Chrono Trigger and Structure
StoryScan: Critical hit
The Story Beats, Continued
Also known as the ‘All-is-Lost’ moment, the Crisis beat is when the protagonists reach their lowest point: when everything seems hopeless, and their quest is surely at an end. “All aspects of the hero’s life are in shambles,” says Snyder. “Wreckage abounds. No hope.“4 There is hope, however—otherwise, the story would be over. While the Crisis beat appears to be the end of the line for the protagonists, in reality, it’s just a deep pit for them to climb out of so their success seems all the more meaningful in the end. Everybody loves an underdog story, and the Crisis is what turns the protagonist into the ultimate underdog.
In Chrono Trigger, the Crisis moment occurs after Crono and his friends survive their Midpoint encounter with Lavos and emerge in the distant past of 65,000,000 B.C. Although Magus has disappeared, everyone else survived the journey intact, and they’re determined to keep fighting. With the help of the cave-woman Ayla, Crono’s party discovers Lavos’s true origin: an invader from beyond the stars, one who crashes into the earth’s surface and burrows into its core. When the crash creates another portal, Crono’s party follows it to 12,000 B.C., where the mages of the floating Kingdom of Zeal have been drawing energy from Lavos to use advanced magic. Zeal’s ruthless queen isn’t interested in what Crono’s party has to say about Lavos, and her right-hand prophet won’t help them, either, but Crono’s party didn’t come all this way to be denied. With the help of the magic-less people living beneath the floating kingdom, Crono and friends make their way to Zeal’s inner sanctum and finally come face-to-face with Lavos.
It doesn’t go well.
Even with the help of the prophet, the former prince of Zeal-slash-thinly-disguised Magus, Lavos handily defeats Crono’s party and leaves them powerless on the ground. With no ability to fight back, all they can do is watch in horror as Lavos blasts Crono with a beam of energy, reducing him to dust. The hero is dead; the mission is a failure. All is truly lost. Or is it?
Turning Point Two
As the mirror of Turning Point One, Turning Point Two is the doorway that takes the protagonists from the end of Act Two to the beginning of Act Three. It’s when the heroes realize that all isn’t actually lost, and there’s still a way for them to succeed. In Snyder’s words: “Thanks to the hero’s last best effort to discover a solution to beat the bad guys who’ve been closing in…the answer is found!!”5 In an ensemble story, the ‘last best effort’ may require the work of several heroes, rather than one, but the flow of the plot remains the same. The heroes have faced death and come out alive on the other side, and they’re stronger than ever and ready to fight for what they believe in.
Chrono Trigger’s second Turning Point occurs shortly after the Crisis moment, and represents a rare example of one of the game’s branching paths. After Crono dies, the remaining characters wash up on the beach with Magus, where they’re given a choice: either they can finish the fight they started at the Midpoint, or they can let bygones be bygones and spare him. Should the player choose to fight him, Magus will die; should the player choose to spare him, he’ll join the party. In either case, Magus will guide them to one of his old tutors, a powerful mage who might know a way to bring back Crono. Luckily, he does, but it’s not an easy process: it involves carnival games, stuffed clones, a long trek up a windy mountain, and three separate fights with Lavos spawns. It’s all worth it in the end, as the trick pays off and the group returns to the past to spare Crono from certain death. Once he rejoins the party, they have everything they need to face off against Lavos a second time—and this time, they’re going to win.
A story’s Climax is when the questions get answered, the grudges get settled, and the set-up gets paid off. According to Bell, “A great ending does two things above all else: First, it feels perfect for the kind of novel it is appended to. Second, it surprises the reader. It is not so familiar the reader has the feeling he’s seen it somewhere before.”6 In other words, an ending has to be satisfying, but it can’t be predictable. There’s got to be a little something extra that makes it stand out from all the other endings in the world: something the audience will remember.
Chrono Trigger’s Climax, the final confrontation against Lavos, is established as an inevitability all the way back at the first Turning Point. When Crono and his friends vowed to stop Lavos and save the future, they weren’t just making a pact with each other: they were also making a promise to the audience, one that has to be kept for a satisfying climax. Just walking up to Lavos and killing him wouldn’t feel very climactic, however, so the story has to throw a few curveballs to keep things interesting. Chrono Trigger does this by revealing that the Lavos Crono and his friends know is merely a carapace, and the true cosmic entity controlling it lives deep inside. To make matters worse, the spawns they met on the mountaintop were its offspring, each destined to leave for a different planet and repeat the cycle of hibernation and devastation. The stakes have been raised one last time: Crono’s party isn’t just fighting for the fate of their world, but of all worlds in the galaxy. That noble goal gives them the strength to defeat Lavos’s true form, saving the future and the universe. The enemy is dead; the heroes have triumphed. At long last, Crono and his friends are free to return to their homes, forever changed by the ordeal. It’s a fitting end to the story, as it satisfies the audience’s expectations with a fight they’ll never forget.
Chrono Trigger has stood the test of time for numerous reasons, not the least of which is its narrative. Thanks to its well-placed plot beats and solid structure, Chrono Trigger’s story remains one of its strongest features. Developers who wish to tell game stories as memorable as Chrono Trigger’s can use similar beats and structures to tell stories that leave audiences hungry for more.
Chrono Cross and Plot
Chrono Cross’s story struggles to get off the ground due to a lack of goals, stakes, and urgency.
Setup and Payoff
Using foreshadowing to plant questions, then answering them at the opportune time.
One of the earliest known structures, Three-Act Structure divides stories into beginning, middle, and ending.
4 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 86). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
5 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 89). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
6 Bell, James Scott. Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure (p. 99). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: LobosJr. Chrono Trigger Playthrough. YouTube, 2021.