This article features spoilers from the game Chrono Cross. You've been warned.
Chrono Cross is one of those games that you can't set aside for a minute without losing track of the plot, and yet I left it rotting in my Playstation for a week without play (the equivalent of six Squaresoft half-lifes). I'm pretty sure that by now, my copy of Chrono Cross has lost enough electrons to qualify as helium; I'd like to turn the game on again, but I'm afraid I might inadvertently start a nuclear reaction, turning my Playstation into a mini-sun. That's how this game is. It bullies you into playing it, threatening you with solar annihilation if you turn your back for a day or two. (Oh, I am so screwed.)
Chrono Cross is so intricate that even though I'm playing it for the fourth time, I still have no idea what's going on. I can't even rely on memories of my past playthroughs; they'll just baffle me further. Vaguely, I recall this dead guy who's still alive in another universe, running around killing baby komodo dragons to satiate his harpy of a girlfriend. But instead, he's really interested in this Australian hottie who talks like someone's punched her in the mouth and sports a wrap skirt so short, she has to position her dagger scabbard in such a way as to cover the difference. And they're being chased around by a murderous cat-monster with an evil jester woman as his lackey, but the evil jester woman's totally mackin' on the zombie hero guy, and then the Australian tart drops the L-bomb ("LUCCA") and I'm taken aback with my sense of Great Import, even though I have no idea what it means, and I won't, ever, and then suddenly, a dancing straw man, the kind straight out of Lobo's worst nightmares, literally mambos onto my screen.
Chrono Cross is like quantum mechanics: anyone who tells you that they understand what's going on is full of sh*t.
And yet, there's a part of me that really digs this type of game and keeps me coming back. It's the same part of me that aches for those sweeping 19th century Russian sagas: seven-course literary feasts, spanning decades of revolution, peopled not by a cast of characters but an entire country of them.
Both in Russian novels and games like Chrono Cross, the risks the reader takes are obvious. Do you dare gamble so much time and effort on building relationships with characters you might not like? Do you invest ten hours in the storyline, only to discover the plot is insipid and uninspired? You can never recapture that time you spent, the hours you wasted on people you hate and stories you despise.
But like Brothers Karamazov, the potential for emotional gratification that these games offer is astounding (if not always readily apparent). As you spend so much time with a set of characters, your feelings grow, transcending simple sympathy for their setbacks and successes. The story transforms into a genre of personal history--a fabricated history, of course, but one so compelling and so tangible that, in a sense, you yourself have lived it. These aren't just people you've seen on a screen, doing things you tell them to; these are people you've lived with, whose actions you had a part in, and whose personalities you know intimately (and, when lacking, have supplied yourself). You have memories of them. Not of playing the game, or watching the screen, but of the characters themselves. That's a hard feeling to get when you're playing, say, Tetris.
This is why, at least for fans of the original Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross offers one of the greatest and most complex pay-offs in video game history. By building on your recollections of Crono and his friends, the game doesn't just replicate your memories, but completes them. Yes, investing sixty-odd hours into Chrono Cross sounds absurd when you realize that your only purpose, indeed, the only purpose for all these characters, is to rescue a very minor character from the previous game. And yet, for you the player, who may have spent hours, even days, with Chrono Trigger in fruitless search, scouring every corner of every town or level in every era of time, all in vain, finding that one missing person is something unspeakably powerful and gratifying.
Finishing the story of Chrono Trigger is something you can't do in only five hours, with six characters, and still expect a believable conclusion. You can barely do it in fifty hours, with forty-four characters. In the same way that closing a heavy book requires a firm hand, Chrono Cross requires a certain gravitas and epic scale. You simply can't get the job done any other way.
But here's where it gets really complex. As you play Chrono Cross, you grow attached to these new characters, who are separate entities from Crono, Marle, and Lucca, with distinct desires and goals. You forge new memories. But if the point of the second game is only to tie up loose ends from the first, do any of these memories really matter? Are all these rich and intricate characters mere pawns, ordered to fix a plot hole that they don't really understand? As the ending asks, Are each of our short lives nothing but a cheap sacrifice? Or was their story important in its own right? Does fixing that lingering plot hole free the characters to become themselves, unbound by some imposed obligation that holds little to no meaning for them? By fulfilling the demands of fate, have they then destroyed it? In general, does your fate exist until you consciously kill it? Does your destiny enslave you until you break it?
Those are definitely not questions you get while playing Tetris.
I look at the jewel case of Chrono Cross lying haphazardly on my TV shelf, and suddenly, I feel wistful, like I'm sorting through pictures of old boyfriends or high school friends. Sometimes, when I go to the bookstore, I'll stand in front of the Dostoevsky shelf, staring up at Fyodor's collected works, and feel the same way. It's weird how fond you grow of those things that challenge you.
Do great epics fade away in our hearts? Or do they wither away by half-lifes, eventually condensing into something subtle and gentle, leaving only imaginary memories behind? I'm not sure, but you know what? I think it's about time I turned my Playstation back on.