Chrono Trigger vs. Chained Echoes: Showing and Telling
StoryScan: Versus compares and contrasts specific aspects of multiple game narratives that share narrative features. In this essay, we’re covering Chrono Trigger (Squaresoft, 1995) and Chained Echoes (Matthias Linda, 2022), two role-playing games. This essay will touch on critical plot points from the introductory sections of both titles. Players who have not completed the first three hours of these games may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the introductions.
In the decades since Squaresoft first wowed players with its time-traveling role-playing adventure, Chrono Trigger, many imitators have attempted to recapture that magic. One of the most recent would-be successors is Chained Echoes, a pseudo-medieval RPG that borrows heavily from the games that inspired it. From its top-down pixel graphics to its intricate combat mechanics, Chained Echoes makes no attempt to hide its heritage. Its story is no exception. By borrowing character archetypes and plot beats from its predecessor, Chained Echoes does its best to honor Chrono Trigger’s legacy while still charting its own path.
One of the ways Chained Echoes sets its narrative apart from Chrono Trigger’s is via the character introductions. In Chrono Trigger, playable characters are introduced slowly and developed through actions and dialogue. Meanwhile, Chained Echoes introduces the majority of the player’s party in the first hour through brief chunks of in-game paratext. These two disparate methods of character development fall near the extremes of showing and telling, respectively: Chrono Trigger shows through scene, while Chained Echoes tells through paratext. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks, and the difference lies in the size of the casts.
Showing vs. Telling: Character Introductions
For a game about time travel, Chrono Trigger is surprisingly straightforward with its plot chronology. The game begins with the protagonist, Crono, waking up when his mother opens his bedroom window to let in the light. Like many other role-playing protagonists of the era, Crono is a silent protagonist, so there isn’t much ‘character’ for this scene to introduce. All the player learns about him is that he lives with his mother, he’s good with a sword, and he’s got an inventor friend named Lucca. It’s a sparse characterization, barely even an archetype, but it works for the story because Crono is supported by a vibrant ensemble cast.
The first party-member Crono meets isn’t Lucca, but Marle. The first the player sees of Marle is when she’s running around the town square, enjoying the ongoing festival. When she runs smack into Crono, she seems more concerned with her dropped pendant than her own welfare (or Crono’s, for that matter), but she quickly warms up to Crono once she finds what she lost. It’s here that the developers use a series of festival mini-games to establish Marle’s personality, and they’re able to do it without any exposition. Through the games, Marle is established as fun-loving, impulsive, curious, and impatient, and she’s got likes and dislikes that set her apart as an individual. None of this is told to the player directly; it’s information they get to discover themselves, deepening their bond with the character in the process.
Chrono Trigger uses similar sequences to introduce each of its characters, relying heavily on showing instead of telling. The inventor, Lucca, establishes herself as stubbornly resourceful through her quick thinking, while the amphibian knight, Frog, projects a time-worn valor through his bravery and antiquated speech. The remaining party members receive similar introductions, and the player can form connections with each one of them in the process. The strength of these connections would make it seem like showing, rather than telling, is always the best way to introduce characters. Still, the only reason Chrono Trigger can pull this off is because of its relatively compact cast. With only six party members to develop (excluding the silent Crono), the developers had time to give each character a proper introductory sequence. Had there been more characters—say, like the 44 in Chrono Cross—introducing them all with their own scenes would have been time-consuming and tedious. Players can only tolerate so many intro scenes before they want to start playing again, so fleshing out every character in a large ensemble could turn them off. Fortunately, there are other ways to introduce larger casts, ones that keep the story moving with minimal sacrifices.
Like Chrono Trigger, Chained Echoes relies on a mixture of showing and telling to introduce its characters, but Chained Echoes’ large cast leaves it less room for extensive introductory scenes. Some characters do get proper introductions, while others are presented via blocks of paratext that summarize their personalities and backstories. It’s a risky gambit that doesn’t always work, but it does keep the story moving despite its larger cast.
Chained Echoes mixes showing and telling with its earliest introduction: Glenn, the red-haired swordsman who begins the game by waking up when his mother opens the window to let light in (sound familiar?). While Crono’s room was remarkably devoid of personal touches, Glenn has several figures and posters depicting his country’s powerful Sky Armor. These decorations establish his appreciation for the flying armor, which is verified when he wakes up for real aboard a mercenary ship headed for enemy territory. Through interactions with his crew-mates, Glenn is not-so-subtly established as an ace pilot, and his love for Sky Armor is driven home even further in a conversation with a fellow mercenary, Kylian. Unlike Kylian, who has a family and a home, Glenn’s only ambition is to own his own Sky Armor and customize it as he likes on his own time. This exchange doesn’t reveal much about who he is as a person or why the Sky Armor is so meaningful to him, but it’s a far more elaborate introduction than some other characters get.
A year after Glenn and Kylian’s conversation aboard their airship, the story switches perspectives (something it will do a lot in the opening hours). The first perspective switch takes the player to a red-headed girl, Lenne, on a city rooftop with her blond male friend, Robb. These two characters are ostensibly members of the city guard, but in reality, Lenne is actually a runaway princess (an obvious nod to Chrono Trigger’s runaway princess Marle.) The player learns this after Robb calls her Princess three or four lines into their exchange, at which point a spotlight drops on Lenne, and the player is hit with the following block of text:
“Her true identity is Princess Celestia Valkyria of Taryn, sister to Prince Frederik. Shortly before the end of the war, she fled the castle to see more of the world, as well as her people’s struggles, worries and hopes, in order to become a better princess to them. After a chain of events, she ended up as a guard of the City Watch for Taryn’s enemy’s kingdom.”
It’s a hearty chunk of text, one that manages to be both overly specific and overly vague. It’s specific in the way it spells out her personality rather than showing it, yet it’s frustratingly vague about the details of her transition from princess to enemy guard. Given how little it reveals, it might have been better to have no introduction, but it keeps the story moving—straight into the next perspective switch, and the one after and after that. Within the first two hours, the player has control of as many characters as they’ll have for ninety percent of Chrono Trigger, and the cast only grows from there. With a double-digit roster to flesh out, Chained Echoes doesn’t have time to introduce them all through extended scenes. Hence, the chunks of paratext round out the cast without slowing the story to a crawl.
It’s no coincidence that Chrono Trigger and Chained Echoes have a lot in common, but their differences are as interesting as their similarities. Because Chained Echoes has a larger cast than Chrono Trigger, the developers have to rely on telling, rather than showing, to introduce individual characters. Developers who want to establish characters in their games should consider the size of their casts when deciding whether they should be showing or telling, using Chrono Trigger and Chained Echoes for inspiration.
Showing and Telling
Despite the oft-repeated axiom, ‘show, don’t tell,’ both showing and telling have a place in storytelling.
StoryScan: Chrono Trigger and Structure
Chrono Trigger tells a memorable story by hitting all of the key beats of the Three-Act Structure.
StoryScan: To the Moon and Tension
To the Moon tells a compelling story, but too many false mysteries strain the audience’s credulity.
* Reference Footage (Chrono Trigger): LobosJr. “Chrono Trigger Playthrough.” YouTube, 2021.
** Reference Footage (Chained Echoes): DualShot66. “Chained Echoes Full Gameplay Walkthrough Part – 1.” YouTube, 2022.