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Chrono Trigger's Design Secrets

June 26, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

From Mass Effect to Skyrim, modern RPGs go to great lengths to merge linear, carefully crafted narrative with dynamic, emergent gameplay. Hundreds of thousands of man-hours are poured into these incredibly complex works, all in the effort to create a believable, cohesive story while giving players a sense of freedom in the way they play their game. The results of these efforts have been best-loved play experiences video games have offered.

But the goal of marrying linear narrative to dynamic gameplay is not out of reach for developers that don't have the resources to create such complex systems. No game shows this better than the classic RPG Chrono Trigger. Crafted by Square's "Dream Team" of RPG developers, Chrono Trigger balances developer control with player freedom using carefully-designed mechanics and a modular approach to narrative.

Dynamic World, Linear Dungeons

There are several distinct narrative sections of the game, many of which are required to complete the game. During the first half of the game, these sections are all mandatory and linear, taking the player on a predetermined journey from their home in 1000 A.D. through several different time periods until they find The End of Time.

After completing this mandatory introduction, which welcomes players into the world, gameplay, and story of Chrono Trigger, they're free to access any time period they have previously visited and travel around the world map freely.

By allowing the players to travel freely through time and space, the developers opened up the game world to exploration. Although most optional narrative sections are inaccessible until the player finds the Epoch -- a time machine which also allows for fast travel through the game world -- the player is allowed to find their own way through the main narrative with minimal interference.

This is largely because the enemy encounters in the game are limited to specific dungeons and are not placed in the world map, so that even if players visit an area out of the critical path, they can experience some content and explore much of the map. Similarly, players with high-level characters can revisit earlier sections of the game without being continually hassled by low-level encounters.

This is in direct contrast to games that include enemy encounters throughout the game world; the default at the time Chrono Trigger was released was random battles every few steps. Whether or not a game features random battles, encounters discourage players from exploring the world map lest they wander into an area with high-level enemies.

In many cases, these areas are not even clearly marked, making exploration a risky business until players reach high levels for that area or the game overall. To make matters worse, low-level, unrewarding encounters must be completed regardless of player level, making exploration a hassle. By eliminating these complications, Chrono Trigger encourages players to explore the game on their own terms.

This is most obvious once the player completes the Zeal narrative section, acquires the Epoch, and obtains wings for it. With unimpeded travel through time and space, the map completely opens up to the player, allowing them to complete optional narrative sections at any time.

Even before the player is given narrative hints on where to find these dungeons, they can simply fly around the relatively small overworld and find them. These dungeons are also fairly simple to find; for example, a lone factory on an island in 2200 AD contains an optional dungeon based around the character Robo. Simply by flying around in the Epoch, the player can find several of these dungeons and complete them.

Robo's optional character arc can be completed any time after the Epoch gets wings, allowing more insight into his past.

By focusing on linear gameplay inside dungeons, the developers of Chrono Trigger were able to give players the freedom to choose to experience or not experience entire sections of narrative, in any order they wish. This modular style of narrative allowed the developers to create linear character arcs and subplots while still giving players freedom within the overall narrative.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Adn then you realize that all of this applies to Demon/Dark Souls...

Jeffrey Brister
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That's immaterial to the discussion at hand. The fact that these concepts existed roughly 15 years before the release of those games is a sign that the conventions of the JRPG were able to be manipulated and twisted in inventive ways before the dawn of the modern era of gaming.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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I meant that in a good way. I find it interesting that the same concepts applies successfully to games that have modern mechanics.

edit: Also, the Nexus and the End of Time are obviously the same place, and the Lord Vessel is a portable version of the Epoch.

Gregory Weaver
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Pointing out this stuff definitely makes me appreciate what they did even more. For years I felt that Chrono Trigger spoiled me; for example, I felt that every Final Fantasy (and other JRPGs) I played after CT was marred because I had to go through the same old tiring, limiting random encounter motions. When Chrono Cross came along, one of the things I remember looking forward to most was the inclusion of the CT-style encounter (though, to be honest, I can't remember how exploration was handled in that title).

Jordan Carr
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I think level scaling gets a lot of unfair criticism.

Many RPG diehards wanted harder games. Often when you get to the point where regular attacks kill everything it becomes a point of why am I even fighting regular monsters anymore?

Level scaling fixed this, maybe not always the most elegantly, but a decent band-aid at least. One thing people never take into account is mobs only grow more powerful in a linear sense, while usually players grow both linearly and horizontally in power.

Vanja Mrgan
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I don't think this is true.

The first game that comes to mind is Oblivion, enemies were always within your level range. This didn't stop your character from becoming a god eventually (Skyrim has this problem as well). Not to mention that contextually it made no sense. At higher levels you'd wander into a dungeon and find a 'Starving Bandit' dressed in a complete set of gold Dwarven armor.

Jacob Germany
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@Vanja Wasn't that Jordan's point? That it made the problem simpler while not preventing your character from eventually feeling very powerful?

And for all the complaining about Oblivion, none of my four or five characters ever encountered enemies that were that unrealistic. When Skyrim would be discussed, and the developers assured everyone that there was little level scaling, I kept being confused why it was ever a point of contention. All in all, it made the experience very even for me, with little being too routine or easy.

Robert Boyd
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Was disappointed that the article was so narrow. Was hoping for a more comprehensive analysis of the game and not 4 bullet-points that were all variation on a single theme (how the game combines linearity with freedom).

EDIT: I did like what was there, just wanted a lot more.

Victoria Earl
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For this article, I wanted to do a thorough analysis of one topic rather than a broad analysis of the game as a whole, but there is definitely a lot left to explore. I may revisit the game later with a wider lens. Thanks for your feedback!

Eric Schwarz
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Great article. Chrono Trigger is one of my favourite SNES games and one of the few JRPGs I genuinely enjoy, and a lot of it comes down both to free and meaningful exploration, as well as a character system that promotes experimentation through its boss encounters (which usually require specific tricks to defeat, or at least are made much easier by certain character combinations).

In hindsight, it's easy to say that Chrono Trigger was a bit limited, and that's true. It's a short game, and a relatively easy one. With even a little grinding, the difficulty curve can be almost completely broken. There are a few outcomes in the story here and there, as well as the aforementioned endings, but it doesn't compare to the C&C provided in later games. However, considering when it was developed, and the people behind it, I think it demonstrates a very careful mastery of design that few other titles possess - and that it was one of the first games to do this all is even more impressive.

Evan Hartshorn
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Chrono Trigger, though, is tight, the way Portal is tight and most RPGs are not: It's tiny, but that tininess consists of a lack of superfluous details.

People want to make and buy and play huge, epic, grand games with zillions of hours of gameplay, and that's fine. But Chrono Trigger sparkles in part because it's so compressed. It's the only JRPG I've ever completed not because the others are longer -- CT takes me 10-15 hours, I rarely make it 10 in others -- but because its compression leaves no gaping voids I have to slog across to get to the next bit of candy.

Kevin King
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Great article. You know, I've been playing Xenoblade a lot lately, and I feel like they've taken a lot of these same design asthetics, only substitue having multiple narrative paths with having voluntary sidequests.

David Holmin
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I'm sorry, but I greatly disagree. Xenoblade does almost nothing the right way, in my opinion. The exploration consists of similar grind quests within a predictable system, and is very uninteresting. You never find unique content that feels interesting. All characters not part of the main story completely lack personality, since they are only quest containers, for above mentioned boring copy-paste-quests. The combat has potential, but it was kinda ruined by the fact that most enemies you encounter are either super easy for your level, or impossible. They missed the sweet spot where you're challenged. I've played Chrono Trigger many times and enjoyed it a lot, but I couldn't get myself to finish Xenoblade once. It feels like a single player MMORPG.

Alan Saud
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Xenoblade is closer to World of Warcraft than a JRPG.

Andy Mussell
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Some of these techniques started before "Chrono Trigger", in particular the first two (distinct narrative sections and critical path directed by enemy level) are key features of the Might & Magic series, the first of which was released almost a decade before CT. And arguably the latter of those two was started all the way back in the first "Wizardry", although there wasn't much to the game besides the critical path.

But I have to say, this article was a great critique of some of the most important (but not obvious) systems in a true classic of the genre.

The Le
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To be fair, the Bard's Tale was like this way back in 1984, eleven years before Chrono Trigger. You could go straight to the catacombs if you like, but you'd get your butt kicked. You had most of the entire map open to you.

James Castile
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Very interesting article but it also shows why it's so difficult to nail down what makes a great game great. You say that having to re-traverse Truce Canyon (I've never played CT btw) is a good design because you can just run by low-level enemies on your second visit.
To me that seems like a bad design decision. I don't see how it's 'good' nor barely even worth mentioning that a game allows me to repeat content with even less effort. Imagine that as a bullet point on the box cover. How would you explain that?

*Go back and cover the same ground you did earlier in the game with even LESS difficulty!

The problem is that a game is the sum of many parts and at some point in the design you have to have something that causes that sum to be greater than the whole. Whether it's a new weapon mechanic (gravity gun in HL2, Shock-Combo in UT), movement mechanic, (dodging in UT, hammer jump in UT, TRANSLOCATOR! in UT, rocket jump in Quake, skiing in Tribes) story-telling for which writing is almost solely responsible, but definitely requires skillful artistic in-game representation. The list is surely longer than that, but you get my point. You have to have a seed of brilliance somewhere (anywhere I maintain), and then everything else has to help that seed germinate.

Victoria Earl
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Although I didn't expound on this in the original article, I would actually agree - having to retread ground to the single Time Gate in the Middle Ages DOES feel suspiciously like a design oversight. I was using Truce Canyon as an example of how a good design decision (avoidable enemy encounters) saved the game from being dragged down by a design decision that didn't work so well (forcing players to replay Truce Canyon several times).

In my opinion, this is where it shined the brightest - imagine how painful Truce Canyon would be if the designers had used random encounters instead. Black marks like that prevent a lot of wonderful games from becoming true classics. However, I didn't go into this originally because I thought it was a bit too tangential to the rest of the article.

Andy Lundell
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Having that time gate in Truce Canyon was a little irritating. Cool from a story point of view, but from the point of view of someone trying to travel back and forth through that gate, I wish they'd put a short-cut right on the world map, or right at the entrance to the canyon.

It's still a good example of how CT's encounter system saved the game from tedium. If Truce Canyon had random battles that scaled to my difficulty level, I would have given up in frustration.

As it was, it was something you could blast through in about sixty seconds.

Francisco Souki
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Good article, Victoria. I did a more broad analysis of some of Chrono Trigger's design lessons a while back, thought you and anyone else who has enjoyed this article might find it interesting:

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Your link doesn't work anymore...

edit: I could read it finally. Thx

Kain Shin
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