On ‘Chrono Trigger’, the Book

A note: This isn’t really a review, so to speak, because the idea of writing a legitimate review is terrifying to me. This is more “thoughts on” rather than “meaningful criticism.” We’re all talking about video games, here, so there has to be at least a little room for just having fun with things.

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Unlike Michael P. Williams, author of Chrono Trigger (not the game, but the book, out now from Boss Fight Books), I did not buy myself, or have someone buy for me, the Super Nintendo game of the same title. At the time the game was released, I had no video game systems to speak of, but a few friends did, and a few friends’ older brothers did go out and buy the exorbitantly-priced game with their allowances, which meant I was able to watch the game from a spectator’s seat between slices of pizza and Coke and skateboarding sessions out in the driveway.

In a way, I beat the game before ever guiding Crono a single step.

I bought my SNES and a handful of games—Chrono TriggerFinal Fantasy VI, and Earthbound, the three games that many would say are the magnum opi of the 16-bit—for what I think was about sixty dollars. I bought it from one of those friends’ older brothers, who said selling the system and those games was like “losing a friend.” But, apparently money was more important — so that he could buy a PlayStation, no doubt.

Unlike Williams, I had no magical experience, as Williams did, upon unsealing the game and turning on its power for the first time. I simply pulled mine from that cardboard box—the gray plastic already a little yellowed, the label’s edges frayed. I had no strategy guide, but I’d already spectated my way through the dungeons and key sequences. More than once heard my eight-year-old friends shout, “I did hit L-A-R-A, damn it!” I knew what I was doing. I was ready.

I always felt that my early experiences with Chrono Trigger were akin to watching the director’s commentary on a movie before watching the movie itself. I always felt that knowledge helped me understand the game better than my peers. But the delight in Williams’ new book is what I think of as the behind-the-scenes of that director’s commentary—insights on the game’s production in an angle that is uniquely his.

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Chrono Trigger is the second book in a series of video game-related books from Boss Fight Books. The first, EarthBound, by Ken Baumann, is divided into three “narratives”: reminiscing of playing the game with his older brother, a present-time replaying that coincides with a major illness, and general criticism. Williams takes a slightly different approach, favoring mostly criticism laced with his perspective on Japanese culture, race, sexuality, gender issues, and apocalypse.

Williams recounts his own time as a teacher at a Japanese school, and how largely strange and unique he was to the students. Japan, as he says, is largely a one-race country—although supposedly 1.5% of the nation is non-Japanese—and the world of Chrono Trigger is very much the same, populated by “one global monorace, spanning all the way from prehistory to the dismal future of 2300 A.D.” That sense of Williams’ otherness bleeds throughout the book, and reflects well in his criticism.

It turns out that the “monorace” decision was largely based on a desire for “an aesthetic commonly called mukokuseki, or ‘nationalitilessness.’” Essentially, a desire to remove Japanese cultural distinctions from games that would be sold on an international level. This helped to both make characters more “relatable” to Western audiences and prevent anything that might be seen as racially insensitive. Interlacing his own experiences as the “other” within that country, Williams starts to hit his stride, parsing Japanese history for reasons why the game’s designers made such exclusive decisions.

Williams handles gender and sexuality with the same type of appropriate and insightful balance between analysis of Japanese cultural norms and his own experiences as a gay man who was repeatedly interrogated by his students: “‘Kanojo imasu ka?”’ Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?” For a culture so seemingly heteronormative, Williams points out that Chrono Trigger actually does a great deal of interesting things with gender and sexuality that my less-than-ten-year-old brain certainly didn’t process as spectator or player.

Crono and Marle are the standard straight white couple, yes, but there’s also some truly interesting analysis into Lucca’s possible robosexual-ness, and the fact that Frog might hold a closeted love for Cyrus behind all his thys and thous. Does Magnus have an insestual love toward his sister, Schala?

And what about Magus’ general Flea, who is identified repeatedly as male, but dresses as a woman, and attacks by kissing? Is one of Flea’s bits of dialog—“Male or female, what difference does it make? Power is beautiful, and I’ve got the power.”—a “queer anthem,” as Williams calls it? To help answer some of these questions, Williams brings in his knowledge of the complexities of the Japanese language, which, for example, has nearly a dozen options in pronouns. Flea uses atai whereas Frog uses ore, two male-oriented pronouns that have different, nuanced definitions to Japanese speakers. Naturally, that meaningful difference is rendered down into a single “he” in the American version. But if one were to play the game again, knowing this possibility, what new readings might they make from Flea’s attacks, or Frog’s regrets?

All of this is to say the book’s strongest point is analyzing the what if. The ways the game is very different between its Japanese and American incarnations, and the many ways they could have diverged still, given simple choices by the game’s translators. The ways Americans might reinvest themselves in the game if only they knew the nuances lost in translation.

And on those translations — the two interviews Williams has integrated into the book, the first with Ted Woolsey, the original translator for the SNES version, and the second with Tom Slattery, who translated the Nintendo DS version, are both remarkably compelling. Everything from impossible deadlines to boring cubicles to accidentally gendering a character that had been ambiguous for years—they prove just how difficult it is to carry all those nuances over from one side of the world to another. It’s sort of like time travel in the game itself—things get lost along the way, or skewed, and sometimes, it just doesn’t make all that much sense.

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The book did meander a bit, in my opinion, which kept me from truly engaging within its first 40 or so pages. At times it felt a little like a dungeon that was designed purposefully to confuse the player (reader) into taking wrong turns, circumnavigating through hallways already explored. I wondered at times if it wouldn’t have benefited from a little more insight from Williams’ unique perspective on Japanese culture rather than lengthy critiques of how the game’s time travel paradoxes don’t often make sense—as I said before, does time travel ever truly make sense?

And I’d hardly recommend the book to someone who wasn’t already familiar with Crono and his world-saving, Lavos-killing friends, although I don’t think Williams and Boss Fight Books are looking to publish books of generally-accessible criticism. This book is for gamers, those who grew up on the heyday of JRPGs, who hold dear places in their hearts for these 16-bit games. Chrono Trigger is a book, then, for those who want an excuse to play the game yet again. To dig up an old dusted-out cartridge or to scan some illegitimate-looking site for a ROM. To shell out a few bucks to play it on a smartphone or on a Nintendo DS.

In that light, the book definitely succeeds. The book makes me want to dig for the box I know contains my copy of Chrono Trigger and all its siblings. Makes me want to remember how to connect a Super Nintendo to a modern-day TV (the RF/antenna connector still works but remember how much you hate screwing them in!). Makes me want to slog through the first few hours of the game, which I’ve inevitably played more times than I can count, in order to find the gems I’ve forgotten.

Armed, then, to see the game differently. To consider Lucca’s sexuality, or the meaning of Crono’s silence and how that reflects on the game’s standard straight relationship with Marle. To think about the events that have happened between 1995 and today that some might think of as apocalyptic, and how that changes the tragedy of 1999 A.D. To think about the quirks in translation—do you know what the “Naga-ette Bromide” really is?—and to consider why the game’s creators made some characters men, and others women, and others between. To be a completely different kind of spectator.

Isn’t that what these books are all about? To not only remind us of why we love these games, and make us want to play them, but also to render them new again?

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Chrono Trigger, by Michael P. Williams — Boss Fight Books — 14.95