On Nihilism and Time: Analyzing the “Chrono” Games

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is an in-depth discussion of both Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. Anyone who has not played both games in their entirety should probably stop reading before they even begin, because this article will not hold back when it comes to SPOILERS for both games.


The sound of the ticking clock that intertwines with A Premonition is probably one of the most nostalgic in all of gaming for me. The two “Chrono” games shall forever be considered ‘historic’ in the realm of gaming for their sense of artistry, their music, and their collective narrative—much less how the two games handle their own history and lore. I have little doubt that the majority among us considers Chrono Trigger an absolute blast to play, a timeless classic. And even though Chrono Cross carries much more controversy with it, and I’m not the world’s biggest fan of its new direction… it certainly has its strengths.

Most of us have powerful memories of these two games. But has anyone stopped to consider…what the two games represent? Chrono Trigger and its sequel offer two completely different philosophical points of view when it comes to the nature of time (and the connections it creates). What you’re about to read shall examine several plot points and character connections across both titles in order to create a mosaic of what the passage of time actually reflects in the two games.

Chrono Trigger: The Revival of the World

During the first few major sequences in the game (Millennial Fair – 600 AD – The Trial), the player is immediately offered a glimpse at the consequences of traveling through time. Marle’s existence is ever so quickly erased, then restored. Crono sees the effects of Garudia implementing a criminal justice system first-hand. And, of course, the player (not so much the characters) immediately begins to expect the Chancellor from 1000 AD to once again be Yakra in disguise. These influences, while noteworthy, seem rather small in the grand scheme of things compared to what comes next.

After seeing the future in 2300 AD via the visual record of the Day of Lavos…this group of kids seems somehow convinced they can change the fate of the entire world, just because they can travel through time. The game’s cast fights to achieve this seemingly impossible goal under the premise that knowledge is power. I’m not going to outline every single event that’s altered because of Crono and company, but…they are numerous. And despite all of this, the party is completely annihilated and the main character of the game is killed when facing against Lavos for the first time.

Chrono Trigger has its fair share of bleak moments, especially during the climax of the game (I consider this to be everything from the party’s first battle with Magus to the death of Crono). But its characters and hidden forces seem to convey a message of hope. Against impossible odds like giant reptilian beasts, a seemingly all-powerful wizard that controls an entire army of monsters, and a sentient being that’s survived for over 65 million years… this group of kids manages to accomplish everything they set out to do and more, besting everything that comes their way.

When it comes to how the characters interact with time in Chrono Trigger, there are virtually no barriers. Any consequences of their actions all generally point to a positive outcome by the time the game’s credits roll (assuming you, the player, accomplished all the side-quests and major story arcs). Crono even manages to overcome death itself.

The Black Wind Howls

During the lapse in time between when Marle’s existence is erased and restored, she briefly contemplates if what she felt was indeed death. I find it interesting that a character that was literally wiped and recreated from the universe only contemplates the nature of her predicament for a tiny line of dialogue.

As we all know, though—Marle isn’t the only one who manages to conquer death. Crono, despite being obliterated by Lavos, manages to switch places with a life-sized doll in order to thwart death—but just this once, according to the properties of the Time Egg. How delightfully convenient! I suppose Crono can’t remark about how he felt his life flashing before his eyes, since he spends the entire game as a mute. I find it remarkable that Crono’s experiences with death resonate exclusively with the player. I remember what it was like having to wander around with a party of three that did not feature my strongest, most-developed character. I remember my initial reaction to his death and revival. But we don’t get to hear a thing about what Crono actually thinks of all this, despite seeing a window into the lives of every other character.


Every playable character in the game has a fully developed story and faces his or her share of personal problems, as well as both personal and interpersonal growth. But Crono…he’s just along for the ride. He gets to risk life and limb, to stare death in the face and then suddenly be saved by his friends. The player is the person who grows in place of Crono, especially in seeing how Crono’s friends react to his death. I suppose this is why I forgave Masato Kato for never allowing Crono to develop as a person. I believe that Crono is one of the strongest possible examples of a living projection of the player in video games.

The Entity: Memories and the Will to Change the Future

After the player completes the ‘Fiona’s Forest’ sidequest, some of the most monumental scenes in the entire game take place. For the first time in their entire journey, the main cast of Chrono Trigger is together in a place that is not The End of Time. If I’m not mistaken, both this scene and the game’s ending (once again, where all the characters are together in a single era) create major plotholes (no more than three people can travel through a gate without winding up at The End of Time). Obviously, the game’s ending can overlook the nature of my complaint, since the gates are closing and time itself appears to be wibbly-wobbly dealing with the defeat of Lavos.

But… why choose the forest scene to break the rules for the first time in the entire game? The answer: convenience. Robo clearly had a lot to share from his 400 year forestry project, and the End of Time is quite dull in comparison to a calm, quiet forest with revelations by the campfire. Now that’s out of the way: what were these revelations?

Robo stipulates, for the first time, that Lavos may not be responsible for the gates. An entity (hereafter: the planet) is responsible instead; one that’s been fighting Lavos since this alien parasite first took root. Chrono Trigger isn’t about the memories of the player (outside of Crono as a conduit to the player); Chrono Trigger concerns the memories of the planet. The planet, who sees its life flash before its eyes, attempts to use Crono, Marle, Lucca, and everyone else to right the wrongs of its history…and ultimately succeeds!

Also of note is the way the planet tends to Lucca’s personal history in exchange for their efforts. The scenes involving Lucca’s mother Lara and making her able to walk again, beyond all doubt, collectively are the only time in which the planet ever directly interacts with its saviors. Because of the precedence set by these hopeful, ever-positive folk: Lucca is able to go back to a precise point in her life (that’s not established by any of the game’s many “eras”) and change it for the better.

Essentially, Chrono Trigger embodies hope. Throughout the entire game, negative is turned to positive. Everything ends on the happiest note it possibly can, and despite its inconsistencies, the plot wraps itself up as neatly as it possibly can.

The only open end lies in the case of Schala, who will play a monumental role in Chrono Cross. Schala is truly the most tortured character in the entire game, because her final interaction with the other characters is one of extreme remorse over Crono’s death. That remorse turns into a deep-seeded sense of nihilism, brought on by her mother’s corruption and everything she came to witness before and after merging with Lavos. Schala is the tiniest shadow in a game whose positivity and light almost overwhelms. Perhaps that’s why its sequel tends to exude…quite the opposite of light.

Onward, then! 

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  • Peter Triezenberg

    That was a beautiful read. I love both of these games largely because of their deeper aspects, and it was great to read your thoughts on it. Superb.

  • Amazing read. That medley at the end was simply the perfect way to end it; so much nostalgia. I never thought about Miguel possibly being Crono, but he does resemble him and it would certainly make sense. How tragic.

    • I was one of many who played Cross before Trigger. Upon my first interaction with Miguel, I was captivated by his words alone. But, as soon as I played Trigger & Cross in succession, that’s when I realized who he could be, and how absolutely horrifying that sentiment is.

      If Kato truly did mean Miguel to be Crono in disguise, that’s some powerful stuff. There are very few instances in video games where you’re forced to strike down the hero in a sequel. Soon as he said “Let fate take its course…!”, I was pretty sold on the idea, though.

      Thank you for your compliment.

  • Thank you for writing this article. I have played Chrono Trigger, but haven’t been able to finish it. There were many endearing moments in the game, but I never had a full grasp internally; and for reading this I am grateful to learn something profound and poetic. The same poetic themes you expressed also makes me want to play Chrono Cross, in spite of its criticisms.

    • Despite its flaws, Chrono Cross is still a good game. If you do end up playing through it, there’s still plenty to discover that I haven’t mentioned. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the game!

  • dbclick

    Wonderful and insightful article!

    I think many get stuck on the change in tone between the two games. I played Trigger back in ’97 a couple of years after release and played Cross on release in 2000. I couldn’t help but feel a knife stab every time Cross (supposedly) destroyed something I held dear from the prior game.
    All that said, I feel as though the main theme of both games is about your ability to change the world through your own will, and that the hope and despair presented by the two are tones used to deliver takes on this theme.

    Chrono Trigger accomplishes this by allowing you to change what happens during events at certain points in time, always focusing on rectifying “wrongs” in the timeline. Thus the theme is about using your own will to change your current circumstances for the better (changing the past/present). The tone of hope gives you motivation to make the changes.

    Chrono Cross focuses on what future will be brought about by your change to your current circumstances. It does this by putting some rather bleak ideas in place about what can happen if you are only reactive to events with no thought to the future. But near the end of the game it starts focusing on how you can make a difference and start your own universe (dimension) through your actions if they are strong enough. Thus the theme is about using your own will to change future circumstances for the better (changing the future). The tone of despair gives you reason to think about how you will enact changes to affect the future for the better.
    I believe Schala/Kid says it reasonably well in the ending when addressing Serge and the player: “Each and every one of us has a chance of becoming that one chosen life-form which inseminates a planet [causes a new universe/dimension to be born]. Yes, it could be ‘you’…”. Or even the shade of Crono before the final battle: “It’s like when you gaze into the Flame, the Flame gazes back into you. It’s now up to you to decide how you want to live.”
    The game particularly addresses _how_ you change the future. It presents so many opposites — love/hate, life/death, laughter/pain, healing/violence, song/sorrow, hope/despair — and puts you in charge of choosing the one that will decide the future – this is particularly evident in the final battle when you have to “defeat” the Time Devourer using the healing of the Chrono Cross (ending with Schala’s pontification on your role in deciding the future and longing for a better one) rather than with the business ends of your weapon (ending in nothing but faded memories). This is in particular contrast to Trigger’s methodology of beating or destroying everything in the way to the desired change.

    Chrono Cross forces you to look Nihilism in the face and walk away smiling. To quote the inscription on the Book of Poems you get from the waitress in Home World Arni Village: “You
    will find hope within despair. One who does not experience sorrow cannot appreciate joy.”

    If Break were to be made I would think it should focus on the harmonization of these two takes on the theme.

    • This is a fantastic response that has absolutely enhanced my perspective. Thank you kindly for your compliments, as well as your insights! 

    • dbclick

      And thank you for posting this article. The Chrono series deserves all the love it can get – especially for newcomers who haven’t played both yet.
      I’m hoping that one day Square-Enix will be good enough to make a sequel — even if it means contracting out for Sakaguchi and the rest of the Dream Team (I think that having Sakaguchi and Kato on the project would provide a good balance in tone appropriate for a sequel).

  • I love Chrono Trigger, but I just can’t stand Chrono Cross.  The way that the game spits on the characters of Trigger and yet asks us to buy a series of ludicrous plot points that allow Cross to serve as the game’s sequel was just too much.

    • dbclick

      It’s too bad you don’t like Chrono Cross. It’s a very good game in it’s own right and IMO one of the best JRPGs out there. It is so different from Chrono Trigger that I can see why you might not appreciate it in comparison. That said, I do think it has some weaknesses.

      Here’s my personal list of grievances for Chrono Cross:
      -Very theme-heavy (not that there aren’t interesting themes, but that they are presented so frequently and blatantly, often at the expense of plot)
      -Too many playable characters (few get any development)
      -Plot is exposition heavy (Too many of the important parts of the plot are delivered as someone telling you a story rather than experiencing the plot first-hand through gameplay. This makes it seem more complex than needed and makes you less engaged with it)
      -Doesn’t provide amicable closure for characters of the first game (It leaves the fate of nearly all of the characters uncertain or potentially dead before their time – at least we know Ayla probably got a happy ending from Trigger)

  • This is really great. I stopped playing Chrono Cross because, frankly, even though I think the battle system is incredibly clever, it’s much slower and more finicky than Chrono Trigger. But reading this… damn, I really wanna play through these scenes again!

  • Kingston Prescott

    Absolutely great article. Actually allowed me to reconsider my constant dissapointment in the lack of a third part. I think you may be right in that there doesn’t need to be a sequel. I will however throw money at a box set with the two (and a graphical remake of Cross) as long as they dont change that excellent music.

  • Crono Cross is better.

  • I love…EVERYTHING, about this article. Very insightful, and it’s exactly what I have often thought about these two games. They are still up there on my list of all-time favorite games, and always will be.

    Was reading the entire article while listening to the soundtrack of Chrono Trigger, no less!