Sunday, October 2, 2011

the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts -- brief reflections on the classic snes game, chrono trigger

Detroit DJ (or DDJ), whose top 10 ads on videogame history have been featured on this blog before, has started up his own website with some interesting and original writing. For those interested in reading some really high-quality writing on games, I would check him out. He published a piece about a month ago which, while primarily about Final Fantasy 6 (FF6), contained some strong attacks on Chrono Trigger (CT), to which I'd like to add a few comments.

The article is entitled "Why Don't We Remember Final Fantasy 6?" and can be found here. I might agree with DDJ's argument about CT if his points were a little less obvious. He attacks CT's lack of a deep gameplay system, relatively simple story and characters, and a "gimmicky" time travel system as particular sore spots. All of these things are true, and they do indeed detract from what might have been an even better game. And DDJ might be right if the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. But that's certainly not true here. CT has staying power and is an excellent game precisely because of the charm of the overall package that it presents.

It is one of the only games that I can play from start to finish not particularly dreading any scene, boss battle, or dungeon. Everything works so seamlessly -- from rescuing Marle and Robo, to the Ayla scenes, to the magical world of 12,000 BC (the "Magic City", I can still recall the unbelievable music you experience in that era...), and finally, taking on Lavos of course. All of it just fits: while there aren't a lot of sidequests to keep you busy, or extra skills to master, just playing through the adventure itself is what makes the game so great. Each era moves seamlessly into the next -- as you first get caught up in resolving particular character conflicts and then finally uncovering an underlying connection between Magus/Janus/Lavos, leading you to some particularly stark scenes involving these enemies. It's a true adventure with a really great cast of characters and strong underlying themes camaraderie as well as human struggles for power and (on the opposite end) justice.

And that leads me precisely into the most crucial argument for why CT is such an excellent game: the replay value! Players are encouraged, and indeed want to play through the game multiple times and try to find all of the different endings because they are so charmed by the main characters and the story overall. Replay is also a particular strength of this game precisely because it's so short and there aren't a lot of "fringe" things to do. In contrast, playing through a mammoth 40+hour RPG a second time is significantly less appealing in most cases -- in those types of games, you try to do everything in one go-around -- experiment with all of the characters, do all of the sidequests, and in general explore every little area. CT actually takes that formula and flips it on its head: we have a short story with a lot of charm but with a lot of reasons to go through and learn more about the characters and game more than once.

And just a quick disclaimer: I'm not being simple-minded here about CT. I realize that the game is very basic in a lot of glaring ways. But it doesn't help to critique something based on those obvious aspects. If you're going to say something substantive, something new about a game, maybe you can think about how the game fits into comparative context with other SNES RPGs or how it fails to live up to some well-defined model of a quality RPG.

In short, Square-Enix created a wonderfully unique game in CT: it's hard to find a more humane set of characters and such a great (albeit small) adventure story. "The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts"  is a theme that applies to few games nowadays, as gamers ask for more and more detail and longer and longer adventures. This is not to say today's games are any worse than previous era -- in fact, in a lot of ways more detail is better and leads to a more real and beautiful world -- but art is not necessarily all about details: it's about message, too, and games like CT or FF7 pull that off superbly.

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