Issue 4.6: From Seconds to Epochs, Part 1
Chrono Trigger as an Extended Meditation on the Passage of Time
Game & Word Volume 4, Issue 1: Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022
Publisher: Jay Rooney
Author, Graphics, Research: Jay Rooney
Logo: Jarnest Media
Le_Takas, from Luzern, Switzerland (Member since April 14, 2022)
Ela F., from San Diego, CA (Member since April 24, 2022)
Alexi F., from Chicago, IL (Member since May 13, 2022)
Elvira O., from Mexico City, Mexico (Member since May 18, 2022)
Your name can be on the masthead, too! Simply upgrade your subscription to become a Founding Member.
YOU, for reading this issue.
Table of Contents
Summary & Housekeeping
Feature: “From Seconds to Epochs, Part 1” (~29-minute read)
Food for Talk: Discussion Prompts
Game & Word-of-Mouth
Today, we’ll take a look at how Chrono Trigger explores the topic of Time Travel and the many paradoxes and conundrums it throws at creators who tackle it! Oh, and just generally talk about what an amazing game it is.
FYI—There will be no regular issue of Game & Word next Sunday, November 27, 2022, due to it being Thanksgiving Week and all. As much as I love pulling all-nighters each weekend to get this newsletter out on time, I do have a family, and I would very much love to spend some time with them this week. G&W will resume its regular production schedule on Sunday, December 4, 2022. Thanks for understanding!
NOTE: Game & Word is a reader-supported publication. The two most recent issues are available to all, free of charge, until new issues are published (podcasts and videos will always remain free).
Older issues are archived and only accessible to paid subscribers. To access articles from the Game & Word archive, support my work, and keep this newsletter free and available to all, upgrade your subscription today:
Or, you could help offset my caffeine costs by chipping in for the price of a cup of joe:
Feature: From Seconds to Epochs, Part 1
👾🤔🤷 CONFUSED? ➡ NEW GAMING GLOSSARY! 📚💬🧑🎓
Confused by any of the gaming jargon, slang, lingo, or other “insider terminology” on this newsletter? Just click on the term and it’ll take you to its entry on Game & Word’s comprehensive and user-friendly Glossary of Gaming Terms!
🚨🚨🚨 SPOILER ALERT 🚨🚨🚨
This post contains huge, massive, MAJOR spoilers for Chrono Trigger. This is a game that you really should experience for yourself. You don’t need to be “good” at games to play, and it’s readily accessible on PC and mobile. If you’ve yet to play it, I cannot recommend highly enough that you play through Chrono Trigger before reading this article!
“What if the past could be changed?” ~Titanic: Adventure Out of Time
Alright, let’s do this.
I’ll start by deconstructing a sacred cow: the common perception that time is linear.
Don't get me wrong, as far as simplified metaphors go, time is as linear as it gets (or so it seems). But this perception isn’t accurate, and it leads to many consequences that serve to trip up games with time travel.
How is it not accurate? Well, it’s not wrong, per se. But it is an incomplete understanding of time. Time can also be understood as cyclical—that is, it repeats. The degree to which time repeats depends on who you’re asking, but it varies widely. For example, compare Samsāra—the Buddhist conception of time, in which the same selfconscious (or “soul”) is constantly reincarnated in different forms after death—to quantum mechanics, which maintains that subatomic particles can move freely not just in space, but also in time.
Heck, modern physics (which, obviously, includes quantum mechanics) takes this a step further. Take Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which maintains that the passage of time isn’t constant or “fixed,” but rather flows differently for each observer, affected by a few different things (the most relevant to us being speed and gravity).
This in and of itself is hard to wrap your mind around if you’re used to thinking of time as a constant march in one direction. But it gets even wonkier. According to Special Relativity (Einstein’s other theory of relativity), it’s theoretically possible to travel through time. Your perception of time slows down the faster you go, and the closer you get to the speed of light (the fastest speed possible, unless someday proven otherwise), the slower time flows. At the speed of light, the flow of time stops altogether (but only for the object moving at the speed of light—time still flows “normally” for everything else).
This means that, if you were to move faster than the speed of light, the flow of time would actually reverse for you.
Now, I qualified that this is theoretically possible. In practice, don’t expect any Millenium Falcon DeLoreans to whisk you off into the past anytime soon. The more mass an object has, the more energy it requires to accelerate, and the energy needed for acceleration increases exponentially the faster it goes. To the point that making even an atom travel just at the speed of light, never mind faster, would require an infinite amount of energy. And the amount of energy in the Universe, plentiful as it may be, is nevertheless finite. This means you can definitely forget about an object with as much mass as a person, a spaceship, or even a nanobot.
Oh, and we’re not done yet. The origin of time, like space, is the Big Bang. Ever since then, space and time (called “spacetime” by physicists, and space and time are inseparably intertwined) have been expanding outwards from that one point, creating what we now know as the Universe. But will it continue expanding? This is one of the biggest questions in cosmology, as it has huge implications for the ultimate fate of the universe.
If the rate of acceleration is enough to overcome the gravitational pull of all the mass in the Universe, it will keep expanding forever, into infinity. This isn’t as rosy as it sounds, by the way. But that’s all I’ll say about it here—if you’re really in the mood for an existential crisis today, you can read all about it here.
But what if the rate of acceleration isn’t enough to overcome the gravitational pull of all the mass in the Universe? In that case, then at some point, the expansion of the Universe will slow down, and eventually stop. Then, the Universe will start contracting, and the rate of contraction will increase as the Universe condenses to a single, infinitely dense point as it was before the Big Bang… and then, who knows, maybe another Big Bang will kick off expansion again… and then the Universe will contract again, and then another Big Bang will start expansion again… the whole process repeating over and over again, ad infinitum. This is called “The Big Crunch.” Because… you know, get it? Big Bang, Big Crunch… ah, forget it.
How would you experience such an event? Well, at some point, long after you’re dead, you’d start re-living your life again… only backwards, starting at the time of your death, and ending at the time of your birth. And then, at some point, you’d be reborn, living out your life from birth to death again. And so on, and so forth. Kind of like an IRL time loop!
Now, this is all still highly theoretical, so if I’ve just frightened you, try to remember that there’s still much we don’t know about the Universe, and this could turn off to be as off-base as theories around “Aether” and gravitation turned out to be.
In any case, you can see how tricky even talking about time as is can be tricky. And if you decide to mess with the laws of time in your story? Hoooo boy.
It’s easy to understand why game designers, writers, and narrative designers often lose their minds after deciding that time travel even exists in their game to begin with: if you can travel through time, practically anything is possible within the context of that game. You can go back in time and save people who died. You can revisit a merchant from the distant past, buy a priceless artifact, and take it back to your time to sell and retire to an island…. or kill the merchant and take their place, living a whole double life as an old-timey/futuristic Mary Sue!
And heaven help you if you’re making a game with a non-linear story, such as an open-world game, or one with a widely-branching narrative.
From a narrative perspective, time travel can also make things needlessly confusing, convoluted, or just plain nonsensical by introducing fundamental inconsistencies into the story that cannot be resolved. It’s why we get paradoxes, such as moving an object (or person) forward in time only to have it taken back in time at the last second - which causes the object (or person) to cease to exist.
And that’s just a small sampling of the many, many ways in which time travel can break a story.
That said, there are games that adeptly explore this concept. And amongst these games, none can hold a flux capacitor to the narrative and gameplay perfection that is Square Enix’s 1995 JRPG masterpiece, Chrono Trigger.
As the name might have given away, Chrono Trigger is about time travel. In it, you lead a group of ragtag adventurers from all throughout time as they zip around from era to era, fixing problems and solving mysteries, in their quest to stop a timeless eldritch monstrosity from going all War of the Worlds on the planet in the distant future.
Chrono Trigger is fondly remembered as one of the best games of all time, thanks to its near-perfectly balanced gameplay, memorable characters, moving story, catchy soundtrack, and innovative use of branching narratives and multiple endings—one of the first (or at least, first successful) instances in video games.
It was, and continues to be, praised for its clever use of time travel, which, despite its brokenness as a narrative device, Chrono Trigger nevertheless pulls off with unmatched finesse. This is due to the developers’ deep understanding of time, both as a concept and in relation to time travel.
Chrono Trigger’s treatment of time is straightforward, yet deceptively nuanced. And it starts by always remembering, even if just in the background, that time always moves forward, even when you’re not consciously aware of it.
Indeed, this is perhaps the element of time that people have the most trouble coming to grips with: its sheer inevitability. “Time waits for no man,” and all that. Mistakes can’t be undone, regrets can’t be rectified, and someday, we (and everyone we know) will grow old, get sick, and die. There’s nothing we can do about it, and pretending like it’s somehow not going to happen won’t change this one bit.
But… what if you could change just this one fundamental fact of existence? What if you could change the past so you don’t do that one thing you’ve regretted since? What if you could change the future to save someone you love?