Sunday, May 29, 2011

Soma Drop: Chrono Trigger

Soma Drop is a retrospective. A “nostalgia article”, if you’d like. I love the “Gaming Made Me” feature on RockPaperShotgun, so this is my version of it.

Soma is also the name of a “pacification device” used in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I like the idea behind it…that it was administered to anybody who started feel the stressed or dissatisfied with life. The effects of the drug were immediate, effective, and long-lasting, but had an ironic downside: prolonged successive Soma “trips” resulted in a premature death; death by hypoperfusion.

As much as I love older “classic” games, I think this downside remains relevant. It has become admittedly more difficult to “get into” (immersed, involved, captured by, etc.) games in recent years, which could be due to a number of issues (which I’ve been attempting to analyze/solve as best I can), but the most common argument is that recent games simply aren’t as good as the classics. They lack depth, they’re too easy, they’re dumbed down, they’re not immersive, they don’t have well-developed, well-delivered stories; the list is endless. It’s created a strong sense of dissatisfaction among the gaming community; a sense often inflamed by new “AAA” releases that appear to be heavy with these traits and light on “core” features. What’s worse, modern game developers don’t seem to care about addressing these apparent issues, either.

One might logically conclude that the best solution is simply to stick with what works. Remake the old classics. Bring their rich narratives, deep and balanced gameplay, and immersive natures into the modern world. Update the visuals and spice up the experience with technology. Give me the same game (and the same feeling I felt playing it) that I had when I was that young, impressionable ludino*. And it’s what many people have been clamoring for. Remakes are always welcome, both critically and popularly. But I think it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Of course, I indulge in a fair share of nostalgia and I definitely appreciate re-releases of old games on new platforms (I purchased Xenogears, Legend of Mana, Metal Gear Solid, AND Symphony of the Night the moment they were released on the PS Network. Not a second thought, with no regrets). But I also believe that there are real repercussions. Much like soma, these games do transport me to a better place; an apparently richer, more “real” place, where the highs are higher and the lows lower. And even after the experience ends, the world feels a bit brighter. Much like soma, however, prolonged consecutive trips cause a slow, inevitable asphyxiation; I fail to renew that breath adequately because I’m so tranquilized by that ephemeral dream. It isn’t a phenomenon unique to games, but it still holds true: we will have no future if we cannot let go of the past.

So be it, then. With circumspect and trepidation, our first Soma Drop is Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger.

Title: Chrono Trigger
Developer: Squaresoft
Platform: Super Nintendo Entertainment System

The story about a boy and his sword.

a true story

First impressions are critical in games. I know I shouldn't have to qualify that statement, this being what it is, but I wanted to emphasize it. Good narratives, in my understanding, know how to take full advantage of this fact. Chrono Trigger certainly does.

It's trite now, but the story of an unremarkable teen who believably bumbles his way into trouble with the royal family by way of some seriously simplified time travel is set perfectly. It’s an art the way the story is opened; there are few pretenses, fewer hints, and no real questions about the fidelity of the world we begin in. Ambling about on the map even reinforces the feeling that this could be all there is, and that’s okay. And yet with that one hook - a simple step back in time - it opens us up to a million more possibilities.

Still, it goes further. Alan Moore himself said that “every good story turns on a MacGuffin”, and hence contains no real surprises.  Time travel, when first introduced, feels terminal; after all, what manner of limits apply to those who have conquered time? So we set out to regain control of it.  Our success here is even met with equipotent satisfaction…and yet, almost predictably, these subsequent trips through time lead us from one MacGuffin to the next; in a post-apocalyptic future, remnants of the human race huddle in the broken-down relics of technology past, waiting to die. In an effort to help them, and perhaps ourselves, we stumble upon an old archive which contains footage of “The Day of Lavos...”

Forget about saving the princess. We’ve got to save the world.

The icing on the proverbial cake is the fact that even though the narrative importance of time travel dissolves over the course of the game (that is, it becomes a narrative vehicle rather than a goal), the designers saw fit to flesh out a significant number of possible consequences that could conceivably arise based on our mastery of time. Of course, this has caused some confusion about the canon, but experiencing each ending provides a sense of richness to the game, even if they are only ever seen once.

i’ve got sunshine, on a cloudy day

As though it weren’t enough to have a well-crafted story, Chrono Trigger proceeds to contain some of the most imaginative locales along its plotted course. The quaint, placid kingdom of Guardia, circa 1000 AD. The frigid, unforgiving snowfields of Terra, the grounded islands of the Floating Kingdom of Zeal, circa 12,000 BC. The wild, untamed prehistoric Pangaea of 65,000,000 BC. These locales (and time periods) and more each containing their own unique style and atmosphere. The perpetual fog and cloud that covers the medieval land of Guardia, circa 600 AD. The harsh, dessicating electrical wind of post-apocalyptic 2300 AD. These fantastic environments are forever burned, frame by frame, into my mind’s eye.

I can imagine, too, the artists poring over each era, going back and forth with each other asking, “where did you put this in your time?” “Why did it end up there? You forgot to add this. This should go here.” “What is that? Is that supposed to be in my time? So, it would make sense if I made it look like this after 400 years, right?” Good God, how did they figure all this out so well?

we’ve got ends, we’ve got means, we’ve got every stinking thing

Skin deep beauty, even in the form of a story well-written, will eventually, inevitably subordinate to one thing in games: gameplay. It can’t be avoided. Luckily, Chrono Trigger’s play is as polished as every other aspect we’ve experienced so far. It’s a bit of the familiar and a huge helping of brand-spanking-new: the Active Time Battle (ATB) System 2.0 was Squaresoft’s tried and true turn-based battle system perfected over the course of 4 games (the Final Fantasy pedigree), which was layered with the Combination (combo) system, an all-new idea which infused encounters with added possibilities and complexities. The RPG standards of battle were not reinvented; it was as if some benevolent genius dipped his golden hand into the still-stirring ooze of primordial RPG-dom and wrought, piece by piece, some new and magnificent creature. It looked like nothing else, yet it played like something familiar, and still pushed the limits of what we thought these kinds of games could do.
I spent countless playthroughs experimenting with different sets of characters, just to discover all the possible combinations. Though some I never used, or ever used only once, I appreciated the thought that went into the endeavor. There was nothing like it.

 if you were sweet, still I’d curse your name

I won’t lie: I’m about as fanatic about this game as one can get. I really won’t lie: I think the best thing that could happen to gaming at large would be to have this game made and remade in glorious Advent Children-esque 3D. I would buy it. A thousand times over I would buy it.

But it would not stick. I know it. It would not stay with me the way Chrono Trigger ought to.

Chrono Trigger will forever be an anachronism. It stands out from Time. Some may find it ironic; a game about time that stands before time and is not defeated by it. How…appropriate. But it’s not any single part of Chrono Trigger that gives it its ever-shining brilliance: the culmination of art, heart, game, and soul do.

“The past is dead. It was all just a dream...” - Magus