Did you know that it has been twenty-five years this month since Chrono Trigger was released onto American consoles? Because it is something I have been keenly aware of for the entire year. Chrono Trigger was the formative game of my childhood. I keenly remember being enraptured by the characters and the music and the grandness of its scale, but one of the things that I have appreciated about it since I growing up has always been the way it handles its time travel.
Let me be honest with you: I don’t like time travel in most fiction. It is messy and, in the hands of unskilled or careless writers, it can result in frustrating narratives. So why does Chrono Trigger get a pass from me despite being all about time and travelling through it? Because it sets out a couple of very simple rules for how the party is able to impact the flow of time.
Buckle up, friends, cause we’re getting proper nerdy with this today.
Chrono Trigger’s Time Travel Theory
Throughout Chrono Trigger, the party makes use of various plot devices to travel back and forth through time in order to save the world from a giant cosmic spikey ball. First, they make use of “gates” to travel to fixed points in the past and future while later they gain use of a time machine that allows them to travel to any point in the timeline.
One of the first things that happens in the game is the sudden disappearance of Marle, who steps onto an experimental teleporter and gets flung back in time 400 years. Crono, being the heroic type, steps onto the teleporter to repeat the experiment and rescue a woman he just met half an hour before.
This is where the rule of time travel in Chrono Trigger comes out. Marle, despite going into the teleporter a short time before, is nowhere to be seen when Crono emerges. If the gate took them to a fixed point in time, wouldn’t Marle be present, along with every other version of the party that travelled to the year 600?
No, because Chrono Trigger operates on a Flowing Time Travel Theory. This means that when the gates are created, they continue to flow through time the same as any other object. When the gate connecting the years 1000 and 600 is created, it continues to connect the two points like a rope that can neither be longer or shorter than it already is. Presumably, if the plot had gone on long enough, they would have eventually connected the years 1001 and 601, 1002 and 602, and so on.
What about the Epoch? Well, it was designed by the Guru of Reason based on his research into the gates so presumably it would only be able to travel to the points in time where the they are present.
Why Does it Matter?
The entire plot of Chrono Trigger centres around the idea that the future can be changed. Marle erases herself from existence by inadvertently interfering with the rescue of her ancestor in the year 600. The party eventually confronts and kills Lavos, creating a bright new future for the rest of humanity. So if the whole plot is around messing around with time, why does it matter if the time travel elements follow strict rules?
Because, if Crono and the gang were able to go back to a specific point in time they had already been to, it would have negated all the tension that comes with trying to save the world. Time travel without rules creates infinite possibilities for success, which means there is no chance of failure.
Take the moment when Lucca goes back in time to stop her mother from injuring her legs. It is possible to either succeed or fail in this bit, depending on how much you read people’s diaries. However, if the points of the gates did not move through time at the same rate as everyone else, Lucca could have gone back and tried it until she managed to succeed. And she’s a smart woman. If she had the opportunity to try again, she would have.
Without the tension that risk of failure creates, the adventure has no meaning. The entire plot relies on this risk in order to function, and it works because the party believes in this risk more than they fear it. The rules of Chrono Trigger’s time travel, though they are never explicitly stated, are one of the most important aspects of this classic game.
If you’d like to play this classic game for yourself, its currently available on Steam! Unless you can get your hands on the DS version, of course.