Aging and Aging Well: The Use of Historical Context in Video Games Criticism

Back in late August when the Great D.C. Earthquake struck and shook some places up, reports came in that the Washington Monument had suffered cracks and was to be closed indefinitely. A feminist writer I read every so often personally wished for the whole thing to crumble. Not for reasons of what some might view as purely political relevance, she wanted it to fall because she saw it as nothing more than a “giant erection.”

Arguments over sexual imagery in the modern world aside, the problem with this statement is that it’s completely and utterly void of any historical context or understanding, instead employing modern standards and philosophy exclusively to this reading of the monument’s meaning. Such statements are particularly damaging to rational thinking, for they presume that any particular event is a spontaneous point in time without causation, a logical fallacy. As such, it is useful to have some historical understanding when discussing anything made in or events that occur in the past.

This is especially the case with video games. The exponential advancement of technology that the gaming industry piggybacks on means that a video game’s shelf life as a testament to the medium is very short at best, no more than a couple years. As a result, very few games can withstand not just the test of time but an ever-widening scope of expectations. This is a medium in which a revolutionary new feature that is more useful than gimmicky becomes a standard in a years’ time and a requirement in a few years more. Such a scope can make people ignorant to the fact that many games released in the last year would have been difficult, if not impossible, to make 5 years ago. If we were to view any video games prior to, say, 2006 as they are to be viewed today by today’s standards, only a handful would barely pass muster as adequate and maybe only one or two would be deemed great.

Yet it is this modern lens that Mark Filipowitch uses to dissect the 16-bit classic JRPG Chrono Trigger and to refer to it as “dated” (”Often Classic Means Dated: A Look Back at Chrono Trigger, PopMatters, 6 September 2001). His seeming ignorance of the historical context of the game, as well as several misunderstandings as to the depth that this game represents in aesthetics, storytelling, and mechanics, seems to be built almost entirely on seeing this game as though it were developed in 2011 rather than in 1995, with only some hints of nostalgia bolstering its reputation.

Let us go back to 1995 and look at the game as it was, not as it is. While the plot in Chrono Trigger could be argued to be “rigid” in the modern context, it was probably the most flexible plotline of its time. JRPGs such as Final Fantasy VI and Dragon Quest VI, the great games of the time, were entirely rigid with strictly one path to follow to their singular resolutions. The one game of that era that garnered similar flexibility prior to Chrono Trigger was, perhaps, Sonic Team’s Phantasy Star III, which used a family-based generational system that seemed little more than a gimmick to critics and fans. The only hope that you had with these plots was that the story went somewhere interesting. That Chrono Trigger presented even a chance of flexibility in its storytelling was something considered extraordinary.

This, of course, was due to the limitations of the systems: 32-megabit cartridges that today would barely fit the entire written script of Mass Effect 2’s Commander Shepherd. Speaking of, contrasting the silent Crono with the verbose Shepherd is a bit of a fallacy, since they are essentially the same type of character, the player avatar. The only quintessential difference between the two is that, thanks to advances in technology that BioWare reaped and tweaked, Shep is given a prolific array of faces and thought processes that the player can manipulate and tweak into their own, a feature that would have been impossible in the 16-bit era. Shep talks only because we tell him to talk. In any case, in both games the characters represent not only the player but also the catalyst by which the supporting casts develop the overall plot. By extension, both Crono and Shep are necessarily weak characters when alone.

Furthermore, the central antagonist of Lavos remains a villain and not just a destructive plot device, and Filipowitch fails to take into account the actual raison d’etre of the villain. Similar to Marvel Comics’s Galactus, Lavos is a parasite that devours the energy of a planet, burning it when it has absorbed enough, followed by replicating itself to feed on other planets. Like Galactus, Lavos’s malice towards humanity could be considered a natural force in the universe, but does that mean that the characters — witnesses of not one but two apocalypses triggered by this parasite — should just let Lavos finish the job? Would they even want to? Of course, that is presented as an option. Failure to defeat Lavos in the finale shows the apocalypse occurring as an actual ending to the game, as opposed to a mere game over. But that is not what drives people to play an RPG. Not all games have to carry the moral ambiguity and complexity of a Suda51 plot.

What made Chrono Trigger great and a classic for its time was the time travel mechanic. While time travel had been glossed over or used as a minor plot point in other titles, it had seldom been explored in a video game environment, used in this kinds of gameplay-based, but plot-related context. Chrono Trigger took the time travel mechanic and ran with it, not only allowing players to see the world that they were playing in a completely different light and through a completely different aesthetic. Furthermore, the mechanic examined timeline changes and fleshed out characters in unexpected ways. The greatest example of the latter point was through the initial antagonist Magus, whose actions later re-cast him as a tragic anti-hero, ultimately offered a chance of redemption at the player’s choosing.

The exploration of this mechanic was the brainchild of one of the strongest development teams of that period. The so-called “Dream Team”, which consisted of Dragon Quest designers Yuji Horii (who initially conceived of the time travel mechanic) and Akira Toriyama (better known for being the creator of the Dragon Ball franchise), Final Fantasy producer Hironobu Sakaguchi, and the original Ninja Gaiden storywriter Masato Kato, developed a bond that had not been seen before in gaming and had a lot more freedom to explore ideas unique to gaming at the time, since they were not franchise-bound. With the help of a young development team (the latter member of whom would later create the cult classic mech-opera Xenogears), they built these mechanics and played with them as thoroughly as the 32-megabit cartridge of the SNES would allow them. The results were amazing for the time.

Notably, the great composer Nobuo Uematsu also made an appearance on the Dream Team, but his role was incredibly overshadowed by the man that he replaced, Yasunori Mitsuda, who truly defined the aural potential of the SNES and 16-bit music in general. Mitsuda truly pushed the limits of the SPC700 sound chip, creating a diverse instrumentation from a minor piano sound to an Indian sitar and did do by playing around with these instruments in a manner not unlike Stephen Reich. As a composer currently involved in an SNES ROM hack project, I can attest to the difficulty of merely programming music into no more than 8 channels (each containing a single note) at once. So, to create instrumentation that sound so close to the original sound is a feat that should not be understated.

To Filipowitch’s credit, Chrono Trigger visual aesthetic, while diverse, was not the strongest for its time. Clearly, the hand of Toriyama drew these characters and monsters, and like the Disney Corporation, he’s basically used one template since 1984 and stuck with it (thus, every male lead looks like Goku). Thusly, graphics remain the truly dated aspect of the game. However, the game does something with the visuals, especially the monsters, which had not really been done before at such a scale in a cartridge-based JRPG: animate them. Additionally, they were placed in the level itself, as opposed to on a separate screen in a random encounter. Such live encounters allowed for players to avoid or to retreat from fighting if they so desired and also brought a more lively experience to fighting monsters that was a world away from fighting beautifully drawn cardboard cutouts at random in previous JRPGs.

There are other weak moments as well, primarily in that the time travel mechanic was not fully explored on the gameplay level and in pushing subtle changes to the timeline via sidequests to the end of the game. Also, the concept of Crono’s death in the middle of the game, something very unique in game storytelling at the time, could have been explored more strongly. But such moments do not entirely knock it out of its rightful place as a gaming classic. Chrono Trigger‘s successful exploration of new mechanics allowed other games, including Mass Effect, to benefit in the long run (after all, the Mass Effect series contains a New Game+ that BioWare encourages players to use). There is a difference between aging and aging well, after all.


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