Chrono Trigger and Structure
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Chrono Trigger (Squaresoft, 1995), a classic time-travel role-playing game. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Few role-playing games are as universally beloved as Chrono Trigger, Squaresoft’s Super Nintendo time-travel adventure. Originally released in 1995, Chrono Trigger set new standards for the genre with its clever combat mechanics, dreamy soundtrack, and vibrant visual design. Its numerous alternate endings also gave players an impressive degree of control over the outcome of the story, and its ground-breaking ‘New Game Plus’ feature allowed them to replay the game with high-level characters and equipment from an earlier save file. This feature fit perfectly with the game’s memorable narrative, which tasked players with traveling through time to change the past and protect the future. It’s a simple story that works because its unique characters, varied settings, and compelling themes are all supported by a perfect example of the three-act structure.
To understand how Chrono Trigger’s structure works, the first thing to know is the premise. In Chrono Trigger, players take control of Crono, a teenage boy living in the kingdom of Guardia in 1000 A.D. To celebrate the new millennium, the Guardians throw an elaborate festival, and one of the attractions is a teleportation device created by Crono’s inventor friend, Lucca. Initially, Crono’s only goal is to meet up with Lucca and help her with the teleportation demonstration, but things don’t go quite as he planned. The series of coincidences, choices, actions, and reactions that follow form the backbone of Chrono Trigger’s structure, along with its essential story beats: the Inciting Incident, the First Turning Point, the Midpoint, the Crisis, the Second Turning Point, and the Climax.
The Story Beats
The Inciting Incident
In most western story structures, the Inciting Incident is the first major plot point: the point where your main character is forced out of their comfort zone and into an unusual situation. In “Write Great Fiction – Plot and Structure,” author James Scott Bell refers to this moment as a ‘disturbance.’ “Very early in Act I something has to disturb the status quo,” he says. “…[Something’s] got to happen to make us feel there’s some threat or challenge happening to the characters.”1 This challenge can be splashy and extreme—an act of violence or a promise of violence to come—but it doesn’t have to be. Quiet, non-violent inciting incidents can be just as effective as their action-packed counterparts, so long as they force the main character out of their regular routine.
Chrono Trigger’s Inciting Incident occurs when Crono arrives at the Millenial Fair to look for Lucca. At first, the fair seems perfectly ordinary, but then Crono literally bumps into a young girl named Marle. To apologize for the accident (and for knocking off her pendant), Crono agrees to show her around the fair. This agreement leads them to visit Lucca’s teleportation device together, at which point Marle decides to be the first volunteer. Everything should be fine since Lucca’s tested the machine before, but she never accounted for an unexpected variable: Marle’s pendant. The pendant reacts with the machine, opening a portal to an unknown place and time, and Marle is sucked inside before Crono can save her. Now, the young woman that he promised to guide around town is missing, and his best friend is responsible for her disappearance. Within seconds, Crono and Lucca’s ordinary lives have both been flipped upside down, and the only way to set things right is to open enough another portal and chase her into the unknown.
Turning Point One
The next major beat, Turning Point One, marks the division between Act One and Act Two. It’s a point of no return, one Bell refers to as both a transition and a doorway. “In order to get from beginning to middle — the first doorway — you must create a scene where your Lead is thrust into the main conflict in a way that keeps him there,” he says. “…[When writing a doorway], the key question to ask yourself is this: Can my Lead walk away from the plot right now and go on as he has before? If the answer is yes, you haven’t gone through the first doorway yet.”2 In other words, the Inciting Incident may be what nudges your character out of their ordinary world, but they’re going to look for a way back until the door of Turning Point One slams in their face.
Chrono Trigger’s first Turning Point occurs some time after he chases Marle through the portal, which takes him four-hundred years back in time to the Guardia of 600 A.D. His search takes more than a few twists, including the discovery that Marle is actually a Guardian Princess in 1000 A.D., but he’s able to return her to their present with Lucca’s help. It seems he’ll be able to return to his ordinary world after all—except now he’s wanted for kidnapping Marle, and the only way he can evade execution is to escape into another portal with Lucca and Marle. This time, they end up in a distant future, where all is devastation. Cities have risen and fallen to rubble, plants no longer grow in the soil, and the few people still living have to hide underground to avoid the mutants and robots that plague the landscape. Determined to find the cause of the collapse, Crono and his friends join forces with one of the robots, Robo, and together locate a faded record from 1999 A.D.: the year the creature named Lavos attacked. Armed with the knowledge of this terrible future, Crono and friends decide they can’t go back to their ordinary lives any longer—not when they have the power to do something. With Lucca’s portals, they can return to the past, stop Lavos before it attacks, and save the future and all of humanity. Doing nothing isn’t an option for them, not after the horrors they’ve seen. They’ve crossed the doorway into Act Two, and there’s no going back.
Act Two is where a story’s tension starts rising, and the Midpoint is the first place where that tension breaks. It’s not always a positive break, though; more often than not, it’s a sign that things are about to go from bad to worse. According to screenwriter Blake Snyder, author of “Save the Cat,” Midpoints come in one of two flavors: either it’s a false peak, when the protagonist seems to succeed but actually fails; or it’s a false collapse, where things go badly for the protagonist, but then life gives them another chance.3 In either case, the protagonist’s actions and choices are starting to have consequences, and the Midpoint is what happens when they have to face them. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for the protagonist depends entirely on them.
Chrono Trigger’s Midpoint occurs after Crono and his friends learn more about Lavos: what it is, where it comes from, and where to find it. According to their sources, Lavos was created by a dark wizard named Magus in the year 600 A.D., and the only weapon that can defeat Magus is a sacred blade known as the Masamune. After finding the Masamune and its wielder, a disgraced amphibian knight nicknamed ‘Frog’, Crono and his friends attack Magus’s castle head-on. Fighting Magus’s hundred-plus minions is no easy task, but when Crono’s party finally makes it to Magus, they engage him in battle and defeat him handily. At first, it seems like a victory, but then Magus reveals something they never expected: he didn’t create Lavos at all, and was only trying to summon him. Unfortunately, they interrupted Magus in the middle of his summoning ceremony, and Lavos chooses that moment to open a massive portal, drawing Magus, Crono, and his friends inside. The victory that once seemed so promising turned out to be a defeat: a classic Midpoint reversal.
1 Bell, James Scott. Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure (p. 27). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Bell, James Scott. Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure (p. 29). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
3 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 82). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: LobosJr. Chrono Trigger Playthrough. YouTube, 2021.