The 1944 French play No Exit by existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, tells the story of three damned souls forced to share a room together for eternity. One of the three souls, Garcin, swears that he was executed for being a pacifist, and that there must be some mistake. When pressed, he is forced to admit that he was actually executed for cowardly desertion. Worse yet, he is revealed to have been a horrible, callous husband who flagrantly used and cheated on his wife. Of the two women he shares this hell with, Estelle is willing to lie and play along with Garcin’s lies in exchange for company while the other, Ines, is completely unwilling to pretend he is anything other than a cad and coward. Garcin becomes obsessed with convincing Ines that he is actually the man he thinks he is inside, rather than the man portrayed by his actions. By the end of the play, he realizes that the true torture of hell is the endless challenge and destruction of his false sense of self in the face of the others’ opinions of him. This leads to the play’s most famous line “l’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is other people”.
During the Playstation era, it was extremely fashionable for the makers of jrpgs (Japanese Role Playing Games for the benefit of those not gaming acronym devotees) to fill their games with references to philosophical works. Rarely were these references deeper than naming a random semi-medieval NPC after a character from a play or naming a spell after an obscure German or Latin phrase, but occasionally games emerged that went farther and actually attempted to address philosophical themes with some success. The most successful of these games was arguably the controversial fandom punching bag and existential fever dream known as Chrono Cross.
Chrono Cross tells the story of a simple teen boy from the fishing village of Arni. Everyone there knows him, and from the start of the game he has a number of established relationships. He has friends, a family, a mentor, a girlfriend and even a talking pink dog (though for everyone’s sake, we will not mention that dog ever again. You are welcome). You can name Serge whatever you want, but he’s not exactly an ideal cipher for the player since you don’t get to define Serge. Serge may not have much of an identity, but what he has is separate from the player. Serge is Serge, not you. You’re just playing as him.
Shortly after completing the first “dungeon”, Serge is whisked away to an alternate dimension where he died ten years ago. Returning to his home village, Serge is unable to convince anyone that he is, in fact, who he claims to be. As Serge, you spend the first part of the game battling against the idea that you are dead. Serge is forced to make new relationships and carve a new identity in this world.
After Serge has finally found new friends and a connection to both worlds, the game throws another loop at the player. Serge’s mind is swapped into the body of his arch-enemy Lynx, an evil cat man in a graduation cap (video games everybody!). Now no one will believe he is actually Serge. His friends desert him and he is left alone to rot in a private hell. Here, Serge as Lynx is tormented and aided by a harlequin who refuses to acknowledge his true identity as Serge. The game is explicit, it doesn’t matter what you think you did or who you think you were, if you look like the bad guy and everyone thinks you are the bad guy, then thats who you might as well be, so suck it up. Opinion and action are what defines a person. Now as Lynx, you must once again create a new identity and prove you are yourself through actions rather than words or memories.
Surely you don’t need to be a philosophy major to see the connection between Chrono Cross’ message and the work of Sartre. What separates Chrono Cross from its contemporaries is how it uses the internal logic and rules of video games to convey these points. While Serge is a character separate from the identity of the player, the player takes on this role as a spect-actor. Just as an actor in a play, the player slips on the costume of Serge. Unlike most plays, the spect-actor of a video game has not had a chance to read the script ahead of time (unless they’re replaying the game), and so when the game challenges Serge’s sense of self, the player-as-actor is empowered to respond only by applying that challenge to their own identity. Since Serge is a typical silent hero, the Serge that emerges becomes a synthesis of the established character and the ideals and actions of the player. Despite him not being a true cipher, the Serge that emerges for you may in fact be different than another player. Just as two actors interpretations of Hamlet may be vastly different and may greatly alter the tone of the play.
This empowerment of the player to create meaning within the game is also present in how the game handles your party members. There are a staggering 45 playable characters to collect, and in what was considered a bizarre move at the time, almost none of them have any actual bearing on the plot. Due to how the game handles dialogue, even those who do matter to the plot end up completely indistinguishable from those who don’t once they enter your party. No matter who is in your party, the script is the same. The only difference between what your party says is what accent you will be subjected to. Playing the game by using “main” characters like Kid or Harle is pretty much the same experience plot-wise as if you pick completely “unimportant” characters like Mojo the dancing voodoo doll or Straky the little lost alien. The characters are even similar in terms of mechanics, since everyone can equip most of the same spells and the differences in stats are not severe.
This odd mechanic has led many players to believe that a remake of the game should remove all the unnecessary characters and focus more only on the important ones. However, that would end up being a completely different game. For one thing, the only characters that actually matter to the plot or have any development would be Serge, Kid, Lynx and Harle. Second, the fact that the other characters are largely identical in mechanics and plot importance allows for an unexpected empowerment of the player. If none of the characters matter to the story or gameplay, then the player is truly free to use whoever they want. The characters are all a weird mish-mash of stereotypes and game archetypes. Since none of them are developed beyond that, the only theme they present to the player is what the player comes up with based on their uniform and immediate mannerisms. The player cannot change the story, but they CAN change the tone and interpretation of the story based on who they put in their battle party.
If anything, a remake should have MORE characters! If the characters don’t matter to the plot but only to how the player experiences the plot, then the player should have the freedom to choose almost any kind of party. Lets take this idea to its logical conclusion and make EVERY character playable! Its not as impossible as it sounds, traditionally a town in an rpg has around 10-20 unique NPCs depending on the size, right? Well there are four “big” towns (Arni, Termina, Guldove, Marbule) and two smaller communities of NPCs (Viper Manor, Fargo’s ship) as well as a handful of NPCs that can be found in the various dungeons (for argument’s sake, lets say one town’s worth). So including Serge/Lynx and Kid/Harle lets say there could be 122 characters. There’s also already a mechanic for controlling monsters by using Sprigg’s doppleganger ability, so for this hypothetical remake lets have a playable version of every enemy. That would put the total up to around 221. Is that too many playable characters for an rpg? The Suikoden series has at least 108 playable characters in each game, and that most of those characters actually DO matter to the plot and have unique dialogue. A game like the most recent Pokemon theoretically has an unlimited number of playable characters, with a maximum of 649 that are graphically unique. Since we’ve already seen that the cast of Chrono Cross has no bearing on the plot and serves only to empower the player to affect the experience, it wouldn’t be impossible to implement in the current system. But lets move away from this theoretical remake and go back to discussing the actual game.
We’ve seen how Chrono Cross uses the unique tools of video games to potentially communicate philosophical ideas and empower the player to interpret and synthesize the theme and messages the creators put forth. So why is the game so controversial among both fans and critics? Part of it is no doubt because of how it is a perceived failure as a sequel to the incredibly popular Chrono Trigger, but that’s not the only reason. The truth is that despite what Chrono Cross does right, there are a great many things it does wrong to disempower the player.
While Chrono Trigger was a joint effort between a number of creators, Chrono Cross was directed under one man’s vision. While it was missing many of the creators who helped define the first game, fans were still hopeful since the man at the helm was Masato Kato. Kato was responsible for the Zeal scenario of the first game, the section of the game that served to cleverly unite what would otherwise be a random series of events. Kato is also something of a control freak when it comes to the Chrono series, stating in the past that he doesn’t believe most people played Chrono Cross “correctly” and worries no one understood what he was going for. I get the feeling that this worry was there even before the game was released. Simply put, even as the game empowers the player, it doesn’t trust the player to act on that empowerment. This attitude comes forth throughout the game’s story. The player is inundated with blocks of text where huge, convoluted aspects of the plot are explained in excruciating detail and characters all to often stop what they are doing to announce what they are feeling and why. In most narrative mediums, the mantra of “show, don’t tell” can be valuable, but in video games it is almost a requirement.
There is also the fact that when you look past the clever existentialist way it deals with Serge, the convoluted story and world itself is just plain silly. Even if you can make sense of the mind-numbingly complex and contradictory time travel and intra- dimensional aspects, you’re still left with a story about evil cat-men created by a computer that controls human fate, dragon-god-computers made by time-displaced dinosaur men and an evil space porcupine merged with an apparently nigh-omnipotent girl that together eats time. That doesn’t even cover the duck-billed turnips, mermaid rock-opera, and other nonsense the game expects us to take far, far too seriously (and I say this as a great fan of all things duck-billed and rock opera). A game like Earthbound can succeed with an even sillier, potentially more convoluted story by largely not trying to explain everything and instead trusting the player to develop what is important to them on their own. Chrono Cross never offers the player that same trust. As it tediously explains every single theme and aspect of the plot, it piles so much on at once that the player loses that initial sense of empowerment. This reaches its peak at the worst time, right before the final battle and ending. The ending is intentionally vague and open to interpretation, but it comes after the player has just given in to having their hand held. The player gives up the tools of empowerment, only to suddenly be asked to use them. No wonder so many people threw down their controllers in frustration after the credits rolled on their first play-through.
Chrono Cross is a wonderful example of both how a game can successfully empower its players and also a cautionary tale to why a creator needs to trust their audience and actors. I can’t help but feel its slightly appropriate that Kato now finds himself in a battle similar to Serge and Garcin’s, where he argues what his game REALLY means in the face of others’ opinions. That may be a little harsh, but I also hope we haven’t seen the last of Kato’s Chrono (although Squarenix seems to keep him on a very short leash, he hasn’t directed a game since and only does minor story work for them as a freelancer). Kato’s strongest gifts were not his stories or his verbosity, but rather his willingness to ignore expectations and push for new ideas. In a game genre without the baggage of an rpg sequel, and at a time without corporate and fan expectations pressuring the production, those gifts could do a great deal.
All screenshots are from the Let’s Play Archive