Telling Time

Learning love and death through the perfect video game

Video game “culture,” for me, was and will remain myself and my brother alone in our mother’s living room for hours, for years. I mean functionally alone if not literally alone, since video games are like books in that they lend themselves to social oblivion. Once my terrible great uncle, annoyed that my brother and I were so engrossed in Super Double Dragon while the adults talked, turned off the game. We were at the furthest stage we’d ever reached, and we never made it there again, barely even played that game again. The moment scorched all seeds of our original excitement. In my adulthood, boyfriends who accompanied me home fell asleep on the couch as my brother and I collaborated on some new RPG. To be near us, often, while we grew up, our mother did the same.

We weren’t even supposed to have a game system when we were children but our grandmother bought Nintendo for us after we failed to share our mother’s rules with her during a trip to the toy store. Once that perimeter fell, it was inevitable we’d acquire later systems by the same means. Our mother may have been mollified by the relative wholesomeness of Super Mario Bros. and the other games we were allowed to have. (The Little Mermaid, Paperboy, Little Nemo.) Or she recognized the futility of trying to bar us from pop violence, or of trying to evade my grandmother’s relentless generosity. My grandmother was actually my step-grandmother, not related to me by blood, but I’d have to get older before understanding this since her titanic love felt hemophilial, like a force only explicable by bodily allegiance. Because our mother had no interest or aptitude, and our father didn’t live where the Nintendos did, I learned what video games were in the sole company of my brother. It was a different way of being we deduced together, without the help of adults — a tool entirely our own.

When we were binging on digital fantasy, the common belief was that video games atrophied every admirable human quality. Maybe bad games do that. But Chrono Trigger was not a bad game

We already played together, we invented fictions. But I was the older, bossier party, who insisted that certain G.I. Joes were truly dead instead of simply injured and would devise elaborate funerals for them over my brother’s protestations — serious from the start, I was meticulous about the enforcement of consequences for imagined acts. It’s true that video games injected some new passivity into our time together, but it was also new to be united as a collaborative audience. To observe, to confer, to react together as a team. To encourage. It was a difference in perspective, a shift from playing across each other on the carpet to playing side by side. We could see how interactive landscapes might unfold when free from my tyrannical demands. And we were given more fuel for our dually constructed playworld, a parallel reality that lay lightly over the normal world, in which one of us might, at any time, slip into the voice and persona of one of our imaginary characters. Fictions accrete whether they come from a screen or a book or your own mind. My mother took to calling the conversations my brother and I had twinspeak although we are not twins, since our language was strange and private, its logic and references unintelligible to those excluded.

I learned how video games worked with my brother; I also learned what that best work involved: Insights into human emotion, and the parts of our brains that resist more literal interpretations of reality. No game taught this lesson as completely as Chrono Trigger.

If you come to Chrono Trigger for the first time now, with the eyes and reflexes and expectations of someone from 2017, it will probably appear as digital taxidermy. There are a slew of Youtube clips you can watch of the gameplay if you’re curious. The picture is alarmingly crude, so pixelated that it took me watching several different recordings before I could admit it wasn’t just a few isolated low quality uploads. In my memory, its texture is less like a modern day video game than the vivid confusion of most dreams, a messy amalgam of how good and rich it looked at the time combined with what my own imagination filled in as I absorbed its story. Because the point of Chrono Trigger wasn’t how it looked; the point was its story. More than that, its style of storytelling — the sensitivity to suspense, climax, character development, consequence, the way it took seriously the job of creating a fully-realized alternate universe.

If you don’t have a good video game culture of your own, you might not believe a video game can teach you about love. When my brother and I were binging on digital fantasy like the controllers were IV lines to a morphine drip, the common belief was that video games instantly atrophied every admirable human quality: curiosity, intelligence, extroversion. Maybe bad games do that, as can bad movies or bad books. But Chrono Trigger was not a bad game, and it was our favorite. The one we played over and over again, the one whose characters we most cared about because they seemed the most real. Technology improved, but the perfect game had already been made.

It starts when you wake to a chime and a call. There is life around you: Seagulls and neighbors and cats, and a celebration in the distance, but you can’t affect those things (yet). You can only rise and listen. Your whole knowledge is your name.

Or really, it begins even before that. The first sound is a pendulum swinging. In truth, it starts with a clock.

Why was I so obsessed with consequences as a child, with finality? Was it the typical sober-minded bent of the first-born? Was it my DNA? When I told stories — to my brother, to my classmates, in my writing — I always made things die. My mother’s mother had died when she was very young, a piece of information I think I knew from an early age. “Promise me you won’t die,” I used to say to my mother. “I can’t promise you that,” she would respond. I asked more than once though I knew her answer would be the same. Maybe I liked her answer, the honesty, the adult fact of it. She was willing to tell me what I didn’t want to hear.

Most probably, my propensity for severity could be connected to my parents’ divorce. Families were disrupted, people were separated; these things just happened. I understood. It started when I was three. My brother and I became a unit shuttled between two satellites. In Chrono Trigger, you — operating the character “Crono,” along with your team, which you assemble as you go through the game — eventually acquire a ship to fly through time. You can only travel with two other people when you go, and your team is bigger than that, but if you want to move, you can’t take everyone with you. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Video games are clear about cause and effect. If a particular outcome has been programmed, there is a way for you to achieve it

Here’s the simplest version of Chrono Trigger’s plot: you save the world by traveling through time in more than one direction. This isn’t just a matter of “going back” and killing a metaphorical Hitler. You have to go forward, you have to go back and then even further back to learn everything you need to know. You have to return to the present, over and over again, tinkering with the world until it yields conditions for your victory. The work is long, but that doesn’t make it less exhilarating. There are side quests, tendrils of the story you can pursue if you want but don’t have to. For example, one character’s mother is paralyzed. But you can enter the moment in time when her paralyzing accident occurs, and save her. If you save her, you might see her dancing when you beat the game. If you don’t save her, you can still win, but she will be sitting down.

Video games are appealing in part because they are so clear about cause and effect. Your environment is limited and predictable. A particular outcome either is or isn’t an option; there is no gray area. And if a particular outcome, no matter how minor, has been programmed into the game, there is a way for you to achieve it. Nothing possible is outside your reach. But that doesn’t mean your progress is easy. Chrono Trigger was delightfully complex this way, often requiring a meticulous series of actions to finish one component of your journey, which was in turn only one step of the overarching effort. You’d zig zag across time in one pattern only to collect yourself and zig zag across it in another.

As with all time travel narratives, many practical concerns are fudged or ignored, but Chrono Trigger tries to favor consequence. One eventual member of your team, for instance, is a lovable robot collected from a dystopian future. After you defeat the main enemy and thereby prevent the robot’s future from occurring, you have probably eliminated the robot himself, who — you can surmise — only exists with you in some type of time bubble that will be popped upon attempting to return him to his correct year. He’s like an echo that can’t continue if the source of sound doesn’t repeat.

His potential non-existence is explicitly acknowledged in the primary ending sequence, when your team assembles in the present day to be sent through time gates back to their respective time homes. The present-day members are not supposed to have any way of knowing the robot’s fate, and one character cries from the sheer uncertainty of sending him into the void. (The developers cheat, in this instance, by giving you the viewer a glimpse of an improved future in which he still exists.)

I may be giving the impression that Chrono Trigger tends toward happy outcomes. But some characters are not granted release from their particular prisons. One of them is a cursed anthropomorphic frog who, in most endings, never regains his human form. Another is a brooding near-villain you can either kill or take on as a team member, but even if you let him live, he never finds the time-lost sister for whom he searches.

You can’t fix it all; you can’t force the impossible. Even if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t be able to save my mother’s mother from her brain tumor, or turn my parents into people who could stay married. And I wouldn’t respect the game if it delivered only happy endings.

You can’t fix it all; you can’t force the impossible. I wouldn’t respect the game if it delivered only happy endings

Chrono Trigger gave us a concrete experience of a world in which consequence doesn’t erase the past. A situation can change, a moment can separate into a before and an after, but that doesn’t stop the “before” from enduring, like an echo.

When you gather at the time gates at the end of the game, it’s understood that although your team has fought side by side and you’re practically a family, it’s impossible for your lives to overlap in a linear reality. Several of you have already died, centuries ago — a truth not remarked upon, but evident. And there is nothing you the player can do to affect this adult fact. It persists no matter how many times you go forward or backward. In every moment when the latter-day group members exist in tandem with present-day characters, either the older or the younger ones are not actually alive.

Unlike the robot, there is no question of existence. Your latter day characters are definitely returning to their lives, which have already been established. But another way of understanding this is that their goodbyes are not recognized as potential deaths because they are already dead.

What I mean is, in the game, there are designated spots in time when these characters are still living. Theoretically, the present-day characters could continue to visit their friends at these points, sidestepping the natural laws of life. The latter-day characters don’t live forever, but the game allows access points to them — time gates — that exist forever, “forever” meaning for the lifespans of the present-day characters, and the lifespans of those who will come after. Once a moment in time has existed, it doesn’t go away. You might move past it, but it stays where it is. So the access point becomes something like a security blanket you can touch for reassurance. Like a memory.

There is so much my brother doesn’t know about me now. We don’t talk everyday or even every week, but he was once the most important person in my life and I feel the fact of that thrown forward into who I am and who I will become, an echo that lasts and lasts. It is easy for me to remember the wide window in time when there were no parts of me he didn’t know, because all my parts then were built with him. If we stepped into a gate together, I know what we would be sent back to.

It happened like this. We came home after school or we woke up on a summer morning with nothing to do. My brother and I assumed our positions in the living room. One of us — usually him, it was just part of the ritual — shoved up the purple plastic piece that started the machine. We got in our shuttle, a society of two, and we left everyone else behind.

Charlotte Shane has contributed to Fusion, Hazlitt, the New Inquiry, and the New Republic. She is the author of Prostitute Laundry and N.B. and the co-founder of TigerBee Press.