Chrono Trigger and Environmental Disaster

October 23, 2011 § 5 Comments

I was thinking about what makes good villains a few days ago when I saw a discussion of Squaresoft (pre-Squenix days) bad guys on the internet. It was lots of fun and in the thread I saw Lavos, the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) from the wonderful game Chrono Trigger described as a “force of nature”, and it got me thinking, not just about what made a good villain, but also about Chrono Trigger (CT) in particular.

Bear with me, because this sort of thinking is what happens when you earn your Masters and need to spend your thinking capital somewhere else.

To briefly describe CT, it’s a game where you play a group of warriors, wizards, robots, and friends from across time who gather together to defeat Lavos, an ancient being that was brought to the world in the prehistoric past and which causes a calamity in 1999 A.D.

Guess which one is the robot!

There are two important things to know about the game before I go on, and the first is that the game hinges around the time travel mechanic. From the very beginning, the characters travel through time into certain periods (35,000,000 BC, 12,000 BC, 600 AD, 1000 AD, the nominal “present” according to the protagonist, 1999AD, the Apocalypse, 2300 AD, and the End of Time). At first it’s an accident, but in time they learn that something is lurking behind the scenes. This something is Lavos, an alien parasite that intends to devour the energy of the world.

I'd caution about spoilers, but the game is 16 years old.

The second thing to know is that one of the central themes of the game is the conflict between inevitability and choice. The characters can and do go back in time in order to prevent certain actions from happening. Perhaps the most important, and meaningful, is where you actually save the life of one of the characters by going back to several seconds before he is obliterated and quickly saving him then. Another example is that you can fight the final boss of the game, if you choose to, within the first hour of play without cheating at all. The game itself acknowledges that there are certain things which are inevitable, and yet the player, much like the characters, always has choice. There are many side quests that depend on time-travel, such as replanting a forest, that are unnecessary in order to finish the main quest line, but reflect the fact that the characters have, literally, all the time in the world.

In the US version of the game, you challenge her to a "soup-drinking" contest, where you wake up with a headache afterwards. HMMMM. Also, you take a trip to the pre-historic drugstore for the pre-historic morning-after pill.

However, hand-in-hand with that choice is inevitability. The game, likely due to limitations of the system, still follows a progression of the story. You can’t, say, drop in on Magus’ castle before the game will let you, nor can you go back and catch earlier versions of the party to give them sweet swag. Your characters follow a timeline that they are powerless to leave. This inevitability, in fact, reveals itself most strongly when you figure out who the BBEG actually is.

The party is accidentally sent to 2300 AD, and see the post-apocalyptic landscape that was the result of Lavos’ emergence from the earth. So shocked are they at the destroyed world, they set out to stop Lavos from emerging. Basically, they plan to go back in time and punch Lavos’ mom in the stomach.

Now, to find out where the stomach is...

They go to 600 AD, when the wizard Magus was said to have summoned Lavos. The party interrupts the summoning, or tries to, but learns that Magus only awakened the beast. Lavos was already there, asleep and waiting. Frantically, the party travels back to 35,000,000 BC to try and find out how to stop the monster…only to learn that Lavos was the “asteroid” that impacted the world and killed the dinosaurs. The party can visit and revisit the point of impact as much as they want, powerless to stop the inevitable impact.

The inevitability continues. Not only (in the English version at least) do they learn that Lavos has been influencing the development of modern man for an end of his own devising, they also learn that in the past, 12,000 BC, a civilization tapped into Lavos’ power and used it to achieve incredible things, such as floating cities and technology that seems magical. Learning that this civilization also interacted with Lavos, they try to intervene and kill it while it is still weakened and not fully awake.

Suffice to say, the plan goes poorly.

Here is where the inevitability hits hardest: they cannot* stop the apocalypse, the Day of Lavos. No amount of jumping through time will help that (*there is one way through the Black Fortress quest line, but that quest line only appears because of the impact the party has on prior timelines. The Black Fortress is the utopian civilization’s time-travelling super-fortress that is only built because you go back into the past because Lavos’ coming is inevitable in all other timelines. Did I mention I loathe time travel loopholes?). All your other choices almost seem like window dressing to the coming firestorm. As Arnold said, Judgement Day is inevitable.

Yes, I was furious when Terminator 3 invalidated Terminator 2. FURIOUS.

Lavos cannot be prevented, he must be contained. Now, here’s where it gets significant. Of the party, only one of them is in any way actually affected by the Apocalypse. All the others could, conceivably, live in their own timeline and not have to deal with the future repercussions of Lavos’ emergence. This is like if in the Lord of the Rings, they could have jumped on the boats before the events of the books.

And chose not to.

You see, the point of CT is that the combined efforts of the past, present, and future come together to ensure that the future, which by definition they are not participating in, can be free of it’s inevitable destruction. With the power of the Epoch, their time machine, they would never have to even deal with Lavos. They could go back to 36,000,200 BC and live their lives in peace.

There would even be dinosaurs. They could make some sort of...terra...nova...

But they don’t. In CT, they actually grapple with the mistakes of the past and do so for an unlived-in future. The protagonists are doing it, not only for people they don’t know, but people they will never know or meet (time travel notwithstanding).

Now that sounds all fine and dandy, but how does that fit in with our world, where there aren’t spunky cavewomen running around fighting alien parasites? Well, why don’t we replace “Lavos” with “oil”?

Not exactly as frightening as an ancient alien parasite, huh?

Oil came from 35,000,000 BC or thereabouts. It’s presence and it’s effects can’t be removed or else there wouldn’t be an industrial society (“subtly influencing modern man’s evolution”, see above). Further, unless it is directly faced and its power over us eliminated, there will be an Apocalypse, whether that be environmental collapse, a loss of oil as an energy source before society is ready, or some combination of the two. We can be loosely understood as the society that has reached a utopia from tapping into the power of this ancient beast. Lack of flying cities notwithstanding, when you consider that even a poor person in the 1st world is living better than anyone else in history it’s not that big of a stretch.

And that’s the amazing message of CT which still resonates today. It’s not about fighting the monster that can and will destroy you now. Neither Lavos, nor the environmental impacts of reckless oil use will affect us. Future generations, yes, but we’re not in the crosshairs.

But that means it’s our responsibility to deal with the monster that we awoke. We will never see the lives we save by switching from oil or making it cleaner, but that in no way mitigates our responsibility to those invisible people. Just because we cannot see them, it does not mean that we should not help them.

So in the end, I don’t know how good a villain that actually makes Lavos. He is, after all, just an animal that is searching for suitable prey. But that does make the protagonists some of the best from any story I’ve read. How many other characters, once they see what they’re up against, are given an out and then willingly do not take it on behalf of those they will never meet?

Hell, we should all be so brave.

N.B. – I don’t know how many of you will be able to read that article I linked to, but please try, as  it’s well worth a read even if you’re not a historian. It’s only 11 pages, so I know you can do it! Also, this essay was eaten by the internet half-way through and therefore took an hour longer than it should have. I am displeased.

To let off some steam, have Robo’s song and relive the 90s as they were meant to be heard:

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