What Happens When You Study An RPG World Like It Was Real

What Happens When You Study An RPG World Like It Was Real

Chrono Trigger is an upcoming book by Michael P Williams. It’s… all about Chrono Trigger, looking at parallels between Crono’s world and ours, a study of the institutions of the game’s world (its laws and religions), how the game’s characters fit (and defy!) genre conventions and, yes, a poke at the aches and pains of a plot that involves time travel.

What you’re about to read is an excerpt from the book, an essay on the structure of the world of Chrono Trigger. Its governments, courts, money, religion. The stuff you probably never think about while wandering through an RPG’s towns, but which hardcore fans of the game (or genre as a whole) will probably find super entertaining.

The world of tomorrow of yesterday has not yet come.

The 1950s sci-fi dream of domed cities, meals-in-a-pill, and helper “robits” have been stunted into failed Biosphere experiments, Clif Bars, and Roombas. And the Epcotesque monorails and treadmill sidewalks? — merely secondary transports to and from gigantic fuel-guzzling aeroplanes. Just where is the future we were promised?

The future of Chrono Trigger is a bleak industrial landscape of shattered cities and lawless ruins. Humans huddle in fear while monsters roam unchecked. Life has been distorted, stunted, and starved. This is the future we were warned about by the Orwells and Atwoods, the Huxleys and Zamyatins. But their futures, no matter how dystopian, were still full of people. People simply behaving as people always have — oppressing, dominating, lying, controlling, self-deceiving.

Chrono Trigger’s 2300 AD is a future where people have become irrelevant. The world has moved on, and humans have been left in its dust. Those who survive live in terror of mutated monstrosities and killbot patrols. Is this the fault of Lavos breaking free from the core of the planet and scorching the globe with hellfire? Or did humans play a part in their own demise?

We have very little information on 1999 AD, except for a brief visual record from Lavos’s emergence. There isn’t even a complete world map for this era — just the cutout of a future that never came to be. Superhighways and domed communities have replaced the towns and castles of 999 years ago, the “present.” But the lush greenspace of 1000 AD has become less verdant. Deserts surround the Truce Dome where Crono’s hometown once was, and to the east, the guru Melchior’s Hut has been long swallowed up by the sands.

Building the world of tomorrow has its costs, and humanity has taken out a huge loan from the planet. But 1999 AD is the year the planet is about to go bankrupt. The reappearance of Lavos after scores of millions of years is a convenient, but ultimately misguided answer to a question we must ask.

Just what was the year 2000 AD shaping up to be?

What Happens When You Study An RPG World Like It Was Real

1999 AD. Our world. Plans for the new millenium are ramping up. Party animals arrange for lavish New Year’s Eve celebrations, reserving halls, caterers, and performers. They will ring in the new year by in opulence, one-upping their social rivals’ celebratory shindigs. Doomsday preppers stockpile for New Year’s Day, collecting clean water, canned food, and fuel for their generators. They will survive the new year in comfort, and shut out the ill-prepared and foolish. Y2K is coming.

The Y2K bug was a widely-fearmongered computer glitch supposed to have calamitous effects on modern civilisation, and all because lazy programmers had been recording years in two digits instead of four. So when the year 1999 (stored as the abbreviated “99”) rolled into 2000 (“00”), computers would think it was 1900 all over again. As we have all learned from science fiction, logic errors are a leading cause of spectacular machine failure — trailing just behind laser cannons and perplexing human emotions. And it was these emotionally confused, laser-toting logic-broken machines that would fire all of their ammunition upon humanity when the clock struck midnight on January 1st, 2000.

We begin our tale in Chrono Trigger in Guardia, 1000 AD — the present. This present is rustic. Nostalgic. Technology is not unknown, but its applications are largely the stuff of turn-of-the-20th-century world’s fairs. Ride the intercity ferry that runs on steam, only 10G a trip! See the marvellous battling-singing automaton! Knock him down and win a prize! Technology may be mischievous, but it’s not yet dangerous — unless a spring-loaded boxing-glove in the solar plexus knocks your HP to zero. The anxieties of 999 AD have been forgotten with the celebratory Millennial Fair, commemorating 1000 years of unbroken monarchy. Despite a significant amount of armed personnel, Guardia lacks any noticeable military-industrial complex to support its boots on the ground. In fact, besides the Truce-Porre ferry, the only significant technological advances are those contributed by our resident science geek Lucca.

Well, most of them. The modern Chancellor of Guardia — probably the insectoid monster boss Yakra XIII in disguise — has the powerful Dragon Tank under his control. The three-part boss isn’t too tough a customer. Unlike other bosses, it doesn’t taunt the party with in-battle dialogue. It attacks, counterattacks, and heals, all according to its programming. “Machines aren’t capable of evil…,” Lucca sighs as she fixes the broken-down Robo, “…humans make them that way.” If we believe Lucca, we have a big ontological problem with Robo being a willing helper of our party. Is Lucca reprogramming Robo, or merely resetting him to factory defaults? An inquiry into Robo’s autonomy prompts a larger question about 2300 AD’s inhabitants.

In the depths of the machine-automated Geno Dome, the supercomputer Mother Brain calculates the end of humanity and the rise of the machines. “Don’t you understand?” she questions the party over the Dome’s speakers. “This planet would be peaceful if there were no humans around.” Humans are an unwanted variable in her equation of existence, but a necessary factor in her genesis. Long before Mother Brain was a presence antagonistic to humans, was she the artificial intelligence that kept this Dome running? We know nothing about the history of the Geno Dome, and whether it was founded by humans or the monsters in Medina, who beseech their legendary god-king: “Oh, great Magus, why didn’t you just exterminate the human race 400 years ago?”

In all likelihood, it was not monsters but humans who created the technology that would outgrow them, threaten them, and eventually seek to eliminate them completely. In a world without Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, Mother Brain operates only on the flawed subroutines established by her programmers. Although her goals are antithetical to our party’s, Mother Brain is also a success story. She has built the closest thing the future has to a government. “We robots will create a new order…,” she prophesies over the loudspeakers. “A nation of steel, and pure logic. A true paradise!”

1000 AD is the closest any era in Chrono Trigger comes to paradisiacal. Monsters pose little menace to humankind — indeed, some even live in human towns. There are no interspecies wars, no genocidal dictators. People seem content in the Kingdom of Guardia.

How far this kingdom extends is not clear. The Guardia castle is a dominating structure, the largest architectural element in the world. The town of Truce where we begin the story is surely under the authority of Guardia and recognises it as sovereign. Porre to the south and Choras directly west of Porre also recognises the monarchy. The map design also aesthetically links the commonwealth by with blue roofs. The independent city-state of Medina where most civilized monsters dwell is firmly a Red State.

Indeed a central government unites most of the globe, and probably has since at least 600 AD when maroon roofing was all the rage. In both eras, the government operates as a federal monarchy. Each town is governed by a mayor, who tends to live in the largest house. Whether these positions are hereditary or electoral is not clear, but it appears that mayoral privileges tend to stay within the family. When our party seeks the stolen Sun Stone in an endgame sidequest, the trick to taking it from the covetous mayor of Porre in 1000 AD is to bribe an ancestor of his living in the mayor’s house in 600 AD with a gift — hey, I wouldn’t turn down free jerky either. Returning back to 1000 AD, we find the Porre mayor a changed man, now beloved by his family, having been inculcated with a generations-long value for charity. Meanwhile, in the monster-run Medina, Ozzie VIII relies on his ancestor’s fame to rule the town according to his whims. If the position of mayor is not inherited, then the voters of Chrono Trigger love a good dynasty.

As one might expect from a game that employs time travel as a major plot device, dynasticism plays a large role in our story. Several other characters are conveniently roman-numeraled descendants of major players. Toma XIII and Yakra XIII continue their forebears’ legacies of treasure-hunting and chancellor-impersonating, respectively. Banta the blacksmith in 600 AD who yearns for an intelligent daughter is most likely the ancestor of the anagrammatic Taban, father of Lucca. Woodworking and alcoholism run in the family of the Choras carpenter. And of course, the bloodline of Guardia runs all the way from 65,000,000 BC to 2300 AD, from prehistoricouple Ayla and Kino to an old man in 2300 AD. Of this unbroken line, however, we have clear record of only two actual monarchs — Kings Guardia XXI and XXXIII.

What Happens When You Study An RPG World Like It Was Real

As expected, both the 21st and 33rd rulers are male — and it seems their wives have married into the family. Queen Leene, for whom Marle is mistaken, is not a direct member of the Guardia line. “The Queen married into the family 10 years ago,” gossips a young woman in Guardia palace in 600 AD. And even though Leene has a seat in the throne room, a villager in 600 AD Truce tells us, “It’s the year 600, and the 21st King of Guardia reigns.” As we learn from the example of Queen Zeal, in the world of Chrono Trigger, the monarchs seem to inherit the name of their kingdoms as their personal names upon enthronement. We can therefore guess that Aliza, mother of Marle, is also an intermarrier. But lacking any other comparative rulers, it is unclear how rulership is passed down through successive generations. We are then left to wonder who will inherit the throne after Guardia XXXIII dies or abdicates. Marle, as Princess Nadia, is a likely successor. Except until she marries Crono, which is not only the fairy-tale subtext of their romantic subplot, but also also the canonical ending established by the final FMV.

So, who is the next leader of Guardia? Will it been Queen Guardia XXXIV, or perhaps King Crono the Silent? Neither Chrono Trigger nor its sequels provide the answer to this question of monarchical legacy. Although gender roles tend to skew patriarchal, the crown should rightfully fall to Marle.

After all, it wouldn’t be fit to have a king with a criminal past.

Crono’s trial is one of the most theatrical scenes in early Square history. The Dream Team, the three major producers of Chrono Trigger, wanted to craft a scenario that would echo the famous opera sequence from Final Fantasy VI, and Crono’s trial is indeed cinematic. Panning down into forced perspective of the courtroom, we are treated with a new piece of playful but tense theme music. The stained glass backdrop of the room depicts Justice not as a blind woman, but rather as an old man holding a balance ensconced with flowers. And why shouldn’t justice be old and male? The jury who will decide Crono’s guilt or innocence of kidnapping Marle are all identical elderly men.

The trial serves as a brief reminder of one of the most hallowed tenets of time travel — what you do in the past affects your future. Except now we don’t have the luxury of reliving the events of the Millennial Fair and choosing to become the model fairgoer. Did we accidentally eat that packed lunch sitting unattended? Strike against us. Did we not help that little girl find her cat? Strike. While food theft might be considered indicative of deep-seated evil, a lack of Samaritanism is just plain unfair — no one else at the Fair helped this girl find her goddamn cat and suddenly Crono is to blame? This trial is a sham. With paltry evidence of any actual wrongdoing and a desire for mischief, the prosecuting Chancellor attempts to assassinate Crono’s character in hopes of eventually assassinating the rest of him.

We’re not alone in this. Since Crono doesn’t have much of a voice, Pierre the lawyer will speak for us. Pierre’s sprite is the same one that appears as a merchant in many towns. He might be a bit of a shyster — “Whew… Looks like they’re buying it,” he nudges Crono mid-trial — but he’s on our side and we get him pro bono. As witnesses come forward to testify for or against Crono, we have the option of giving binary answers to the Chancellor’s probing and tricky questions. “Who actually started this whole mess?” he grills Crono. We can choose one of two equally damning replies. “I did” seems to be an admission of guilt, while “Marle did” seems to be an affront to the royal family. Peppering his accusations with loaded words like “terrorist,” the Chancellor sure knows how to rouse the rabble.

When both prosecution and defence rest, the jury members hobble into the center of the courtroom. Their verdict need not be unanimous, but the careless player can easily get seven votes for guilty. As the votes are tallied, the jurors move to the right for innocent, and to left for guilty. Sorry, southpaws. The spectators’ reactions to these votes are ambiguous — Super Nintendo cartridges rarely produced faithful human vocalisations — but each “guilty” seems to illicit a whistling, cheering sound, and each “not guilty” a grumbling boo. This crowd is out for blood.

And blood they just might get, because if Crono is found guilty, the judge sentences him to death after a three-day period of solitary confinement. Even if the jury finds Crono unanimously not guilty, he’s still not innocent. The judge will sentence Crono to three days of solitary anyway, simply for having run off with Marle. And if the judge rules in our favour, the Chancellor will ignore the law and still schedule Crono for execution. “The paperwork’s probably just been held up in the system!” he insists to the warden.

One of the gravest warnings I had received before I went to Japan was don’t get arrested. I intended not to. But I felt at times dangerously close to people who might be criminals. Rumours circulated that proprietors of a local punk bar I frequented were arrested for marijuana possession when their business abruptly shut down. Weed is as criminalized as heroin in Japan. And I knew of some people, both native Japanese and expats, who enjoyed a smoke now and then. I was scared shitless of being hauled in for questioning, so I steered clear.

Just as in Guardia, in Japan the burden of proof is on you, not the state. Blogger Eric Yosomono paints a terrible picture of being arrested in Japan — of brutal interrogations, of a system designed at all levels to convict you, of depressing and demeaning prison conditions. We can explore the Guardia jail at length during Crono’s breakout, finding awful instruments of torture and even another prisoner left waiting in a guillotine. This young man, Fritz, later explains that he was arrested without trial. But surely he must have done something wrong. “After all,” Yosomono writes of his experience, “how could anyone ever get arrested unless they were guilty, right?”

As Crono is taken away to the tower for imprisonment, the King restrains Marle. “Even royalty must obey rules,” he reminds his distraught daughter, both blaming her for the events that led to this ugly episode as well as washing his hands of the entire affair.

His words will come back to haunt him. When the party recovers the mythical and gargantuan Rainbow Shell in 600 AD, they leave the treasure at Guardia Castle for safekeeping. Flashing forward to the present, the Shell — rather, its disappearance — has suddenly become the central piece of evidence in “the trial of the century.” While the text at this point in the game gets a little slapdash, we learn that King Guardia XXXIII himself has been accused of not only stealing the priceless heirloom, but also pawning it for cash. Our mystery-solving party is on the case. After retrieving evidence of the Shell’s existence in the castle’s treasury, the party bursts into the courtroom through the stained glass window to exonerate the king and to unmask the false Chancellor as Yakra XIII, who has created havoc to avenge his ancestor’s death.

Exposing Yakra’s fraud should allow us to clear any misconceptions we had held about the Guardian legal system and its chancery for convicting innocents like Fritz, Crono, and finally the king himself. The system was fine, right? It was just corruption that caused it to malfunction so lethally. But in an ironic conclusion, the instigator of all of this mischief, Yakra XIII, gets no trial — he is executed on the spot by the party. Whether guillotine or katana, there is little argument against the cold logic of steel.

Or gold, for that matter.

What Happens When You Study An RPG World Like It Was Real

As in most traditional RPGs, gold is an enormously useful commodity in Chrono Trigger — one that has value across all cultures and eras, regardless if it is immediately recognised as money. Even monsters recognise the utility of carrying cash. Beating them up and taking their gold like a bunch of well-armed schoolyard bullies is apparently the highest-earning occupation out there.

Second only to this as a money-making enterprise is the mercantile industry, present in all time periods. Of course, merchants must acquire their goods from somewhere. People need to brew tonics, construct shelters, forge iron swords, and sew leather cuirasses. Not to mention those specialty items! If seasoned warriors Crono and Marle can’t equip firearms, then we certainly can’t expect most common folk to wield them. And how many robots out there need new battle-limbs? Supply and demand must mean nothing to the the economy, since few people seem to be armed with weapons while the shops stock infinite numbers of them. More confusingly, items grow ever more luxurious and expensive as our party journeys onward. While this falls firmly in step with sound game mechanics, it also throws the concepts of technological progress out the window. Shops in 600 AD sell much better equipment than some present day places, and even the great sage Melchior’s Masamune, forged from a substance so precious it hasn’t been seen for eons, is much less powerful than the “flash blade” we can purchase from a ragged survivor in 12,000 BC. A man so poor that even the tidy sum of 18,000G won’t help his family advance in the world.

Meanwhile, inflation simply does not exist in the timeline of Chrono Trigger. The price of tonic remains at 10G from 65,000,000 BC all the way to 2300 AD. And neither of these eras understands what “G” means as a currency. In prehistory, most meaningful trade is accomplished through bartering objects like feathers and flower petals, and you’ll even get a few freebies like the healing “sweet water.” Our party can nevertheless purchase basic items like tonics for gold, or as the cavefolk call it, “shiny stone.” Far in the future, tonics are still available. The merchants dubiously accept gold as cash — “You call this money?” — but one wonders what type of economy the post-apocalypse can support. While the merchants may have been the lowest social class in pre-modern Japan — ranking fourth below samurai, farmers, and craftsmen — they are the most visible evidence of economic activity throughout the ages.

Other professions of course support our narrative and gameplay. Innkeepers provide spaces to heal our party, and the greater hospitality industry employs many other barkeeps and servers to run the pubs, where some of the juiciest, quest-advancingest gossip circulates. The growing transportation industry between Truce and Porre hints at a new kind of industry. Careers in military are a popular choice in the latter half of the first century AD — there are at least 39 knights and soldiers in 600 AD, when Guardia faced Magus’s forces, and 22 active military personnel in Guardia even in the peaceful 1000 AD. And while many of these occupations, especially the military, tend to attract men, there are still career paths for women. Even in the clergy.

For a country with such a conspicuously large building for worship, there is little religion in Guardia. Once we’ve defeated the four false nuns in the cathedral in 600 AD, there are few visible people actively engaged in religious life, and most of them are women of the cloth. So why this massive Christian-like cathedral, which surely cost enough G to make even the gougiest merchant retire from sales?

The answer lies in that non-canonical ending where Frog and Queen Leene tie the knot in 600 AD. As the credits roll, the duo advances up the aisle. A man dressed in Zealish garb waits behind the altar to officiate the ceremony. While the back end of the cathedral may be a secret refuge for Guardia royalty, or perhaps the quarters of the priests and nuns, the chapel at the front is purely for ceremony. It is likely that the funeral of Guardia XXI was held here, since in this alternate ending Leene has probably assumed the throne and is free to marry again. Unless polywog polygamy is totally cool in medieval Guardia.

Back in our world, and many miles west from the center of Fukushima City, lies St. Anna’s Garden, a picturesque tourism spot that features the Michinoku microbrewery, an ice cream shop, and ample opportunities for antiquing. At the entrance to this little shopping village where I spent several totally heterosexual man-dates is a single-aisled chapel adorned with stained glass windows. Unlike the vaguely Christian image of the winged figure in Chrono Trigger’s Manolia Cathedral, St. Anna’s Church displays a triptych of Jesus crucified, resurrected, and returned to his disciples. Most who visit St. Anna’s Church, however, do not pray to Anna, mother of the Virgin Mary, or to Christ himself. With roughly only 1% of Japanese professing Christianity, St. Anna’s Church doesn’t even offer regular church services. But it performs weddings galore.

The most popular form of wedding in Japan was historically Shintō, which as the state religion of Japan naturally monopolized the marriage industry. Even up to the 1980s, Shintō-style weddings accounted for more than 90% of all ceremonies. I had the chance to attend a Shintō wedding in 2005, and it was almost unintelligible to me. Then again, it was conducted in archaic Japanese, and I was drunk on ritual sake.

This wedding was an anomaly for two major reasons. First, the groom was a white foreigner and the bride a Japanese resident of Fukushima, neither of whom could understand the ceremonial language much either. Second, by 2005 the Christian-style wedding had long been the choice of marrying couples, though like all imports it would be given some uniquely Japanese flavours. As social anthropologist Michael Fisch notes, the officiants of Christian-style weddings in Japan don’t even need to be ordained ministers. They can simply be hired actors — especially white males — who look and dress the part. Fisch, a self-described Jew and dual Israeli-American citizen, even worked as a hired priest to study the phenomenon of Christian-style weddings.

So in this alternate ending sometime after our party first visits 600 AD, a priest or perhaps an actor bedecked in a traditional costume — close to 13 millennia out of fashion by this point — celebrates the marriages of Frog and Leene in a church vaguely dedicated to some sort of angelic being. The only known visitor to Manolia Cathedral is the 600 AD Chancellor, who is of course Yakra in disguise. Perhaps the association of organised religion with monsters was prevalent enough for citizens to abandon the cathedral. By 1000 AD the building has vanished from the map, having been swallowed by the Guardia Forest.

Our journey into the cathedral in 600 AD finds us face to face with an idol of Magus, whom the monsters worship as a god on earth. 400 years later in Medina village, this statue has survived, and adherents still sing songs to their fiendlord. After our party defeats Magus in 600 AD and he is hurled backward through time to his home era, the leadership of monsterdom has been usurped by his henchchief Ozzie. The Medinans no longer offer praise to the statue of Magus, but rather to the graven image of Ozzie himself. After we trounce Ozzie in 600 AD for the final time, this second statue vanishes, leaving nothing but an unadorned agora. By removing these false gods one after the other, we complete the process of civilizing the savage monsters by dismantling their entire belief system. Way to go, light-skinned Guardia imperialists!

The elimination of organised religion, however, is not the full subtext of our sidequests. In the ideal, all-quests-cleared timeline of Chrono Trigger, religion — or at least the idea of religion — still has its place. When the party completes the quest to make Fiona’s Forest grow, the former site of conservationist Fiona’s home in 600 AD has been replaced with a shrine. Inside, nuns offer prayers to the broken-down body of Robo, whom we instruct to help reforest the land for several centuries before the party zips casually to the present in their time machine to find him exhausted and broken down. After rescuing and repairing Robo for the third time, the shrine is left without its reliquary. Upon our return, we can see that the primary object of veneration becomes a seed, a symbol which holds significance for people of many eras. Whether Fiona’s Shrine is a religious place or a sparse museum is up for debate. The nun who shamelessly hawks her wares inside the shrine suggests that like St. Anna, fertile Fiona has become a patron saint of thinly-disguised commerce.

Y2K came and went without global destruction in its wake. The great stone juggernaut of the Mayan calendar completed its full turn in 2012, and we were not crushed under the wheel of the new b’ak’tun. We survived. The Earth survived. And it hasn’t stopped moving.

This world moves fast, but we do not feel the motions of our planet, rotating on its axis, wobbling its way around the Sun. We observe them only through the passing of day into night, from season to season. The world moves slow, and we do not experience the subtle drifts of continents, the creation of new land masses from the old. We guess these changes only in fossil records and jigsaw cartography.

Our view into the planet upon which the action of Chrono Trigger largely takes place gives us the exact opposite information than we are used to. We see little in the way of time passing from day to night. Our trips through time, however, show a world heavily active with plate tectonics and shifting geography. The Pangaea-like globe of 65,000,000 BC is unrecognizable from the great archipelago of 2300 AD. Even between 600 and 1000 AD, the three central islands have reconfigured into one large landmass. This world has seen its fair share of global changes at frightening, illogical speeds.

What has led to these huge geographical shifts? If we believe the majority of roman numerals appended to names, such drastic changes can occur over only twelve human generations. This is a world constantly in flux, and not just from the effects of time travellers. The constant shifts of the lithosphere must accompany any number of earthquakes and ruptures, leaving people to wonder when The Big One is coming, and what destruction it might bring.

They will get their answer in 1999 AD.

Chrono Trigger is out on April 1, and will cost $US5 for a digital copy, or $US20 for a print version ($US35 if outside the US). You can preorder it here.


  • Very nice, but I must nitpick:

    – It wasn’t humans who depleted and wasted the planet by 1999. It was clearly stated that for millennia, Lavos had been absorbing the planet’s energy, eating it from inside as it were. The Bio-domes were not a cause of erosion on their surroundings, but rather, the hideouts that humans built for themselves to camp the slow death of the planet. It’s quite obvious that technological advances ended when much of what remained of the world was destroyed in the Day of Lavos. That means that the machines that restore your health and ease your weariness (but famously, leave you hungry) predate the Day of Lavos, and even back then there was a shortage of food.

    -Lucca’s assertion about machines’ capability for good or evil doesn’t apply to Robo. It was stated that Robo was “faulty”, causing his A.I. to deviate from programming, which in effect meant that he acquired free will and a sort of sentience. Similarly, he wasn’t instructed to replant Fiona’s Forest. He volunteered, out of his own volition.

  • “…little shopping village where I spent several totally heterosexual man-dates…”
    Why is Michael P Williams specifying that his man-dates were heterosexual? Do we care? Isn’t it a redundant phrase anyway? And how is this detail (that he hung out with men and that he wants us to know he’s heterosexual) relevant to anything in Chrono Trigger?
    I know I’m a little crazy, but this kind of writing irritates me.

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