When the Future Refuses to Change

Rain-slick cobblestones at night, a dim streetlamp, and an anonymous man in drab brown sleeping standing up. I got too curious about the spark smoldering in that ash bin in the corner, and found myself facing the final boss of Chrono Trigger just hours into the game. I got crushed, and got ready for Game Over. But, instead, the view pulled out to the Day of Lavos. The monster burst from the Earth's crust. The sky burned, and 65 million years of human progress were annulled.

Finally a view of the planet, shaded in defeat. The message: "But . . . the future refused to change." Finally, game over.

This is just one of many endings built into Chrono Trigger. But it is different from the others because it dramatizes "Game Over" rather than "Mission Accomplished." Usually, Game Over immediately breaks the narrative dream of the game, interrupting what is otherwise presented as a continuous story and setting you back to an earlier point. Game Over is a discontinuity both in interaction and in presentation -- frozen controls, a darkened screen, the title. The game abruptly ceases to interpret itself as a story of an imaginary world.

This is a form of "ludo-narrative" dissonance that occurs in almost every game with a story. A game's story tells of an unbroken quest, punctuated by successes: The hero defeats bosses A, B, C, etc., making friends and influencing people in a continuous journey. But that story covers a play experience that is not nearly so smooth: The player may face boss B five times, dying in each attempt, before he can finally beat him. These loops, these cycles of attempt, defeat, and reload, are completely skipped over by the game narrative. Although the story generally interprets and contextualizes the player's actions throughout play, no attempt is made to explain "Game Over."

The story of a hero who dies and is reborn a hundred times over the course of an epic quest would be quite different from the usual story of a hero who does not die at all. Most obviously, the eternal return of reloading does not make a very realistic story. We are accustomed to regard our real lives as one-time events, with a single definite beginning and a single definite end. So a realistic game would draw a similar arc for its player-characters. This points towards "permadeath," which is programmed into some games (notably, roguelikes like Nethack). There is a small but spirited online movement to play Far Cry 2 under conditions of self-imposed permadeath, among other reasons because it smooths out the dissonance between realistic story and underlying game. But games need not be realistic always and in every way, and some designs are better-suited to die-reload, or extra lives, or something else, than to permadeath.

Among non-permadeath games, a handful avoid the dissonance by explicitly presenting a non-permadeath narrative. Braid is one such game. Hit a pile of spikes and you'll die. But instead of starting again at a safe checkpoint, you're prompted to hold a button to reverse the flow of time, returning to an earlier point at which your death was not yet assured.

Braid's die-rewind approach supplies a different interpretation for Game Over. While recovering from death in Braid is explicitly about time travel, die-reload has always been a kind of time travel. If you die and reload, you go from a future in which you're dead to an earlier state in which you weren't, from 45 hours on the in-game clock to 44, etc. The time travel which sits right on the surface of Braid turns out to be a good metaphor for how countless other games work.

This brings us back to Chrono Trigger, the RPG about time travel. Of course, Chrono Trigger doesn't offer very fine control over time, and the time-travel story does not explicitly cover the mundane time-travel of die-reload. But there are hints, and puzzles. The "New Game+" option allows you to carry over your levels and equipment from a finished playthrough to a new one, to collect the other possible endings. What does it mean in the game narrative to have a party of heavily-armed superheroes playing the roles of kids at the Millennial Fair? There are no straight answers, but there are suggestions in the game's philosophy of itself.

The closest Chrono Trigger comes to explaining its premise -- how and why time travel works -- is in the camp-fire scene after the completion of Fiona's sidequest. According to the character Robo, the game's time portals appear at the will of an unnamed "Entity," which is revisiting the important moments of its existence. The Entity could be the planet Earth, or it could be Schala. But there is another possibility. The Entity controls the flow of time, shuffles the party into and out of the portals in the game's various eras. It directs the adventure, above and apart from the characters' individual motivations.

The camp-fire scene plays just before a short interactive segment, where you have only one chance to travel to the past and save Lucca's mother from being crippled for life. When I played this segment, I reset and retried it over and over and over, until I could play it right and save Lucca's mother's legs. I was controlling the flow of time, guiding the characters into portals to revisit, again and again, a moment that held a horrible meaning for me. Maybe the Entity was me.

Comments

Ooooh, nice ending.

Nice read!!

A podcast a while back mentioned this topic briefly. There was a game (who's name I don't remember right about now) that used the hero's death to the player's advantage. While a pain to program into and add to the actual content (scripts, acting, animation) it would be really cool for the game to consider the player's "reload/retry/reset" as a multiple attempts the game and all of it's characters to become aware of.

No, the Entity is just another aspect of the Implementors.

I've JUST started replaying Chrono Trigger on my DS yesterday, so this article is incredibly well timed! Thanks for giving me an aspect of the game to think about which I might not have otherwise.

Nice article.

Slouching Towards Bedlam--which I learned about right here a few weeks ago--is a text adventure that also does a great job of contextualizing the traditional "restore, retry, undo" options. It's definitely worth a play.

I'm surprised no mention of Heavy Rain... but it's too early to discuss that in much detail, isn't it?

Huh, I never knew you could save her legs. I had always thought it was the one thing you couldn't change because it wasn't time-travel, but her recounting a blocked memory (as denoted by its different color; red for something violent in her past) that you were forced to endure.

SuperDave wrote:
Huh, I never knew you could save her legs. I had always thought it was the one thing you couldn't change because it wasn't time-travel, but her recounting a blocked memory (as denoted by its different color; red for something violent in her past) that you were forced to endure.

I'm going to kill the moment by sharing with y'all that I read "I never knew you could shave her legs."

Carry on.

There have been a few attempts in the past few years to properly contextualize death and failure in games within a larger narrative framework. Like Braid, however, most of these have sought to eschew death and defeat entirely; rather than dramatizing a "game over" scenario, these games prevent failure from occurring at all. The most notorious example of this, of course, is the most recent Prince of Persia that justified all player failure by having the player saved by Elika at his moment of failure. Fable II has the player character merely knocked unconscious so that even when defeated in combat the character is never actually killed or otherwise put into a position where he or she would be permanently prevented from continuing.

Meanwhile, games like Baroque, something of a Rogue-like, have folded the character's death and resurrection into the story. Similarly, there is a narrative justification given for Jack's unlimited lives in BioShock. In these cases, though, the game still doesn't end as it does in Chrono Trigger. Death is explained, but its weight is not indulged.

What's interesting to me about this is that while the presence of death is a glaring case of game/narrative conflict, players don't seem to be that bothered by it. If anything, gamers get upset if you don't allow them to die. I suspect that non-permanent death plays an important part in helping players feel as though they're making progress and improving their skills while preventing the player from advancing through the game. Saved games and game over screens are part of the gaming lexicon that players seem willing to accept along with things like experience points and health bars; in a way, these things are the "fourth wall" of gaming that are simply part of the willful suspension of disbelief.

dhaelis wrote:
I've JUST started replaying Chrono Trigger on my DS yesterday, so this article is incredibly well timed! Thanks for giving me an aspect of the game to think about which I might not have otherwise.

Yup. I started this past weekend and I'm eight hours in.

Great read!

Hobbes2099 wrote:
I'm going to kill the moment by sharing with y'all that I read "I never knew you could shave her legs."

Carry on.

Now it just sounds like we're playing an adventure game. "Use grog-sterilized razor on hairy legs. The legs are now shaved. Nuzzle."

adam.greenbrier wrote:
What's interesting to me about this is that while the presence of death is a glaring case of game/narrative conflict, players don't seem to be that bothered by it. If anything, gamers get upset if you don't allow them to die. I suspect that non-permanent death plays an important part in helping players feel as though they're making progress and improving their skills while preventing the player from advancing through the game. Saved games and game over screens are part of the gaming lexicon that players seem willing to accept along with things like experience points and health bars; in a way, these things are the "fourth wall" of gaming that are simply part of the willful suspension of disbelief.

Agreed. And the dissonance can't really be avoided. Even in games with "permadeath," if you die you're likely to start over from the beginning rather than disappearing forever into nothingness. In real life, Game Over isn't an opportunity to go back to level 1 (regardless of what some religions would have you believe).

grobstein wrote:
In real life, Game Over isn't an opportunity to go back to level 1 (regardless of what some religions would have you believe).

Though, inasmuch as games are realities unto themselves (with their own version of physics, magic/science, theology, etc.), there's no reason a game couldn't model reincarnation as part of the story-world.

Super Columbine RPG Spoiler wrote:
[color=white]
Not directly related, but Super Columbine RPG is only half over when Dylan and Eric kill themselves. [/color]

wordsmythe wrote:
grobstein wrote:
In real life, Game Over isn't an opportunity to go back to level 1 (regardless of what some religions would have you believe).

Though, inasmuch as games are realities unto themselves (with their own version of physics, magic/science, theology, etc.), there's no reason a game couldn't model reincarnation as part of the story-world.

Yes and yes. Games don't have to be narrowly realistic. I should have said, the dissonance is unavoidable for games that commit to a realistic story of death.

OMG! You need to play "You Only Live Once"

http://www.kongregate.com/games/rait...

In this standard platform game, you only get 1 life. EVER.
(Unless you know how to delete flash save files or you play on a different computer)

Scarybug wrote:
OMG! You need to play "You Only Live Once"

http://www.kongregate.com/games/rait...

In this standard platform game, you only get 1 life. EVER.
(Unless you know how to delete flash save files or you play on a different computer)

Woo! Great point, thanks.

Good news, everyone!

http://www.joystiq.com/2009/08/04/so...

Apparently Mr. Gottlieb isn't the only one who finds the Wipeout situation unacceptable, and enough people complained that Sony pulled the offending ad. Chalk up one win for the little guys.

I was going to e-mail you guys about this moment a few weeks ago actually.

I never finished Chrono Trigger a long time ago when I first played it for the original Playstation but recently a price drop for the DS version prompted me to pick up the adventure again.

Lucca's moment to save her mother I felt was a very powerful moment in video game history. Above and beyond the death of Aries from Final Fantasy 7 which is lauded for it's way to touch the player because of how they feel about the characters on the screen.

I think it's for several reasons,

1. The personable nature of the characters (much like FF7).
2. You can interact with the scene making it this very tense experience.
3. You can affect the outcome.

I also reset a dozen or so times in order to get the good ending to this scene. One reason why I had to redo it so many times was because I felt a huge amount of pressure in order to get it right.

I don't know if this is because I needed the good ending or if I simply felt something for Lucca's character. In the end it doesn't really change much else either way, I just wanted Lucca's story to have a happy ending.

This type of narrative in video games is very powerful, I would've sent my e-mail several weeks ago discussing the idea of consequence in video games and what 'winning the game' really means to the player. However, I couldn't quite phrase my letter in a way where I felt I got the argument across completely.

P.S. None of the above has anything to do with your original story but I thought I'd mention it anyways.

I always felt that Planescape Torment handled the hero-death-restart issue in-narrative very well. Of course, that worked precisely for its narrative and isn't extensible to other games. I loved that at least one puzzle I can remember relied on the undying mechanic to pass. Brilliant stuff!

I think a problem with games (and their makers) is that they're thinking about realism in the wrong sense. Rather than resort to real life realism, they should be thinking about the realism in the context of the game itself. It should make sense in the context of the game world, not our world.

That said, I think that's one of the reasons I liked Chrono Trigger. The way they presented the game and it's story helped immerse me into the game more than most RPGs, that campfire segment being the one moment in the game that stood out the most.

In MGS3 the game-over screen reads "Time Paradox" because you're playing as Big Boss, whose existence is required in the games that came before it in real time but afterwards in the game's timeline. Not a deep reflection on the concept, really, but at least Kojima recognized the discord.

Dave, I know you and I talked a little about Sands of Time in relation to this discussion, but if folks are pointing out smaller games like You Only Live Once, it might be worth mentioning Free Will as well.

Fxeni wrote:
I think a problem with games (and their makers) is that they're thinking about realism in the wrong sense. Rather than resort to real life realism, they should be thinking about the realism in the context of the game itself. It should make sense in the context of the game world, not our world.

Yep. A game has its own world and needs to be consistent in modelling that world.

Whenever I read the title of this article, the Lavos sound plays in my head - Groooooooooooawawaw! Lavos sounded like a giant hamster, very distinct.

HedgeWizard wrote:
I always felt that Planescape Torment handled the hero-death-restart issue in-narrative very well. Of course, that worked precisely for its narrative and isn't extensible to other games. I loved that at least one puzzle I can remember relied on the undying mechanic to pass. Brilliant stuff!

I love me some Torment. The puzzle where you're trying to find the tomb of past yous is awesome, once you get past the frustration of 'dying' a bunch of times. But then again, the point is that death doesn't matter whatsoever, so I'm glad they built that sequence into the primary narrative. Paranoid Past You is an entertaining read, too.

You Only Live Once was made by the same guy who made Free Will. Raitendo likes to make games that annoy players who don't "get it", it seems. According to twitter he got a couple of death threats through Kongregate comments =/

Anyway, I think they're brilliant.

wordsmythe wrote:
Dave, I know you and I talked a little about Sands of Time in relation to this discussion, but if folks are pointing out smaller games like You Only Live Once, it might be worth mentioning Free Will as well.

Well, that was interesting. I found You Only Live Once much easier to understand. This game, it seems, could have been called You Only Live Once too. What is so "free will" about it? (Is it just supposed to be funny to take away choice and call it "free will"? I did smile at the very last choice it takes from you.)

grobstein wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Dave, I know you and I talked a little about Sands of Time in relation to this discussion, but if folks are pointing out smaller games like You Only Live Once, it might be worth mentioning Free Will as well.

Well, that was interesting. I found You Only Live Once much easier to understand. This game, it seems, could have been called You Only Live Once too. What is so "free will" about it? (Is it just supposed to be funny to take away choice and call it "free will"? I did smile at the very last choice it takes from you.)

You Only Live Once seems very similar (being from the same developer, it's not surprising). It's tempting to think of Live Once as a refined presentation of the same theme, but Free Will may speak more to the recent discussion about permanence and weight in decisions -- as something more of a parody of the Manveer Heir suggestion to not let players take back some choices.

Hedgewizard beat me to the punch, but when I first played Torment I was amazed at how elegantly they solved the ludo-narrative problem of PC death -- not just solved it, but made it the thematic essence of the game. (I'm curious which came first: the story, or the gameplay mechanic?). It strikes me that grobstein comes to the same conclusion about Chrono Trigger (which I haven't played) that I came to about Braid: the game ultimately opens the possibility of self-discovery, that you yourself are the bad guy -- after seeing the OCD ending to Braid on YouTube I'm convinced that the game's basic intent is to hold a mirror up to the player to expose games' propensity to generate obsession.

grobstein wrote:
What is so "free will" about it? (Is it just supposed to be funny to take away choice and call it "free will"? I did smile at the very last choice it takes from you.)

Some philosophers and behavioral psychologists are of the opinion that free will is an illusion, and that when we believe we are making 'choices' we are in fact only playing out the intersection of our genetics and upbringing; in effect, we are programmed and cannot deviate from that programming. I would assume Free Will is a comment on that interpretation, or some parallel idea.

I died on You Only Live Once by falling into a pit somewhere in world 5. They buried me near the exit door. I think I would have wanted it that way.

-edit- Chrono Cross indicates the Entity is Schala, but then it also indicates a lot of other things that seem implausible. I like this interpretation better.

Brought on flashbacks to being about 12 years old playing Wing Commander 3 - if you lost too many missions you got one last doomed mission where endless Kilrathi fighters attacked your spacecraft. When - inevitably - you lost the Kilrathi took earth. Am sure there was some sort of end of game video at this point, but can't actually remember. Did like the detail though of one last doomed mission, which could not be won.

Chrono Trigger is a great game, I played it back on the Super Nintendo and when I finally get a DS I'll definitely pick it up for that.

I thought that the Entity may have been Lavos, as all of the time periods revolve around important periods of Lavos's existence.

I didn't think that he was purposefully producing these portals which gave you the opportunity to destroy him. Rather I thought that he may have been creating the portals as an unintended side-effect of his power while he reflected on his past.

I liked the irony of him being the origin of the only possible way his enemies could become aware of his existence and have the ability to destroy him.