Thanks to modular narrative sections, carefully designed battles, and the use of levels to guide progression, players are given a sense of freedom while actually playing a relatively linear game and experiencing a set overall narrative -- but Chrono Trigger's narrative freedom goes much deeper than that.
New Game+ is a major feature that Chrono Trigger introduced to the RPG genre. By selecting this option, players can re-experience the game from the beginning with the equipment, character levels, and skills that they had when they finished the game. This allows the players to experience the game without the restrictions the leveling system imposed on them during their first playthrough.
While the first playthrough guides the player along a critical path that includes several mandatory narrative sections, the New Game+ feature allows players to confront and defeat the final boss, Lavos, at almost any point in the game.
During their first playthrough, the player can confront Lavos right after finding The End of Time, but without New Game+ they are hopelessly outleveled. In fact, during the Zeal arc the player is forced to confront Lavos in an essentially unwinnable battle.
Removing the level restrictions via New Game+ grants the player much greater control over when and where to defeat Lavos and end the game. There's even a special portal that opens up at the beginning of a New Game+, which leads to Lavos only a few minutes after the start of the game.
To encourage players to utilize the freedom they get from the New Game+ feature, the game includes over a dozen unique ending scenes, all dependent on when players defeat the final boss. Many of these are simply bonuses, but a few show the player's effect on the world; there's even an ending where Reptites have taken over the world because the player failed to defeat the Reptite leader in 65,000,000 BC! This flexibility and dynamic response greatly increased the player's options, the game's replay value, and ultimately the game's status as a classic.
This rare ending in Chrono Trigger mirrors the beginning of the game, replacing all humans with Reptites.
With just a few key design decisions, the developers of Chrono Trigger gave themselves the freedom to craft a linear narrative while giving players the ability to play and experience the game on their terms.
The success of this balance between player choice and developer craft shows that it is possible to give developers and players control over the experience with limited resources. This is good news for any modern developer that wants to give players the freedom they crave while preserving a coherent and well-crafted narrative. While branching out every single decision is often too labor intensive, and setting players on a single straight path is too limiting to their play, setting up modular sections of linear narrative arcs allows players to experience the different subplots of the game without feeling forced through them.
Although scaling enemy levels and numbers to match player's level has its own merits, preset enemy levels can effectively guide the player in the gameworld without forcing them into a particular path. This should be used quite sparingly, however, with minimal punishment doled out to the player for choosing the wrong path. In other words, a level 1 player should not be able to stumble into an area with level 50 enemies that would instantly obliterate their party. This simply penalizes the player for exploring, where ideally the setup of the game would encourage exploration.
Finally, Chrono Trigger's design worked because it did not start players in a completely open world. Players were gradually introduced to more and more options before being set free. First, they were able to avoid enemies and explore the world map for a sense of basic freedom while traveling along a critical path.
Next, they were given access to the End of Time, which allowed them to travel to specific points in time and find the critical path on their own. Finally, they were able to find and complete optional dungeons with the Epoch. Because they are gradually introduced to the world and the characters, the player can familiarize themselves with the overworld map and the narrative before being given free rein.
Ultimately, giving players the feeling of control and freedom is a laudable goal in any game. To do so while still delivering a single crafted narrative is, as Chrono Trigger shows, achievable in a game of any size or budget.