Gamers have an understandable apprehension towards sequels. Annual franchises treading water and industry luminaries getting lambasted for crowdfunded, half-baked nostalgia grabs have become normalized through gamers’ cynical lenses. Yet while I agree that it is important to be critical of games that resemble factory-assembled products, this wariness of the sequel has resulted in a trend that conflates sequels with an innate lack of creativity.
The rhetoric — as best I can surmise from the nebulous internet sentiment — is that, since sequels are iterative of their predecessors, they’re hamstrung by a lack of conceptual creativity. It’s natural to be skeptical in climate of exploitative, sequel-vomiting publishers, but I find the claim to be rather unrefined. Original works are typically stories all about establishment and the formation of identity, while sequels are invariably tethered to their predecessor. It’s true that both primary and successive games are bound by convention, but they’re left enough creative freedom to subvert, experiment, or even adhere to their given form.
While even my appreciation for sequels has been strained amidst the messy release of Mega Man’s spiritual successor Mighty No. 9, I got to thinking about Chrono Cross — the role-playing follow-up to 1995’s Chrono Trigger — a game that wonderfully utilizes its relation to its predecessor for purposeful thematic illustration. While many games like MN9 rely solely upon nostalgia to justify their existence, Chrono Cross is a game about nostalgia.
The game starts with the player woken by their mother with Trigger’s emblematic “Wake up…” but the the protagonist is no longer Crono. In Cross, players control Serge. Without the natural line’s natural denouement, the reading feels off — like an instrument out of tune. While a mere call-back on the surface, this small moment sets the game’s alien tone. Something is not quite right in the world of Chrono Cross.
Familiar Trigger iconography echoes throughout the game’s radically altered setting and art design, from pinnacles overlooking sunsets, to Viper Manor’s curiously Guardian Castle-eque parapet. Yet the relationship between both games is left obfuscated for much of the story, causing the player to feel disoriented and left wondering how this game relates to its predecessor. Why is this game in Chrono canon if the ATB system has been replaced by a confusing Xenogears thing? Why couldn’t the main cast of the last game visit any of the areas featured in this one? Nothing was even tropical in 1,000 AD Trigger!
The result is an utterly surreal experience, resembling a kind of somber, half-remembered fever dream far more than the plucky adventure game of yore. Players expecting continuity from Trigger are instead left feeling uneasy in a new setting that features foreign combat mechanics and mere of a game past. With Trigger so hard to ignore in Cross’ visuals and historical context, I ultimately longed for the comfort provided by the former. Chrono Cross is a game about age. It’s about being an adult and, amidst all those crummy adult problems, wistfully longing for youth.
By re-contextualizing classic Trigger motifs in a story concerned with the consequence and responsibility, Chrono Cross generates nostalgia for its predecessor. Trigger was a game that felt forward-thinking and optimistic; it dared to change the future, to rage against the dying of the world and sail triumphantly through a firework-lit night sky. Trigger was indicative of the childlike potential to shape the future.
In forcing the player to be accountable for unforeseen, and often disastrous consequences of Trigger’s heroes, Chrono Cross made me feel old. If the former was filled with brazen heroes and classic JRPG derdoing, then Cross asks the player to be considered — to proceed carefully and think about one’s actions. It’s worth noting that, for it’s day, Chrono Trigger was a game that represented consequence in an exciting, if linear cause and effect way, but it never fully explored consequence quite like Cross does.
In Trigger, the intended the player’s actions in the past have an intended, usually positive reaction in the future. You save the Marle’s ancestor from an army of fiends, so the bloodline carries on as intended. Yet throughout Chrono Cross, I was presented with critical decisions that affected the setting and characters in dramatic ways, and while the subversive binary of consequences is a little strained, the consequences were frequently unintended.
And the game hold you responsible.
For instance, take the scenario where where Kid is injured. The player can leave her to her fate, or do the JRPG thing! Go to a dungeon, fight boss, grab the McGuffin, and BAM! Kid’s cured. Yet a few hours later, and the game subverts the players’ heroic acts by showing them the disastrous ecological fallout due to their actions. You ravaged El Nido’s wildlife to save one person, the game tells you. And the player has no choice but to accept that fact and take responsibility.
Nothing bad ever happened when Frog split a freaking mountain in half or when desert wildlife was displaced by Robo’s years of forestation! In Chrono Trigger, the big baddy is evil, so you kill it. In Cross, the final boss can be killed, but only at tremendous human cost, so the game asks you to consider responsible alternatives.
Moreover, Cross’ plotting forced me to control characters that hadn’t even had a hand in the origin of their problem, but are forced to take responsibility anyway. Serge’s fate was cursed from the start; his sudden illness, the freak storm that marooned him on Chronopolis, and even his imprinting with the Frozen Flame are a sequence of events beyond his ability to control. And the entire Lavos/Schala threat that faces the world had its origins in Trigger. Honestly, it’s enough to frustrate anyone. I didn’t ask for any of this, so why is it happening to me!?
Serge’s role in the story is not borne of his desire, yet represents a mantle of responsibility that circumstance has forced upon him — and he acts without complaint. The situation may not be of his making, but it’s become his responsibility. While the characters of Trigger take responsibility for the fate of the world, the involvement is voluntary because the outcome is deemed convenient. Voluntary and involuntary responsibility have a very different dynamic, and Cross’ exploration of the latter is what reinforces its thematic maturation.
The subversion of both classic JRPG tropes and Trigger motifs helps to emphasize the feeling of age and form Cross’ willingness to make the player feel genuine youthful nostalgia; I wanted Trigger’s simplicity back with its brash heroes and easy answers. But Chrono Cross, through constant emphasis on consequence juxtaposed upon an alien battle battle system and setting, provide neither the player nor its characters such comfort. Adults don’t merely arbitrarily feel wistful, they long for childhood, and Cross knows this. Without a foundation upon which to draw nostalgia from, its themes of consequence and responsibility would be conveyed with a sense of muted poignancy. The game works thematically because of what it isn’t, and for that basis, it requires a counterpart.
So, how about sequels?
Perhaps my thoughts on Chrono Cross are purely anecdotal to any “sequel defense rhetoric” that one can derive from this piece, but I don’t ultimately think they’re in defense of the form. Despite the impressions that I get from gaming forums and whatnot, I know how these games make me feel, and I don’t feel the need to convince anyone otherwise. Rather, I think it’s important to reaffirm past notions in an environment that engenders doubt, so it’s ironic that my nostalgia for Chrono Cross provided me with all the right kinds of positive reinforcement.
In the wake of more iterative games that bank on series nostalgia like Mighty No. 9, Fallout 4, or even Dark Souls III, it’s comforting to return to games that avoid replicating their predecessors too well without sacrificing the spirit of the original.