Visualizing Game Flow
October 13, 2014 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Reversing the Design: The Two Games of Chrono Trigger is an essay that examines the way that Chrono Trigger tells a story in two parts to the player using every aspect of the game's design. Aside from analyzing the game story itself, the authors also look at things like weapon power, player agency, quest design, graphics, dungeon layouts, boss scripting, and the battle system. The essay concludes with a list of design considerations that can be applied from Chrono Trigger to games of all genres.
posted by codacorolla (39 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
 
They've also analyzed the game design of every single level of Super Mario World, in order to figure out exactly how the challenges are paced and structured.
posted by NMcCoy at 12:09 PM on October 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


Looks like I'm not gonna get anything done at work today. Thanks a lot, codacorolla.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 1:00 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this! Chrono Trigger is (tied with Final Fantasy 6) my favorite video game of all time (see what I did there). I've played it to death and I wish there was a way I could play it for the first time again, so it's exciting to read new geeking out about it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:03 PM on October 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


Wrote a post once on the boss progression in the game and how nifty it is. Lots of permutations on multi-target fights, subverted at the very end.
posted by curious nu at 1:12 PM on October 13, 2014


Amazing read. I've played Chrono Trigger 3 times now and assumed I knew everything. But I really did miss a lot of clever stuff. So is the entire game experienced not from the perspective of Crono, but from the perspective of this Entity?
posted by naju at 1:16 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


In one way, Chrono Trigger is just like several dozen other JRPGs of its time. But in another way, it's radically different.

It's made of the same gameplay parts, generally, as a Final Fantasy. Battles are turn-based, but progress in an asynchronous fashion that's actually named "Active Time Battle Ver. 2." Active Time Battle is the system used in the best Final Fantasy games, turn based but with a bit of real time thrown in to give fights more tension and excitement. The equipment game is the same old system of equipping the items that give you the best cumulative stat increase, while sometimes keeping individual items on hand that provide specific advantages. Player positioning matters a bit, which is new, and there's also the Dual and Triple Techs, which require specific characters and perform powerful moves if you're willing to wait until they all have turns at the same time and spend all their actions performing them. A minor change, but of a piece with JRPGs, not revolutionary, just evolutionary.

But the storytelling, somehow, feels completely different from your Final Fantasy soap opera. Despite the fact that three of your six/seven team members consists of your standard hyper-power teenagers on a quest to save the world, there is no angst. The tone is night-and-day different from your standard JRPG mess o' weeping.

The game I'd most compare Chrono Trigger with is the original Grandia, which is similarly light-hearted in tone, but Chrono Trigger ultimate is better, I think, because some of your characters do have problems, but they don't let them drag them down. This actually makes them seem deeper and more interesting, because instead of being told overtly in every cutscene how sad our heroes are because of whatever terrible experiences they've been through, we instead see the results of those experiences, they're not explicated but we're left more to figure out for ourselves what they were like.

An optional quest, for instance, shows us what happened to Lucca's mother when she was a girl, and it's horrifying, one of the most horrifying moments in gaming I'd say, even though it fades to black right when it happens (you still hear a scream). But Lucca never mentions this to anyone. Instead, we're left to imagine what Lucca must have went through all those years, and when she gets the chance to change history to prevent it, we know why she would, and it's terrible if we mess up and fail (which, for interesting reasons, had a 1/4 chance of success in the Japanese version), which is probably one of the top-ten moments that inspires players to reach for the Reset button, right up there with losing anyone in Fire Emblem.

Anyway, it is an interesting explication of the design of the game, although as with many of these nuts-and-bolts examinations sometimes I think it gives too much importance to little things, things the developers may well not have actually considered. Still, though, looking slightly too closely is still better than not looking closely enough. Good overall.
posted by JHarris at 1:24 PM on October 13, 2014 [16 favorites]


Despite the fact that three of your six/seven team members consists of your standard hyper-power teenagers on a quest to save the world, there is no angst. The tone is night-and-day different from your standard JRPG mess o' weeping.

No angst? No weeping? You travel through a post apocolyptic future devoid of energy and food. At one point you slay a ton of lizardmen just before an asteroid genocides their entire race. You accidentally kill off one of the three protagonists in the first chapter, another one dies in the later half, and the third has a side story that involves her three year old self watching her mother get mangled by a a machine. You doom a character to a millenia of toil, and pick them up in your time machine five minutes later like it's no big deal. Do we consider it a feat of storytelling when you're actively happy one ceases to exist, and indifferent to the death of the other?

The only character who changes throughout any of this is Magus, who joins your team, but remains standoffish. And frankly, it's been too long and I'm not too sure what he was up to in that castle anyways that nessecitated war with the north.
posted by pwnguin at 2:17 PM on October 13, 2014


I appreciate this sort of critical discussion of game design, and could honestly lap it up for days. Are there any links to similar sites? And, for that matter, are there any resources dedicated to similar critical analysis of music and other media? There's a long tradition of highbrow film criticism but I'm not especially familiar with any other criticism at that level.
posted by LSK at 2:22 PM on October 13, 2014


No angst? No weeping? You travel through a...

Well, yes, shitty things happen. Lucca's mom. Frog's, y'know, life. But (in my memory, at least...) the characters don't waste time being daunted. They just keep fighting for what's right.
posted by Jpfed at 2:27 PM on October 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


No angst? No weeping? You travel through a post apocolyptic future devoid of energy and food. At one point you slay a ton of lizardmen just before an asteroid genocides their entire race. You accidentally kill off one of the three protagonists in the first chapter, another one dies in the later half, and the third has a side story that involves her three year old self watching her mother get mangled by a a machine. You doom a character to a millenia of toil, and pick them up in your time machine five minutes later like it's no big deal.

These things are all true. The thing is, they don't spend a lot of time moping about it, and that makes all the difference. They leave the player to figure out the implications of all these things, instead of beating the player over the head with them, effectively shouting ISN'T THAT TERRIBLE. Also, the fact that you can go back in time to avert some of these things lessens some of the dread, and most of the time you get right on doing that averting.
posted by JHarris at 2:29 PM on October 13, 2014


So I will admit I never played Chrono Trigger (it came out just before I got into jRPGs), but I've been waiting for this series to come out. Their Mario series was excellent.

I did take a look at their round up of design lessons that can apply to all games.

The idea that boss fights should be long but not hard is going to be a minority view. As a designer, I often run into the problem of player fatigue and how to alleviate it, which happens when combat is too long, but also when combat is too hard and requires the player to restart to much. I think it's the multi-stage element of boss fights seems to relieve "fatigue" issues in many jRPGs, but they also tend to attract players who don't mind the grind in the first place (plus there's usually appropriate lead-up to and resting afterwards). I'm not convinced that it's a good principle to follow across the board. I guess I'll have to go in and read how Chrono Trigger's bosses are different than other jRPG bosses and what they believe makes them particularly successful.

Their points #2 & #3 are great and worth repeating:
"(3) Try an amplitude graph for a way to gauge the pacing of your game, or the game you want to analyze. The dimensions of the graph need to be contrasting, but they can be a huge variety of things. Action vs platforming in a mario game, stealth sections vs set pieces in a military shooter, exploration vs puzzle content."

This is not at all a new idea. The pacing charts we make at work do pretty much exactly this (additionally: setting, mood, tension, and difficulty curves). It's one of those things that I take for granted as a professional - when you get to bigger-than-indie sized games, pacing is pretty damn important. When you do analyses of other games' pacing, you learn a LOT about them. I always like to point out that half of the gameplay in Gears of War 3 is some variation of "walking".
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 2:46 PM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Worth noting that NMcCoy's link to the SMB analysis is also one step away from a page where you can buy a bundle with the CT, SMB and FFVI books for $2. I'm all over that as soon as I get home today; Metroid Baby, as an FFVI fan maybe it'd be of interest to you too?
posted by valrus at 2:52 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Chrono Trigger was by far my favorite JRPG. Incidentally, it gave us this great mashup: once you hear it, you can't unhear it.
posted by dhens at 2:52 PM on October 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


Chrono Trigger was by far my favorite JRPG. Incidentally, it gave us this great mashup : once you hear it, you can't unhear it.
posted by dhens


That is unholy and I quite literally screamed when Rick Astley came on. You have ruined Robo's theme for me!

On a more relevant note, the little bit of musical analysis comparing Uematsu and Mitsuda was so spot on that it left a tear in my eye listening to Cyan's theme. So, yeah, I'm a fan of these articles and I'll read FF6 later. They do both tie as some of my favorite jRPGs ever though Secret of Mana, Terranigma, etc. also count. Man, I used to love jRPGs so much.
posted by lizarrd at 2:59 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


The idea that boss fights should be long but not hard is going to be a minority view.

Not as much as you'd think. There is the phenomenon where, if a player gets to a final boss of a game and hits a wall, is completely unable to beat it, because it's just too difficult for him to defeat, he's likely going to dislike the whole game as a result. So it's not uncommon to have a last boss who isn't actually the most difficult foe in the game, or maybe have a special trick to beating it, so players who get to it won't get stuck right on the verge of victory. Yet making the boss long, even if the player isn't in real danger, still helps it to feel like a climatic moment. I leave it to you to decide if this is good design or not.

Additionally, Shigeru Miyamoto is famously known for including "break levels" in some of his games, areas that aren't as difficult as preceding ones. The boss to Level 7 in the original Zelda is a reprise of the one from Level 1 with nothing else going on, a total pushover. Level 7 is situated between the terrifically difficult Levels 6 (Wizzrobe party) and 8 (Darknut hell), so players could use a bit of a breather between them.
posted by JHarris at 3:09 PM on October 13, 2014 [16 favorites]


They just keep fighting for what's right

You know who else never had moments of doubt?
posted by pwnguin at 3:10 PM on October 13, 2014


Lavos?
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:17 PM on October 13, 2014 [7 favorites]


I'm still trying to wrap my head around how the majority of the game effectively comprises the dream-consciousness of a planet re-experiencing its own demise.
posted by naju at 3:27 PM on October 13, 2014


There is the phenomenon where, if a player gets to a final boss of a game and hits a wall, is completely unable to beat it, because it's just too difficult for him to defeat, he's likely going to dislike the whole game as a result. So it's not uncommon to have a last boss who isn't actually the most difficult foe in the game, or maybe have a special trick to beating it, so players who get to it won't get stuck right on the verge of victory. Yet making the boss long, even if the player isn't in real danger, still helps it to feel like a climatic moment. I leave it to you to decide if this is good design or not.

As much as I want to not like this sort of design choice, I can and do agree with it for much the same reason JHarris mentions. Now, and I haven't read/re-re-reviewed FFIII (that some of you heathens call FFVI I think, but I digress) but it makes some of the greater sidequests brutally difficult. Not to say that, again it's been a while since my first playthru, that the final boss battle there was easy, but some of the Esper quests and sidestuff in the game were *whoa* hard. And that's good. It gives the option for difficult challenges for experts or completionists while keeping the game accessible to mere mortals.
posted by RolandOfEld at 3:30 PM on October 13, 2014


Holy shit this is awesome. Chrono Trigger is one of my top favorite video games (I have like 3 versions of it for different systems and I've played through it multiple times). I am pretty sure playing CT as a kid was what started my love of all things regarding time travel.
posted by littlesq at 3:59 PM on October 13, 2014


My favourite boss fight was in the superb Prince of Persia: Sands of Time; he was just an old geezer who you trounced in half a minute. The real boss fight, of course, being the enormous tower you had just climbed without any of your time rewindey powers.

Such a beautiful game.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:08 PM on October 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Chrono Trigger spoiled me horribly as a child because it gave me Game+, where I got to run through a second time as an overpowered God, smiting everything in my path. I have judged every game since then that didn't offer this feature harshly.

But, even there, Chrono Trigger stands head and shoulders above the rest because it gave you the possibility of beating the game a second time at other junctures, which changed the ending.
posted by C'est la D.C. at 4:19 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Chrono Cross one-upped it, C'est, with giving you a fast-forward button that worked both on the field and in combat.
posted by curious nu at 4:28 PM on October 13, 2014


Chrono Trigger spoiled me horribly as a child because it gave me Game+, where I got to run through a second time as an overpowered God, smiting everything in my path. I have judged every game since then that didn't offer this feature harshly.

But, even there, Chrono Trigger stands head and shoulders above the rest because it gave you the possibility of beating the game a second time at other junctures, which changed the ending.


When I finally sold my old Chrono Trigger cartridge (with the map AND instructions) I had leveled every character up to 99. Going to the end of time at the very beginning with just Crono and destroying Lavos was so so satisfying.

I'm going to break down and buy it for my phone, aren't I?
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:07 PM on October 13, 2014


JHarris: There is the phenomenon where, if a player gets to a final boss of a game and hits a wall, is completely unable to beat it, because it's just too difficult for him to defeat, he's likely going to dislike the whole game as a result.

I've definitely encountered this. The absolute bullshit final boss sequence of Cave Story+ pretty much destroyed my opinion of it (and that was for the normal ending - it has an even harder final level and boss), and the boss in Guacamelee! came pretty close. You can have incredibly difficult bosses or final levels, but the difficulty needs to ramp up appropriately. You can't just pull a superpowered masochism boss out of nowhere.

Also bad are the puzzle final boss in a game which hasn't had puzzle bosses before, including the epitome of bad boss design, the puzzle boss you can't possibly beat without quickloading multiple times because there's no other way to find out how to solve the puzzle except dying repeatedly.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:19 PM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


One of the reasons I really liked the article is that I've spent the past year and a half fooling around with RPG Maker VX Ace, and have realized how difficult it is to make a JRPG style game that's fun in any way. You want your player to be challenged, but actually making fun and enjoyable challenges using typical JRPG combat is very difficult and not something that's easily tackled. I think this is, in large part, that often challenge can come in the form of grinding, which is a deeply unfun activity unless your battle system is really tight.
posted by codacorolla at 5:49 PM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


I appreciate this sort of critical discussion of game design, and could honestly lap it up for days. Are there any links to similar sites?

I really enjoy The Anatomy of Games.
posted by jason_steakums at 6:30 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Chrono Trigger was the first JRPG I played, and it ruined me for JRPGs subsequent (even FF3/6 was a bit of a meh).

And now this whole analysis is stepping through why the game is so excellent and younger me was so taken, in ways I never actually considered:
This graph shows EXP per battle across the course of the game. Although the Tyrano Lair was a long time ago, the player’s EXP needs haven’t actually grown--there’s no corresponding spike in EXP needed. So when the player gets hit with a surge in character levels, they’re going to think that something major about the game has changed. And it has! The game is moving towards the conclusion of the Tragedy.
This is great.
posted by postcommunism at 6:42 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


You can't just pull a superpowered masochism boss out of nowhere.

God dammit, Psychonauts---you're otherwise so perfect.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:07 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


How do people play these games these days? Find an old console and an old copy of the game (somehow avoiding spending $100 on each of these things)? Emulators? Backwards compatibility on new consoles? I never got around to playing Chrono Trigger in my big JRPG phase and I would like to now...
posted by stoneandstar at 9:22 PM on October 13, 2014


Speaking just for myself - an emulator and my laptop hooked up to a TV and a USB controller.

Although that's pretty unwieldy. You can download it on the Wii's virtual console and that's probably a flawless emulation too. Or you can go the DS route, if you're okay with portable. (I'm really insistent on playing it on a big screen. It's just so gorgeous!)

I would recommend avoiding the Playstation version. There are loading times before each battle, and that's just inexcusable.
posted by naju at 9:28 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I appreciate this sort of critical discussion of game design, and could honestly lap it up for days. Are there any links to similar sites?

Boss Fight Books takes critical looks at games, although not necessarily game design.
posted by kejadlen at 9:30 PM on October 13, 2014


Wii Virtual Console has its flaws, the biggest one being how pitiful the game libraries are on it, but if a game is on it it tends to work pretty well. The best way to emulate games I've seen though is on a jailbroken Wii with Homebrew Channel, there are some very nice emulators out for it, and that way you can play with bona-fide Nintendo controllers.
posted by JHarris at 9:56 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Chrono Trigger is also on the App Store for iOS devices, though I haven't tested the port personally.
posted by annekate at 10:51 PM on October 13, 2014


I love this sort of detailed analysis, but it never seems to have input or responses from the actual developers. How much of what is attributed to design genius is really just happy accidents or human pattern-seeking and confirmation bias? There's a lot of reading-into going on.

Of course, were I one of the devs in question, my response would probably be "Yes, all of the genius moves you attribute to me, I totally did on purpose. Well spotted. >_>"
posted by rifflesby at 12:00 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Another thing I'd say about the greatness of Chrono Trigger's story is its antagonist, Lavos itself.

Lavos isn't either of the manga/anime archetypes for final antagonists: either a bishonen god-being loaded with Judeo-Christian imagery or a nearly-naked woman with cosmic powers. No, Lavos is a thing, an inscrutable being from the stars, a concept right out of Lovecraft.

Civilizations have built on Lavos' siphoned-off power, but it, itself, appears to be ignorant of that. (Some say it's directed the development of civilization, but who really knows if that's true? There's no evidence of it.) It has no name that it would recognize; one of your characters actually names it, in her tribe's language, La (fire) Vos (big), and it sticks.

Even its art design is perfect: basically, a huge ball of spikes and claws with a tri-lobed maw. (Later on you go inside it and find some humanoid things to beat up, but they're still appropriately alien, and we're left with the implication that that form is itself a creation, derived from the distinctiveness of the game's world.) It's an entity worthy of building a game around defeating.
posted by JHarris at 3:56 AM on October 14, 2014 [5 favorites]


Good article! I liked the detail about the bookshelves in Zeal: I never would have guessed there were more of them there than there are in the entire rest of the game.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:04 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Reading it more critically, I do have one big problem with the article. Throughout they talk about "quests," as if they were some solidly defined thing.

But they aren't. Not a single word is said, for instance, for the stuff at the beginning of the game at the Millennial Fair, or the woods leading up to Guardia Castle. The Zeal area is treated like its lack of combat is a huge thing, but plenty of other games have lengthy sections with no encounters -- almost every town in a JRPG is like that, for instance.

Then they cook up a comparison to prove their point using, frankly, bullshit metrics. They present the whole Zeal section like it's some revelation in game design, when actually, long sections of downtime are everywhere in JRPGs, they're just not typically framed as "quests."

It calls this section a "pure exploration" section and compares it to world maps in FFV and FFVI, but that's really not the same thing, just talking to people compared to wandering around an overworld, with random monster attacks going off.

I think it's interesting how they look at the whole game, and looking for measures of enemy difficulty in terms of hit point growth throughout areas is interesting, but overall bleah.

In total, that’s eleven bookshelves across several different eras, geographical regions, and kinds of characters. Zeal has eighteen bookshelves. It’s a rather intuitive and subtle touch, isn’t it?

Honestly? No. I think it's more likely the map editor, who is probably a couple of ranks on the development staff below game designer, thought it'd be a good place for a lot of bookshelves.
posted by JHarris at 7:47 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


A much better example of a subtle touch in the design of Zeal is the the one the article mentions about how the crest that the player has repeatedly seen on the sealed doors and boxes is shown on the walls in the Zeal towns even before the player sees Schala open the first one. It's a tiny bit of foreshadowing that Zeal is connected to those items you've been seeing all game -- just enough to get observant players excited (or make them feel clever for figuring it out) shortly before the game makes it explicit. In all my playthroughs of Chrono Trigger (my favorite game of all time), I never once noticed those until the article pointed it out to me, and I'm a little giddy to learn about it now.
posted by Katrel at 12:03 PM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


« Older Candyland   |   Groots, Black Widows, and Every Johnny Depp Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments