From Mass Effect to Skyrim, modern RPGs go to great lengths to merge linear, carefully crafted narrative with dynamic, emergent gameplay. Hundreds of thousands of man-hours are poured into these incredibly complex works, all in the effort to create a believable, cohesive story while giving players a sense of freedom in the way they play their game. The results of these efforts have been best-loved play experiences video games have offered.
But the goal of marrying linear narrative to dynamic gameplay is not out of reach for developers that don't have the resources to create such complex systems. No game shows this better than the classic RPG Chrono Trigger. Crafted by Square's "Dream Team" of RPG developers, Chrono Trigger balances developer control with player freedom using carefully-designed mechanics and a modular approach to narrative.
Dynamic World, Linear Dungeons
There are several distinct narrative sections of the game, many of which are required to complete the game. During the first half of the game, these sections are all mandatory and linear, taking the player on a predetermined journey from their home in 1000 A.D. through several different time periods until they find The End of Time.
After completing this mandatory introduction, which welcomes players into the world, gameplay, and story of Chrono Trigger, they're free to access any time period they have previously visited and travel around the world map freely.
By allowing the players to travel freely through time and space, the developers opened up the game world to exploration. Although most optional narrative sections are inaccessible until the player finds the Epoch -- a time machine which also allows for fast travel through the game world -- the player is allowed to find their own way through the main narrative with minimal interference.
This is largely because the enemy encounters in the game are limited to specific dungeons and are not placed in the world map, so that even if players visit an area out of the critical path, they can experience some content and explore much of the map. Similarly, players with high-level characters can revisit earlier sections of the game without being continually hassled by low-level encounters.
This is in direct contrast to games that include enemy encounters throughout the game world; the default at the time Chrono Trigger was released was random battles every few steps. Whether or not a game features random battles, encounters discourage players from exploring the world map lest they wander into an area with high-level enemies.
In many cases, these areas are not even clearly marked, making exploration a risky business until players reach high levels for that area or the game overall. To make matters worse, low-level, unrewarding encounters must be completed regardless of player level, making exploration a hassle. By eliminating these complications, Chrono Trigger encourages players to explore the game on their own terms.
This is most obvious once the player completes the Zeal narrative section, acquires the Epoch, and obtains wings for it. With unimpeded travel through time and space, the map completely opens up to the player, allowing them to complete optional narrative sections at any time.
Even before the player is given narrative hints on where to find these dungeons, they can simply fly around the relatively small overworld and find them. These dungeons are also fairly simple to find; for example, a lone factory on an island in 2200 AD contains an optional dungeon based around the character Robo. Simply by flying around in the Epoch, the player can find several of these dungeons and complete them.
Robo's optional character arc can be completed any time after the Epoch gets wings, allowing more insight into his past.
By focusing on linear gameplay inside dungeons, the developers of Chrono Trigger were able to give players the freedom to choose to experience or not experience entire sections of narrative, in any order they wish. This modular style of narrative allowed the developers to create linear character arcs and subplots while still giving players freedom within the overall narrative.
Leveling System as Guidance
However, with this freedom comes a challenge: how does the developer guide the player along the critical path? Although there are easily-accessible narrative hints given to the player on what to do next, the developers still need to make sure the player doesn't wander too far off-course. Completing a mandatory dungeon out of order would mean certain narrative arcs get triggered too early, not trigger at all, or simply make no sense because the player lacks context.
To solve this problem and prevent players from feeling hopelessly lost, leveling is used to guide players through the main path of the game.
Enemy levels in each narrative section are set according to what the player level should be when they enter the dungeon, and are not adjusted based on the player's actual level. Players who wander too far off the course or attempt narrative arcs out of the critical path are met with exceedingly powerful enemies and are thus encouraged to turn back and find a different route.
For example, one of the first time periods the player can visit outside the critical path is 65,000,000 BC, which is accessible right after the player finds The End of Time. Although the player can freely wander around the map, talk to NPCs, and explore peaceful sections, their progress in the dungeons is halted by powerful enemies that significantly outlevel the player characters.
Although the player can win these battles, they're extremely difficult. This discourages the player from exploring mandatory dungeons out of order; the Dactyl Nest area in particular is mandatory, but only after certain triggers have been set off.
Visiting the Dactyl Nest too early results in a distinctly difficult battle -- the enemies here reduce the player character's health by half in a single hit.
With this more gentle guidance, players are free to progress the main narrative, complete optional narrative sections, or simply explore the map. Meanwhile, developers can be confident that players will generally follow the most rewarding path and can turn back to the critical path without getting stuck.
Carefully Crafted Encounters
Within the dungeons in the game, the developers imposed linear structure through enemy encounters while giving players a great sense of freedom. This was done through the developers' choice to set up unique, handcrafted enemy encounters, which were attached to visible -- and often avoidable -- enemy avatars inside the dungeon.
This is in direct contrast to the more common battle system used in many of Chrono Trigger's contemporaries, wherein randomly-generated encounters had a chance of occurring with every step players took. These unpredictable encounters discourage exploration because each step must be carefully considered, particularly if the player characters are hurt or weak compared to the enemies in the area.
By contrast, predictable, avoidable encounters encourage players to explore new dungeons by reducing repetition and risk. Players can explore high-level dungeons without huge penalties; if the player decides to turn back and leave a dungeon because it is too difficult, they can avoid most or all encounters on the way out. The same applies to areas below the player's level -- they can be re-traversed if need be with very little monotony.
This is particularly important after the player finds the End of Time, but before they find the Epoch. Within the End of Time, players use time portals that take them to specific locations in set time periods. One in particular lands in Truce Canyon, 600 AD. Truce Canyon is actually a dungeon, but it's the only way players can travel to and from 600 AD before they find the Epoch. Thus, players must complete it and re-complete it long after they've outleveled the enemies in the area. Thanks to the ability to avoid enemies, players aren't forced to fight every single encounter, greatly reducing the repetition of traveling through the dungeon.
The player traverses Truce Canyon the final time before confronting Magus and eventually finding the Epoch.
By using this method, Chrono Trigger gives freedom to both developers and players. Developers have the freedom to craft exactly when, where, and what players have to fight while progressing through the game. Encounters are balanced to ensure player characters gain sufficient levels to progress without repeated encounters. Players, on the other hand, can alter when and how much they fight by how they move through the game. Even if they must complete a particular encounter before progressing, the ability to avoid it before they're ready allows them to strategically plan their next battle.
New Game+ and Meta Freedom
Thanks to modular narrative sections, carefully designed battles, and the use of levels to guide progression, players are given a sense of freedom while actually playing a relatively linear game and experiencing a set overall narrative -- but Chrono Trigger's narrative freedom goes much deeper than that.
New Game+ is a major feature that Chrono Trigger introduced to the RPG genre. By selecting this option, players can re-experience the game from the beginning with the equipment, character levels, and skills that they had when they finished the game. This allows the players to experience the game without the restrictions the leveling system imposed on them during their first playthrough.
While the first playthrough guides the player along a critical path that includes several mandatory narrative sections, the New Game+ feature allows players to confront and defeat the final boss, Lavos, at almost any point in the game.
During their first playthrough, the player can confront Lavos right after finding The End of Time, but without New Game+ they are hopelessly outleveled. In fact, during the Zeal arc the player is forced to confront Lavos in an essentially unwinnable battle.
Removing the level restrictions via New Game+ grants the player much greater control over when and where to defeat Lavos and end the game. There's even a special portal that opens up at the beginning of a New Game+, which leads to Lavos only a few minutes after the start of the game.
To encourage players to utilize the freedom they get from the New Game+ feature, the game includes over a dozen unique ending scenes, all dependent on when players defeat the final boss. Many of these are simply bonuses, but a few show the player's effect on the world; there's even an ending where Reptites have taken over the world because the player failed to defeat the Reptite leader in 65,000,000 BC! This flexibility and dynamic response greatly increased the player's options, the game's replay value, and ultimately the game's status as a classic.
This rare ending in Chrono Trigger mirrors the beginning of the game, replacing all humans with Reptites.
Learning from Chrono Trigger
With just a few key design decisions, the developers of Chrono Trigger gave themselves the freedom to craft a linear narrative while giving players the ability to play and experience the game on their terms.
- Players are able to choose to experience distinct narrative sections, many of which are optional, without the hassle of fighting enemies to get there.
- Enemy levels are set according to the critical path, guiding players along it without overtly forcing them through it.
- Each enemy encounter is visible and avoidable, giving players control over when to fight and when to avoid confrontations.
- Once they have completed the game, players can use the New Game+ feature to circumvent and deconstruct the critical path that they followed on the first playthrough.
The success of this balance between player choice and developer craft shows that it is possible to give developers and players control over the experience with limited resources. This is good news for any modern developer that wants to give players the freedom they crave while preserving a coherent and well-crafted narrative. While branching out every single decision is often too labor intensive, and setting players on a single straight path is too limiting to their play, setting up modular sections of linear narrative arcs allows players to experience the different subplots of the game without feeling forced through them.
Although scaling enemy levels and numbers to match player's level has its own merits, preset enemy levels can effectively guide the player in the gameworld without forcing them into a particular path. This should be used quite sparingly, however, with minimal punishment doled out to the player for choosing the wrong path. In other words, a level 1 player should not be able to stumble into an area with level 50 enemies that would instantly obliterate their party. This simply penalizes the player for exploring, where ideally the setup of the game would encourage exploration.
Finally, Chrono Trigger's design worked because it did not start players in a completely open world. Players were gradually introduced to more and more options before being set free. First, they were able to avoid enemies and explore the world map for a sense of basic freedom while traveling along a critical path.
Next, they were given access to the End of Time, which allowed them to travel to specific points in time and find the critical path on their own. Finally, they were able to find and complete optional dungeons with the Epoch. Because they are gradually introduced to the world and the characters, the player can familiarize themselves with the overworld map and the narrative before being given free rein.
Ultimately, giving players the feeling of control and freedom is a laudable goal in any game. To do so while still delivering a single crafted narrative is, as Chrono Trigger shows, achievable in a game of any size or budget.