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  • Game Narrative Review: Chrono Trigger

    - Michael Brannan

  • Strongest Element

    More than any other game, Chrono Trigger fuses storyline and gameplay. The game is based around time travel, which provides a common link for these two fundamentally important game design elements. Nearly every action the player takes in one time period affect the game's world in later eras. By providing such a powerful link between gameplay and story, Chrono Trigger established a strong foundation for its characters and created a paradigm that worked to draw the player into the game's world and immerse themselves in the characters' plight.

    Unsuccessful Element

     The weakest narrative choice in Chrono Trigger is the ability to resurrect Crono after his sacrifice at the Ocean Palace. While the quest to "resurrect" Crono is highly involved and interesting, killing Crono off only to have him revived later greatly weakened Chrono Trigger's story. The narrative would have been much stronger had Crono remained dead and lived on only in memory.

    In fact, one of the strongest, poignant, and most emotional endings comes if you defeat Lavos without reviving Crono. In the original SNES release, this ending depicts Marle sitting at the base of the tree at the top of Death Peak, thinking about Crono and mourning his loss (The PlayStation and DS releases changed this ending significantly). Killing a major character is certainly a powerful narrative device, but this device is only fully realized if the writer sticks to the decision and does not allow that character to be revived. That character's death will become a major plot point, define the rest of the game, and ultimately the game's narrative will be stronger because of the decision to let that character die.

    Square Soft learned this lesson shortly after making Chrono Trigger, and its next major game, Final Fantasy VII, stands as a powerful testament that if you kill a major character, you should make sure they stay dead. Aerith's death largely defined Final Fantasy VII's plot and the fact that there was no possible way to revive Aerith underlined her death's significance. Had there been some way to revive Aerith, not only would her death have lost much of its significance, but Cloud's remorse and self-doubt would have felt thin and cheap, and the deep-seated hatred for Sephiroth would have been weakened.

    The difference in fan reaction to Crono's death in Chrono Trigger (practically none) and Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII (some players even hacked the game in order to forcibly place Aeris back on their team) demonstrates that the narrative decision to let a major character die and remain dead greatly improves the impact of a game's narrative.


     Magus was an early villain and for a time seemed to be the game's final boss. Portrayed as the ultimate bad guy, Magus waged war on the otherwise peaceful kingdom of Guardia and was pegged as Lavos's creator when he supposedly summoned the monster to his castle. However, as Crono and co. later learn, Magus was more of a tragic figure, thrown into a dark and distant future from his homeland in the kingdom of Zeal and searching for his lost sister, Schala.

    Eventually, the player encounters Magus again, only this time their goals are in parallel, trying to defeat Lavos in the Ocean Palace. After Crono's sacrifice to save his friends, the now-Cronoless remnants of the Crono team have the opportunity to either fight and kill Magus once and for all or accept Magus onto the team and help him find his lost sister. This reversal of fate marks possibly the most memorable point in Chrono Trigger's narrative and allows the player to connect strongly with a character they previously learned to hate.

    Critical Reception

    Chrono Trigger received almost universal praise, earning an overall 88 on Metacritic. Finding a negative comment on Chrono Trigger's storyline is difficult, if not impossible.

    Mark Bozon at IGN gave the DS version of Chrono Trigger an 8.8/10, stating that "the theme of causality and travelling through time to change the course of history, making sure certain destruction doesn't come to pass is such a refreshing change of pace as it's something that's truly epic." He cites Chrono Trigger's outdated graphics and the lackluster additions to the DS version as reasons for the game not receiving an essentially perfect score.

    Daniel James at Gamestyle gives Chrono Trigger a 10/10, saying, "the storyline twists and turns as new people are met and join your team - a different person from each time period, all fighting for a common goal. And your actions in-game will also affect certain characters' availability as well as the outcome of the ending."

    About the harshest any reviewer rated Chrono Trigger was an 80/100 from David Jenkins at Teletext, who said that "although it still relies heavily on the steampunk look familiar to many mid-era Final Fantasies, and concerns a giant planet threatening bad guy, the game's plot manages to keep things interesting with an unusual time travelling motif." He also cites the DS's weak additions and out-dated graphics for deductions from Chrono Trigger's otherwise perfect score.


    • Providing early visibility of the main antagonist provides clear direction for the player and allows a game to create storyline and tension through clever misdirection and obstacles on the path to the final boss.
    • While truly evil villains are fun to hate, they only really gain depth and come to life when they have believable goals and understandable motives.
    • When gameplay and storyline are closely linked, the two elements build on each other and enhance the effectiveness of both.
    • When a main character is killed off, only to later be revived, it cheapens the character's death and results in a weaker overall story.


    Chrono Trigger seems an obvious choice for review. It received near-universal praise, has stood the test of time making best-selling status through multiple re-releases across three completely different platforms, and holds a spot on just about every "best game" list compiled. However, the narrative basis cited for these achievements is often simply "good storyline" or "excellent characterization." Qualifying and examining the narrative design choices that helped make Chrono Trigger the perennial powerhouse it is provides several lessons useful for continuing to make games with strong narrative.


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