How An SNES Game Called Chrono Trigger Proves That Video Games Are Art.
Posted on February 6, 2015
Many people will tell you that video games are not, and can not be art. The Guardian (UK) wrote a piece about it a while back you can read HERE. The late Roger Ebert also once did a piece on the subject, which you can read HERE if you’d like. In fact, search Google and you can rest assured that you will find countless opinion pieces in which people propose all sorts of ways in which video games shouldn’t be considered art. Some of the reasons are simple, such as the Guardian’s claims that since video games don’t originate from one source, they cannot be artwork. Others are more heavy-handed in describing ways in which “high” art can make one think and feel where a game simply can’t.
Well, I’m here to tell you that video games ARE art. Not all of them, just as not all the things they hang in the museum these days will be considered great art in the future. For every Picasso out there, there is also a hack artist in it for the money or someone selling commercial schlock devoid of feeling. Same with the games. You have your Angry Birds, and you have The Last Of Us. But just because Angry Birds is out there, a game that is really fun but is ultimately just throw-away entertainment, doesn’t mean that you won’t have your mind blown when you experience The Last Of Us, or some other equally amazing game. Games can make you feel any emotions movies can, and arguably even more so due to the propensity for video games immersing the player into its own little myopic world. Games are made up of countless art forms, all melded together to create the ultimate in entertainment. Storyboard artists, conceptual artists, rendering artists, character artists, animators, etc. On top of that you have composers, musicians, writers, actors, directors, etc. The list goes on and on. It really is a melting pot of all art forms, and its a beautiful thing. If writing is an art form, then games are art. If drawings, paintings, and modeling are art – games are art. If acting is an art, games are art. If music is an art, then games are art. There really is no room for debate. People like to debate the meaning of the word “art” or the word “game”, or say that if one enters an open-world game with no set score then it stops being a game and becomes more like a movie. I am an artist, but I love to play games – and I can tell the difference. How many of the critics have entered both of those worlds, and have not just seen videos of gameplay that they are detached from on a personal level from the outset?
One game in particular can make the entire case for this debate, and it’s not on the PS4. It’s not on the XBox One. It’s not even next-gen. It’s a cartridge game from 1995 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System called Chrono Trigger.
You see, the SNES (what we call the Super Nintendo for short) was on its last legs. The Sony Playstation had just been released and cartridge games were about to start going the way of the Dodo, at least until the Nintendo 64 showed up later on. The creator of another RPG (Role Playing Game) called Dragon Quest, Yuji Horii, got together with the artist behind the popular Dragon Ball anime franchise, Akira Toriyama, as well as the creators of the Final Fantasy games (including Hironobu Sakaguchi), while Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda created the game’s unbeatable score – forming a dream team alliance that would keep the SNES afloat for much longer than expected. Dragon Quest, Dragon Ball, Final Fantasy – each of these properties was already immensely popular at the time (and most still are) and appealed in various ways to various consumers. In the end, this dream team produced Chrono Trigger – which was not only innovative in its game design and mechanics (multiple endings, seamless combat/exploration system) but was also artistic beyond anything anyone could have expected. The story is immensely engaging, providing a swashbuckling romp through many different time periods in order to save the Earth from an invading alien parasite.
Since there are so many artistic elements involved in the making of this game, I will pick some out and compare them to other, similar works of art for comparison sake.
You begin the game as a young man named Crono in a small village. You make your way to the nearby Millenial Fair and bump into a beautiful young woman who calls herself “Marle”. You spend the day showing her around after she asks you to, and then when you bring Marle to visit your friend Lucca’s science exhibit – something goes wrong and Marle is thrust through a “Gate” (dimensional portal) after her pendant has an adverse reaction to the machine’s energy. Without thinking, you rush to her aid and end up on a journey through time in order to save the future from an alien parasite named Lavos living at the center of the Earth.
At its very core, this storyline doesn’t sound like anything out of the norm for science fiction or comic books. Time travel stories have existed for ages, or at least since 1733 when Samuel Madden wrote Memoirs From The 20th Century – but Chrono Trigger lets you experience the thrill of hopping through time and changing history. Other stories featuring time travel have been regarded as art, and some of our most beloved authors have penned great works involving time travel (and you can see a list HERE if you’d like). Chrono Trigger does no less. The journey is multi-layered, with dramatic back-and-forth. Each character is from a specific time period. Crono, Marle, and Lucca are all from the year that would be looked at as the game’s “modern” time frame while “Robo” – their robot companion, is from the distant future. Likewise, “Frog” and “Magus” are both from the “dark ages” or medieval times (and in Magus’ case, even earlier than that). Finally, “Ayla” is from the prehistoric period. This ensures that the narrative is stretched into an epic journey worthy of high fantasy, especially since each character is fleshed out with complex back stories and character arcs on par with anything we have today.
While the prose itself is often simplified (and probably wouldn’t win any awards), for ease in gaming – the sentiment the story produces is more powerful than some of our most well-regarded stories which exist on the shelves of our libraries or bookstores. The transformation of Crono, the silent protagonist, is palpable – without his character ever uttering a single word (you decide all his choices for him and he gets little-to-no actual dialogue). In fact, all the characters transform if you choose for them to. That is the power with this art form and with a game like Chrono Trigger. As a participant, you can place yourself in the center of this creative space and exert your own will on how it is shaped (to a degree, anyway). It does have at least one defined beginning and end goal, so it’s still a game – but the journey is part of its artistic merit. When placed against high fantasy works like The Lord Of The Rings, many people would say that the journey of the characters in Chrono Trigger are not nearly as artistic or deserving of that title, but if you engage with these characters and they become real, they make you feel things – then that is art. These characters made me feel. When Crono sacrificed himself to save his friends from certain destruction, I made that choice and I was right there, witnessing the battle first hand. It was noble, poignant, and I was invested. When Frog raised his magic sword, called Masamune, and split the face of a mountain in half with it on a windswept field – I stared open-mouthed, gooseflesh erupting on my arms, as the rubble came crashing down around the anthropomorphic amphibian. When I went back in time as Lucca and saved her mother from the accident that had crippled her, I rejoiced and shared in Lucca’s thankful appreciation. When Robo had to turn against his former “mother brain” and destroy her, I marveled at the robot’s human-like emotions. These characters were real to me, as real as any created by Tolkien or Lloyd Alexander or C.S. Lewis. I received the same thrills, the same emotions, as were stirred by any of those authors and countless gamers feel the same way as I do. There’s no way around it.
The second thing we can look at is the most literal: The actual “art” and art direction that goes into the game. Akira Toriyama has created an entire world with just a few pieces of concept art for the game. The iconic box art I already posted at the beginning of this blog entry (which was actually based on a beta gameplay screenshot at the time), as well as his concept artwork for each different time period, and the heroes, villains, and vehicles you can encounter while playing. His work is filled with little world-building details one would normally find in character descriptions if it were in book form. The above image tells us most of what we need to know about the characters and setting, and it tells us effectively even if it’s literally just showing us. We know there’s a robot character who is needing upkeep or has been damaged and that there is a lady tinkerer working on him. That’s exciting. We know there’s an anthropomorphic frog character who dresses in medieval clothing. That’s exciting. Already, there is a merging of a fantasy-type setting with a sort of science-fiction setting. That’s exciting. The road leading away from the scene in the window behind the resting Crono suggests more adventure ahead of them, while the clock next to him seems to be in motion and makes the viewer actively think about time, which is the entire premise of the game. That’s exciting, and brilliant.
Akira Toriyama’s style is storybook-like, with its watercolors and rich scenery. It evokes a sense of adventure and whimsy much the same as any children’s books or illustration. If we regard children’s illustration as a high form of art, then Akira Toriyama should at least be counted among their caliber. The likes of Nancy E. Burkert, David Wiesner, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – these are all names associated with some of the MOST BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN’S BOOKS OF ALL TIME and I feel that in regards to aesthetic purposes, Akira Toriyama is just as good as any of these illustrators, though he’s really in his own category. I merely meant to point out that his own works can stand up with the rest of the artists mentioned.
This artistic beauty is not lost in the translation from traditional artwork to the pixelated, 16-bit world the game inhabits, either. Here are some actual in-game shots to prove my point:
On top of all this, the visual arts don’t just stop at in-game images or concept art. One thing that sets Chrono Trigger apart from other RPGs of its time is that eventually, when it was released as a port for the PS1 – it came with anime cut scenes. For a Chrono Trigger nerd like myself, it was bliss. To not only re-live the Chrono Trigger experience, but also get to see new animated representations of my favorite video game characters that somehow seemed to breathe even more life into them. Here is the game’s opening cut scene:
The video above definitely evokes a sense of adventure, the same sense of adventure you can find within the story and the concept art. It is whimsical, exciting, and seems like it could be a Studio Ghibli production with its grand fantasy setting and steampunk-ish visuals. This all melds together to create a visually-impressive world in which you can inhabit via the character of Crono.
If there is any sort of litmus test which would showcase the artistic merit of a particular project, I’m guessing it would be music. Films are judged partly by their musical scores, and some movies are entirely based on music. Everything from animated films to serious dramatic films can win awards for their musical direction.
The absolute best thing, for me, about Chrono Trigger – has to be the music. Each song, composed by Nobuo Uematsu and/or Yasunori Mitsuda, not only provides mood music and atmosphere but gives the adventure its voice. From the opening theme (you may have noticed it in the video above) which gives us a sense of the grand quest, all the way to the ending which fills us with feelings of victory – the music is top-notch. Each song is a masterpiece. Here are a couple of examples, since my words can do the music (and remember, this is BIT MUSIC).
“Peaceful Days” is a piece that you will often hear playing in the background as you traverse the Kingdom of Guardia, the sleepy region Crono finds himself in at the beginning of the adventure. The music is easy, light, and doesn’t indicate adventure or danger one way or another, reflecting the attitude of Guardia’s residents. It can be challenging to create a game tune that won’t grate on people’s nerves – and this one never does.
“Memories Of Green” is a beautiful remix of “Chrono’s Theme” heard at the beginning of the game. The track is winding and creates a sense of positive longing, and is also easy on the ears when you’re wandering the world map in-game.
“Guardia Millenial Fair” is the tune that plays when you visit the fairgrounds. Immediately, you are bathed in a festive mood by the music. The little shouts were very surprising coming from the SNES at the time, but the sense of whimsy and fun this tune creates is unbeatable.
“Wind Scene” is a piece that seems to move almost everyone who listens. This is one of the most longing and nostalgic pieces in the entire oeuvre, and if you peruse the comment sections of videos playing this song on YouTube you can see that many people are moved to tears.
“Mystery Of The Forest” – This song has an intriguing bass line. The track is both beautiful and mysterious.
“Frog’s Theme” – This is one of the most dynamic pieces of music in the entire musical score. It gives me goosebumps every time.
“People Who Threw Away The Will To Live” – Not the most upbeat song on the score, but an example of the creative uses the music team had for different instruments like the saxophone. This song invokes a sense of jaded indifference. Brilliant.
“Decisive Battle With Magus” – This piece captures the danger and excitement of several of the boss battles in the game, though it is used the first time your adventuring party fights Magus. The use of drums and wind instruments is amazing. Clashing cymbals! Creepy laughter! So good.
“Sara’s Theme (Schala’s Theme)” – This song is very interesting and catchy, which is perhaps why Wiz Khalifa sampled it for his song titled “Never Been”.
“To Far Away Times” – Go ahead. I dare you to click on it and not be moved. Even if you don’t have the sense of nostalgia built up around this game, this piece of wonderful music floods living, breathing people with emotion. IS THIS NOT THE PURPOSE OF ART?!
These are just a few of the many, many musical numbers comprising the entirety of the Chrono Trigger soundtrack (over 60 of them, actually). You can find an entire playlist of them HERE – which is where I got most of these tracks. If none of those tracks moved you or captured your attention in any way, then get your pulse checked, friend. If, however, they did move you – if they inspired you enough to give you gooseflesh or to make you think about your own childhood or friends you’ve gone on your own journeys with, then you’ve accepted what I have – that Chrono Trigger, and by extension video games, is/are a work of art.
Now, we’ve seen that the story of Chrono Trigger can (and does) immerse people. The artwork is beautiful. The musical score is eclectic and brilliant. One last thing needs to be said before I get off my soap box, however.
All great works of art inspire people around them to create. It’s like a neverending cycle of inspiration and creativity. How many artists have taken a seat inside a museum and have sketched the multitude of statues sitting before them? Pop art makes use of much mainstream pop culture art like comic books and film images and recycles it into something else. Artists feed off each other, and feed off particularly moving pieces of art especially. Chrono Trigger is not only a masterpiece in and of itself, but has also spawned many artistic projects and deviations based on the merit of its artistic integrity.
This talented lady is inspired to do a cover of the opening theme from Chrono Trigger on her violin.
This orchestra is inspired to do an entire melody arrangement featuring some of the music from Chrono Trigger.
He was inspired enough to create a metal arrangement of Chrono Trigger music.
Smooth McGroove obviously had to put in an acapella tribute.
Even Wiz Khalifa’s producer was inspired enough by at least the music to include samples of Schala’s Theme in this song.
One last thing, just GOOGLE the stories, man. Just Google them. For every naysayer out there who says Chrono Trigger is old news or who says it isn’t art – there are multitudes of fans out there who were not only happy to play the game, but continue to do so on different game systems (you can even get it on your phone, now) and keep the conversation alive. People have proposed to one another using Chrono Trigger, there have been exhibits in museums dedicated to video games and video game art, people have gotten tattoos (as seen above), people have genuinely experienced something that is shared by many, many people across the world. Is Chrono Trigger art? I think I’ve given enough examples as to why it is. Don’t you?
I welcome you to share your own Chrono Trigger stories in the comment section below. I’d love to hear the stories of how it affected you or how you felt when you first played it.