG creates an experience that is well-suited to exploration of existential questions; Chrono Trigger, like other games of its ilk, presents the player with a complete world and asks him or her to make meaningful choices in that world -- and, yes, to kill some goblins along the way. It's not exactly Being and Nothingness, but it's not Pac-Man, either.
My plan is to play through Chrono Trigger yet again and to look at the statements and assumptions about existence that arise in the game, with special emphasis on Identity, Choice, Subjectivity/Objectivity, Time and Death. It's worth repeating explicitly that I'm not out to prove that complex philosophical statements were deliberately embedded in this video game. Instead, I'm trying to show that the format, the subject matter and the intertextual nature of Chrono Trigger make it possible to read the game as a negotiation of these subjects.
Enough of that. Let's get to the game.
Synopsis, Part One
Chrono Trigger opens with a pendulum swinging repeatedly past the screen, gradually losing energy and finally stopping fully in frame. The title then emerges alongside the pendulum. This image has special significance because, as we will learn much later at a key point in the game, a "Chrono Trigger" is a device that can literally stop time. This is not the usual method of time travel in the game, but a one-time occurrence that nevertheless gives the game its title and gives meaning to this title screen. It's enough for now to point it out and to remember that the very first image of this game, which seems superficially to be about the vast and unstoppable sweep of time, is that of a pendulum ceasing to swing.
Our introduction to Crono and his world is extremely straightforward for a console RPG. We get a moving overhead shot of Crono's town, followed by the ringing of a bell and Crono's Mom opening his bedroom window (cf. Psycho). Crono's Mom identifies the ringing as Leene's Bell; more on that later. We discover from Crono's Mom that the Millennial Fair is beginning today, and that Crono is supposed to meet his inventor friend Lucca there. With that simple introduction, we're out of Crono's house and into the main body of the game.
When Crono visits the Millennial Fair, he bumps into a girl in front of Leene's Bell, knocking her over and causing her to drop her pendant. Predictably, the bell rings. As we learn at the Fair, the bell is said to guarantee a happy and interesting life to those who hear it ring. Crono returns the pendant to the girl. She introduces herself as Marle (after some hesitation about her name) and asks to join Crono. He accepts.
After some hijinks at the fair, the two go to see Lucca's exhibition of her new invention, a "telepod" that can teleport people over a short distance. Crono volunteers to try the machine out, and it teleports him just as expected. After Crono's success, Marle wants to try it too. When she does, though, her pendant reacts strangely to the machine; a swirling blue gate opens and Marle vanishes into it, leaving her pendant behind on the telepod. The scattered onlookers are shooed away by Lucca's dad and Lucca wonders what could have gone wrong. The game won't advance until the player directs Crono to the telepod to pick up Marle's pendant, at which point Lucca's dialog indicates that Crono has volunteered to follow Marle through the gate by being teleported while holding her pendant.
Crono's plan works and he is transported to a world that looks similar to his own, but turns out to be quite different. He learns that he is in the year 600 A.D., 400 years earlier than his own time. When he visits Guardia Castle the familiar-looking Queen invites him to stay and tells everyone that he rescued her; apparently, she had previously been lost. Crono visits the Queen privately and discovers that she is actually Marle. Marle looks just like the lost Queen Leene (for whom Leene's Bell was named) and has been able to masquerade as the Queen since arriving. Marle seems happy, but midway through her conversation with Crono she vanishes in a strange blue light.
Fortunately, Lucca arrives from 1000 A.D. to explain to Crono that Marle has fallen afoul of the grandfather paradox. It turns out that Marle is actually Princess Nadia of 100 A.D.'s royal family; she was masquerading as a regular girl to enjoy the Millennial Fair. That makes her a descendant of Leene. Because the search for Leene was called off after Marle arrived, Leene was never rescued and never lived to complete Marle's line of descent. Crono and Lucca depart to find Leene.
At a cathedral, Crono and Lucca find the Queen's treasured coral pin. After they find this clue, the nuns at the cathedral turn into monsters and attack. After they think they've dispatched all of the monsters, they are saved from an ambush by a bipedal anthropomorphic frog. Lucca is initially uneasy with the idea of working with a frog, but concedes that it is better to work together. The strange knight doesn't give his name; he says that "Frog" will do for now. This makes the second character to give a false name in less than an hour of gameplay. Frog is a longsword-wielding knight who speaks in a medieval dialect; more on him in a later article.
The three adventurers encounter a shrine to Magus within the cathedral. Magus is the leader of the Mystics, the enemies of Guardia in the current war. They also encounter doppelgängers of Guardia's King, Queen and two soldier, who try to convince them that their job is done.
Eventually, the three defeat Yakra, a monster henchman of Magus who has been posing as the Chancellor of Guardia. It was he who kidnapped Leene. After her rescue, Leene thanks the characters, but Frog blames himself for Leene's being kidnapped in the first place and runs away to seclusion. Marle reappears and comments that during the interim she has been in a cold, dark and lonely place; she wonders if that is what it feels like to die. Lucca confronts her with her true identity as the Princess, and Marle protests that if she had told Crono she was royalty he wouldn't have been willing to join her at the Fair; the player is free to have Crono agree or disagree with this statement.
Back at the canyon where the gate to 600 A.D. first opened, Lucca explains that she has invented a Gate Key that can open preexisting time gates. She doesn't know why the gates exist in the first place, though. The Gate Key works and all three travel back to the Millennial Fair. Marle wants Crono to take her home to the castle; he agrees. When the two arrive, though, the Chancellor insists that guards arrest Crono. It turns out that Crono is being charged with kidnapping and must stand trial.
Crono and 1000 A.D.
Crono and his time-period, 1000 A.D., invite immediate identification from the player. Their sparse detail actually enhances this effect. Crono, for example, has no dialog in the game. He clearly speaks in the world of the game, but the player does not see his lines, for he is only the player's surrogate. His only identifiable character traits are his drive and his seeming fearlessness. From a narrative perspective, he is the Hero stripped down to essentials; he chooses, he acts, he drives the plot, he solves the problem, he saves the day... but he does (and is) nothing else. Crono possesses, in the Sartrean sense, being-for-itself. We experience that being vicariously when we play him, albeit through the lens of a being who inhabits heroic fiction. Despite the fact that he is a fictional character, Crono lacks an essence. He is choice and potentiality unfolding in time, a remarkable characteristic that he acquires by being transparent to the player's input. One could argue that by being bound to the heroic role, Crono acts in what Sartre would call bad faith, that he denies his lack of essence by identifying with a role. However, I would argue that the role of protagonist is defined by its very lack of essence. The Hero may possess certain qualities, but they do not define him. At his core is the potential for effective and meaningful choice. Taking on the mantle of the hero, then, is a radical acceptance of being-for-itself.
1000 A.D., while not quite so transparent as Crono, is sort of a "default" time period that we are meant to identify as such. The people there seem more like us than we do, as it were; they speak in plain language and have most of the modern conveniences, but lack technological and culture developments that have yet to be incorporated into the modern self-image. Chrono Trigger's 1000 A.D. really has nothing in common with that time period in the real world, but is more like the vague pseudo-historical world of Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy fiction; it is a staging ground for stories about the unchanging human condition, with all the usual hidden assumptions about that condition. If Crono is being-for-itself, a being constantly creating himself and yet defined only by his exertion of will upon the world, 1000 A.D. is history-for-itself, an era characterized by potentiality and defined only by its relationship to the other eras (note the Millennial Fair, a celebration of the era's pivotal place in relation to the past and future). It is the unfolding time we live in, as opposed to the static time we read about.
The ringing of Leene's Bell heralds the game's opening and the meeting of Crono and Marle, indicating that both Crono and the player have embarked on a special journey. On its face, this seems to be our first brush with destiny in the game. Crono and Marle's meeting was destined, and the bell acts a symbol of the adventure that fate has in store for them. We have to look closer to see that the cliché of the fated hero is being dismantled here. For one thing, everyone can hear Leene's Bell -- hell, it's audible from Crono's bedroom! More importantly, within about 15 minutes of gameplay, the player will have traveled to the past and will have the opportunity to rewrite the history of Queen Leene, the woman whom the bell is named after. In fact, we can see the bell being crafted in a smith's home in 600 A.D., if we care to stop in there. In some endings of the game, the bell is even rechristened and named after one of the main characters, so that this supposed arbiter of destiny becomes a memorial to the world-changing choices of the protagonists. It's not that the idea of destiny is being asserted or debunked here, but that the cliché of the fated hero is being introduced into a game dominated by the theme of personal choice, and that this theme subverts the version of destiny found in the diegetic world.
Leene's Bell and the exuberant retrospection of the Millennial Fair both represent a way of looking at history and our place within it. That viewpoint will become increasingly outmoded as the game progresses, leading up to an ending where Crono and the rest will categorically assert their will over any fiat of destiny or history.
Crono's Decision to Follow Marle
Crono's choice here always struck me as fascinating, even before I developed this existentialist reading of the text. It is a tremendous risk for Crono to take, as other characters don't fail to point out, and yet no motive is stated. Crono's lack of dialog prevents him from explaining himself, and the other characters seem impressed with his heroism but don't try to explain it. Here Crono reminds me of Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith. Crono risks his life on a rationally indefensible plan to save a girl whom he barely knows and who might be dead already (or in no danger at all). He makes this choice because it is absurd, like the Knight of Faith. While Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith acts out of religious faith that transcends reason, though, Crono's religion is the narrative position of the Hero. Crono is making a leap to faith with this act. He is becoming the Hero of this story despite the fact that nothing in his world tells him that he is. Again, Crono's transparency is key here. The player knows that Crono is the Hero of this story, which imbues the essence-less Crono with a subtle numinous quality. Diegetically, it might be called "faith."
Note that when Crono finds Marle in the past, she tells him that she knew he would come for her, despite the fact that they are almost strangers. This simultaneously reinforces and confuses Crono's status as a champion of choice. It means that Marle detected his role as the Hero who transcends the rational with the power of his will... but how much choice does one really have if a near-stranger can predict one's actions so easily? This contradiction comes from the traditional identification of individuality with existentialism though, and simply doesn't apply to Chrono Trigger's assumptions. In Chrono Trigger, hell is not other people. Contrary to Sartre, who identifies other beings as a constant threat or impediment to the individual, Chrono Trigger emphasizes human interdependence. This is not traditionally existentialist philosophy, but neither is it inherently anti-existentialist. Isn't it valid to recognize the threat of colliding egos and impositions by the Other (as Chrono Trigger repeatedly does), but to find the solution to those threats in collaborative efforts? This formulation seems distinctively Japanese to me, though I confess my limited understanding of Japanese philosophy.
Marle and Mistaken Identity
There are numerous cases of mistaken or concealed identity in Chrono Trigger. Marle's double masquerade is the first. Her real identity is Princess Nadia of the Kingdom of Guardia. We learn from a gossip at the Millennial Fair that the Princess is a bit of a tomboy and makes her father nervous. Nadia poses as a regular girl, Marle, to visit the Fair and spend time with Crono, eager to escape her royal status. When Marle is transported to the past, she is mistaken for the Queen and takes up this role instead, enjoying the attention and the novelty that come with her new position. The irony of fleeing from being a Princess and ending up as a Queen is obvious.
The motif of altered identity is one of the key existentialist statements of Chrono Trigger. We find that identity is never immutable; characters may change profoundly as a result of events in their lives or to achieve some goal, yet even their new forms always contain some seed of the old. In Marle's case, the question of "true" identity is especially problematic, and we sense already that the problem lies as much within Marle as in her repressive surroundings. We know Marle as Marle; her name, clothing and personality throughout the game are those of the Marle identity. Yet, within the first adventure of the game, we learn that this identity is in some sense a sham. So why stick with it? It is because Marle's identity is fragmented. There is no real Princess Nadia yet; Marle plays many roles to suit various audiences, but she has no stable self-image.
The closest Nadia comes to authenticity is when she pretends to be Marle, but this is still an ultimately unworkable lie, as we see when "Marle" ends up right back in Guardia castle playing the double role of Marle-as-the-Queen. Marle cannot integrate her inescapable status as royalty into her self-image, and so she is ironically doomed to re-assume it whenever she tries to escape. It would be possible to read Marle's disappearance as a metaphor for the self-obliteration she inflicts by taking on a foreign identity. As she states when she is disappearing due to her time-tampering, "I feel like... I'm being torn apart!" I think that this reading, though not intended by the authors, is valid. The metaphor occurs naturally from the circumstances of the scenario. The time-travel cliché of the grandfather paradox is a cautionary trope about humans losing precious things that they take for granted by tampering irresponsibly with dangerous forces. In this case, the dangerous force is identity itself, and the lost treasure is being. Marle has a penchant for deception, no real self-awareness, and is mucking about with her own past; she is reshaping her identity in bad faith. At some point, a person who does this can cease to exist completely, erased altogether by her own self-editing.
Synopsis, Part Two
Crono is forced to appear in a (beautifully illustrated) courtroom to stand trial for abducting the Princess. Brief arguments are made, evidence is produced, and Crono may be found guilty or not guilty depending upon the player's earlier actions (more on this later). If guilty, Crono is sentenced to death. If not guilty, he is sentenced to only three days in jail, but the Chancellor tells the jailer that the sentence was death. In either case, Crono is confined to a cell and told that he is three days from execution.
When three days have elapsed, Crono is led to a guillotine but is rescued at the last moment by Lucca, who has broken into the jail to free him. Together Lucca and Crono escape the dungeon after fighting the Dragon Tank, an experimental dragon-shaped machine that guards the passage from the jail to the castle (Note the sense of anachronism in a tank defending a castle, especially in 1000 A.D. -- this goes again to the conflict between society's self-image and its transformation by technology, a conflict that is a historical root of existentialism). In the castle proper, Lucca and Crono are surrounded by guards. Marle, wearing her dress and acting as Princess Nadia, demands that the guards stand down. First the Chancellor and then the King himself intervene, telling Nadia that she must put her title before herself. Marle throws off her dress, revealing her usual "Marle" outfit and runs away with Crono and Lucca. (Note Marle's failure to integrate her identity here, symbolized by the costume change; she has two discrete identities and must switch between them as the situation demands). The three find a time gate in the forest outside of Guardia Castle. They take it to escape the guards, unaware of where it will lead.
Crono, Lucca and Marle find themselves in a strange, futuristic structure. Lucca ironically comments that the civilization seems "advanced," but when the party steps outside, a post-apocalyptic wasteland is revealed; the world-map is a blasted landscape of ruined cities, falling snow and a few domed structures. The party discovers that it has reached 2300 A.D.. They eventually arrive at a former Info Center that sits atop a food storage facility and an information computer. The party fights past a robot guard to enter the food storage facility, hoping to find food for the dome's inhabitants, but finds that the refrigeration has failed and only a few viable seeds remain. They use the information computer to find a time gate that can take them home; they locate it in Proto Dome. They also accidentally view footage of a disaster called "The Day of Lavos" in 1999, in which a huge creature erupted from the earth and laid waste to everything around him. It was apparently this disaster that caused the grim future. Marle suggests that the three use time travel to prevent this disaster from occurring, and Crono and Lucca agree.
After giving the seeds to the inhabitants of the dome, the party travels to Proto Dome and finds a broken robot there. Lucca repairs the robot, assuring the group that machines cannot be evil and that she can make sure it won't hurt them. When the robot awakens, it informs the party that they will need to reactivate a generator in a nearby factory to open the sealed door that lies between them and the time gate. The party (now including the newly-christened Robo) travels to the factory to do so.
After reactivating the power, Robo is assaulted by his former brothers, a number of identical robots with serial numbers consecutive with Robo's original name, R66-Y. Though Robo is happy to see them, they attack, claiming that his original purpose and theirs is to stop human intruders and that he is malfunctioning. Robo does not fight back as they destroy him. The remainder of the party defeats the robots after the assault and drags the broken Robo back to Proto Dome, where Lucca repairs him again. When he has been fixed, Robo volunteers to travel with the party to help prevent The Day of Lavos. The party uses the time gate, but something goes wrong.
The party finds itself on a weird platform surrounded by fog and inhabited by one dozing man in a robe. When he awakens, he tells them that they have reached the End of Time by trying to travel through a gate in a group larger than three. The End of Time, he explains, links to every time gate that the party has used and also to The Day of Lavos itself. Because only three people can use a gate at once, at least one of the four must remain behind; this is simply a device to explain why a party cannot exceed three members, which is a common limitation in console RPGs. Before the party leaves, the Old Man advises them to meet the other inhabitant of the End of Time and directs them through the platform's only door.
The creature behind the door is Spekkio, the God of War. Spekkio appears as a weak monster, but claims that this is only because the party is weak. He explains that all of reality is based upon four forces: Shadow, Lightning, Air and Water. He identifies the innate element of each party member and grants them corresponding magic power. He explains that long ago, all people were able to use magic, but that it is now a special gift because it got out of hand. He cannot grant magic to Robo, but tells him that his built-in weaponry will suffice.
The Old Man, satisfied with the new power granted to the party, advises them to return to their own time before going any farther in their quest. They depart for 1000 A.D.
Crono's trial is an example of the unmistakable and clearly intentional medium-manipulation that the Chrono Trigger design team employed. The design team (known as the "Dream Team") consisted of seasoned veterans at RPG design. As a result of their experience and their sense of creating a for-the-fans work, they manipulated the fantasy RPG genre and the video game medium both satirically and to emphasize the game's meaning on a meta-game level.
When the trial begins, the Chancellor remarks of Crono that "you, the jury, shall decide his fate." This is subtle irony, because when the trial gets underway the player is surprised to find that seemingly meaningless "extras" from the Millennial Fair scene are called to testify about Crono's behavior there, and that this testimony determines Crono's guilt or innocence. His fate, at least in terms of the sentence he will receive, depends entirely upon the player's own earlier actions. For example, just before going to look at Lucca's telepod at the Millennial Fair, Marle wants to stop and buy candy at a stand. The player, as Crono, can try to pull her away from this activity, but she will always insist on going back until a certain length of time has passed. This mechanical response leads the player to believe that there are no consequences for pulling Marle away repeatedly, just for fun. This comes up at the trial, though; if Crono is seen pulling Marle around, it contributes to the jury finding him guilty of abduction. The surprise factor here would be easily missed by a critic unfamiliar with video games. In console RPGs, the game world's response to the player's actions is typically very limited and mechanical. There are certain key decisions that advance the plot, and these are usually clearly defined as such. Other events and characters are mere filler and don't react to the player's experience of the game.
Players understand the convention of limited interactivity. So when bit characters show up to testify about "privileged" behavior, behavior that the player feels confident is separate from the diegetic world, it creates a humorous and interesting tension. A similar technique is used in 2300 A.D. when the players encounter Johnny (a minor event omitted from the synopsis above). Robots surround the party and the game's distinctive battle music starts, fooling the player into believing that a fight will ensue... until Johnny arrives moments later and cools tensions. Without the music cue, the player would not be taken in by the situation as the characters are supposed to be, but the use of a non-diegetic game element suckers us into it. This is because we are trained to trust that non-diegetic elements pertain only to the player's experience of the game, while diegetic elements pertain to the characters. Like Crono's perpetual silence, these techniques serve to blur the player/character distinction. They also underline the game's theme of choice. They remind us that actions have consequences in this world and that our immediate play-experience, far from being walled off from the world of the narrative, both affects and is affected by it.
2300 A.D. and the Seeds
2300 A.D. is the third time period to which we are introduced and represents our only vision of the future (relative to Crono's home period of 1000 A.D., which we are to take as the game's "present"). As a post-apocalyptic world that shows us the horror we are trying to prevent for the rest of the game, 2300 contains the game's most directly condemnatory satire. The most interesting feature of the future in existentialist terms is the Enertron. The Enertron is the device that keeps the last remains of human civilization alive in a world that is without edible food. To use it, the characters cram into a metal sphere. Within moments, they are restored to full HP and MP; however, a distinctive sound effect plays and a caption appears that reads, "But you're still hungry...."
The clear implication is that the pathetic remnants of humanity exist in perpetual, crushing starvation that is made even more torturous by a machine that can keep them alive -- but hungry -- indefinitely. Why choose this haunting dystopia and not another? For the designers of Chrono Trigger, dystopia could not simply be a descent to savagery or war, because those elements are present in other times (and genres). Instead, they had to stretch to find a more dire and distinct future. They came up with total stagnation. In 2300, humanity is adrift in a bubble of its own technology, literally stranded within domes that defend against the ruined natural world. Humans have lost all connection to hope and to the future; instead, they rely abjectly on an artifact of the past that sustains them biologically but leaves them empty of all that human existence should be.
The underlying assumption in this scenario is that neither technology nor biology is sufficient for truly human existence, a subtle but bold statement that arises once again from the fusion of popular genres in Chrono Trigger. The seeds that the party retrieves for Doan are symbols of hope for humanity to regain itself even after the apocalypse. Seeds are recurring symbols in Chrono Trigger, and rightly so, because they neatly encapsulate the ingredients that the game posits as vital to human life: potentiality and harmony with the planet. Whenever humanity stagnates or loses touch with the planet (nature, yes, but also the "given world" of experience), it becomes something less than human. A seed is necessary to reconnect to the planet and to the future.
It is important to keep this formulation in mind in an existentialist reading of the game, because it essentially supports the idea of human existence as defined by choice and consciousness, but paints humanity in a slightly more collective shade than typical existentialism. We might compare Chrono Trigger's implicit view of human existence with Taoism or with Heidegger's indivisible Dasein. As the game progresses, we will see clearly that while the potentiality of the individual is primary in Chrono Trigger, that potentiality is inextricable from its connection to time and, via time, to other humans. That is, the personal, conscious and free experience of the World is the hidden order of that World, and in fact is that World. This is one of the few philosophical points made explicit in the text of the game, as we will see in later articles.
Crono is an Existential Hero, but in a purely formal sense. He is what he is because he acts as the player's surrogate. To find an Existential Hero who exists wholly within the game world, we need look no further than Robo. It is worth transcribing Robo's whole introduction to the party here, because it is one of the most clear and dense expositions of existentialist themes in the game:
Lucca: It's in bad shape...but it appears to be a humanoid robot! Incredible! ... I think I can fix it.
Marle: What?! It might attack us!
Lucca: I'll make sure it won't. Machines aren't capable of evil... humans make them that way.
Marle: Lucca, you...pity them don't you?
Lucca: Let me get to work now, okay?
Lucca: Right, that does it! I'm going to give it some juice!
Marle: Good morning!
ROBOT: Mo...... Good morning, mistress. What is your command?
Marle: I'm not your «mistress.» I'm Marle! ...and this is Crono... and Lucca, here, fixed you!
ROBOT: Understood. Madam Lucca fixed me.
Lucca: Just Lucca will do.
ROBOT: Impossible. That would be rude.
Lucca: Look, I hate formal titles! Don't you, Marle?
Marle: Hate 'em!
ROBOT: I understand, Lucca.
Lucca: All right! Now what's your name?
ROBOT: Name? Ah, my serial number. It is R66-Y.
Lucca: R66-Y? Cool!
Marle: No! That won't do at all!
Marle: Come on Crono, let's give him a better name!
(Here the player inputs a new name, with Robo as the default.)
Marle: Robo... Robo...that's perfect! Your new name is Robo, okay?
ROBOT: I am... Robo. Data storage complete.
Note the return of the false name motif. Like Marle, Robo takes on a new name to join the party. As we learn in the factory, R66-Y was a serial number that defined Robo in relation to his robot brothers. In the same scene, we discover that Robo's brothers now consider him to be malfunctioning. He has lost both his place in their ranks and his original programming, as symbolized by his name change. Like Marle, Robo suffers an identity crisis. In Robo's case, he has lost his old, strictly defined self and is now left to create the identity of Robo without guidance; his new "masters" demand nothing from him and reject his attempts to defer to them with lofty titles. Robo's distress at his situation is clear when he refuses help as his former brothers destroy him. He will neither betray who he was nor who he is, with the result that he must submit to his own obliteration. His salvation is heralded by the power of choice.
When Robo is repaired in Proto Dome, Lucca asks Robo what he plans to do once he's repaired. He responds, "What am I...going to do? [...] Lucca, no one has ever asked me that before!" Robo is discovering that although his world and both of his names are given, his identity is not, because he has the capacity and responsibility of choice. His "malfunction" crippled him in the factory only because he accepted all departures from his programming as flaws. Now, Robo begins to see that they represent potential instead. Robo chooses to help in the fight to prevent the Day of Lavos. Much later in the game it is commented that if Robo is successful in preventing that disaster, he will wipe out his own history and perhaps end his own existence. This adds an element of pathos to Robo's story and comments on humanity's relationship to the implacable forces of death and time. Robo, by exercising choice, both embraces and defies death. He accepts the threat of destruction, and this frees him to exercise his will on history that would otherwise lie behind him instead of ahead. Nietzsche wrote:
"To redeem what is past and remold every 'It was' into 'I willed it so!' -- only that would I call redemption!"
Robo's strange, posthumous redemption will be to remold "You were not" into "I willed it so."
The End of Time
The End of Time is a noticeable departure from other elements of Chrono Trigger. It is not a clear pastiche of any existing genre, nor is its significance in the grand sweep of time revealed. On the simplest level, The End of Time is a sort of home base that serves numerous utilitarian functions in the game. It makes time travel more manageable during a large chunk of the game, gives Spekkio a place to exist, serves as an explanation for why the whole party can't travel together, and generally helps gameplay to proceed smoothly. Nonetheless, its specific form can't be overlooked.
The End of Time shows no signs of disorder or destruction, though a single platform in the void seems to be all that is left of the world. The brickwork, fence and single lamppost at the End of Time convey a serene and civilized -- if somewhat incongruous -- image of history's end. Furthermore, the End of Time is presented as a static location, not as an event. That time's end is taken for granted and used as a home base of sorts in Chrono Trigger is meaningful; note that it implicitly dismisses any number of end-of-the-world mythologies while simultaneously satirizing its own materialist position through the placement of an old-fashioned lamppost as the only light left in the universe. Because we are supposed to believe in so many different time periods and genres throughout the game, from a medieval war against demons to a robot-dominated future, the end of time cannot be one that reveals some transcendent meaning, because that would invalidate some of the era-specific struggles we are supposed to care about. For this reason, we get a minimalist End of Time that refuses to pass judgment on the past, to redeem it, or even to contextualize it. Unlike traditional afterlives in which justice is rewarded and evil is punished, the End of Time is simply an empty stadium after the big game. The struggles of humanity are over, and we find that their meaning must be in living them, not in any omnipotent and morally-charged retrospection.
Time is not literally cyclical in Chrono Trigger, yet the End of Time reminds me of Sisyphus' moment of accomplishment in Camus, the moment when his punishment (the rock rolling downhill once again) earns him a brief respite from his absurd toil. Though Camus' radical meaninglessness has no place in Chrono Trigger, his sense of rebellious lust for life in the face of absurdity does. The End of Time marks the final boundary of humanity's domain, but this boundary affirms what lies within it; it refutes the idea that altering history is somehow hubris by highlighting the lack of a outside authority to whom Crono might justify his actions. Potentiality, which is dead in 2300, is most alive at the End of Time, where the book of history lies open, the magic that can rewrite it is discovered, and the void gives humans implicit authority to do as they will.
What is significant about Spekkio is what he is not: a deity in the Western sense. The self-described "God of War" does not intervene in the events of the plot, has no particular moral authority, and is not omnipotent. Notably, he cannot grant magic to Robo (nor, later, to Ayla) because neither one is descended from humanity's magic-using ancestors; Spekkio is not even the source of magic, then, but only has the power to awaken it. The casual introduction of a god as comic relief shows that the game's designers bring a distinctively Japanese non-theocentric worldview to the game. Yeah, there's a God of War. So what? He is just another strange character in a game that has more than its share. His existence no more defines the meaning of the game-world than does the existence of lizard men, wizards and golems. The profound "God is Dead" message of Nietzsche more properly applies to Lavos than to Spekkio. Spekkio represents, rather, an off-hand dismissal of Voltaire's claim that "if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him." The game's position seems to be that our problems are of the sort no god can solve, and that even finding a god (as Crono does) does not resolve the issues at hand.
Synopsis, Part Three
The time gate to 1000 A.D. leads to the village of Medina, which is inhabited by hostile Mystics descended from the Mystic army that went to war with Guardia in 600 A.D. The time gate happens to open from the cupboard in a one Mystic's home. This Mystic is unusually forgiving toward humans regarding the war 400 years ago, but he warns the party to watch out for the other townspeople; as it turns out, the village is extremely hostile, and Mystics will attack the party in various shops and homes in Medina. A visit to the plaza at the center of Medina reveals that Magus is still worshiped here and that the townspeople praise him for creating Lavos. As the party journeys away from Medina, a monster called the Heckran laments that Magus's creation Lavos was unable to destroy the humans 400 years ago. Hoping to defeat Lavos before he is created, the party travels back to 600 A.D. to confront Magus.
The party crosses Guardia's front lines in 600 A.D., seeking out the Mystics. Along the way, they hear rumors that the prophesied Hero has arrived to slay Magus; the people recognize the Hero because he possesses the Hero Medal. Far to the south, they discover that the Hero is climbing the Denadoro Mountains to claim the Masamune, the fabled sword that can defeat Magus. When the party goes to the Denadoro Mountains they find that the Hero is Tata, a little boy who is in way over his head. Tata flees the mountains, leaving Crono and his friends to continue his quest. Atop the mountain Crono and his allies find two little boys named Masa and Mune. The boys, after complaining that humans don't realize that the real importance of the sword is what it's used for, then resolve to test the party. The party defeats Masa and Mune (who are revealed to be the twin spirits of the sword) and claims half of the Masamune; the other half is missing.
In town, Tata confesses that he found the Hero Medal after a frog-like creature dropped it. He gives the Medal to the party and admits that he is not the Hero. In a hidden burrow in the woods, the party finds Frog and presents him with the Hero Medal and the Masamune. It turns out that Frog has the matching hilt to the blade that the party found in the Denadoro Mountains. The hilt is inscribed with the name of Melchior, a weaponsmith who was present at the Millennial Fair. The party returns to 1000 A.D. to find Melchior and have him repair the Masamune. Melchior informs them that the Masamune can only be repaired using Dreamstone, a rare red rock that humans used as money long ago (this is a mistranslation; in the original Japanese, Melchior states that the rock was more precious than money, which makes a major difference thematically for reasons that become clear later). The party travels to B.C. 65,000,000 to find the Dreamstone.
The time gate to 65,000,000 drops the party in the middle of an attack by dinosaur-people called reptites. Crono and his allies are rescued by Ayla, a mighty cavewoman. Ayla reveals that as the strongest member of Ioka Village, she is its leader and possesses the red rock. The party attends a welcome party that night and Crono wins the rock from Ayla in a contest (soup-guzzling in the North American version, sake-drinking in the original Japanese). When the party awakens the next day, though, Lucca's gate-triggering device has been stolen. Ayla helps the party track their stolen device to the jungle maze, where Ayla's boyfriend Kino admits to stealing it out of jealousy for Ayla's new friendship with Crono. Ayla punishes Kino, but he no longer has the gate key; reptites stole it.
Crono, Ayla and another party member track the reptite thieves to their lair. There Azala, leader of the reptites, is marveling at the device and wondering how the "apes" could have built it; it is obvious that she and her culture are far more advanced than the humans. After a battle with Azala's servant Nizbel, the party reclaims the gate key. Azala flees and the party returns to 1000 A.D. with the Dreamstone. Melchior and Lucca work together to repair the Masamune, which the party then delivers to Frog.
Frog has the party stay in his burrow overnight; at this point we see Frog's history in flashback, as described below in the comments section. Finally, Frog agrees to join the party and help slay Magus. At a mountain to the east Frog finally takes up the Masamune and uses it to cleave open a magically-concealed cave leading under the ocean and toward Magus' Castle.
The Hero and the Gaze
In this chapter of Chrono Trigger, the legend of the Hero exerts a gaze upon Tata and Frog via society's expectations. Both characters are defined and objectified by society, and both character internalize these definitions. Tata, whose possession of the Hero Medal marks him as the people's foretold savior, begins to believe in the greatness everyone ascribes to him. He plays along with their expectations until he fails, being only a boy, and his own father turns on him. The story is played as comedy, but Tata explicitly decries his father's hypocrisy at the story's end. Tata's only sin was to embrace the identity that was thrust upon him; the "hoax" was never his idea, but a collective self-delusion.
Frog's physical appearance and seclusion prevent others from taking him seriously as a hero. In truth, though, Frog is much more resistant to the idea of his own heroism than anyone else in the game is shown to be. Obviously, he does not reject himself on the basis of appearance, but he chooses equally shallow criteria: the two fetishes of heroism, the Masamune and the aptly-named Hero Medal (or Hero Badge, in the original Japanese). Frog has internalized society's Gaze to the extent that he has forgotten how to choose his own fate; instead, he sees it as being prescribed by his society's meta-narrative and by his physical circumstances. For example, the prophecy says that the Masamune can defeat Magus. Instead of seeking out the Masamune, Frog takes the backwards approach of observing that he does not already have it and concluding that he must not be the Hero. This is precisely the kind of damage that the Gaze can cause. It leads people to see themselves as immutable objects whose choices can all be extrapolated from a concrete identity. Note that while Frog takes this position about himself, the game itself does not. Masa and Mune clearly state that the use of the Masamune is more important that the wielder or even the sword itself. Frog never needed the props of heroism, even if he thought that he did.
The neat twist in Chrono Trigger is that the Gaze is connected to myth. The Destined Hero is an extremely common trope in fantasy literature that won't work in Chrono Trigger because it conflicts with the mutability of history that is central to the game. As a result, we get a send-up of that trope that critiques the Destined Hero by putting him into an existentialist world. In the conventional version of the Destined Hero story, the prophecy/myth of the Hero would lend a transcendent and infallible order to reality. The trope of the Destined Hero presupposes that identity and fate are both fixed; that's why the prophecy works and that's why attempts to fight it are futile. Thus, the myth is more real than reality. Truth can be discovered only by measuring reality against the myth: Can he pull the sword from the stone? Was he born in Bethlehem? Is he strong in the Force? The facts are only methods of divining the Hero's real identity, which is defined by myth, not by the misleading world of phenomena.
In Chrono Trigger, this approach is portrayed as comically (and tragically) misguided. Myth, rather than underlying reality, overlies reality in a way that obscures the truth. The searching eyes of the faithful, which are able to identify the Destined Hero in the conventional version, here convince an inept boy that he is destined for greatness. Meanwhile, the stringent application of the Myth to real life convinces a potential hero -- perhaps the kingdom's only hope -- that he shouldn't bother trying because he doesn't match the prophecy.
Obviously, a lot of this stems from patching a generic fantasy storyline into a broader world that can't abide the same heavy-handed form of destiny as the source material. Still, this storyline reveals Chrono Trigger's implicit position on identity and on fate. Identity is personal and chosen, not archetypal and given; and choice drives fate, not vice versa.
Ayla the Ubermensch
Ayla is probably the least interesting character player character in Chrono Trigger on a personal level, but she's very interesting for our purposes here because she brings a Nietzschean thread of existentialism into the game. Although Ayla is played for comedy in some ways, she is the progenitor of the human race that we spend the game trying to save. She is, in a historical sense, perhaps the game's greatest hero. Strangely for a game that emphasizes moral heroism in the tradition of high fantasy, Chrono Trigger positions Ayla -- the prototype of human heroism -- as an ubermensch instead of a conventional Christ/Hero figure.
To begin with, Ayala's heroism is essentially generative. She's not out to sacrifice herself for anybody, nor is she primarily concerned with destroying the reptites who are competing with the humans to become the dominant species. Instead, Ayla is a fiercely creative force. She is the human race's first great leader and the biological ancestor of great leaders to come. She possesses the Dreamstone, which we will later learn to be the source of human love and hate; in this way she acts as the creator of the human value system. Ayla fights to protect her species, but is willing to severely punish other humans for violating her ethical code, to the point of beating her own boyfriend for stealing (note that this latter act makes the rest of the party uncomfortable because they come from a less primal ethical climate). Like Nietzsche's ubermensch, Ayla worships strength and will as the highest virtues; the game's spin on these values indicates a compromised liberal version of Nietzsche's philosophy, however.
Unlike Nietzsche's ubermensch, whose strength seems merely constructive, Ayla's generative brand of strength links her struggle wholly to her future. This is not so much a conflict with Nietzsche as a different perspective. Nietzsche looks into the future to find the ubermensch and naturally focuses on the ubermensch's ability to transcend the past by constructing a new value system; from this perspective, the ubermensch's completed project is the triumphant culmination of history. Conversely, Chrono Trigger looks at the ubermensch in retrospect as the savage source of present civilization (in the same ambivalent way that today's liberal democracies look back at their imperialist and warlike pasts). The fact that this "ubermensch" is a woman is not to be overlooked. Ayla's virtue is what we might term "heroic motherhood." She grants and defends life, she leads her people in practical and ethical matters by virtue of strength, and she has no need to sacrifice for her people (nor for her generations of future children) because they are her Will engraved on time. Her efforts to defend and support them are not self-effacing, but self-asserting. Ayla is thus just as strongly linked to her social and historical context as Nietzsche's ubermensch is to the physical context of the material world -- again, this results from the assimilation of Nietzsche's worldview into the liberal and communal values that underlie Chrono Trigger.
In the next installment of this series I'll discuss Ayla's meaning further when I write about the world of 65,000,000. It's worth noting now, though I'll delve into it more deeply next time, that Ayla's Will to Power is her strongest link to the ubermensch. Nietzsche and especially Darwin have contributed to a popular conception of a moral vacuum that underlies civilization; it's common for otherwise moral people to concede that morality is an artifice that can't be maintained in the absence of civilized society (in wartime, for instance, in the distant past, or among "primitive" people). In those contexts, many people endorse a Nietzschean veneration of strength and will as virtues in themselves. This popular understanding (or misunderstanding) of Nietzsche is exactly what permits Ayla the Ubermensch to fit seamlessly into a game of high fantasy that exalts peace, harmony and sacrifice. Ayla's uncompromising will to fight, live and seize power is the bedrock upon which more traditionally-moral society is based. This, counter to Nietzsche, is the popular idea of strength-as-virtue; that it is an ugly and necessary step toward a true Christian-like morality of self-sacrifice.
Frog epitomizes humanity-on-the-border. He is caught between the dynamic creation of meaning and the specter of death, between free will and an identity literally forced upon him, and between the past and the future. As such, his story acts as an overture to all of the complex themes that are woven through the game.
Frog's most prominent struggle is with identity. If we reconstruct his story chronologically using his flashbacks, we find that his life has been a perpetual battle to reconcile the integrity of his personal will with the identities assigned to him by others. As a boy, Glenn was tormented by bullies. When Cyrus saves him in the flashback, he tells him, "You're a marshmallow, Glenn" -- "You're too gentle," in the original Japanese. Glenn responds differently depending upon the translation. In the North American version, Glenn rather spinelessly objects that he hurts when the boys hit him. In the Japanese version, he confides that he knows that it hurts to be hit... even for bullies. In other words, Glenn can't stand the idea of harming others in the way that they harm him. Nietzsche would have something to say about Glenn's value system here, but I don't think this scene serves as a critique of Glenn's morality in the context of the game. Instead, it establishes Glenn's unwillingness to impose his will on others, even when it means sacrificing himself.
Years later, Cyrus becomes a knight but Glenn refuses to do so, even though his swordsmanship is superior to Cyrus'. Again, Glenn's reasoning differs between the NA and Japanese versions of the game. In the North American version, Glenn thinks he'd "lose it" if he had to hurt someone. In the Japanese version, Glenn fears that he would freeze up and become worthless in a real battle. The general sense of Glenn's story is the same in both versions, and the two versions actually inform each other to paint a more detailed portrait. Glenn is a "marshmallow" in that his identity conforms to the circumstances of his world. He cannot find room to maintain personal integrity in a world inhabited by other people, so he folds. Cyrus is just another influence shaping Glenn's life, which is how a pacifist ends up becoming a useless passenger on a quest to smite evil. Before his transformation, Glenn's identity is dormant. He will not express it because that would require asserting his will upon others.
When Cyrus is slain by Magus, Glenn loses what little strength he held by proxy. Magus and Ozzie witness this breakdown and Ozzie delivers a line that serves and the linchpin of Glenn's characterization... but only in the Japanese version. Ozzie comments that Glenn, who is shocked into silence and inaction by Cyrus' defeat, looks like a "frog glared at by a snake," a Japanese idiom akin to our "deer in headlights." It is this comment that inspires Magus to transform Glenn into a frog. Frog's new form, then, is a mark of shame that he earned through his inability to act, his inability to maintain the integrity of his identity by fleeing, fighting or doing something. Appropriately, his punishment is an identity not of his choosing. Frog's outward form, like his inward identity, is now assigned by someone else. Glenn takes up a new form as well as a new name based on others' perception of him; he then takes on Cyrus' old responsibilities to Queen Leene as his new mission in life. Note that Frog is still letting others assign his identity, but now he is doing something. His slow awakening has begun. As noted above, he will not accept the mantle of the Hero until he has the approval of prophecy via the Masamune and the Hero Medal. When he finally takes up the Masamune, though -- which we can now recognize as a supreme act of will, given Glenn's past pacifism and lack of confidence -- Frog states "Mine name is Glenn." Though Frog is still greatly influenced by Cyrus, his decision to fight Magus is his own.
Frog's struggle with identity dovetails with separate existential conflicts. As his story continues, he must struggle to place death in the context of life and to reconcile the facts of the past with the possibilities of the future. Though these wells are dug in Frog's backstory, little water is drawn from them until later in the game, so we will address them then.
Synopsis, Part Four
Magus' castle is every inch the Tower of the Evil Wizard, complete with bats fluttering around it and a creepy statue on top. Inside, the player finds it nearly empty. It has two main forks, but both contain only weird, non-combat encounters: a group of children who want to be played with, for example, and illusions of the party's closest family and friends (Crono's mom, Marle's father, Queen Leene for Frog, Lucca for Robo, Taban for Lucca). Both paths are dead ends. After exploring both, the player finds that a save point has appeared in the first room of the castle. It is a false save point, though, and when the characters touch it, Ozzie appears. He summons monsters and then vanishes.
After the battle, the player must once against explore both branches of the castle, but now the weird encounters have turned into battles. The children turn into monsters; the girl who said "help me" now demands that the characters end her suffering and transforms into an undead skeleton; and the illusions of the party's companions attack them, each one unfolding somehow into a whole group of monsters. The ends of the paths are now guarded by Magus' other two generals, Slash and Flea. Slash is a dark swordsman who is deeply loyal to Magus; his blue skin and strange shape confirm that he is a Mystic, one of the race of monsters that Magus leads against the human kingdom of Guardia. Slash wields a katana (Crono can use it after Slash is defeated), giving the impression of Slash as a samurai in Magus' service. Flea is a magician who seems to focus on charms and other bewildering effects. Though Flea appears to be a woman, he is actually a man (perhaps a cross-dresser, perhaps transgendered). Flea is open about his sex, but doesn't find it very important, stating: "Male... female... what does it matter? Power is beautiful, and I've got the power!" Both Slash and Flea speak with Frog, making it clear that they have met him before. Both are encountering him for the first time since his transformation into a frog, though, and underestimate his strength. When Slash and Flea have both been defeated, the false save point in the first room of the castle transports the characters to take on Ozzie. After leading them through a series of trapped rooms and other obstacles, Ozzie surrounds himself in an impenetrable barrier and brags that Magus is already summoning Lavos. The characters are able to open a trapdoor under Ozzie, effectively defeating him. Finally, they confront Magus.
Crono and his allies find Magus in his sanctum, midway through a summoning ritual. Magus is dubious about Frog's power, but is willing to battle him if he wishes. He notes that Frog has repaired the Masamune, but doesn't believe that this will help. After a difficult battle, Magus is defeated. Just then, Lavos begins to awaken. Magus reveals to the party that he did not create Lavos, but is only attempting to summon him. A massive, uncontrolled gate opens and sucks the party in. After a strange dream sequence (where Crono awakens to Marle telling him to stop mooching off the king and get a job), the party awakens in Ayla's hut in 65,000,000. She tells them that she had a strange dream telling her to visit the Mystic Mountains, and found them there unconscious.
In 65,000,000, the fight against the reptites is intensifying. While Ayla's Ioka Village fights against the reptites, the other humans in Laruba Village hide from the reptites. Laruba Village is burned down after one of Ayla's visits and the villagers understandably blame Ayla. When Ayla goes to speak to the chief of the Laruba and witness the destruction, she decides to end the conflict permanently. With help from the Laruba, she summons pterodactyls and flies to Tyranno Lair with Crono and his friends to confront Azala.
At Tyranno Lair, Ayla frees captive humans (including Kino) and fights her way to Azala. Atop Tyranno Lair, Azala summons the giant dinosaur Black Tyranno; throughout the battle with the dinosaur, a red star hangs ominously in the sky. After the dinosaur's defeat, Azala tells Ayla that though she has won and the reptites will die out, to be replaced by humanity, the falling of the red star will scorch the earth, then herald in an ice age. The humans, Azala says, will wish that they had died out with the reptites. Ayla offers to rescue Azala from the tower, where the red star is about to land. Azala declines, recognizing that the time of the reptites is over.
We cut to a spiky sphere hurtling through space toward earth. When it strikes, it creates a tremendous crater where Tyranno Lair used to stand. Ayla names the phenomenon Lavos, which means "big fire." Going to investigate the crater and perhaps slay Lavos at the beginning of his life-cycle, the party discovers that he has already burrowed too deep into the earth to pursue. He has left a gate in his wake, however. The party uses the new gate and finds itself in a cave in B.C. 12,000. Outside, the lush green of 65,000,000 has been replaced by a featureless plain of snow.
Magus' Castle is one of Chrono Trigger's most memorable sections and serves a very interesting purpose in the game. The castle's motif of death makes it a rare confrontation with darkness in a game that maintains a mostly-lighthearted tone. Yet, the equally-strong motif of illusion (and the game's later revelations) make the castle's meaning more ambiguous. In some sense, it is a confrontation with evil. Yet the story of the brave hero vanquishing the evil wizard is very misleading here, and the game continually reminds us that things are not as they seem.
The whole castle is haunted by death. Seemingly human beings transform into undead creatures; monstrous overseers watch as skeletons attack each other in futile battle; Magus hears the Black Wind, the game's recurring symbol for impending death; and Magus and his three generals all remind Glenn of Cyrus' death, which hangs over all the events in the castle as a spur to vengeance and as a reminder that courage and heroism can't stave off the void. Despite the occult trappings and Magus' position as leader of the Mystics (Demons, in the original Japanese), the portrayal of death here evokes the reaper rather than the devil. Death is a grim and inevitable extension of life. The two sets of skeletons sum it up; one group is forced to dance in celebration of Lavos (who represents total obliteration) while the other skeletons fight endlessly among themselves, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are already dead. Death mocks the living and strips them of their individuality, as in the medieval danse macabre. Human behavior, even the noble human behavior of a hero like Cyrus, leads inevitably to the indifferent grave. What's the function of this portrayal narratively, and what does it say about the game's stance on death?
The death motif can only be understood in light of the illusion motif. The meta-game manipulation of save points, the illusions of the party's loved ones and even Flea's false appearance of femininity all lead the player (not the characters, but the player) to suspect deception, which turns out to be exactly what's afoot. The deception is twofold. On a narrative level, the player discovers the Magus did not create Lavos. The evil wizard, who would be the ultimate villain in a more conventional game, is replaced as antagonist by an amoral and seemingly invincible force for destruction. This narrative bait-and-switch ends the clichéd sword-and-sorcery arc and reveals the true stance on evil and death that lies beneath the surface of that pastiche. Just as Lavos is revealed to be something much older and more powerful than a mere villain, death is revealed to be a force far beyond the reach of our facile stories of good and evil. This is the second deception, this one meta-narrative rather than narrative. We as players have been fooled into believing in a myth of good versus evil that turns out to be false in almost every respect. As I discussed last time, Frog is anything but the Destined Hero of myth and fantasy cliché. We are beginning to find that Magus is not what we thought he was either and that the trappings of evil are equally as artificial as the trappings of heroism that Frog needed -- psychologically -- to confront Magus. It's all a pose, from Slash's voluntary adherence to Magus' law to Flea's cutesy-girl act to Magus' (as-yet undiscovered) fraud.
In the midst of all this illusion, there are two undeniable truths that move the plot forward. First, that in Frog's hands the Masamune is mysteriously powerful enough to harm Magus, despite its failure to do so when wielded by Cyrus. Magus asks Frog, "W...what have you done to the Masamune...?" A complete discussion of the Masamune's power will have to wait for a later article, but it suffices for now to point out that Masa and Mune themselves identified the Masamune's most important source of power as the purpose to which it is put. It is what Frog is doing when he assaults Magus, not just the blade he is using, that can pierce all of Magus' magic. Frog is beginning to discover the secret weapon that can cut through all the illusions of the castle and through death itself. That weapon is authenticity.
The second undeniable truth of Magus' Castle is Lavos. When Lavos is awakened at the end of the battle, he tears time itself apart, creating an impossibly huge gate and scattering both the heroes and the villain across time. This scene calls to mind Rumi's poem about Solomon and the Gnats. It is a fitting capstone to this subversion of the Hero's Journey that when the heroes and the villain finally reach the metaphysical power they have been fighting over, their little morality play is swept away indiscriminately in the face of reality. Though everything else in this story arc is somehow false, the power of Lavos -- the implacable power of time and truth -- is real.
65,000,000 BC and the Defeat of Azala
With the fall of the reptites and the appearance of Lavos in place, we can properly analyze the time period of 65,000,000. It is a fairly conventional "caveman era," but it holds special interest for an existentialist reading because it portrays the roots of humanity, the beginning of humanity's struggle against the void (represented by Lavos), and the collapse of a civilization.
The reptites, especially Azala, are interesting antagonists because they are not really evil. We are encouraged to view the competition between the humans and the reptites as an ecological struggle, not a moral one, and in terms of Darwinian fitness the reptites seem to be the rightful winners of the battle. They are smarter, tougher and more "civilized" than the humans, to be sure. The Laruba Tribe takes this position and chooses to hide from the reptites. Ayla, in contrast, recognizes that conflict is the only path to survival: "Win and live. Lose and Die. Rule of life. No change rule." This statement seems simple (and the caveman-talk doesn't help) but actually sums up the thematic climate of 65,000,000 very nicely. Victory and domination are not just means to survival, but they are survival. The Laruba are portrayed in the game as cowardly and endlessly willing to absorb punishment rather than risking battle. This negative portrayal seems to sanction Ayla's view that surviving alongside the reptites is impossible. The only way for one species to live is to kill the other. Note too that this conflict is not set up by either species, but by nature itself. It is the "rule of life." It is by the light of this radical idea that we must read the tragic defeat of Azala.
Azala is for the reptites what Ayla is for the humans. Just as Ayla is the epitome of savage strength, Azala is the epitome of advanced civilization: smart, ruthless and society-minded. And while Ayla seems prophetic in her insistence that humans will take possession of the earth, Azala shows a prescient suspicion that the reptites are doomed. Yet, Azala too recognizes the "rule of life" and fights to the end. Like the personal struggles of existentialism, which cannot ultimately be "won, the reptites' struggle is one that would be nonsensical to abandon even in the face of certain annihilation. People cannot escape death by giving up their struggle against it, and neither can civilizations. It is key to understand that the game commends both Ayla and Azala for fighting the final battle as representatives of their respective species because they are both fighting against death, as symbolized by the red star that hangs over their battle. The message, I believe, is that while death cannot be overcome, the struggle against it is a defining fact of life, and cannot be evaded or ignored. We may turn to the Theater of the Absurd for a similar view of death; there, life and death coexist in irrational but real harmony, and attempts to reconcile them logically are doomed. It is as though two separate realities exist, one of life and one of death, and that the passage between them is as inexplicable as it is inevitable because the logic of life does not apply to death. The two species of 65,000,000 demonstrate this gulf aptly. The fall of the reptites is the end of a civilization that is featured only peripherally in the game, but is presumably as vast and advanced as human civilization will become. Though the stories of those civilizations intersect briefly, the logic of one story cannot apply to the other, and the vast stretch of time ruled by humanity is only an unsettling blank from Azala's --perfectly valid! -- perspective. As Azala says of the Reptites, "We have no future." This is, in some sense, the heart of the existential struggle; the fact that death and the void, though "merely" objective, can cross into our subjective existences, dissolving the personal worlds that we all build and inhabit. The fall of the reptites is the death of a meta-narrative and (in combination with the descent of Lavos) the birth of another.
Lavos, part 1
It is only after Azala's defeat (about halfway through the game!) that the player understands the nature of Lavos, and there are still surprises in store. Let's review what we know about Lavos so far:
Lavos is a giant monster who fell from space in 65,000,000 B.C. His impact formed a huge crater and cast the earth into an ice age. Since then, Lavos has drained energy from the planet and grown ever-stronger. In 2300 A.D. he erupts from the earth and ravages the surface of the planet, destroying civilization and nearly wiping out humanity.
Up until this middle section of the game, Lavos seems just like any other video game monster. It is only with the revelation of his history that he becomes something more like a cthuloid horror or a force of nature. This is a key transformation because the drastic change to the "antagonist" recasts the game's heroes. Up until now, Crono and his allies have been heroes in the traditional sense, as epitomized by their fight against Magus. After bearing witness to Lavos' descent and discovering his insidious power, they learn that their enemy represents total negation, not evil. Unlike the classic hero, who struggles to return the world to a lost equilibrium, the heroes of Chrono Trigger are trying to stop or reverse a process that dates from the beginning of human civilization -- and, to some degree, defines it.
Lavos has been attacked as something of a generic villain, which I think is a misunderstanding. He is not really a villain; he is a fact. As such, he's not akin to his contemporaries in other Squaresoft games, like Sephiroth and Kefka. Lavos is linked most obviously to Lovecraft's Great Old Ones, but also possesses something of the consuming negativity of the dead God of Nietzsche. Ultimately, he acts as an incarnation of the abstract menaces of Chrono Trigger, Time and Death. Like those forces, Lavos's brand of destruction is as meaningless as it is virulent. In both 65,000,000 and 1999, Lavos utterly destroys a whole civilization for no reason, denying them even the final consolation of making sense of their own demise. The world of 2300 makes it clear that Lavos leaves only oblivion in his wake, and this too is a substantial contrast to the classic villain, who seeks to instate a new order or at least to improve his own state. In further parallel to Time and Death, Lavos is a disaster endemic to human existence. Because Lavos fell at the dawn of human civilization -- and in fact created the ice age that permitted humanity to become the planet's dominant species -- the whole of human history takes place in the shadow of his mindless, ravenous oblivion. As Beckett puts it, "the gravedigger puts on the forceps."
Lavos is a symbol of death, nothingness and time's unstoppable flight toward decay. In this light, the struggle against Lavos is one with clear existentialist antecedents. Nietzsche's dual obsession with God's nonexistence and His corrupting influence on humanity mirrors the fight against Lavos, who is physically and historically central to the human world and yet ultimately obliterates it. One might also compare Lavos to Death in Bergman's The Seventh Seal, insofar as he is an amoral force for destruction that ultimately dissolves all individuality and meaning... or to Godot in "Waiting for Godot," who is the teleological void that dooms the attempts of Gogo and Didi to establish any meaning or reason. I don't mean to say that these existentialist works are all perfectly analogous, only that they are variations on the theme of the empty center, the void that supports the structure of the human world, yet must finally negate it from the inside out.
There's a lot left to say about Lavos, but it can wait for later posts, after the game reveals strange new sides of him. It suffices for now to establish that he is one of the keystones of the existentialist reading of Chrono Trigger. If Lavos represents the unreasoning destructive power of Time and Death, then the overarching fight to rescue the planet from his hunger is an existentialist struggle to salvage meaning from nothingness. One can read almost the whole game in this light.
The Zeal story arc is the heart of Chrono Trigger's game world, despite taking place so late in the game itself. The events of 12,000 are not only central to the game's plot but to its themes; the Zeal era contains by far the most overt symbols and themes in Chrono Trigger. Despite the spike in authorial intention, though, a lot of the good stuff is still under the surface. Here, more than anywhere else in the game, both the author-intended story and its unexamined implications are worth analyzing.
Synopsis, Part Five
After wandering the seemingly-empty snowscape of 12,000 for a while, the characters discover an incongruously high-tech "skyway." The skyway teleports Crono and his friends to the floating kingdom of Zeal far above the planet's icy surface. Zeal, we discover, is inhabited by a branch of humanity called the Enlightened Ones. The Enlightened Ones learned to use elemental power (the power of the planet) and, later, magic (the power of Lavos) to build a serene utopia. The rest of humanity, the Earthbound Ones, live without magic in dens beneath the surface of the earth. The Enlightened Ones lead a leisurely existence. The city of Enhasa seems to be dedicated to sleeping and dreaming, for example -- Masa and Mune, who are dream creatures, even make an appearance --while the city of Kajar is dedicated to magical research.
The kingdom of Zeal is ruled by a royal family of the same name, which consists of Queen Zeal and her children, Schala and Janus. From the statements of various citizens around Zeal it is possible to reconstruct Zeal's recent history. It seems that the Enlightened ones first rose to power using the energy of the elements, as harnessed by the Three Gurus: The Guru of Life, the Guru of Time and the Guru of Reason. After the death of the King (about whom we never learn anything of substance), Queen Zeal began to shift her focus to magic, the siphoned power of Lavos. She constructed a device called the Mammon Machine to help draw Lavos' power, recently forbade the use of elemental power altogether, and commissioned an Ocean Palace beneath the ocean to get even closer to Lavos. Queen Zeal needs her magically-powerful daughter Schala to power the Mammon Machine (despite Schala's reservations). The young boy, Janus, shows no signs of magical power... but when he meets Crono and his friends, he claims to hear the Black Wind and states that one of them will soon die. Finally, it seems that a mysterious Prophet has recently arrived and become a key adviser to Queen Zeal.
At Zeal Palace (not Ocean Palace, but the Queen's current residence atop the floating island), Crono and his friends interrupt a meeting between Queen Zeal, Schala, the Prophet and Dalton (a sorcerer whose influence with the Queen has dwindled since the Prophet's arrival). Dalton subdues the party and locks them in stasis. Fortunately, Schala and Janus sneak into the holding chamber and free the party. Schala hopes that they will help free the Guru of Life, who has been imprisoned on the floating Mt. Woe for defying the Queen. Schala and Janus are discovered by the Prophet, though, who wants to destroy the party for its meddling. When Janus objects, the Prophet agrees to spare Crono and his allies, but forces them to go back through the gate to 65,000,000 and then forces Schala to magically seal the gate, thus locking Crono and the others out of the Zeal era.
The party, recalling an energy-sealed door in 2300 AD and in search of a means to travel back to 12,000, go to Keeper's Dome in 2300. They learn that Belthasar, the Guru of Reason, was stranded there and spent his life trying to build a time machine to return home to 12,000. He transferred his consciousness to a Nu, whose task is to pass on the now-completed time machine to the heroes whom he suspected would one day seek out a time machine to defeat Lavos. With the Nu's help, the party claims the time machine, Epoch, and returns to 12,000.
Epoch transports Crono and his allies to an Earthbound settlement called Algetty. From Algetty they climb to the floating Mt. Woe, where the Guru of Life is imprisoned. After freeing him, they discover that the Guru of Life is none other than Melchior -- but he does not recognize the party because he is an earlier Melchior who has not yet met the characters. Mt. Woe collapses into the sea as the party escapes with Melchior. In Algetty, Schala arrives and asks the characters to go to Zeal Palace and help stop the Queen; then Dalton appears, kidnaps Schala (who is necessary to power the Mammon Machine) and leaves for Zeal Palace. Melchior tells the characters that Queen Zeal must be stopped before she dooms the world by tampering with Lavos. He gives Crono the Red Knife, a weapon crafted from Dreamstone, that can destroy the Mammon Machine. The party pursues Dalton to Zeal Palace.
In Zeal Palace, the characters defeat Dalton and then follow him as he flees to Ocean Palace. (Digression: Though Ocean Palace's gameplay is a little dull, it features a very creative, cinematic use of cut-scenes; the action literally cuts away from the characters as they are fighting through the dungeon to show the progress of the Mammon Machine's activation. This is where all of the little tricks of form pay off for Chrono Trigger; the experience of the game has become so immersive that cinematic edits [which would feel somewhat jarring and unwieldy in many other games] seem perfectly natural. This results from the hard-earned erosion of the divide between gameplay-experience, narrative and mimesis.) In Ocean Palace, Queen Zeal forces Schala to push the Mammon Machine to maximum power so as draw the greatest possible quantity of power from Lavos. Crono arrives in time to drive the Red Knife into the Mammon Machine, but the energy of the machine only changes the knife into a sword... the Masamune. But the Mammon Machine is too powerful to be stopped. Left unchecked, the Mammon Machine awakens Lavos and transports everyone present to Lavos' strange dimensional pocket; he appears before the party and attacks, defeating them instantly.
The Prophet appears, doffs his robe and reveals himself to be Magus. Magus attacks Lavos despite Queen's Zeal's warning that Lavos is invincible; he too is defeated. As Lavos prepares to consume Crono, his allies and the fallen Magus, Crono rises to challenge Lavos again and is killed. Meanwhile Schala, Magus and Crono's allies are transported back to Ocean Palace from Lavos' weird realm. Schala uses the last of her energy to teleport the other three away from the Ocean Palace as it crumbles. Lavos rises from the sea and destroys Zeal with his laser attack; the floating island crumbles and crashes into the ocean, reshaping the world's geography with its impact. Crono's friends awaken in a hut in the new Earthbound village, which sits on the only island of safety in the newly-reshaped world. Before they can properly mourn the loss of Crono, the party is abducted by Dalton, who has stolen the airship Blackbird and also steals Epoch, fitting it with wings to serve as his personal air chariot. After fighting their way out of the Blackbird and reclaiming the (now-mobile) Epoch, the party ventures to West Cape, where they find Magus staring out over the sea.
Magus reveals his full story. He is actually Janus Zeal, Queen Zeal's son. He, along with the Three Gurus, was flung across time by Lavos in the original timeline. He was discovered by Ozzie and became the leader of the Mystics as a means of acquiring the power to summon and kill Lavos. When the wild gate opened in his castle and sent Crono's group to 65,000,000, it sent Magus back to 12,000. Magus used his knowledge of Zeal's history to pose as a prophet and get close to the Queen, positioning him to take another shot at slaying Lavos. Magus off-handedly insults Crono in the process of telling his story and provokes the party's wrath. He offers to battle the party if they wish. If the player chooses the battle Magus, he can be slain for good. If the player declines (as I did in this play-through), Magus will offer to join the group in their quest against Lavos.
When the party leaves in Epoch, they are shocked to see the Ocean Palace arise from the sea; the palace, now called the Black Omen, hovers over every time period simultaneously. Undaunted, the party continues to the End of Time, where the Old Man confesses to being Gaspar, the Guru of Time. He gives the party the Chrono Trigger, also called the Time Egg. The device, he says, represents the potential to return Crono to life. He advises the party to seek out Belthasar to find out how to "hatch" the Time Egg and get Crono back.
The Three Gurus
Gaspar, Melchior and Belthasar are interesting because they represent the only clear alternative to Lavos in the whole game. While Chrono Trigger's plot is all about defeating Lavos, the player rarely gets a glimpse of what a world free of his corruption might look like. Because they antedated and opposed Lavos' corruption of Zeal, the Gurus point to three glimmers of hope for humanity: Life, Time and Reason. Why did the designers choose these three spheres of expertise for the Gurus, who were to represent the forces of light supplanted by Lavos? I think it is because these three elements were plausible as incorruptible fundamentals of human existence. As usual, Chrono Trigger takes a communal, ecological view of human nature instead of the individualist view that dominates much of Western thought. This is in itself an existentialist position: compare to Heidegger's being-in-the-world and contrast to Descartes' "cogito ergo sum." Furthermore, by looking at the function of the three Gurus and their spheres in the game, we can more sharply define the game's unspoken assumptions about (uncorrupted) human nature.
Gaspar is introduced early (though he's just the "Old Man" until very late in the story), and he is instrumental throughout the game. He introduces the characters to the idea of intentional time travel and always has special insight into the "big picture" unfolding throughout history. His character ties into the function of time in the game, which is to bind the generations together over the gulf of death and destruction. Humanity suffers many disparate threats and disasters over the course of the game, but in the end the sweep of time itself unites humanity across the ages. Often, the significance of one era's events to another era is clear only to the player characters, who have the benefit of perspective; in Chrono Trigger, only those who embrace the flow of time can come to understand their place in the story of the planet. The interconnection of the past, present and future is a hidden answer to the problem of Lavos, who threatens all of humanity with final obliteration. From the perspective of Gaspar, who looks back from the End of Time over the patterns of a now-finished world, Lavos has a vital weakness: while he is nigh-omnipotent in the moment, humans transcend the moment. They carry their pasts and futures with them, and through this they defy omnipotent death. Gaspar's mastery over time is epitomized by his greatest invention, the Chrono Trigger. This is what Gaspar has to say about the Chrono Trigger:
GASPAR: To bring back lost loved ones... It's what everyone wants... Crono must be proud... to have friends like you... Here. Take this with you.
FROG: What be this? Me thinks... an egg?
GASPAR: Let us call that the Chrono Trigger. It is pure potential. By unleashing a specific course of events, it can have a powerful effect on time. Ask the one who made the Epoch, your Wings of Time, how to hatch it... Like any egg, it represents a possibility... It may or may not... hatch. But the Chrono Trigger gives you the potential to get your friend back... The egg will have an effect equal to the effort you put into your search. No more, and no less. Don't forget that. As long as you keep Crono in your heart, the day you are dreaming of shall arrive...
This is about as conscious and overt as the existentialist themes in Chrono Trigger get. Obviously, the Chrono Trigger is a metaphor for the potential of a conscious being in history. Despite being born into and bound by facticity, by looking with intent toward the future, the human being can escape the past. Tellingly, though, the Time Egg relies upon a group effort to function, and is later revealed only to work if the person to be resurrected is "important to the space-time continuum" (a "necessary existence" in the original Japanese). So while the future holds hope, its promise is always related to the connection between people. In Crono's case, the extent to which other people need him literally saves his life. We can derive this same message, on a simpler level, from our position in the narrative when the Chrono Trigger is introduced: the Hero of the story has died half-way through, and his buddies have to bring him back to life so that he can rescue them!
Melchior, the Guru of Life, is the Guru who takes the most active role in the plot. It's hard to pin down just what his sphere of "Life" entails, though. I believe that Life in Melchior's case -- especially given its grouping with Time and Reason -- is meant to refer to life-in-the-world. This seems pretty deep for a video game, but it's really not; it's what we mean when we say "well, that's life," for example. It's just a word for the whole experience of being human, including inevitable conflicts with the surrounding world. This definition binds together Melchior's accomplishments. The Masamune, the Mammon Machine and the pendant are all devices that interact with other powers and alter the world's status quo. Note also that they are all made of Dreamstone, which inspires dreams and can bring dreams into reality. This, too, fits the idea of life-in-the-world. Life is the middle ground where the subjective world of dreams meets the objective world of reality, and all of Melchior's devices are intended to link the two. It's interesting that Melchior is the Guru most vehemently opposed to Lavos (as witnessed by his imprisonment on Mt. Woe), but is also the only Guru to directly use Lavos' power in his inventions (in the Japanese version, even dream creatures like Masa and Mune cross into reality only by siphoning off Lavos' power). This is -- if such a thing is possible -- an optimistic version of Sartre's conflict between being-for-itself and being-in-itself. Melchior is struggling to assert his hopes and dreams over the objective world despite being inescapably linked to objective reality. His status as a Guru is an authorial indication that he might succeed. The matter of how this paradoxical feat might be accomplished will have to wait for an analysis of his medium, Dreamstone.
Belthasar, the Guru of Reason, is a fascinating character with only a small part in the game. Belthasar is the creator of the airship Blackbird, the Epoch, Keeper's Dome and (as we'll see in the next installment) the guide dolls that will assist the party in resurrecting Crono. His journals are also available to read in Enhasa and Kajar; in them, he hypothesizes about the significance of the Nu (a creature that appears in every time period in the game) and the influence of Dreamstone upon humanity. Belthasar, like Gaspar, has insight into the grand sweep of time. His understanding is more theoretical than Gaspar's, though. We see his thought process in his journals and we see that he has predicted certain events accurately in Keeper's Dome (notably the arrival of heroes who will use time travel to stop Lavos), but his thoughts do not rise to the level of a narrative, which is the game's highest form of truth. Only Gaspar seems able to perceive the story of time, but Belthasar has great insight into its patterns. This points to the nature of Reason in Chrono Trigger. Reason, as a distinctively human faculty, represents humanity's unique and sovereign place in the world. Belthasar and his inventions demonstrate humanity's (limited) power to defy the forces of nature. Of all the gurus, Belthasar's story is the most tragic; appropriately, it is filled with isolation and conflict. Ironically, though, it is Belthasar and not the Guru of Time who succeeds at building a time machine. In death, Belthasar finally conquers time. As we will see later, the time gates that the party uses during the first portion of the game are linked to a predetermined "story of time," whereas Epoch permits them to travel freely. It is also Belthasar's expertise that permits the characters to make use of Gaspar's Time Egg, so although Reason cannot conquer death alone, it is a necessary ally in death's defeat.
Belthasar symbolizes two means of coping with reality: technology and pure reason. In keeping with the West's ambivalence towards both (an ambivalence that Japan certainly shares, whether one defines it as "Western" or not), Belthasar is incredibly powerful but hamstrung by his imprisonment in 2300, the symbolic era of isolation and stagnation. Belthasar cannot succeed individually; he must wait, even after his death, for the greater community of humankind to discover his works. Only then do his ideas and inventions prove invaluable to the defeat of Lavos. I feel compelled to point out that even the kind of symbolism I'm discussing here can be completely unintentional. "Technology alone can't do it" is a very common trope in popular fiction because it expresses a distrust that is common to all technologically-advanced cultures after the hard lessons of the 20th century.
All of the Gurus face ironic fates after their banishment by Lavos. The Guru of Time is trapped in the fog that lies after time's end; the Guru of Reason goes mad; and the Guru of Life is forced to make a living as a weapons dealer. Despite his inversion of all that they stand for, though, Lavos cannot really destroy the Gurus and the forces they symbolize. The player character remain capable of digging up the Gurus' insights no matter how deeply they are buried in time... but this element of the game, the rediscovery and reconnection of disparate human experiences, is more post-modern than existentialist.
In his journals, Belthasar describes the importance of Dreamstone:
"It all began aeons ago, when man's ancestors picked up a shard of a strange red rock... Its power, which was beyond human comprehension, cultivated dreams... In turn, love and hate were born... Only time will see how it all ends."
This "cultivation of dreams" led to the creation of the Mammon Machine, the Masamune and the royal pendant that started Crono's whole adventure -- the perceptive player will notice, in fact, that Dreamstone is integral to almost every major plot point in Chrono Trigger. Why? Because Dreamstone is the mechanism of the game's central process: the realization of dreams. It's common for heroic fiction to portray destiny as fixed and inescapable, but that sort of force is incongruent with a time-travel-driven plot. In Chrono Trigger, a passionate vision of the future can become destiny. Furthermore, to rewrite destiny in Chrono Trigger is to rewrite one's identity. All of the player characters in the game redefine themselves at least once in accordance with some deeply-desired change to the past or future (as always, Crono is a complicated exception). Zeal is the dark apogee of this theme in Chrono Trigger, as Queen Zeal's craving for power, given substance by the Mammon Machine, grows until it destroys a whole nation and turns her into a soulless monster.
Dreamstone brings to mind two existentialist ideas. The first is Transcendence (as opposed to Facticity). Transcendence is the realm of possibility in human existence; it is the power to transcend brute fact through freedom of choice and interpretation. Existentialism presents Transcendence as a distinctive power of humanity, yes, but also as an undeniable reality of the human experience. The fact that Dreamstone altered the human race in Chrono Trigger is meaningful, because it suggests a clear line of demarcation between the mere "apes" of Ayla's time and the true human beings who are their descendants. Human beings who can choose their own destinies are in fact a separate species from those who, shackled to biology and history, cannot. What's more, the former species is not unambiguously superior to the latter. The tragedy of Zeal could not have occurred without the evolutionary "advances" caused by Dreamstone; Queen Zeal is evidence that the dreams granted by the Dreamstone gave birth both to love and hate, as Belthasar's journal contends. Everything in Chrono Trigger points back to this conflict, which is why Dreamstone plays such a prominent role. In Chrono Trigger, the power to dream and thereby to change the future is a great gift... one that we cannot reject even when we want to. Every time Dreamstone appears in the game, we are reminded that the future lies in the hands of those who dream (which entails self-interpretation, narrativizing and searching for hope, as I will discuss next time).
The second existentialist idea connected to Dreamstone is thrownness (especially as it relates to the existentialist formula, "existence precedes essence"). While human beings have the power to define themselves and their world, at the same time they arise from raw experience, from submersion in a world not of their choosing. Dreamstone makes this contrast clear. Dreamstone is a physical object, one which is heavily implied to be connected to Lavos (it is possible that the Dreamstone is a chunk of Lavos' shell, like the Frozen Flame from Chrono Cross). Thus, human transcendence and self-determination stem from the physical world and grow wholly in the shadow of death. This is not a pessimistic message that those forces for hope are illusory; they are very real. Yet they grow from the soil of the grave, so the question is whether they can finally surmount the facticity in which they are grounded. The vicissitudes of Dreamstone throughout the ages reflect this conflict.
12,000 B.C. and the Kingdom of Zeal
In 12,000 B.C., humanity is cut in half. The Earthbound Ones, who live a natural life without magic, inhabit caves beneath the surface of a slumbering, icy world. The Enlightened Ones, who have left the planet behind in favor of Lavos' power, study and sleep in palaces on their floating island. Ultimately, we are left with the impression that this division is false: Schala and the Gurus, who are models of wisdom and righteousness in the game, do not acknowledge the divide. Yet Zeal's lifestyle has profound consequences for humanity, and 12,000 B.C. can hardly be read as anything but a critique of the Enlightened Ones.
The city of Enhasa gives us some insight into Zeal's culture. In Enhasa, the people are obsessed with dreams and sleep. Some characters there speak of philosophy, choice and the nature of reality. In one particularly clever conversation, a Zeal native asks the characters whether they believe in free will... and a multiple choice menu opens up, permitting the player to answer however he likes. Zeal is also inhabited by dream creatures like Masa, Mune and their sister Doreen, who are dreams made real through the siphoned power of Lavos. Zeal blurs the line between fantasy and reality, and through the power of Dreamstone, the Queen gains the power to actually cross that line, making her fantasies realities. In the rest of the game, such behavior is condoned, but here it seems akin to hubris. What is it that makes Zeal corrupt and arrogant while the player characters (who are, let us not forget, reshaping history to suit themselves) are portrayed as heroes?
The Queen's behavior recalls the original meaning of hubris. It is not just her arrogance that dooms Zeal, but her flagrant violation of the world's true order. As we have seen, humans in Chrono Trigger are 1) linked to each other and 2) bound to the planet. Queen Zeal casts aside the Gurus (who represent the natural pillars of human life), forbids the use of elemental power, and turns to the world-draining power of Lavos to realize her ambition. In the process she turns against her own child and against her people. Note that the Kingdom of Zeal itself is not the problem except insofar as it excludes the Earthbound ones. This is an interesting critique of human society because it doesn't condemn the effort to achieve superhuman greatness. Consider, for example, the story of the Tower of Babel. In that story, the very effort to reach heaven is an affront to God; this is a very conventional take on hubris. In contrast, the wonders of Zeal are not inherently offensive to the natural order. The floating island, the airship, the study of magic and even embodied dreams like Masa and Mune are acceptable outgrowths of human civilization. Zeal's fatal mistake is not that it overreaches, but that it loses its foundation. Queen Zeal's dream of immortality is misguided because it deludes her into believing that she is self-contained and independent of the world around her. As we have seen repeatedly, just the opposite is true of humanity in Chrono Trigger.
Given that the tragedy of Zeal originates with the royal family, and particularly with an unhealthy worship of an omnipotent being, one can read the rise and fall of Zeal as a critique of meta-narratives like religion and class ideology. Kierkegaard's attacks on Hegelian philosophy and the Christian church show the connection to existentialism here. Attempts to impose an objective system of values upon human life are antithetical to the existentialist viewpoint. This general interpretation of Chrono Trigger is discussed here, so I won't belabor it.
Magus' story is the culmination of Chrono Trigger's false name motif. Like Marle, Frog and Robo, Magus replaces his birth name with a title of his own choosing. His transformation from Janus to Magus, though it is left mostly to the imagination, is paradoxically the game's most fully realized character arc. A key foundation for Magus' life story is left out of the English version, though. In both the English and Japanese versions, the citizens of Zeal note that Janus lacks the great magical gifts of his mother and sister. In the Japanese version, this seeming disparity is explained:
"...[Janus] hides an incredible magical power that surpasses even [Schala]. However, he hates that power, which drives the Queen mad and torments [Schala], and along with his heart...... he has shut that power away."
From this line it's clear that Janus always possessed great magical skill, but chose to conceal it because of its connection to the destructive power of Lavos. Not only does this lend irony to Magus' later path in life, but it ties the moral ambiguity of Magus' character to the game's ambivalence about Lavos. Lavos is the source of magic, dream creatures and possibly even Dreamstone itself -- all sources of power that are key to the party's success and that aren't condemned as inherently corrupt. However, as Zeal's downfall demonstrates, the use of Lavos' power is very dangerous. Compare this tension with the tension of Magus' moral journey. As a boy, Janus chose to hide his natural abilities to avoid Lavos' corrupting influence; this left him uncorrupted, but also helpless to prevent Lavos' destruction of his family and kingdom. As an adult, Magus took the opposite tack. He embraced both magic and evil, seeing them as necessary means to the admirable end of slaying Lavos. The name "Magus," as is made clear in the Japanese version, is really a title associated with leadership of the Mystics. Magus' name change is thus a multi-layered symbol. It reflects Janus' acceptance of evil, his acceptance of his own magical power and his ascent to the leadership of a nation... all three of which paint Magus as uncomfortably parallel to his own mother. Indeed, from the Mystics' perspective, Magus does exactly what Queen Zeal did; he gains their trust, uses them to get close to Lavos, and then brings on their doom by pursuing his personal ambition.
So, unlike the other characters we've looked at, Magus alters his identity consciously. He chooses to stop denying his nature and to embrace the corrupting power of magic, only to find himself playing another role, that of the Evil Wizard and leader of the Mystics. When he is flung back in time, he takes on yet another role, that of the Prophet. All of these identities, even that of Janus, are deliberate lies planned as means to an end. As a boy, that end is merely to avoid Lavos, while as a man, Magus wants to kill Lavos out of revenge. We find ourselves asking who the real Magus is. Does he have a true inner identity that he hides throughout his character arc? Or does he suffer the same centerless fragmentation that Marle does? The passage quoted above gives us the answer to this question: "However, he hates that power[...] and along with his heart...... he has shut that power away." Throughout Magus' many roles, the constant is that his deception is too perfect. He does not permit himself to feel or to express himself. In this he mirrors Queen Zeal, whose single-minded pursuit of eternal life through Lavos led her to turn away from her kingdom and family. Recall that love and hate are tied to dreams, which are the game's great source of human power; also that the game takes a collective view of humanity in which individual human existence is tragically incomplete without its context in history and society. By shutting away his heart, Magus inherits his mother's delusion: that personal power and ambition can make one self-sufficient. This unnaturally solitary existence, which is symbolized by Magus' inability to develop normal double and triple techs with the rest of the team, is what forces him to live a series of charades instead of developing a real identity. Just as Janus would not permit himself to use magic for fear of its corrupting influence, Magus cannot permit himself to dream because, as he witnessed in Zeal's last days, dreams are even more dangerous than magic.
Interestingly, Magus' series of false identities seems to come to an end just as he joins the party. After that, though, the game has little to say about him. Has he finally found authenticity? We don't really have any evidence one way or the other. Radical Dreamers and Chrono Cross seem to portray Magus as a lasting ally of the party, and sometimes refer to him as Janus. I'm loathe to turn to either source for help interpreting Chrono Trigger. However, Masato Kato -- who single-handedly designed the entire Zeal story arc in Chrono Trigger -- was the main creative force behind Chrono Cross. The idea that Magus began to open himself to the world after witnessing the fall of Zeal, then, is at least consistent with Kato's intent.
In this final entry, we'll look at the miscellaneous quests that players can take on in the final hours of Chrono Trigger, as well as the final battle against Lavos and a few of the game's dozen-of-so endings. Because this part of the game is non-linear, I've decided to format this entry differently from the others. Instead of a single synopsis, I've given each important quest its own sub-section. This is a more accurate representation of the game, because these end-game events can be performed in almost any order or skipped entirely.
Synopsis, Part Six
The Resurrection of Crono
Though Gaspar created the Chrono Trigger, he advises the team to seek out Belthasar for help in using it to bring back Crono. Belthasar reveals that Crono's friends will have to climb Death Peak to resurrect him. They will also need a clone of Crono, which is conveniently available from a magician at the Millennial Fair. When Crono's friends have acquired the clone, Belthasar gives them a final, essential bit of aid by sending three robots to Death Peak to assist the party in their climb. After that, Belthasar makes a request of the characters: that they shut down the nu that hosts his consciousness, since it has "executed its program." The player may choose whether to shut down the nu, but once it is deactivated, it may not be reactivated; attempts to awaken the deactivated nu reveal that "This creature sleeps beyond the flow of time." With Belthasar's final wish granted, the party ascends Death Peak.
Death Peak is a snowy mountain that is the seat of Lavos' power, but its exact connection to Lavos is unclear. As the party climbs the mountain, they encounter three "Lavos Spawn," small versions of Lavos, implying that Death Peak is somehow connected to Lavos' life cycle. At the summit of Death Peak, Marle's pendant reacts with the Chrono Trigger. The Time Egg shatters, seemingly to no effect. But as the party tries to decide whether to give up or press on, the sun is suddenly eclipsed. The group finds itself standing before Lavos at the moment of Crono's death. Everything it just as it was at that moment; Crono hovers in mid-air, Lavos and Queen Zeal look on, and Magus lies defeated alongside Crono's friends. But, for the party, time stands still; the moment is frozen and theirs to rewrite. They replace Crono with his clone and then withdraw to Death Peak in their usual timeline. Crono awakens, rescued from his timeline at the last moment before his fated demise. Death is cheated and Crono returns to the party after a reunion with his friends (particularly Marle, if she is present).
Marle's Reconciliation with her Father
In 600 A.D., the adventurer Toma tells the party that he is on the trail of a legendary object called the Rainbow Shell. He then gives the party some pop (sake in the original Japanese) and asks them to pour it on his tombstone after his death. In the year 1000, the party finds his grave and grants his request. The act summons Toma's ghost, which reveals that the Rainbow Shell is located on Giant's Claw (in 600 A.D.), an island that is apparently the resurfaced remains of Tyranno Lair. There, after a dungeon crawl, the party finds the Rainbow Shell. They are unable to transport it, however, so they ask King Guardia and Queen Leene for a favor; they request that the Guardian army move the shell to the castle and that the royal family keep it safe until 1000 A.D. The King and Queen agree.
When the party (including Marle) visits Guardia Castle in 1000, the Chancellor discusses Marle's troubled relationship with her father. He tells her that when her mother, Aliza, passed away, her last wish was to see the King, but he didn't have time to see her before she died. The Chancellor even claims that the King indirectly killed Aliza with his refusal to see her. When Marle goes to see the King, she finds him on trial in the same courtroom where Crono was tried. The Chancellor has accused the King of selling off the Rainbow Shell -- public property -- for private gain. The party finds that the castle's storage area is being guarded by monsters; after fighting past them, they find the Rainbow Shell and take a shard of it to present in the King's defense. They also find a letter from Queen Leene addressed to Marle. It reads:
I know things are tough between you and your father. But nothing can break your bond of blood. Neither words of anger, nor great distances. Someday, when you have children, you will understand. This special bond is part of a family tree with links us together.
- Queen Guardia XXI, Leene"
Marle breaks into the courtroom and displays the shard of the Rainbow Shell, proving that the King was framed. Presented with evidence of the King's innocence, the Chancellor transforms into his true form; he is actually Yakra XIII, the descendant of the first Yakra who posed as the Chancellor in 600. When Yakra XIII is defeated, Marle apologizes to her father, who also apologizes in turn. He reveals that, contrary to the Chancellor's lie, he was present for Aliza's death, and that with her last words she told him: "Someday when Nadia grows up, she will bring her beloved to meet you. Welcome him warmly." Aliza actually passed peacefully, surrounded by friends. Finally reconciled with her father, Marle leaves again with his blessing.
In 1000 A.D., a ruined building in Choras is haunted by a seemingly-indestructible ghost. All attempts to fight him fail, but if the player brings Frog along, Frog recognizes the ghost as a twisted version of Cyrus. It is impossible to make progress into the building because it is in such severe disrepair. By returning to 600 A.D. and commissioning a builder to repair the building, though, the party is able to make its way to a rear chamber where Cyrus' tombstone stands. When Frog pays his respects, a benign version of Cyrus' ghost appears and congratulates Frog on becoming a hero since Cyrus' death. This surprises Frog, who expected bitterness or disappointment from Cyrus. After Cyrus's ghost vanishes, Masa and Mune awaken from the Masamune and proclaim that Frog's true power comes from within. This enables them to charge the Masamune to its full power.
On an island in 2300, Geno Dome sits isolated from the rest of the world. Robo is able to interface with the computer at the entrance and grant the party access. The computer running the dome, Mother Brain, calls Robo "Prometheus" and welcomes him home, but rebukes him for defiling the place with humans. On their way through the dome, the characters learn Mother Brain's purpose. She has decided that in the wake of Lavos' landing, only the suffering remains of humanity mar the peace of the planet. She therefore thinks it only logical to put the human race out of its misery. She can't understand why the hopeless species continues to fight. Near Mother Brain's main chamber, Robo encounters a robot who looks like a pink version of himself. She calls him Prometheus, and he recognizes her as Atropos. She tells the rest of the party that unlike the rest of the R-series, Prometheus had the special mission of working alongside humans to study them as a species, and that the personality he has displayed around them has only been an act. Robo has no response to give... but when Atropos threatens his teammates, he adamantly refuses to let them come to harm. Robo battles Atropos alone, and when he defeats her, her memory shifts. She tells him that her memory was rewritten by Mother Brain and has only now come back. After the parting gift of a ribbon she wore on her head, Atropos breaks down.
When the party finally confronts Mother Brain, she once again makes her case. Her rationale in the English translation varies from that presented in the original Japanese. In the English version, Mother Brain believes that Earth could sustain Lavos' spawn if humans weren't present, but that if humans are allowed to flourish the Lavos Spawn will have to seek out new planets to destroy. In the original Japanese, Mother Brain believes that Lavos' Spawn will leave no matter what and that the Earth will thus recover. She wants robots to take advantage of this second chance by becoming the new dominant species of the planet, creating their own global empire free of the suffering and hate that are endemic to human civilization. In either case, Mother Brain invites Robo once more to join her, let her rewrite his memories and help her end humanity. He refuses, and Mother Brain is destroyed in the ensuing battle. Geno Dome cannot function without Mother Brain; its machines shut down forever.
Fiona's Woods, Lucca's Mother and the Entity
In 600 AD, a woman named Fiona lives in the midst of a desert that is plagued with subterranean monsters. The desert was once a forest, and Fiona hopes to nurse it back to health, but in 1000 A.D. the desert remains. If the characters have advised the woman in 12,000 B.C. to plant Melchior's magic seed, then they can descend beneath the surface of the desert in 600 and battle the sand monster that is preventing the forest from growing. After the monster is defeated, Fiona is able to plant a Mystic seedling (descended from Melchior's original seed?) that will rejuvenate the forest. She needs help, however, so Robo volunteers to stay and assist her. He asks that the party recover him 400 years later in 1000 A.D., after the job is done. Upon returning to 1000 A.D., the party finds the forest replaced with a lush forest. In the center is a shrine to Fiona. Robo sits upon an altar in the shrine, deactivated and covered in dirt. The party reactivates Robo; quickly he regains his bearings and expresses his satisfaction that the forest has grown back. The party decides to camp for the night.
Around the campfire, the party discusses its journey so far. Robo, after pondering the problem for 400 years, has come to the conclusion that Lavos did not create the time gates. He believes that some force created the gates because it wanted the party to see what it has seen. This "Entity," he hypothesizes, is reliving its past through the party. Ayla makes the analogy to humans, who see their life pass before their eyes when they are about to die. This directs the conversation toward moments in their private pasts that the characters themselves would like to change. Lucca is uncomfortable with the topic and declines to name the moment she would return to.
That night, Lucca awakens to the sound of an open time gate. Following the sound, she finds an open gate that is red instead of the usual blue. When she enters it, she finds herself in her own home during her childhood. In a journal lying on her floor, the Lucca of 990 A.D. writes that she hates science because it drove her father to miss a hiking trip the two had planned. When she goes downstairs, Lucca sees her mother Lara becoming trapped in one of Taban's machines. The young Lucca of that time is unable to help her. The current, player-controlled version of Lucca has a chance to enter the password to stop Taban's machine, thus saving Lara's legs (Lara is crippled until this point in the game). The player can fail, though, in which case Lucca witnesses her mother's legs being crushed again. In either case, the scene fades to Lucca in her room. Journals on the floor show that the Lucca of 990 AD is now devoted to science, either because it saved her mother's legs or -- if the player failed -- because Lucca's unfamiliarity with science prevented her from rescuing her mother. In either case, the red gate opens again and returns Lucca to the campsite. Robo is waiting for her there. He commends Lucca for always thinking of others and gives her the Green Dream, a piece of amber that he has created from the forest's sap over the centuries.
The Black Omen
The party enters the Black Omen in any era except 2300 (there, Lavos' victory is already complete and it is impossible to enter the Omen). Queen Zeal appears to remind the characters that as long as Lavos reigns and provides the Queen with his power through the Black Omen, they will never achieve their dreams. Aboard the Black Omen the party faces strange challenges including machines, mutants and a Lavos Spawn. Finally, in a chamber lined with sleeping clones of the player characters, the party confronts Queen Zeal. She battles them once in her usual form, then transforms to fight them again atop the Black Omen. When the Queen is finally defeated, the party finds itself over the gray waters of 12,000 B.C., where the Omen fades away and Lavos rises beneath it. This leads directly into the final battle with Lavos.
The player has a few options for reaching Lavos. The party can take the bucket at the end of time and fight him directly in that way; travel to 1999 in the Epoch and do the same thing; fight through the Black Omen and battle Lavos when he rises after Queen Zeal's defeat; or ram through Lavos' shell with Epoch, destroying Epoch and skipping the first stage of the Lavos fight. Other than potentially skipping the first stage, this decision has no effect on the battle itself. First, the party battles Lavos's outer shell, which looks just as it did during the ill-fated battle in 12,000 that killed Crono. After killing Lavos' "head", the party enters Lavos' shell and finds a sort of natural cavern within. There they battle a humanoid, mechanical form of Lavos. After destroying that form, the party sees Lavos' true form, a strange alien flanked by two "Lavos Bits." Confronted with Lavos' true form, the characters in the party make various observations; through disparate means, they realize that Lavos has collected the DNA and/or "life energy" of all the planet's creatures. It has used that DNA to create its spawn, which will one day journey to another planet to continue the cycle. Essentially, it has spent the millennia harvesting the benefits of every species' evolution, perfecting itself. Some members of the party express anger or disbelief that humans have been permitted to evolve over the years only for Lavos' eventual benefit. Eventually the party is able to slay Lavos. One of a dozen endings (plus variations) then ensues, depending on when and how the party chose to defeat Lavos. Synopses of a few significant endings follow:
This is the standard ending; Defeating Lavos at any time after Crono's death results in some variation of the Moonlight Parade. Basically, Marle and/or Crono attend the closing parade of the Millennial Fair. The player may explore the moonlit for as long as desired, then witness some sort of time-travel related scene near the telepods. This scene varies greatly depending on the player's choices throughout the game. For example, if Crono has not been resurrected, the members of the party who do not hail from 1000 A.D. will appear from a time gate, along with Gaspar, and try to get the Time Egg from him. They inform Marle and Lucca that the Chrono Trigger can bring Crono back, which spurs the two to set off in Epoch. If Crono has been resurrected and the Epoch has survived, Crono's mother chases Crono's cat(s) into the time gate, forcing Crono and his friends to return to Epoch and go searching through time for her. In any case, the time-travel related scene is followed by a scene where the now-defunct Leene's Bell is replaced by Nadia's Bell in Marle's honor. The Moonlight Parade ending ends with either a cross-time journey with Epoch, a balloon ride for Crono and Marle over Guardia, or some hint of Crono's resurrection (if the player has not resurrected him). The final shot in many of these endings is of the planet itself.
What the Prophet Seeks
This nearly-wordless ending is achieved by slaying Lavos after defeating Azala but before going to Ocean Palace. This results in a timeline where Crono and his allies never battle Queen Zeal or the Mammon Machine, leaving Magus (disguised as the Prophet) to pursue his plan to get close to Lavos through the Ocean Palace and then kill him. Brief cut-scenes show Frog contemplating Magus (with whom he is never able to settle his score in this timeline), the rest of the player character having trivial misadventures, and Magus getting closer and closer to Lavos, finally delivering this well-known line:
"If history is to change, let it change! If the world is to be destroyed, so be it! If my fate is to be destroyed... I must simply laugh!!"
Finally Magus engages Lavos and the game ends, leaving the player to wonder about the outcome of Magus' solo battle with Lavos.
If the player is beaten while fighting Lavos, a special game over ending follows. The player witnesses the Director of Truce Dome and his underlings panicking in 1999 as Lavos rises and destroys human populations all over the world. The underlings flee to ShelterDome when Lavos' victory is inevitable, while the Director stays behind and is presumably killed in the collapsing dome. A shot of the planet shows it turning red, then gray to represent the aftermath of Lavos' rising. Text is then superimposed over the planet, reading, "But... the future refused to change."
IDENTITY AND CHOICE
The theme of identity in Chrono Trigger persists from Marle's lie about her identity at the Millennial Fair all the way through the game's last bits of dialog before the Lavos battle -- it even stretches into some of the game's endings. The fundamental question of identity in Chrono Trigger is: how can one reconcile the given and immutable facts of one's identity with one's inabdicable power of self-definition? The false names for various characters throughout the game reinforce this theme, as we have seen. Each false-named character must ultimately answer this question. What's more, when Lavos' plan for humanity is revealed, the whole human race has to face it.
Robo's assigned name is R66-Y, while "Robo" is the name he was given by Lucca and Marle after his repair. Robo discovers yet another name in the end-game, though. At Geno Dome he learns that he used to be known as Prometheus and that, unlike the rest of the R-series, he had the special mission of infiltrating humanity to study it as a species. Robo's struggle with identity is perhaps the game's most complicated, for contrary to traditional existentialist thought, Robo actually was created with a definite purpose. Furthermore, the Geno Dome sequence implies that Robo's pre-ordained purpose was to create a false identity and pose as a friend of humanity, a charge Robo never denies. Robo's chosen identity, then, is compromised by the fact that the very creation of an "authentic" identity is one of Robo's programmed functions. In practice, Robo rejects his assigned purpose although he does not deny it; he will not let Atropos hurt his friends, and he insists that "my name is Robo.". His most coherent justification of his identity comes just before the final battle with Lavos, when Robo says:
"Human hands created me... Which means I am a product of that thing [Lavos]... I am no different than Lucca and the others... I am a part of all living things!!" [in the original Japanese: "I AM one of the many lives of this planet!!"]
Robo's defense is life. He is a life although he does not biologically live, Robo claims, and that gives him a stake in the planet regardless of his life's origin. His situation is analogous to that of the humans in the game, after all, who were taught to love, hate and dream by the Dreamstone. That Robo's life was physically caused and created for a purpose does not invalidate him, no more than the seminal influence of the Dreamstone invalidates the human species.
Frog's struggle with identity is more open-ended than Robo's. As early as Magus' Castle, Frog seems to be mostly at peace with his frog form. He is able to use the names "Frog" and "Glenn" interchangeably from that time forward. Frog's outer form is only a symbol of his guilt and self-loathing, though, and those problems aren't really resolved until Frog makes peace with Cyrus' ghost. Throughout the game, Frog is essentially a past-oriented character. His identity and actions stem wholly from the traumatic events of his history; his quest is to carry out Cyrus' dying wish, avenge the wrongs of the past and atone for his own shortcomings. When Frog finds Cyrus' ghost, though, he is surprised to learn that Cyrus bears him no ill-will and commends him on what he has achieved since Cyrus' death -- not on his correction of past mistakes, notably, but on the strength he has developed since losing Cyrus. This has a powerful effect on Frog, one which Masa and Mune explain in the Japanese version when they awaken to power up the Masamune:
MUNE: You were troubled, weren't you.
MASA: A Hero's strength is strength of will!
MUNE: It's not to atone for sins or anything like that.
MASA: Your will, just now, had true strength!
FROG: My...... will......!
MUNE: With this, we can let out our power with no regrets too, nii-chan!
Frog's discovery at this moment is the climax of his character arc. He learns that he is not defined by his past, neither his heroic deeds nor his mistakes, but by his will, his ongoing power to choose. This is an interesting kind of redemption in comparison to the more common Christian model, in which the burden of sin is relieved by a heroic sacrifice. Frog's strength, not his sacrifice, is his virtue -- and he escapes the weight of sin by recognizing its hold on him as illusory. He is alive and has the power to set his own course, and thus no sin or guilt can hold Frog back any longer. The shades of existentialism are clear in Frog's story. The rejection of a backward-looking, sin-and-guilt-based morality is particularly reminiscent of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, though it doesn't match either of their philosophies exactly.
The great identity crisis of Chrono Trigger involves the whole human species. In the final battle with Lavos, it is revealed that Lavos has been harvesting the evolutionary advances of all life on the planet, always with the intent of erupting eventually and reproducing in a kind of "harvest" of all those millennia of evolution. In the English version, Magus claims that Lavos has guided this evolution, while the Japanese version compares mankind to livestock for Lavos but stops short of claiming that he directly interfered with humanity's evolution. This problem is further complicated by Dreamstone, which turned humanity into the thinking and dreaming species that it is; the Dreamstone may be a fragment of Lavos, which would undeniably make Lavos the primary spur for human evolution. In any case, the problem is this: How can a human assert his or her will (and thus identity) against Lavos when Lavos is largely responsible for that identity? In real life, this paradox applies to the search for authenticity, which seems impossible for a human being whose consciousness is built on deterministic physical processes, milennia of evolution, formative childhood experiences, etc.
In Chrono Trigger, the power of choice is the solution. Like Frog and Robo, all living things are defined by choice rather than by the past. In the final battle, some of the character make reference to some sort of ownership of the world, e.g.:
MARLE: This is Crono's and ours... Leene's and Doan's... everyone's...!
AYLA: Ayla and world good! You outsider. Not part of planet's life!
ROBO: (Japanese version) Just like Lucca, and EVERYONE else...... I AM one of the many lives of this planet!
What the party is asserting here (and what Lavos would deny them) is a claim to the future of the planet. Meanwhile, Frog finds more direct salvation in choice:
FROG: My life retain'eth its meaning...! We haveth our own will!
This scene is similar to the one between Robo and Atropos in that there is no debate or denial over the past. The fact that the human species was intended as little more than a food source for this monster goes unchallenged. The party's assertion is that the past does not matter. As living beings, each character has the power and right to choose the planet's future. This is where meaningful identity lies, far beyond the reach of Lavos' tyranny over history.
In the most common ending, Robo is seen sitting with Atropos, indicating Robo's success at reconciling his treasured identity as "Robo" with the facts of his past. Frog's identity issues are also revisited in some endings, where he may appear in human form if the player chose to slay Magus instead of permitting him to join the party. This is a nice touch because it leaves Frog's outer form, like his inner identity, ultimately in his own hands (and thus the player's). It's also meaningful that the choice of whether to kill Magus at North Cape, while it has consequences, has no predetermined "right" or "wrong" answer. This illusion of free will is both a major gameplay attraction of Chrono Trigger and a part of its theme of personal choice.
SUBJECTIVITY/OBJECTIVITY AND TIME
The question of subjective versus objective reality is wholly implicit in Chrono Trigger, and probably unintentional. It arises as a side effect of the game's dream motif and its (more conscious) exploration of identity. Basically, Chrono Trigger suggests a permeable barrier between objective reality (really just a grand dream) and subjective reality (which is not really fantasy, but dormant reality).
I've already discussed the power of dreams to influence reality in Chrono Trigger; see the Masamune, the Chrono Trigger, Dreamstone, and the gameplay element of time travel in general. In light of that power, the Black Omen is a menacing presence indeed. Queen Zeal has a dark dream of eternal life at the expense of the whole planet, and the Omen represents that dream. If the Omen's Zealian origins weren't enough to support that symbolism, the fact that the characters can choose to "wake up" from the Black Omen would be ample evidence. The Black Omen exists on the aforementioned border between subjective and objective reality. It is a private dream that Lavos and the Queen share, but one that contends for control of objective reality. By 2300 AD, the party cannot even enter the Black Omen because there is no longer any chance of averting the dream it represents; in that era, Queen Zeal's dream crosses over into reality, choking out the dream of the planet entirely.
In the chamber where the party battles Queen Zeal, they find clones of themselves floating over energy pods. The Queen implies that the clones represent the party's forgone futures, all of the possibilities that they might have realized but that are precluded by the dream-reality of the Black Omen. The "bad ending" depicts this same possibility with its haunting closing line: "But...... the future refused to change." It is easy to forget that in Chrono Trigger, the player is fighting against destiny, unlike the traditional "fated hero." Lavos' rise and the extinction of humanity are the culminating events of the planet's life-cycle. No salvation is fated for humanity. It exists only in the private dreams of the player characters... and in the dream of the planet.
The Entity that the party discusses around the campfire in Fiona's forest is the planet itself. Ayla's comparison to a human's life flashing before his eyes is apt. The planet is about to die as a result of Lavos's rise, and the time gates are its way of revisiting the pivotal moments of its life. Consider the position that this puts the party into. If the time gates lead to the key moments of the planet's life, then Crono and his allies are its consciousness, the "mind's eye" of the planet. It is through Crono (and, by extension, though the player) that the planet narrativizes its history and wins a chance to change the future. The subjective experience of travel through the gates is not merely parallel to the planet's history (the game's objective reality). It actually creates and defines that reality. Objective reality is history; history is the story of the planet; and the story of the planet is composed in the minds of those who live on it. The connection is clearest when the red time gate appears for Lucca in the woods right after the discussion of the Entity. Lara's accident is not a pivotal moment in the history of the planet. It is the pivotal moment in Lucca's history, though, and her personal history is on the same footing as the history of the planet. In this scene, briefly, the division between subjective and objective experience breaks down completely as the shared narrative of the planet becomes one with Lucca's subjective experience of life.
The time gates not only permit the planet to revisit its history, but also to alter its fate. Time, far from being an unstoppable river forcing humanity toward its destiny, is revealed as a dream no more or less powerful than any other. We see both the power and the mutability of time when the party resurrects Crono. The Chrono Trigger is powered by human effort and won't function except for someone who is important to the flow of time -- that is, to the planet's dream. But when it does work, its effect is literally to stop time and reverse any misfortune, even death. On one level, this is a fantasy element that is irreconcilable with any kind of realistic existentialist philosophy, and even counter to existentialism's focus on the inevitable triumph of death and time. The subordination of time's causal progress to its narrative flow, though, is reminiscent of existentialism (especially insofar as existentialism prefigured post-modernism). Consider the formula for redemption that Zarathustra teaches in Thus Spake Zarathustra:
"I taught them all my fancying and planning: to compose into one thing and carry together whatever is fragmentary in man and riddle and dismal chance --- As a poet, solver of riddles and redeemer of chance, I taught them to work at the future and to redeem all that hath been by creating. To redeem what is past in man and to transvalue every 'It was' until will saith: 'Thus I willed! Thus shall I will---'"
The regrowth of Fiona's forest captures this theme most completely in Chrono Trigger. The desert, no less than the forest that replaces it, was created. It was created by "riddle and dismal chance," as Nietzsche puts it, the patterns of its birth present but hidden before the opening of the time gates. But by revisiting the past, the party (and the player) can reconstruct the riddle of the desert, solve that riddle, and thus alter the future. Thought Fiona does not live to see her dream come true, it does become reality through the narrativization of history and the subsumption of past chance into present will. Crono's resurrection is accomplished in a similar fashion; it even skirts total negation of history by replacing Crono with a clone at the last moment. This neatly assigns a new meaning and diegetic reality to an event that the player has already seen and participated in. With Crono's resurrection, as with the regrowth of the forest, time shows that it needn't be the ally of death. It can be shifted, stopped or even reversed to help realize the dreams of the planet, because it is ultimately no more than the sum of those dreams.
Chrono Trigger has a lot of death in it for a light-hearted game, particularly toward the end. Aliza, Atropos, Toma, Cyrus, Crono and Lavos all die in ways that affect the world of the game; Toma and Cyrus even come back as ghosts. Furthermore, the very existence of the time gates is revealed to be a symptom of the planet's life "flashing before its eyes." Crono and Marle both cheat death through their friends' clever manipulation of time. If that weren't enough, the game contains the death of a species (the Reptites), the death of a civilization (Zeal) and the attempted genocide of an already-dying species (Geno Dome's campaign against humanity in 2300). So how does death's portrayal in Chrono Trigger compare to its treatment in existentialist philosophy?
Existentialist philosophers never reached anything like a consensus on death, but the topic was central to existentialism as a movement. Debate centered on death's meaning to the individual. Is death a human being's ultimate individual potential, the de facto goal toward which all life is oriented? Or is death an elusive non-presence from the subjective point of view? As Wittgenstein reminds us, "Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death." Chrono Trigger complicates these questions by placing them into the context of history, a maneuver that staves off the usual existentialist tendency to return to the individual point of view. When Crono (our perfect surrogate in the world of Chrono Trigger) dies, we live on to watch and choose in his absence. We lose our avatar, but the story continues. Chrono Trigger thus takes a fundamentally different tack on the question of death than does existentialism, but it has to confront many of the same problems.
To understand death in Chrono Trigger, we may start with its only "good" death, the death of Aliza. Aliza passes away in peace, surrounded by friends. This is in contrast to Yakra XIII's lie about her death, in which he claims that she suffered and that her condition worsened as the King refused to pull himself away from work to see her. Here we see a clear picture of a good death versus a bad death, one that emphasizes the importance of relationships and peace. Leene further elucidates the importance of human connection in her letter to Marle, which appears against the backdrop of Marle's struggle with her mother's death. The letter is worth quoting again:
"I know things are tough between you and your father. But nothing can break your bond of blood. Neither words of anger, nor great distances. Someday, when you have children, you will understand. This special bond is part of a family tree with links us together."
This letter takes on special significance in light of the revelation that humanity has always been led by Marle's family; it is revealed in some endings that Ayla, the whole Guardian line and Doan are all ancestors or descendants of Marle. Marle's "bond of blood" symbolically links all of humanity over the "great distances" of time. A good death is one in which this unbreakable bond among individuals is recognized. Interestingly, existentialist philosophy seems to ignore this connection for the most part. Death is considered a wholly individual and solitary experience, the "ownmost possibility" according to Heidegger. In Chrono Trigger, time extends backward and forward from the individual in infinite interplay with all the other events of history. Death is no exception, and to the extent that the individual accepts this, her death is a harmonious one.
Cyrus' death is perhaps the game's most difficult, though we must infer its full tragedy from its impact upon Frog. Cyrus is a mighty hero, the type that we would expect to slay the villain and win the day. In flashbacks we learn of his successful quest to claim the implements of heroism, including the magic sword Masamune, and of his confrontation with Magus. Magus kills him, breaking the expected narrative flow and leaving Cyrus' companion Glenn at a loss. Glenn is transformed into a Frog and left with the Hero Medal and a broken half of the Masamune. Cyrus' dying request is for Glenn, a pacifist, to protect the Queen in his stead. Consider this loss from Frog's perspective! In one pivotal moment, the single shining hope for the kingdom, the Queen, humanity, justice and Glenn himself has proven himself to be no hope at all and has died, leaving Frog (a non-combatant now cursed with a deformity that mocks his inaction) as the sole guardian of all that Cyrus fought and died for. Following hard upon these events, the Queen vanishes, meaning that Frog has failed in the task to which Cyrus appointed him. Finally, Cyrus' soul rests uneasy under a headstone that mocks his attempt to change the world. Over 400 years he becomes a vengeful ghost, unable to find peace in death. This is a bad death, but the game shows us the solution.
Cyrus' ghost haunts the Northern Ruins just as his memory haunts Frog; it is a destructive influence that time only exacerbates. Frog finally solves both problems by confronting them head-on; that is, visiting Cyrus' grave. There, the ghost of Cyrus confesses that it was unable to rest because of worry about all the people left behind, Glenn included. But Cyrus finally rests easy when he discovers that in the time Frog has taken to reach Cyrus' grave, he has gained greater strength than Cyrus himself had in life. Frog's strength permits Cyrus to rest at last, and Cyrus' acceptance in turn frees Frog from the weight of the past. In Chrono Trigger, death is not the end of all human possibilities, nor even the final possibility. Just as Frog can free himself from the past by seizing his destiny with his own will, Cyrus can transcend death and remain present to the future because a kindred will -- thus Cyrus' dream, thus his experience, thus his viewpoint -- survives him.
Despite the differences, Chrono Trigger's take on death is not wholly dissimilar from that of existentialist thought. In one of the endings, "What the Prophet Seeks," Magus throws himself suicidally against the horror of Lavos with words that neither Nietzsche nor Camus could fault:
"If history is to change, let it change! If the world is to be destroyed, so be it! If my fate is to be destroyed... I must simply laugh!!"
I do not read this as nihilism or fatalism on Magus' part. When Magus speaks of his "fate" here, he is addressing the same anxiety that the existentialist philosophers felt about death. Magus is nothing if not decisive; he is never afraid to exercise his will or to make what changes he can in the world. Yet as a character who has seen corruption and oblivion swallow everything around him, Magus is surely aware that his own doom awaits him somewhere, and that nothing ultimately defies death. By rushing headlong to battle Lavos in spite of all this, Magus commands his will to rise above grim facticity. Recalling that Magus has "passed through the darkness" only to return to twice-doomed Zeal and take a second stab at the invincible Lavos, compare him to Camus' Sisyphus:
"I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock."
Lavos symbolizes oblivion, that great negation of which death is only a facet. Humanity succeeds in thwarting death in Chrono Trigger by salvaging the pieces of its scattered history and creating a new meaning, a new story, in the face of certain doom. In the process, Crono and his allies learn of humanity's birth from Lavos, its evolution to suit his needs, its death throes in 2300 and its total extinction at the End of Time. In the end, though, the most important time is Now. As long as the human capacity to dream and to will that dream remains, choice defies fate; and thus does life defy death. This is the central existential message of Chrono Trigger.