Friday, April 2, 2010

Chrono Trigger- The Christian Allegory?

A while back I came across some comments suggesting that Chrono Trigger, the great Squaresoft RPG (originally on the SNES but now on at least two other platforms) should be read as a Christian allegory. I had fond memories of playing CT years back and decided to replay the game carefully in order to consider this claim. Interestingly, in my research I found one website dedicated to the idea of CT as a Christian allegory but also another website presenting an existentialist reading of Chrono Trigger.

After replaying the game through Its pretty clear that the game can't be read as any kind of full on allegory- it simply doesn't itself that seriously. Just looking at the naive way that the game presents time-travel should be enough to stop would be academics from pulling some grand philosophy out of it all. The Characters are happily under-developed and take on all manner of strange experience with the same detachment as the gamer.

So, if the game is 'Christian', it is on a subtler level. There are odd resemblances here and there to the Gospel or Christian virtues but it would be very silly to go around the cast of the game and identifying them as the masks of different New Testament characters- it falls to pieces very quickly. Like in The Lord of The Rings, reflections of Christ can be found in the actions of Gandalf, Frodo and Sam at different times, but as a whole no one character is Christ throughout. What makes LOTR explicitly Catholic is the way it presents reality, I'm going to look at CT under 5 criteria to see how strongly or if at all we soak up a Catholic vision of reality in CT.

Reality of Objective Moral laws.

It is clear that Lavos is bad and that Queen Zeal has become wicked because she has sold herself to him. The people of Zeal realise belatedly that their whole lives are based on using Lavos's wicked energy and that the magic has corrupted them. The judgement of Crono by the chancellor is very interesting in that we get an application of the moral law against the main character. Magus causes some problems in this area. He is clearly a wicked character from his efforts to invade peaceful Guardia and the way he treats Glenn/ Cyrus who are truely noble. The problem is that later he is able to simply becomes a member of your team and there is tacit approval in how he was essentially trying to accomplish the good end of destroying Lavos through wicked means. In a 'Christian worldview' Magus would have to remain an antagonist and be destroyed or make an act of repentence for the wicked and misguided actions he had taken.

Interior Struggle to pursue the good.

CT doesn't really give us insights into the characters' interior struggles within themselves to do what is right. This is no criticism, the game isn't trying to be profound or to present an explication of the human condition.

Divine Providence working through free will.

I think we can see the Gates as an example of Divine Providence. The game doesn't make this claim but there is enough evidence to see things this way. The gates to different time periods are not caused by Lavos randomly but they are purposeful. The characters realise this and although their speculation is that it is caused by "the entity" which is trying to preserve its existence we could see the purposeful gates as an example of providence. The providence moves interestingly with free will in that no matter what the characters do in the past the present is largely preserved and they continue to exist. Such an extraordinary maintainence of the status quo is absolutely illogical scientifically but could plausibly be preserved by a being that transcends time. In fact the existence of God transcending time is the only thing that could make the Chrono Trigger world hold together. CT doesn't take this stuff seriously at all but we can draw these thoughts from the game fairly I think.

Self Sacrifice for others

CT deals with this quite well. On a few occasions the theme tune music sets in as Crono agrees to undertake some self sacrificial mission for the good of someone else. Ultimately of course we have Crono's laying down his life in the first battle against Queen Zeal and Lavos. Perhaps it is in virtue of Crono's death that the gate opens up for the others to escape....

Marle is quite disobedient, this is her nature, it would perhaps be more ideal if she was able to overcome herself and accept her future responsibility as queen or if we got some hint that she intended to do this (Like prince Hal in Henry IV). We do see however her love of Crono in her immense efforts to restore him to life and her chaste devotion of him. Frog is a paragon of medieval virtue whose duty is to protect Queen Leene and who is fulfilled in this role, a Christian Gentleman as it were.

Basic Christian Theodicy- Monotheism, Goodness of creation, understanding of eternal reward/punishment based on moral behaviour.

We shouldn't expect pre-Christian stories to present Christian theology (Tolkien explains this well in 'on Fairy Tales'). Although CT has some trappings of being in a post revelation world (the time is written as BC/AD, there is a Cathedral in the Middle Age) it is probably fairer to asses the game as if it presented a world before the revelation of Christ. Tolkien's Middle earth is pre-revelation and that its why the general worldview and religious understanding is one of High Paganism- holding the the beliefs virtuous and good pagans would naturally tend towards from their analysis of the world.

CT generally does present a pre-Christian natural religion. We don't have any reincarnation talk, the planet is not deified and a few 'ghosts' of virtuous characters go upwards towards heaven (The hero Toma for example) suggesting their continuous and blessed existence. There is not a similar treatment of wicked characters, which is a pity. The game doesn't take itself seriously to present any understanding of where monsters come from, but ideally they would be seen as a disorder in creation- in the same way we would see a savage wolf attacking humans.
Robo undermines christian theodicy a little in that he seems to 'learn' emotions. This is obviously erroneous. He should have been presented as unable to understand human behaviour and existing soley to serve those who truely posses freedom, intellect and will. The fact that he has a 'girlfriend' is a bit silly, perhaps its sillyness is its redeeming grace. Again, the issue of Magus poses some problems in that Christian theodicy would present this wicked character as either meritting death or needing to repent. The game's acceptance of him actually doesn't flow with the story because it undermines the Frog/ Glenn/ Cyrus theme which is very positive and creates unhelpful relativism in the game.

The treatment of magic is very complicated in the game, I am not exactly sure if it is given a careful account. I don't think it took the issue that seriously. It seems on the one hand that magic originates from Lavos and this is wicked but also there is some kind of elemental magic bestowed by spekkio which is presented as good. There is something positive in the fact that the magic is bestowed from 'above' but the role of the Gurus is poorly explained in CT. In a Christian Natural Theology they would have been religious figures of some kind and were endowed with their respective gifts.


So whilst CT is not a Christian Allegory in that we do not see the life of Christ or Salvation History running through it, we do, in many places get true values embodied and the possibility of using some of the story's contents of acting as an intoduction to the Gospel. The treatment of Magus lets the game down a little. Chrono Cross's reading of CT messes things up quite a bit too- but CC is far far more illogical than CT but with the added problem that it does take itself seriously. When a game 'takes itself seriously' the gamer has to be much more cautious in discerning the undercurrent philosophy as it is trying to teach in a way a 'fun/ naive' game like CT is not.


Paul said...

WOW. Definitely a thorough look at Chrono Trigger. I couldn't say it better myself. I've always admired the storytelling qualities and the overall fun aspect of the game, and I see potential in its style. But there are those relativist hints like with Magus. I never really chose to play as him. But yeah, I think Chrono Trigger got close to being a Christian allegory. I definitely noticed the divine providence with the gates and my favorite character was frog because of his medieval simplicity and devotion.

Andy Kirchoff said...

Whew! A good rmeinder that I need to finish my DS copy of CT one of thse days...maybe when I'm done with FFXIII and Pokemon Heartgold...

Unknown said...
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Choffen said...

I think the main reason my brother hasn't finished Chrono Trigger is because he let me borrow it until I beat it. Took me a long time. Now of course, you people who know how to read into games should, and I'll just say "This game is good fun on the DS with some awesome frogmen, magic people, political drama, massive plots going through time, and cave-people". I like Magus as the stereotypically unusual case of a villain with a tragic history then causing mass pain, but my favorite part is his "redemption" and the surrounding 1 1/2 hours of massive plot twist.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that Magus does have a "redemption".... It doesn't seem to me that he is sorry for leading the mystics in attacking the humans, nor is he willing to undergo penance for it.

He is a typical "end justifies the means" villan.

Anonymous said...

Sharp observations, and I'd take it a step further, because I think even the objection you raised are actually consistent with

christian thinking-

1. With regard to the first criterion, Reality of Objective moral law: You call Magus "wicked", but from a Christian perspective,

is it our right to judge him wicked and condemn him? I don't think we must approve of Magus' actions, tacitly or otherwise, to

allow him to repent, which he basically does, though perhaps just barely, by joining the party. Magus is a man who has chosen evil,

but he isn't evil itself. Thus, what you identify as the two options for Magus from the perspective of Christian theodicy, "either meriting death or needing to repent", are precisely your options here.

Since the dilemma is set up as a confrontation between Frog and Magus, you might think of yourself being as Frog. Should you choose

a selfish path and pick your own life over the life of another, even the one who caused your suffering? You're being asked to

create your own morality or appeal to a standard of conduct higher than yourself- in other words, you're being asked to reject

relativism or uphold it.

Whether Frog satisfies a self-centered lust for revenge or takes the path of Christian mercy will make a huge difference in your

game- you can beat the game both ways, but the path of selfishness, the path of resistance to morality, makes it harder. Were the

dilemma morally relative, wouldn't it not matter either way?

You can also choose to go on without Crono, but this is also much harder. Since Crono is the resurrected one, a Christian critic

might see this option as a choice between accepting the ressurection and ignoring it. Since one can live a virtuous live apart from

Christ, it makes sense that this option would still allow you to beat the game. But the ending you get is tinged with sadness. In

Crono Trigger, as in the Christian life, one may always choose to abandon one's principles or one's friends, but it doesn't come

without negative consequences. Perhaps you could argue that the consequences in Crono Trigger aren't severe enough, but the game

isn't relative- how you behave makes a difference in the way everything ends.

2. In regard to the second criterion, "inner struggle to pursue the good"- as I hope I've demonstrated above, this struggle is

yours as the gamer. You, after all, are associated with the characters your control in any video game- they are your representation

in the world of the game- they do as you command. Their inner struggle is therefore yours to have, and theirs to enact.

I'm pretty much with you on the next two criteria, so I'll move on to the last one:

5. Robo's emotional understanding is expressed in the game as a gag- we cry tears, and he cries oil- i.e., he's imperfectly

attempting to demonstrate an affinity with his creator, who he was made to serve and who is made in his image (as a humanoid)- we

might see it as a metaphor for man's relationship with God. So I wouldn't say the game has Robo "learning" emotion. He is simply

attempting to reflect it, as he is made to do, but since he can never know man as man knows man, he finds himself puzzled when he

cries, describing it as a "leakage". But we laugh because in his having an affinity for which is was designed but that he can but

imperfectly express, we see our own inability to be perfectly with God.

As for the game not taking itself seriously- is that really true? It deal with some with some very serious concepts- time, good and

evil, morality, etc. That the game has a sense of humor and does not comment on itself shows, at least to my eyes, humility more

than triviality.