One hundred and ten years ago, one of the most recognizable philosophical works, “The Unreality of Time” was published by J.M.E. McTaggart. Simplified, he argued that time is an illusion because any event that occurs is simultaneously past, present and future. Since I am typing both at present and just now in the past, but also right now in the immediate future, they contradict each other. This creates an infinite regress, a vicious loop in which we cannot explain or differentiate between the three.
It is quite convoluted and often futile to explain what time does to our psyche, livelihood, and identities, but that is exactly what Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) Chrono Cross attempted to untangle. The plot is dense and at times near impossible to understand, but upon its release, it was critically acclaimed, much debated in video game fandom circles, and is still cited as one of the best JRPG’s of all time. On November 18th, Chrono Cross will turn 19 years old and personally, I will forever know Chrono Cross as the most beloved and profoundly influential video game I have ever, or will ever play.
Beware of spoilers past this point.
The player controls Serge, a typically silent protagonist who, unbeknownst to him, has been tasked with saving the world. He embarks on this epic journey when he is unwillingly transported from his “home” world to “another” world. Both are exactly alike and have the same characters and places, but the only difference is that in “another” world Serge has been dead for the last 10 years, altering the lives, choices, and events of everyone he once knew.
Once Serge visits his own grave and suspects that he has traveled through some kind of dimensional time vortex, a tomboyish thief with a Cockney accent named Kid shows up to guide him towards his fate. Over the course of the first part of the game, the player explores the vast archipelago of islands, recruiting characters, building relationships and reestablishing Serge’s identity in “another” world.
Just when you carve out a space for yourself, Serge is violently forced to switch bodies with the main antagonist of the game–the half-human, half-cat “demi-human” Lynx. Similarly to when you were thrown into this “another” reality, you are alone again, back on a path to reclaim your identity and prove that you are not evil. Furthermore, any relationships that you built are torn apart since no one recognizes you or believes that you are Serge.
It is at this moment that Chrono Cross truly becomes a masterwork on exploring melancholia, existentialism, and the concept of time. As the player spends the remainder of the game retrieving Serge’s own body, repairing fractured bonds, and saving the world(s) from being devoured by time itself, Chrono Cross forces you to think about your own existence, identity, and purpose.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that adhering to social principles was a sneaky form of alienation and that authenticity and existential singularity would overcome the suffocation of social conformity. The problem that Serge has as Lynx is twofold. Firstly, he is forced to once again reestablish his inner and external personal identity while imprisoned in another body. Secondly, Lynx is a demi-human, and Serge is thus stripped of his privilege and is treated as less than human.
Kierkegaard’s critique of society is that by losing one’s authentic self you fall victim to assimilation by a “public” that has an “us vs them” mentality and that you become viewed as a stereotypical whole rather than yourself. Serge becomes lumped into a species that in Chrono Cross are treated as servants, slaves, and degenerates, but at the same time he is accepted into a “community” that sees Serge for who he is personally. Marbule, the isle in the game that is entirely inhabited by demi-humans, welcomes Serge with open arms. Even then, however, they do not allow humans on their island and bear a deep resentment for them. Playing as Serge I could not help but feel guilty. Here I was, a human in a half-human body pretending to understand their plight and their lives. And while the positive values of community and solidarity were powerful, it was tainted by the deep racial divide of Chrono Cross’ world and society.
While the theme of racism is still prevalent and often referred to by characters and portrayed in the game’s world building it is not quite as fleshed out as its others. One of the most controversial and critiqued aspects of Chrono Cross is that it features a large ensemble cast of 45 playable characters. For RPG’s, this number is staggering and with the exception of Kid, Lynx, and one or two other characters, none of them are necessary. So why include them? Serge is an isolated character for large chunks of the game, and while it is nice to think that you can recruit and build friendships with so many characters, it enhances the feeling of empathy for Serge and his loneliness. Many of the characters have little dialogue and are merely along for the ride. There is no real sense of togetherness, team culture, or true friendship with the majority of the playable characters.
Many video games feature a silent protagonist (Chrono, Zelda, Half-Life, Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, Metroid, Mario, list goes on), and the primary reason for this is so the player can imprint their own personality onto them, implement their own playing style, and interpret them as they like. Chrono Cross is an exploration of self-discovery, a process that can be lonesome, melancholic, and sometimes seemingly hopeless.
I was eleven or twelve when I first played Chrono Cross, and the nostalgia and formative experience that it gave me is an enormous part of why it will be the best video game I will ever play. A lot of the themes, however, I completely missed at that age and it wasn’t until my most recent playthrough that I began to piece together its resonance. Figuring out who I am along with Kid and Serge combined with the vast, oceanic setting and elegantly tranquil score bring me to tears every time.
It is impossible to write about Chrono Cross without mentioning its spiritual predecessor, Chrono Trigger. While Cross is regarded to be among the best JRPG’s of all time, Trigger is regarded to be one of the best games ever, period, and because the former followed the latter, Cross is one of the most controversial because it is not a true nor a direct sequel. Director Masato Kato was of course well aware of the separate path Cross took in relation to the story, characters, script, and gameplay relative to Trigger, and in an interview was defensive: “The thing that I can’t understand is how could people possibly declare that this isn’t Chrono? And for these people, I can’t help but wonder what it was that Chrono meant to them? Is it possible that none of the messages that I tried to send out to these people never really got through to them?”
Kato and producer Hiromichi Tanaka consistently and deliberately repeated themselves to ardent fans of Trigger, saying that it was their explicit goal to give players a completely different experience. Besides the obvious technological difference between the platforms that each game was released, I believe that given the game’s themes of alternate worlds, time travel, and above all personal and authentic identity, there was no way that they were going to make the same game twice. Cross is cited as a flawed masterpiece because it is not a direct sequel to Trigger, and yet those people fail to see why they are so different from each other. Chrono Trigger and Cross are each authentic in their own way and were intentionally created to be so because individual identity is the main theme of each game.
Which makes the ending of Chrono Cross so profoundly brilliant. The finale brings its existential ideas to an open ending, basically managing to heal the fragment in time and uniting both the “home” and “another” worlds. Consequently, Serge is transported back to the point in time in which he originally traveled dimensions from the homeworld to another world, effectively erasing any of the events. Does this mean they never occurred? Does this mean that Serge does not remember the epic journey that he and his companions suffered and celebrated through to save the world? The final monologue posits a potential answer:
It was bloody good knowing ya, mate! Thanks for being born '"you,"' I guess now's the time to say, '"see ya later, mate!"' But... I'll find ya... Sometime, somewhere... I'm bloody sure of it! No matter the time period, no matter the world ya live in, I'll find ya! I'm sure... I am sure I will find you...
J.M.E. McTaggart’s “time is an illusion” theory is based on the idea that the past, present, and future contradict themselves and that if an event is always earlier or later than another, then their position never changes. Change is the definition of time, so if there is no change, and if the past, present, and future are one, then time is unreal. Chrono Cross’ ultimate thesis is exactly that. Serge, and us–the players–experienced the journey, made the memories, explored our identity, and at the end come out with a better understanding of ourselves.
Which makes Kid’s final words so beautiful, so emotional, so full of unconditional love.
“Thanks for being born you…
No matter the time period, no matter the world ya live in, I’ll find ya!”