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.