One More Time, for the Road (Against Chrono Trigger)

Ronald Reagan stated in his 1986 State of the Union Address, “Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they say in the film Back to the Future, ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.’”

A vacuous quote. In the film it’s stated at the end to shock and tantalize viewers with a useless reveal. We don’t need roads, says a caricature of technological progress, and the film’s cast flies off a road, into the horizon. A flying car is about as future-symbolic as it gets; positive speculation that was written as hapless bait for a more interesting story (and functionally an advertisement for its sequel). We don’t need roads, but we’re never seen without them!

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads: a cruel utterance to an American populace. Roads are carved into this country. Western USA was developed with deference to highways. Cities, streets, suburbs, designed to maximize road space. Propaganda is spewed and drilled in to make citizens angry and distrustful at minor tax increases required for public transportation. They will not say it, but they feel it is better to pay a premium for their own travel than to trust in a fellow. All the while our country’s governing is degrees orchestrated by oil and auto industries. Maybe that’s the actual power to this quote, what causes an unjust heart tug. At least, when heard by someone not driven mad by capitalto live without roads is to live without American oppression.

A quote of no substance, no comfort, so why was it uttered by a US president? Partially because he was enough of a fool to be taken in with it. He once dubbed plans for an automated missile defense “Star Wars,” a decision that was beyond reference. Being an ex-actor, some argue that he was acutely aware of what power Hollywood had. That wasn’t the case. Reagan was entirely a product of American media attitudes and American propaganda. When he spoke he wasn’t lying. In his showmanship he believed in an inspired America. One that was going to be steered in the right direction. He was convinced of an America governed by his upper class common sense, where it was plainly clear who ruled and what they were entitled to. Subtext of society that was disadvantageous to be spoken, and yet he said it, and then it was true. America wanted to share that belief, apparently inspired by a demographic of powerful white men.

At very least, besides reddit-types, regard for Back to the Future is being eroded. I watched it, the film comes off as a horrible mimicry of John Hughes’ effortless portrayal of time and place. I guess 80’s comedies strived for a lackadaisical fantasy; male leads that were assumedly relatable because they bumbled about, then were propped up by having their portrayed “average” desirable by the plot and characters around them. If it could be called anything, an ignorance fantasy.

I gotta say though the time travel in Back to the Future is three kinds of nonsense. Rather than pontificate on paradoxes, because enough nerds have that cornered, I pose instead: why, wielding a plot device that can speculate anything, did they choose to inhabit 1950s America? I frame that as a question to let it fester. Time travel lets an author reaffirm or overcome modern biases. It doesn’t need to be chained to history, it can interpret history, and speculate what kind of effect we could have on a future. Truly, with time travel, we don’t need roads! At the very least, if one feels compelled to reinterpret things as they were, they should do so with reason. Back to the Future has no substance but pandering nostalgia.

There are songs that if listened to now would take me back to high school. I guess this is nostalgia. Whatever mysterious way that memory overpowers; I can feel with certainty the cool glass bus window on my face. I can exist again in my ideation. It’s not pleasant but the conjuration of it is probably like time travel. Without knowing what time travel is like, these sensation pockets are the closest thing manifest to how time travel seems to be. As they say, it really takes me back.

Back to the Future creates a form of apparently real time travel by tapping into generational anxieties. The film’s loose, slacker protagonist exudes an effortless cool to whatever generation  identifies with being hipper than their parents (every generation) while being just barely enough of a dork to comfort someone older that their generation was better. I think even if an adult didn’t live through the 50s, (which, plenty actually did when the movie came out) there’s still an immediate idealization of the adult characters’ youthful past. A simplicity and goodness in what it was like, against a subtle degeneracy of where we’ve come to be. This comparison holds on to a semblance of time past, which is contextually altered by present time process; altogether the same forces that occur in remembrance. If memory is alike to time travel, then time traveling through memories is the most comfortable shorthand for self-insertion.

This bespeaks the film’s thunderous appeal when it came out, to its eventual claim to being a definitive blockbuster of the 80s, and now its basic waning of any impact in the present day. I’m not suggesting nobody is nostalgic for Back to the Future: a lot of people are nostalgic for whichever childhood paraphernalia is theirs. The DeLorean has become a fetishistic statement of nostalgic comfort. There still isn’t much to be said about any kind of influence (memes don’t count) the film had on culture or even our perception of the time’s culture, because it already is asserting nostalgia for another time.   

I don’t mean to say that time travel is inherently nostalgic. But it is speculative, and therefore anchored to the mind. To accept suggestions of the past opens synapses of memory. Time travel treads the same pathways and feelings as our memories of the past, inarguably so if time travel occurs in experiences that are immediate to memory. This, for lack of better vocabulary, I will call facsimile time travel. A device that imitates, its goal to encourage familiarity, rather than establish disorientation or displacement. I think facsimile time travel is absurdly convincing and powerful, which ultimately explains why Reagan quoted Back to the Future to a nation. Where we’re going, we can be assured it’ll be no better than fondness past.

It is no exaggeration that many in videogaming base their identity around the comfort of consistency, and it stems from nostalgia. Game companies purposefully cultivate their brands around this kind of familiarity (to a similar, but more extreme degree than other corporations). Ultimately it’s exploitation of people’s vulnerabilities. Most people are metacognizant, at least unconsciously, that corporations aren’t their friends. That corporations will achieve sales at any cost. That distance, which is essentially a survival mechanism resulting from being drowned in capitalism since birth, is often gleefully abandoned in videogame space. There’s trust for companies. Often a mortal, binding loyalty, and in turn an expectation ofwell, the demands vary, but the overlap between them is escapism.

Despite this, many feel that nostalgia is a thing that can be turned off or ignored. People state that certain games are liked only because of nostalgia. They’re blinded by it, asserting that nostalgia can be just taken off for a moment, then media will be fairly assessed. Folks, if you’re still playing videogames, especially if you’re still playing console videogames, there’s a hundred-to-one chance that you’re bounded in some way by nostalgia.

I think there’s a weakness in how we talk about nostalgia. Positive, formative events, that shape a person’s point of view, tastes, and preferences, are extremely difficult to just dissociate from. Judgement comes from accumulated experience. Or, in other words, to accept that people are clouded by nostalgia, is to accept that we all are, constantly. Which I wouldn’t deny. Nostalgia isn’t inherently bad, it doesn’t necessarily make someone out of touch. It’s a near universal part of living and growing up.

There’s no fairness in saying the only reason people like classic rpgs is because of nostalgia, but I do think history itself, how influence is perceived through those “classics,” is inseparable from how nostalgia affects their perception. Collectively the rpg community has anchored to conventions found in videogames that reached the widest audiences. That sort of impact is staggering and probably is the greatest factor in our perception of videogame history. There’s no difference between what a videogame has materially influenced and what people think it has influenced, because only the latter is valued. Collective belief that a videogame is influential is inevitably indistinguishable from how nostalgic we are for it.

Is Chrono Trigger really the greatest execution of the form? That’s a familiar hyperbole. I’m not interested in answering that question unilaterally. Mystification of this kind paints further work in a form as mostly futile and that is not an attitude that encourages growth. A question that can be posed instead and somewhat answered: is Chrono Trigger as integral to rpg development as its reputation implies?

It’s simple to fit Chrono Trigger as a step forward for Squaresoft’s comprehensive aesthetic ability. An adeptly put together game with attention to compositional detail that clearly contributed in the development of Square’s paradigm shifting 3D works. Yet this only cements it as a link in a chain, one of many titles that teased boundaries of visual storytelling. Hagiography in games tries to pile on importance to a select handful of popular games, when influence is more of a joint measure, alike to osmosis.

Chrono Trigger has concrete, stylistic influences on very few games. Mostly American indie rpgs, like Black Sigil: Blade of the Exile and Cosmic Star Heroine. Few games look like, feel, or flow like Chrono Trigger. Few games have its battle perspective, its battle system, its framing devices, its aesthetic composition, or its overworld movement. Isn’t that strange? For a game that is stated to be exemplary of the form, that is supposedly hugely important for videogames and digital storytelling, there aren’t many games that feel invested in how Chrono Trigger interprets rpgs, or how it presents its fiction.

This is the transformative power of collective nostalgia. Chrono Trigger really hasn’t provided a lasting influence on other games. That statement sounds like nonsense though. Second generation gamers pounded into me that Chrono Trigger is unmissable. There are thousands of mentions of it online as the definitive jrpg experience. I feel like that has to mean something. It has to mean something but I can’t figure out what aspects of its craft are in any way essential to game design. I don’t know what merits its utter importance and mystification.

Some popular critiques of nostalgic phenomena liken this effect to a culture-wide disease. This is very raw structuralism, identifying nostalgia as bad or faulty memory absorbed through detritus. Which isn’t very useful. Blaming systematic occurrences on individuals is a fast way to assert how much others are not like yourself. It’s not so much that people are foolish, but it’s that they are human. Nostalgia-explanations supplant actual experiences because, sometimes, they just make more sense than what’s real. A successful, fondly remembered videogame has its laurels and its justification. And, well, at this point I think those feelings of trust and nostalgia are manipulated by the unscrupulous in the industry.

Nostalgia exceeds its relations and its container. It’s more than memory, more than history, more than endorphins. Nostalgia is a natural, yet complex reactive property, that’s deployed to interpret simply massive structures. And what is shameful in trusting one’s feelings? Simple answers are sought because they minimize exertion and discomfort. It’s not our fault, but, it enables further erosion of structures around us. Pedestalling simple answers will produce dynamics only capable of addressing simple problems. What can we do though but our best? There’s a scarcity of fairness, of justice, of having time to even enjoy life. I think it takes a kind of masochist to want to lecture and be lectured in times like these. I think, in the benefit of the doubt, productions and machinations of nostalgia are the best that people can do. It’s hurting us, this being the best we can do, but it is ultimately the best we can do. What else can we do?

I know people and artists who owe a lot to Chrono Trigger, so I find it difficult to really demonize. There’s still something off-putting to me about how much credit we ascribe to it. Isn’t it just videogame’s Back to the Future? I feel like it even manages a form of facsimile time travel. Time travel in Chrono Trigger isn’t to meaningfully interact with time or history, it’s a framing device to take the player to classic and fantastical rpg settings within a single rpg campaign. A view of time that’s very entitled; eras interpreted and measured by how much the protagonists are able to change it. A romp through defining points of humanity as if they were just palette swaps. Chrono Trigger isn’t a game about time and history, it’s a game that capitalizes on nostalgia for games you like and have already played.

It’s alienating to see near weekly that Chrono Trigger is some crowning accomplishment in videogame storytelling. I think the deification of any part of the overly commercial videogame industry should be carefully done, if ever (and generally art mythologizing has more cons than pros). At least, if a videogame is going to be praised as some kind of formalist masterpiece, I’d like it to be a game that’s had a massive contribution to the form, or was uniquely ambitious.

Because holding games up like that is our legacy, that’s what collectively is decided to be presented to those outside our subculture. Ignore the game design, ignore our inside baseball that we’ve traded and guarded on how seductive Chrono Trigger operates for a moment. Think about what it would mean for film if Back to the Future was heralded as one of the greatest sci-fi dramas, and further, one of the greatest movies of all time. It would signal an artform, with no exaggeration, dedicated to promoting infantile and reactionary values. Canonized media says a lot about what intersecting elements an arts culture finds important. Videogames happen to value games of heart and simple stature, I guess. With especially an extreme attachment to videogames that play, feel, and remind players of childhood.

What immediately turns me off of Chrono Trigger is how its first use of time travel goes to a Dragon Quest-like setting. This is its most blatant use of facsimile time travel. The game’s original, present-day fantasy setting can’t invoke a literal relationship to our time. It still manages to invoke nostalgia by starting in a kind of fantasy-modernity, then changing to a setting reminiscent to rpgs the player ostensibly fell in love with in the first place. This attitude toward aestheticizing and fetishizing historicity feels deceptive and entitled by virtue of how indirect the framing is (compare this attitude of loose coincidence to Live A Live’s upfront, honest, and purposeful nostalgic homages).

Chrono Trigger approaches history’s relationship to time with the grace and tact of American foreign policy. There’s barely any genuine attempt to understand history as it is and as it’s going to be. Crono and his friends aren’t interested in how people live in time or their culture, they just fight things, while leveraging—and even condescending to!—people around them to accomplish their goal of fighting a big alien. Most every story beat, the party has a free pass to intervene in huge wars and government struggles. For the greater good of course. To call it time-imperialism sounds ridiculous, but it honestly is.

In Radiant Historia time travel is focused on intermediating and rectifying systematic damages done by two deeply toxic countries. Stocke, the protagonist, has relationships and stakes in both. With maybe too much power and responsibility, he works against incredible odds to heal contemptible power structures. It helps that Stocke can only travel to time he’s experienced since obtaining his grimoire. Most of his time travel results in failure: there’s dozens of horrid and fatal developments that end the game. It doesn’t feel like Stocke accomplishes his goal because he is just that good, it’s because he goes through immense trauma making constant mistakes. The game is invested in horrifying consequences of a nation’s collective nostalgia and people’s dissociation from the untruth of it. Fascism being a physical distortion of nostalgia; Stocke’s fragmented and private memory as an abstract and esoteric consequence of living under fatal nostalgia.

Aeon Avenger’s final conflict is against a fragment of the protagonist Lake, one that emerged when he came in contact with a time traveler. His precarious uncertainty, his hate for others and himself, caused him to make a simultaneous decision and split across timelines. Without knowing it, he goes on a quest to stop his contemptuous self. It’s kind of, well, a crappy framing device. It is, at least, interesting, coupling a literal dissolution of self with the inherent alienation of no longer being attached to linear time, no longer anchored to natural order. Thanks to the influence of his partner Rean, they keep a rather low profile, and respect whatever time they’re in, working with people temporarily rather than displacing them. It is cognizant of time and memory as a force that universally permeates with a total capacity to upend and even destroy an individual’s ego.

Aeon Avenger and Radiant Historia are not the most articulate, graceful games, but they were incredibly refreshing compared to Chrono Trigger’s impulsive and episodic chaos. Clear ideological goals feel better married to time, history, and memory, than a player focused entitlement. Chrono Trigger, in its sappiness, doesn’t acknowledge its complicity with violence. I don’t think Chrono Trigger is anything more than a really well paced adventure romp.

I want to stress though that gaming is collectively nostalgic for this comfort. There’s a rainbow of expression that could be instead canonized and prioritized. Yet raw feel-good almost always wins out, obfuscating the medium’s potential goals and feasibility, encouraging future work to tread down a similar path. Based on ridiculous toxicity, entitlement, and ahistoricity that endures in this subculture, there’s a legitimate argument that prioritizing this comfort is dangerous.

Many people, in and outside of games, are chasing simple answers to complex problems. They might want to make America great again, or ensure Britain is for the British. Materially these attitudes are incredibly damaging. It takes no more than a cursory history education to understand that patriotic nostalgia suggests positivity that is not based in anything that actually happened. It overrides sense. An ideology which centers ultimate pursuit of individual comfort.  People remember times being good for them at some point and think, maybe, if we walk back on some things, if the circumstances become similar to before, it can be like it was. It’s seduction. Time will never be as it was.

It’s kind of horrifying. What is supposed to be speculatively terror-prone and mystifying about time travel is that it can change the past or the future. Time is constant and it feels like perversion if it’s despoiled. Nothing so dramatic needs to happen, though. Certain people vehemently believe the past was a certain way and yearn to shape the present in that image. The past is effectively changed. Whatever actually happened is overwritten by an idealization which never happened and yet apparently needs to happen. People change the past all the time, when they reflect on their memories, when they try to interpret history. I’m changing the past right now, in an effort to mark the future. I think that’s why Chrono Trigger is not an enduring work. It wears an aesthetic of change, but peddles a direct ideology of entitled, hyper-individualistic certainty, while we live in the most uncertain times.

I’m a forgetful person. I don’t have to live with the hell of incredibly vivid and overpowering remembrance. My nostalgia is probably like anyone else’s. Maybe even worse. Lately though, when making mundane, normal decisions, like figuring out what to eat, sometimes I become burdened with what I’ve accumulated up to this point. I think of as many times I’ve thought similar things, as many times as my brain can spark and flash in the moment. I think of an overwhelming amount of occurrences and how together they’re myself. My past accumulated into the present, my present interprets the past, and this combination steers the future. I think it’s very likely that my past doesn’t always exist as it occurred. I’ve misremembered things. My perception is imperfect and faulty. I’ve changed the past as far as it matters in the future.

Videogames, thousands of tiny echoes, influences, references; a living molded experience. I alchemize them. My nostalgia is for diversity and complexity. While doing the sisyphean work of participating in videogame history, I know it’s being wrapped up, it’s being simplified, it’s being warped and changed. This history is always in the service of currently operating companies, of obviously suffocating monopolies. Why are we so invested in proselytizing a dominant history for Square Enix’s sake? I don’t want to reduce people to their nostalgia. I wonder what it is we want.

I go out, I get out of my head, I get out of valueless discourse. I go on walks. On looming, paved roads that I don’t need and didn’t ask for. I step outside, onto American soil, and I sometimes feel a horrible weight. I think of the atrocities this nation has committed in its self-interest, in the name of peace. It’s metaphysically wrong and irrational but I feel like time travel is occurring in a constant way. I’m living in a bad future because the unclean parts of the past are methodically erased. Things are better now. I hear that a lot. A better formed from broken backs. We just forget the horrible things, never making reparations. Thanks to a nostalgia for progress we forget. Ghosts of the past permeate my nation’s dysfunction as it plunges into greedy paranoia. I wonder if accumulated trauma will finally cut through beady nostalgia.

3 thoughts on “One More Time, for the Road (Against Chrono Trigger)

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