In 1995 when Chrono Trigger came out, I would have just turned 12. I stayed up through the Summer nights of Sacramento, playing until 5 in the morning on the cracked naugahyde couch in my dad’s living room. 20 years ago I became unstuck in time, and I’ve never really fit into place again since. I left some piece of myself in that game; it left some piece of itself in me. Same thing.
A week ago I watched someone play through Chrono Trigger as part of the Summer Games Done Quick charity speedrunning marathon, and it brought that little piece of myself back to me, and I still don’t quite know what to make of it. It’s still the most beautiful game I’ve played in so many ways, but so much time has passed since those Summer nights. I don’t really replay the game because I get bogged down in the details, the specifics of battles and equipment, and lose interest long before I get to the end – which is sad, because near the end is where it becomes strongest.
I’ll never be able to describe what it is about Chrono Trigger. It’s the wistfulness, something not quite sad but that can never be happy. It’s the distance, the story told like a legend or memory, slightly unshaped, always uncertain, unreliably narrated by a memory unstuck in time. It’s the beauty, the sunrise, the floating palace, the red star, the dead world, the egg containing possibilities. It’s the dying flashback of regrets of an unknown entity.
Because it was a charity marathon, the characters were named via donation bid wars: The main character ended up being named Iwata, in honor of the recently passed Satoru Iwata, much beloved president of Nintendo. It probably didn’t occur to the people donating to name the character, but this took on a rather strange dimension when the main character, as part of the story, would inevitably die. If this were a run designed solely to beat the game as quickly as possible, that would have been the end of it, but because a donation incentive had been met this was a 100% completion run – so, the runners dutifully collected the titular Chrono Trigger, which looks like an egg, went to Death Peak, a snowy mountain in the husk of a post-apocalyptic world, and they went back in time and saved Iwata from death.
It was a strange and quiet moment.
I’ve been thinking about regrets and forgiveness. Time travel always brings to mind the unshakeable chains of causality that bind me to my history.
I’ve been thinking about what we want as creators and what we want as audiences. We want conflicts, battles that never really end. We want loss and agony and bitterness and forgiveness. We want everything to go wrong, we want to see the world broken so that we can see it rebuilt. We want to see everything ruined so we can see it fixed. We want to believe that fixing a broken world is possible, and so we sow the seeds of destruction in our art. We are creator and audience, villain and hero. We are Lavos, the disaster, falling from the sky to catalyze a world of conflict and suffering that gives rise to the art we want to see. We consume the emotions, the conflict and energy and sadness that we foment in our apocalypse, the heroism that requires our tragedy to flourish.
And then we feel remorse. And we want to set things right. We want to burn our effigies and then we want to unburn them and pretend not to smell smoke. So we travel through time. We sow the seeds of the happy ending, the threads that knit together to destroy us, to free the world of our malign influence.
The same day I watched the Chrono Trigger run I read this article, originally addressed to the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum, discussing the ways in which focusing on reparative action distracts from the causal role the wealthy have in creating the iniquities they propose to address. While SGDQ is an admirable event, I can’t help but wonder to what degree it is a bandaid on gaming’s battered self-image. How much of the impetus driving the donations is, rather than a belief in the cause, a desire to show that games are admirable, are worthwhile, can be a force for positive change? It’s hard not to notice how many donations are none-too-subtly self-congratulatory, talking about how inclusive and helpful gamers are, talking about how they’re changing the world, and I wonder who they’re trying to convince.
This is not to criticize the Games Done Quick events. They’re great entertainment for a good cause. I’m just wondering if part of the engine of their growth is games culture’s unwillingness to look at its own issues, its history of self-esteem problems and of exclusionary practices.
When we’re young, we break so much without noticing. And, as we get older, we want to fix things. But repaired objects are seldom good as new: Most show their cracks, their frayed wiring, their chipped paint, their missing screws. We want to go back and time, and make them never broken. We want to unpollute our sky and sea, to have never been cruel to our friends, to have not started the war, to have apologized in time. We want to repent our transgressions rather than refrain from transgressing. We want to beg for forgiveness instead of asking permission.
Maybe it’s growing too late. Maybe the sadness I feel from Chrono Trigger is knowing that we’ll never be able to make things right, never go back and save Iwata, never stop the red star from falling.
Maybe, maybe. We’ll see.