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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.
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.