Where Angels Lose Their Way: Chrono Cross and Player Disorientation

This post includes SPOILERS for Chrono Cross.

In 1999, Squaresoft released Chrono Cross, the sequel to the beloved SNES JRPG Chrono Trigger, on the Sony PlayStation. People…kind of hated it. Despite a respectable critical reception, fans have long found it an unworthy follow-up to what is widely and rightly considered one of the greatest games of all time, for a number of reasons.

I am not one of those fans. I think that Chrono Cross is one of the most delightful PS1 JRPGs, an indisputable classic brought down more by its breathtaking ambition and overreach than anything else. I could write about any number of elements of the game, from mechanics to story, but today I want to limit myself solely to one of its more famous elements: the dual-world setup.

Light World, Dark World

Many games have used a dual world construction, from A Link to the Past to Mask of the Betrayer. Chrono Cross’s predecessor famously had players exploring the same world across multiple time periods. What sets Chrono Cross apart is that the two worlds are different dimensions, referred to in-game as Home World and Another World.

chrono_cross_two_worlds

Spot Six Differences Between these Pictures

We’re not going to worry about the exact explanation—which is complicated and involves time-traveling supercomputers—because it’s not important for our purposes. Our story begins with Serge, our silent protagonist, being woken up by his mom. He’s lazing about in bed when he’s supposed to be out slaughtering baby lizard monsters to make a necklace for his girlfriend! In true Chrono fashion, the player heads out into the world and stumbles into adventure.

chrono_cross_serge

I wonder what his salary is?

Where Crono found himself trying to rescue a cute girl from a medieval past, Serge finds himself alone in a world that’s identical to his own in every way except for the fact that he is long dead. Well.

The game isn’t subtle about the It’s a Wonderful Life-esque consequences that this one change has. Serge’s mom long ago moved away, his girlfriend wistfully remembers a boy she used to play with, his village elder is nowhere to be found, and his neighbor, faced with the cruel apathy of the universe, gave up fishing to become a full-blown cultist worshipping a giant voodoo doll. Even the soundtrack makes a point of distinguishing between Home World and Another World, with the first being sunny and upbeat and the second being mournful and mysterious.

mojo

Yes, the voodoo doll can be recruited for the party.

Obviously, Serge wouldn’t want to stay in a world where he’s dead, but he’s stuck. After investigating his own grave and being ambushed by people who seemed to expect him there, he’s pulled into a quest to discover the reality-shaking secrets behind these two dimensions.

Another World

The specifics of what’s going on aren’t important, and as I said earlier, it’s complicated. Very complicated. What does matter is that this serves as a great hook for a JRPG. You’ll recruit allies—from a staggering pool of over 40 total—delve into dungeons, level up, and generally just have a good time figuring out the mystery. The early run of the game takes place almost entirely in Another World. As you might expect, Serge gains the ability to cross between worlds, but he can only do this at a particular place, and his traversal options in Home World are very limited. There are only two points where you may be compelled to return to Home World, and while the game does urge you to do so at both points it never strictly requires it, and indeed offers some significant rewards if you defy narrative convention.

chrono_cross_glenn

Do you want arguably the strongest physical fighter in the game on your team? Then you’re going to have to let a young woman die of poison.

So by the time the party has tracked the antagonist, Lynx, to the enigmatic Fort Dragonia some eight or so hours into the game, the player has likely gotten very comfortable in Another World. Whatever Serge’s relationship to it, it’s the game world that the player has come to consider the “primary” world. And that’s when the game gets ‘em.

chrono_cross_sunofagun

He’s smiling because he knows what’s coming. Also because he’s one of the game’s toughest bosses and he’s gonna kick the party’s ass.

Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey

Nobody is going to accuse Chrono Cross of making a lot of logical sense, but the climax of Fort Dragonia is a doozy. Lynx has lured Serge here so that he can swap bodies with our young hero, who is immediately forced to fight “Serge” and whatever party members they brought along in an impossible fight. “Serge” then betrays the party, and…uh…shit, I don’t know exactly what happens next, to be honest. “Lynx” wakes up in a weird, Vincent van Gogh dimension, alone, again, and learns that the universe has rejected him and cast him into the void between worlds. Lynx doesn’t exist in Home World anymore, and since “Serge” is already present in Another World, a “Lynx” that is actually Serge can’t also exist.

chrono_cross_between_worlds

Your life has taken a bad turn when you wake up in an impressionist painting.

Or something. The point is that, metaphysically, Serge is Lynx, despite objectively not being Lynx. His own mind is of no consequence compared to the reality which the rest of the universe perceives, and as the player discovers, even his former party members, while not exactly memory-wiped, are unable to overcome the cognitive dissonance and rejoin him. Yes, hours and hours into the game, and the player’s entire party has been dissolved and will have to be rebuilt again from new recruits.

chrono_cross_lynx

So is that a promotion or a demotion?

On top of all that, Lynx—and I’ll be referring to the character as Lynx for now, as the game even replaces all of Serge’s unique abilities with new ones and rewrites his in-game biography—is trapped in Home World, where everybody hates Lynx for what he did years ago. The player has lost their party, lost the protagonist, and now lost the game world they’ve spent hours exploring. And despite what you may think, Home World is actually a lot less pleasant than Another World. The island is under military occupation, the bulk of the cast from Another World vanished and their home in ruins, and everyone generally rather bitter about the way things have gone.

We Have to Go Back!

And that is the genius of Chrono Cross’s structure. Deep into the game, so deep that many other games would have already reached their conclusion, and the player’s entire understanding is thrown out the window. Lynx is a stranger in his own dimension, and the player is as confused as he is as they have to learn the ins and outs of this new reality that is frequently quite different from the one they’ve come to know.

This isn’t a short stretch of the game, either. I’ve never measured it, but I’d estimate that the player spends more time as Lynx than as Serge. Certainly the most involved quest of the game, the hunt for the elemental dragons, takes place in this stretch of the game, as does the upsetting and bizarre Dead Sea dungeon.

chrono_cross_dead_sea

Welcome to the Dead Sea, where time has collapsed in on itself and formed a nightmarish maze of dead futures! Please beware of robot ducks.

It’s a monumental challenge that the game has given itself, to shred everything the player has come to understand about it and demand they start over a third of the way in. And for all the flaws the game has in other areas, it absolutely nails this aspect. It is incredibly disorienting to lose all the party members you might have had. It is incredibly alienating to visit the bustling, major hub of the game and find it oppressively gloomy and dour. It is disturbing to discover the fates of characters who were alive and well in Another World and…decidedly not in Home World (bring Zappa to the Dead Sea if you really want to cause some emotional pain).

And in the End, It Doesn’t Even Matter

Needless to say, Serge eventually gets his body back, and the player can tackle the final stretch of the game while pulling from a massive roster comprised of all the characters they’ve recruited throughout the game, either as Serge or as Lynx.

But the game is still not done blowing the player’s mind! The end of Chrono Cross is an absolute mess in a lot of ways, and requires you to not only understand Chrono Trigger to even begin to understand what’s going on, but to also accept a massive amount of text-only info dumps filling in critical backstory at the eleventh hour, but it’s basically just revelation after revelation. Serge is the Chrono Trigger! The save points are actually a tool of an evil supercomputer from the future intended to control the behavior of humans! Schala from Chrono Trigger is the bad guy, sorta! Lynx is Serge’s dad!

It’s completely insane, and to top it all off the game’s ending—which is one of the most esoteric and non-intuitive true endings I’ve ever encountered—implies that the two dimensions, which had been forcibly created from a single timeline, are merged, and it’s unclear how much, if anything, will remain “true” in the new, merged timeline, or if any of the characters will remember what happened.

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Mr. Player. You could have saved Schala. I gave you all the clues.

What Does It All Mean?

Chrono Cross is a divisive game. I think it’s equally defensible to call it stupid and pretentious as it is to call it daring and ambitious. But I love it. I love just about everything about it, from its soundtrack to its art design to its often goofy writing. But most of all I love that it’s willing to throw the player into a position of real disempowerment. All the hard work, all the acquired knowledge, all of it thrown out. And it’s neither as annoying nor as frustrating as the all-too common trope of a game robbing the player of their equipment or a vital skill for a stretch. Indeed, getting back up to speed is very easy, once you get two new party members and can reallocate your equipment and abilities. But it’s the sensation of being cast out from what you know, that mirroring of the protagonist’s experience through the game structure, that elevates Chrono Cross from merely a very good, if flawed, JRPG to a masterpiece (albeit a flawed one) of the genre.

Angelus Errata

  • As I was writing this, I realized that there might be a way to read Serge’s quest to reclaim his true body from a trans perspective. Anyone have any thoughts on that?
  • I alluded to it, but Chrono Cross has a very odd approach to player involvement in the story. The plot is quite rigid, but the game gives the player a surprising amount of leeway. For instance, Kid is far and away the most important character in the game, but she is only required to join the party at one specific point and can be rejected (or simply avoided) at every point prior to or after that moment. This doesn’t do the story a lot of favors, but it’s a brave decision to give the player that amount of power.
  • If you were wondering, no, the game doesn’t do anything with the fact that save points are in-universe objects that actually have a specific role in the story. A missed opportunity.
  • If you want to know more about Chrono Cross, I recommend this entry from the Let’s Play archives: https://lparchive.org/Chrono-Cross/. He’s not as much of a fan of the game as I am, and tears it apart at points for how it applies logic and conveys information, but it’s a thorough examination of the game.