Japanese RPGs used to be a lot more controversial. Or maybe it was just because I was a teenager during the genre's heyday — you know, when Final Fantasy games flew off shelves, when hours of CG cutscenes featuring teary-eyed androgynes were considered breathtaking rather than tiresome — and teenagers like to argue about things on the internet a lot more than people my age can stomach.
But I was reminded of that kind of controversy lately; Kirk Hamilton asked me to kick in some thoughts on the music of Chrono Cross for one of his recent programming blocks, and I heard a lot of feedback from Twitter and by email about how "controversial" Chrono Cross was in its time, how "angry" it made fans. I don't really remember that; to my mind, it's a widely underrated JRPG, sort of dismissed and swept beneath the rug in the shadow of its lauded predecessor, Chrono Trigger.
Chrono Trigger would have been quite a tough act to follow. I know tons of people who think it's high on the list of the best RPGs of all time, if not the best. Its story of the world through ages, tasking players with time travelling in order to repair rifts in the continuum — and ultimately to save the world from Lavos, an alien threat that sleeps deep within the planet — was unique for its time, and the fact Chrono Trigger's rich world offered players so many complex and intuitive choices gave it a permanent place in many players' memories.
Chrono Cross is only tied to the world of Trigger loosely; the references that connect some of the game's story and places to Chrono Trigger's are generally subtle and kind of hard to parse. Even today, fans want sequels to the games they love and not "spiritual successors"; gamers find it hard to stomach the continuation of a franchise when key recognisable elements are considerably changed. That's understandable.
But replaying Chrono Cross lately, I become increasingly convinced that fan adoration of Chrono Trigger led to the unfair dismissal of a work of worthy beauty. Perhaps the story and the gameplay of Cross aren't as strong — or, more specifically, they aren't strong in the same ways that Trigger is — but what's most special about Chrono Cross is that it tells its story through tone and aesthetics, through a vast sense of quietude, loneliness and alienation that it stages against an impeccably beautiful oceanic landscape.
While Chrono Trigger dealt with the pleasurable brain puzzle of imagining how the world can change with the passage of time, Chrono Cross explores the identity of the individual: What would your world look like if you were the only variable that changed? What would it be like without you in it, what would your house look like if you had died when you were young? Or if you'd never been born at all? If you wore someone else's face, the face of your enemy?
At the game's opening, silent protagonist Serge stumbles into an astral rift on the seashore of his home village. In town, subtle things are just a bit different: The town has a different chief. A coffee shop girl committed to a career in poetry has abandoned her dream. And in your house, you don't find your mum waiting for you, but a bristly stranger who's never heard of you.
Your childhood friend, Leena, is still waiting on the dock where you left her just a little while ago to go and gather scales to make her a bracelet. Except she doesn't recognise you — and she doesn't understand how you'd be mean enough to pretend to be someone she sort of knew who died as a child. Later, at the zenith of a cliff that overhangs the quiet, dispassionate sea, you find your own grave.
Of course, the game very quickly opens into a story that's bigger than you and your identity crisis. But that sense of profound disorientation with which the game opens never leaves, even as the player rapidly learns to traverse between the "Home World" and "Another World." Not even the definitive "Other World", but another, as if this slight variation on the place you've always known is just one of many possibilities.
As I told Kirk, the reason I love the game's music so much is that it so often captures the sound of being adrift, of feeling lost, of beautiful grief. It also re-uses motifs to great effect — for example, the theme song for your home village is different in Another World than it is in the Home World; it's a slower arrangement, but the melody is nearly the same. Loyal fans of Chrono Trigger can even pick up some of that game's musical motifs sprinkled around the world of Chrono Cross.
But my favourite thing about Chrono Cross is the ocean. The visual direction for the game is very strong, very considered; the adventure is distributed across a raw, wild land dug into a massive ocean. There are jewel-green forests hung with eerie phosphorescence, and magma-veined mountains that smolder with a glowing heat you can nearly feel, but the sea is everywhere in this game. From some vantages it's royal and endless, and in others it's glittering shallows, marine green, resting docile around the villages that have built themselves into it, that coexist with it. Exploring the world of Chrono Cross is a delight of bright corals, of mysterious foliage that arches high over swamplands like the spine of a fish, and of quiet white sands where you can buy some silence, alone with the sighing of the waves.
The ocean is such a multifaceted character; it has the capacity for incredible gravity and massive destruction just as it has for beauty and stillness, for teeming life. The ocean is inevitable, and it's the perfect thematic partner for a story about loss of self, loss of identity. As the player you're trying to sort out the game world, accomplish its quest, and collect its manifold recruitable party members (a calling card of Chrono Cross is that there are many-many-many of them, some more interesting than others). But all the while, the sea doesn't let you forget that you're a young, silent boy who has lost himself in the face of forces much more overwhelming and inexorable than he knows how to address.
Because JRPGs are games about gaining levels and better equipment and about gaining progressive control over where you can travel in a massive world, the "growing up" narrative arc is pretty standard; they end up being stories about children who leave home and find their inner strength as they face a great evil. Final Fantasy games usually employ political adversaries that then open up into larger, spiritual or god-like ones. You could even read into it the archetypal story of finding your value system in the context of your community, and later your faith in things greater, as you form bonds with others and learn more about the world.
But Chrono Cross is special. That it contains so many disparate and seemingly-random recruitable party members — though a few are key to the story — seems to be considered by gamers to be a weakness of the game, but narratively it's effective, enhancing the player's empathy for Serge's isolation. Each person has his or her own goals; the game contains no grand messages on love and friendship and unity. It isn't particularly directed, either, with rewards sometimes to be found for simply exploring areas on one's own. It's easy to forget one's objective, to feel lost. The result is the game feels like an essay on self-discovery, a process that is inherently lonely and often sad.
Remembering back to that JRPG heyday, when people were too loyal to their favourite titles to give Chrono Cross much of a sporting chance, I feel a little nostalgic. And I think about why JRPGs seem to have lost some of their luster, and one of the bigger reasons I can come up with is that we got fatigued of the formula.
It's funny, then, that one of the least formulaic JRPGs I can think of — and truly, one of my very favourites — went so overlooked. Lucky thing it's on PSOne classics for you guys to check out if you missed it.
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, columnist in Edge Magazine and games editor at Nylon Guys, in addition to freelancing reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.