On Grief and Resurrection (And Chrono Trigger)

The other day, one of my students came to me in the morning and told me that she had had a dream about her grandmother the previous night.  It was a strange dream, apparently, because it involved my student’s grandmother telling her that she should eat a placenta, because those things are very healthy.

I couldn’t help smiling when she told me about this dream, because it was so odd, and it was about her grandmother, who passed away a couple weeks ago.  It reminded me of many dreams that I’ve had about family who’ve passed.  For me they’re always a little bittersweet, because typically I know in my dreams that there’s something weird about being around this person (maybe I even know that they’re dead, but the fact that they’re with me is still joyful).  Those dreams are some of my favorites, because they invariably leave me feeling a little wistful after they’re over.  Waking up is a case of reality literally settling back in, and I often have a moment of disorientation as I remind myself that that person I dreamt about isn’t alive anymore.

I really like when I have those dreams.

They always precipitate a little moment of renewed grief, but the brief resurrection is worth it.

That’s a lot of thoughts and feels that I didn’t really have the time or ability to communicate to my student when she brought up her dream, so all I was able to tell her was that I have dreams like that too, and I think they’re really good ones.

Chrono Trigger comes into this because, like many large scale adventure stories in the RPG genre, it features a heroic sacrifice by a beloved character.  Anyone familiar with Final Fantasy VII will probably get that this story device can offer a good player punch, particularly when it’s done to a party member, but they’ll also point out that it’s pretty heavily used.  I’ll agree with that assessment, but I’d point out that Chrono Trigger is a game that revels in JRPG tropes and then tries to subvert them in mildly surprising ways.  In the case of the beloved party member’s heroic sacrifice, Chrono Trigger does two things: it kills off the protagonist, and it does it when the player is expecting the story to end but then forces em to play on through the fallout of the protagonist’s death.

Crono FMV1

Chrono at the moment of his death. (Image credit: Chronopedia)

The thing about RPGs, particularly RPGs from the 16-bit era, is that the silent protagonist serves more or less as a proxy for the player.  That character’s the blank slate on which you’re supposed to impress your own personality, and Chrono follows that tradition nicely.  He honestly doesn’t have any real character traits (whatever people may say about his inherent heroism, I’d point out that at every major plot point that relies of Chrono doing something heroic, the designers gave the player the option to at least be reluctant about it; you can waffle about before leaping into the Gate to follow Marle to the past, you can be obstinate and say you don’t want to deal with Lavos, you can take your time before walking Chrono into Lavos’s maw to save everyone else who’s stuck there; the player may have to eventually choose heroism in order to continue the story, but they at least have the option to do it grudgingly).

Anyway, the mechanical details are a tangent from the thing that’s really interesting about Chrono’s death.  Since he’s the player proxy, and the game continues after he dies, the player finds emselves in a position where ey have to carry on after their own virtual death.  Ey get to see the fallout from this event as the rest of the party mourns eir passing while also trying to figure out what to do next about Lavos.  It’s a weird little inversion where the player kind of grieves for emself, even if only briefly (the game’s constructed so that the player only has to complete one major quest before getting the chance to resurrect Chrono).  At this point it’s pretty typical wish fulfillment being employed, with the narrative taking advantage of the time travel conceit to allow the player to both get the feels from seeing a heroic sacrifice and not actually having to pay the cost of said sacrifice.  I’ve read that the developers originally considered a scenario where Chrono could still be recruited back into the party, but it would have been an earlier version who was returned to his particular moment in time after the adventure ended, leaving Chrono permanently dead at the story’s conclusion.  The idea resonates as particularly bittersweet, but it does undermine Chrono Trigger‘s essential theme that the course of events are never fated, which is probably why the developers went for a more unambiguously happy reunion.

Despite the original concept having the greater emotional weight, I like the way Chrono’s death and resurrection is constructed.  Yes, it’s wish fulfillment; I don’t care.  Saving Chrono reminds me of all the best parts of my and my student’s dreams about our lost family: we can snatch a few more moments with them from our memories, and hope that someday we’ll enjoy their company again for real.

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