Necklaces, Fallen Children, and Forgiveness.

 

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So let’s start at the end. Recently, at the April 2019 Salt Lake FanX Comic Convention, as I am legally required to call it without being sued by the San Diego Comic Con, I went dressed up as Chara from the video game Undertale(If you don’t know who that is, or haven’t played Undertale, I may do some spoiling, so only keep reading if you have played it and/or will probably never play it and don’t care about being spoiled. Anyway, while I was there, I was looking for additional costume pieces, and I came across a necklace that seemed perfect, as it almost looked like the Undertale heart logo, and Chara is supposed to have a heart locket, so I picked it up and wore it as part of the costume.

jeffchara

It was a pretty cool part of the costume, to be sure, but for some reason there was a little more to it. I liked wearing it. For some reason it felt good to wear it, safe, friendly. I didn’t know exactly why; after all, it’s just an 8-bit heart necklace, just metal and paint, but for some reason it felt like there was a deeper meaning to me wearing it, something that I couldn’t articulate very well at the time, but strong enough that I’ve actually worn it every day since then, often under my shirt. I’ve tried coming up with a few different articulated reasons as to why I feel such a strong connection with a piece of jewelry (other than the possibility that, like, Sauron made it, but that seems unlikely), but when people have asked me, “Hey, that’s a neat necklace; why are you wearing it?” (because, you know, a guy can’t just wear a necklace without having a reason, that’s just the society we live in) I’ve had a hard time coming up with a good, short answer beyond “I want to wear it.” For you see, the true reason is far more complicated than I can explain to some clerk at a gas station, and far more personal than I feel like blurting out to Stranger #14 at Wal*Mart or wherever.

But I shall attempt to do so here.

A few years ago, in March of 2017, I planned a camping trip to Goblin Valley State Park in central-ish Utah (if you’re not familiar with it, it’s where they filmed the part of Galaxy Quest with the rock monster, and if you’re not familiar with that then go watch Galaxy Quest, it’s great) with some of my favorite people in the whole world: my good friend Johnathan Whiting, and my two nieces Ivy and Madeleine, who at this point were just barely 14 and 13 years old, respectively. The four of us had hung out on many occasions (most notably we’ve recorded over 100 videos of a game called Dokapon Kingdom that is on my YouTube “Let’s Play” channel), and the girls’ parents didn’t want to come as neither of them are big on camping, so it was just us four. Now, I’m not a huge camper either (a fact that will be important later), but despite being a city boy who grew up in the suburbs, I’m still a Utahn who did Scouting trips when I was a teenager and I can appreciate getting out in nature every once in a while, which was one reason I wanted those girls to come, to just experience something they hadn’t before that their parents weren’t really interested in.

 

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So we set out over Spring Break. We arrived in the afternoon, set up tents, drove into the park and went hiking around for a few hours, came back and had dinner, etc. etc….in short, a normal camping experience for the most part. In the morning we had breakfast and got completely packed and ready to drive back home. We had probably about an hour or so before we had to leave, though, so we decided to take one last sojourn into the park and hike around for a bit. A ways into the park the terrain gets a little more dangerous: high hills and steep cliffs and scattered boulders everywhere, though for the most part you can navigate fairly easily as long as you take it slowly.

At one point I was taking a breather and resting on top of a large boulder at the top of a steep incline. The other three in the group had gone down the incline, up the next one, and were trying to reach the top. At one point one of them called over to me and asked if I saw a path up (we knew there was one somewhere because there were a handful of hikers that day, and some had made it up there). Johnathan and Maddie were near each other on an incline littered with boulders, while Ivy was about ten feet away from them, close to an overhang over a 15-foot cliff above a steep, packed-dirt hillside. From my vantage point I didn’t see an easy way up to the top, so I called to them that I didn’t see one Ivy’s way (what with it being a cliff and all), but there might be one around the back going the other way. As they continued climbing, I lay back and enjoyed the moment. It was late March in Southern Utah, and the temperature was absolutely perfect. It had been raining earlier in the week but during our trip the skies were clear and sunny, and the dirt was still a little softer than usual since it hadn’t been baking for days. A slight breeze blew its way around the rock formations, and all I could hear were the muffled sounds of hikers nearby as they were climbing and clambering their way through this unique landscape.

I didn’t see the exact moment when she fell.

A flash of movement caught the corner of my eye, and I swiveled my head around to see what it was. And there she was: Ivy, in complete freefall, limp as a ragdoll and somehow spinning head over heels, now plummeting down the very same cliffside I had seen her near earlier.

“IVY!!!!!” I screamed, more forcefully than I have ever screamed anything in my life; so strong and loud that it alerted everybody within hearing distance. I honestly have never screamed as loud as I did then; I don’t think I’m physically able to do so on command.

I didn’t see the actual impact either; it was obscured by a boulder that stood in between us, though later it was clear that she had landed on her face. I did see her rolling down the steep hillside, though, and the only clear thought that came through my ever-analytical brain was, oddly, “Wow, she’s rolling pretty well. Like, it looks kinda controlled. Must’ve been all that Zelda she plays that helped her know how to roll with an impact like that.” This was, of course, nonsense in the end, but it was the one thought that somehow cut through the panic and the shock.

Just as soon as that thought had come and gone, though, I sprang up from my sitting position and very nearly leaped off the rock I was on to check on her. That, however, probably would’ve resulted in me sustaining the same injuries, so instead, still in mostly-panic mode, I had to somehow navigate down off my own perch, through some treacherous drops and boulders, in order to make it to her side. By the time I was out of the dangerous area, she had come to a stop, after falling about fifteen feet, landing on her face, and rolling down a steep hill for about another sixty vertical feet that, fortunately, was still a bit soft due to the rain earlier in the week.

I was the first to reach her. Legs tangled in a heap, head lolling to one side, snow-white skin spattered with bright red blood.

Still.

Unmoving.

It was then I had my second coherent thought. “If anybody in the future comes up to me and asks if I have ever seen what death looks like, I can now tell them I have, because it looks like this.”

I knelt down beside her. No tears, no outburst, nothing. Just dread inevitability.

Fifteen seconds went by before I could hear her raspy gasps for breath.

Soon other hikers started gathering, many of which had first aid training. I had first aid training once, when I was in Scouts. I should know what to do. Once, a long time ago, when I was Ivy’s age, I had known what to do. But it had been so long, and none of it was readily available to me. Hikers who were knowledgeable took over. Some called for some fast young men to run quickly and fetch the park ranger (there was no cellphone service anywhere in the park, at least not nearby) Others checked her vitals, checked for broken bones. I ended up parking myself under her legs in an attempt to get her body level on the steep incline until help arrived. At some point Johnathan and Madeleine had arrived on the scene, but I don’t remember their initial reactions, just that Madeleine was hysterical and Johnathan was doing his best to console her, as I could not do.

I wish I had written this down closer to the time it happened so there would be more details, but I couldn’t do it. Mostly now I remember moments instead of a complete narrative. Helping Ivy take off her shoes so she could wiggle her toes to make sure they weren’t broken. Sheepishly asking someone to fetch my hiking bag with supplies that I had left up where I was resting earlier. Madeleine making Undertale references (more on this later) in an effort to ground herself and Ivy in something familiar. Something like a dozen other hikers standing around, being incredibly supportive and helpful. And through it all, the constant whimpering, gasping, raspy-sounding cries coming from that blood-spattered pale face, which was terrible yet wonderful. It meant she was still with us.

I had not seen death that day.

The ranger arrived with a stretcher and told Ivy to keep making noises so that we knew she hadn’t passed out as we carried her. She started with a video game song (I forget which), but after only a few seconds it proved too much for her to continue with something so complicated, and it somehow morphed into “Jingle Bells.” We got her onto the stretcher and set off, the entire party: Johnathan, Maddie, me, about a dozen or more other hikers, the ranger and a cohort carrying the stretcher, all in complete silence, except for a small, raspy voice wheezing out of a sand-filled, blood-soaked throat:

“Duh-duh-duuuuh, duh-duh-duuuuuuh, duh duh duuuh, duduuuuuuuh…”

For nearly ten minutes we trudged through the desert sands, navigating through the hills and boulders we had been exploring not too much earlier. Occasionally you’d hear a sniffle from Madeleine, or some low talking from some of the other hikers, but for the most part it was just a small, plaintive voice:

“Duh-duh-duuuh, duh-duuuh-duh-duh, duh duh duuh duh duh duh duuuuuh, duuuuhh…”

It was surreal, hearing nothing but a soft breeze and a croaking rendition of a Christmas favorite, but there we were. A cluster of protectors and/or mourners, protecting a small fallen child on her way to safety.

Eventually we reached the parking lot, where we loaded her onto the ranger’s pickup truck that would take us to the park entrance, where the Lifeflight helicopter could land and take her to a “nearby” hospital (which was about 150 miles away in Grand Junction, Colorado; bad weather forced the helicopter pilot to forgo anything closer). At the ranger station I could finally call her parents with the news, which at this point was actually pretty good, all things considered: she was alive, she could move everything, no major bones were broken, she was on her way to the hospital — it could have been far worse. They immediately set out from Salt Lake out to Grand Junction, which was about a five-hour drive (this was now early afternoon), and since there was no extra room in the helicopter, Johnathan, Madeleine, and myself got into my car to do the same.

Then the car wouldn’t start.

Because of course.

Luckily it wasn’t that hard to get a jump from the ranger’s truck, and soon we were on our way. The entire time I had kept a cool head and was completely in business mode, especially since it was apparent that Ivy would be (relatively) fine. I had to see this whole thing through to the end now. After all, I was the one who had planned this trip, I was the one who was responsible for these girls, I was the one who had to put right what had gone wrong on my watch.

And then the doubts started to creep in. Though I hadn’t actually pushed her, it was when I was responsible for her that all this had happened. I wasn’t a trained outdoorsman, and I should have been more careful, should’ve been able to train the girls correctly in safer hiking techniques. She fell when it was noon and there were lots of hikers around, but the evening before we were out there when it was nearly pitch black and nobody else was nearby; what would have happened if she had fallen then? Would I be driving to a hospital knowing that she was in good hands and would recover, or…

I had to stay focused. I had to fix this as best as I could. I had to be strong for Ivy, be strong for Madeleine. I had to show to myself that this was an accident, that I had done my best, that I wasn’t negligent. Because it was an accident, I couldn’t have prevented it, right?

Right?

No use in second-guessing. We made it to the hospital, where the doctors informed us that she had fractured bones in her face and needed to be flown back to Salt Lake to Primary Children’s, where they had the staff and equipment needed to deal with the types of injuries she had sustained. We were in talks with the pilot about weight limits, because Madeleine wanted to stay with Ivy and I wanted to stay with them too as the responsible adult, and Johnathan could then drive my car home. But then her parents finally arrived on the scene, and I was quickly swapped out for her mother on the helicopter, and her dad got back in his car and started to drive back to Salt Lake, leaving Johnathan and myself alone in an unfamiliar town, with no situation to fix, no problems to resolve, nothing to do but spend the night at the local Ronald McDonald house and drive back the next day. I was doing my best to fix what I was in charge of, and then I was in charge of nothing, and I couldn’t do anything to fix anything.

Then the other thoughts began, the ones based more in social anxiety than in reason. “They obviously don’t trust you anymore. You hurt their daughter. You were responsible for this trip, a trip they were never in favor of from the start. You’re not a responsible camper, you’re a city boy who was in Scouts twenty years ago and wanted to go hang out where one of your favorite movies was filmed. Maybe if you took along someone more experienced or done this as part of a larger group like you used to do in church activities…”

Then more thoughts. “Johnathan said that he had a bad feeling about this trip from the start. He believes that it was the Spirit of God warning him that it shouldn’t happen. You left the church two years ago. You don’t believe in that any more. If only you had stayed within the fold, maybe you would have received that same inspiration and this wouldn’t have happened. Turn your back on God…and he turns his back on you.”

Most of this I knew wasn’t true logically, if not all of it. But understanding something logically and believing something emotionally are two separate processes, and as much as we want them to always harmonize, often they don’t, and we have to push on regardless.

Johnathan and I drove back to Salt Lake the next day straight to the hospital. I stayed as long as I could, though at some point I had to take Johnathan home and sleep at my own apartment. Though as I was there I was increasingly worried that I was more and more an unwanted presence. After all, there was nothing for me to do, with her parents there. All her other visitors had come in for a few hours and left, as is normal. It was too fresh to really talk about other than in a superficial way (these are the injuries, this will be her healing processes, etc.), and everyone was so focused on her that I might as well not have been around.

In a day or two she was finally released and I went with the family back to their home, but within a few minutes it was clear that I wasn’t being helpful. Everyone was just too tired. Now there was all this extra work to make her better. To get her through the school year. There were some permanent ramifications to her health. This girl had to wade through hell just to get back to where she was before, and that’s not even counting the emotional trauma that Madeleine had to also deal with (to this day she refuses to discuss anything Goblin-Valley-related with me). And still, there were those thoughts, the ones that kept insisting, “You were responsible for this. They all know that this trip was your idea and that your negligence caused this. They don’t want you around. They have to concentrate on her well-being. Nobody’s concentrating on your well-being. It’s not worth concentrating on. You are a problem that they now have to fix. You cannot fix this. You’re not able to fix this. Go home before they get even more resentful of your presence.”

So I went home.


Now, at this point, I have to make a weird detour to explain parts of the video game Undertale, for reasons that will eventually become clear (and again, some major spoilers!). If you want to skip this part you can (go to the next horizontal line), though I don’t know how much of the rest of this will make sense if you do.

Undertale is a game that those girls absolutely adore, and they got me to play it a few months before the trip. I thought it was pretty good at the time, but the more I analyzed it, the more I liked it, as it’s a truly emotional, heartfelt game that’s also really funny in spots and somehow makes you care deeply about the characters in it. I won’t recount the entire game here, but for my purposes I need to touch on a few things. The game is a cutesy RPG where you play as a child who has fallen, Alice-In-Wonderland-style, into an underworld populated by monsters, albeit (mostly) of the goofy, friendly kind. You can choose to either fight these monsters, increasing your LV and EXP and getting stronger like pretty much every other RPG, or you can befriend them all, which is more difficult and results in no EXP (meaning that bosses are way harder ’cause you’re stuck at LV 1 the whole game with piddly health), or a combination of the two, killing some and befriending others. How you play through the game determines the ending that you receive.

Most endings of the game follow variations on the Neutral route, where you’ve killed some monsters and befriended others. There’s also the Pacifist route, where you don’t kill any monsters and results in the Golden Ending where basically everyone is happy (which takes at least one prior Neutral ending to even be possible). Then there’s the third route, which is nearly impossible to stumble upon blindly without looking anything up online, as it requires you not only to kill all the bosses, but hang around in each area of the game and kill all the random encounters until there are none left. This is the Genocide or No-Mercy route, and it’s pretty dark; other than some darkly humorous bits in the first section or two it’s a depressing slog through murdering all these fun characters that you befriend on the other routes, and the game is so good at making you connect with these characters that a lot of people haven’t finished a Genocide run simply because they can’t bear to cut them down, even though the whole thing is fictional. The Genocide run, however, does result in two unique boss battles (which are magnitudes more difficult than any boss battles in the other routes) and is the only way to see some unique dialogue and learn some backstory that you can’t get any other way. But most importantly for my story, the Genocide run is the only way you get to truly see the character Chara.

As is standard in RPG’s, you get to pick a name at the beginning of the game. Most new players believe they are naming the child that you control throughout the game, but through a Pacifist run you learn that that child is actually named Frisk, and the person you named (whose default name is “Chara”, short for “character”, so pronounce it right!) is another person entirely (also called the “Fallen Child” in-game). A super-brief synopsis of her backstory (and I’m gonna call her a “her” even though in the game Chara’s gender is ambiguous, for reasons that may come up later) goes thusly: Long ago, humans and monsters engaged in a war. The humans won, and sealed the monsters underground beneath a barrier. Anybody can cross into the barrier, but leaving requires the power of at least a human and monster soul, and destroying the barrier entirely requires the power of seven human souls (which are stronger than monster souls). In the year 201X (according to the intro), Chara, a human child (the game never says specifically but she’s probably around twelve years old or so) who didn’t really like other humans very much, climbed the mountain over the underworld and fell into a hole through the barrier. She was injured, but nursed back to health by a family of goat-looking monsters, including their son Asriel who was about the same age. She grew to love them and they loved her, though none more than Asriel. She eventually learned of the situation with the barrier and devised a plan to free all the monsters from their prison: poison herself, and have Asriel take her soul in order to cross the barrier and find six more human souls to break it once and for all. This ended up backfiring, as Asriel didn’t really have it in him to kill six people (and they were both too young to think of, like, digging up graves or visiting terminal patients or anything), and ended up fatally wounded by a bunch of freaked-out people and died, though not before making it back to the underworld. A series of events (that aren’t currently important) occurred that eventually ended up with Chara buried under a field of flowers that had been planted under the hole where she had first fallen, and there her soul lay, until some undetermined time later, when another child, Frisk, fell into the same hole and somehow woke up Chara’s soul which then attached itself to Frisk. This is why, in battles and so forth, the name Chara (or whatever you put in) appears instead of Frisk: while Frisk is the child you’re controlling, the soul is actually Chara’s (or some amalgamation of the two kids’ souls or something, it isn’t 100% clear), and a popular fan theory is that all the narration text boxes actually come from Chara, speaking into Frisk’s mind or something.

From here it gets a little ambiguous, as sometimes the game doesn’t differentiate clearly between Frisk, Chara, and the player, but my interpretation is this: the actions you choose throughout the game, whether you kill monsters or spare them, has an effect on who Chara ends up being in the end. If you are nice (or neutral), then the narration retains a playful, fun quality to it that especially gets a little emotional when dealing with Asriel and his family. If you are murderous and follow the Genocide route, then the narration grows terse, often only showing one or two words, occasionally turning red on more violent lines. Following the Pacifist route will result in Frisk and most of the monsters leaving the underworld, only leaving behind Flowey (really Asriel resurrected as a flower; don’t ask) and Chara. Flowey tells Chara to let Frisk and friends be happy where they are and move on, which she is finally able to do (you know, unless you reset the game) because she learned from you, the player, how to let others be happy, even when she’s ultimately not included.

At the end of the Genocide route, however, after you’ve killed pretty much everyone else in the game, Chara finally makes an appearance outside of a flashback, saying that you’ve shown her her purpose, which is to gain power and LV (which in this game actually stands for Level of Violence, because Undertale has a Message), and there is nothing else left in the game. She then asks whether or not you want to erase “this pointless world” and move on to the next one. If you refuse, she gets confused (since you were the one killing everyone, this is a bit out of character from her viewpoint for you) and erases everything herself, meaning that the game closes, and if you boot it up there’s nothing but black and howling wind (there is a way to restore it to normal, but for our purposes it doesn’t really matter). If you agree, however…

…she calls you a great partner! You’ll be together forever! (Then she erases everything just like the other choice.)

That’s right, while everyone else hates you and calls you a monster and fights you at every turn, she just wants to spend more time with you. No matter what you do in the game, if you befriend everyone or kill everyone, the one character who stays by your side…is Chara.


Now what does *any* of this have to do with that Goblin Valley trip, or its subsequent effects on its participants, or my own journey through processing it all?

I had played Undertale for the first time only a few months before the trip. More recently just a week or two before, the girls had recorded their own Let’s Play of the game at my house, and it was due to post on my YouTube channel the weekend after the Goblin Valley trip, so it was on everybody’s mind. We talked about it a bunch on the way down, and at the campsite. I had put together an MP3 CD (because my car stereo is pretty old) of music that we all liked (we each picked a quarter of the songs, so we ended up with a really eclectic mix where one track would be a weird MIDI file from Homestuck that Maddie liked and the next would be a Journey song chosen by Johnathan), and a bunch of the tracks were Undertale tunes. Undertale became the de facto theme of the trip. And even during/after the accident, we used Undertale as a crutch to push on through the experience (Maddie kept telling Ivy to “Stay Determined!” half as an inside joke-reference, as that phrase is a reoccurring one in the game, and half as a serious request). And even the accident itself (girl with dark impulses falls off a cliff, gets nursed back to health by loving family) could be considered an Undertale parallel.

Before the trip I had completed the Neutral and Pacifist routes, and had been working on the Genocide route. A day or two after everything happened and I had Gone Home, I picked it back up to finish it. But here’s the thing with the Genocide route: it goes out of its way to make you feel like absolute scum. Once you start down that path, everyone in the game either gets scared and flees from you, or goes out of their way to point out what an absolute garbage monster you are, worth less than the dust. Only one character has faith in you until the end (well, one of two, but we’ll get to that), and that’s Papyrus, the lovable skeleton man who knows you’ll do the right thing right up until you lop his head off. A lot of people simply can’t complete the Genocide route because it means killing Papyrus right as he’s expressing his good faith in you, and indeed it is kind of a turning point, as nobody shows any sympathy for you after that. Which makes perfect sense in-universe, I mean, you are killing them all. From then on, it’s all “What kind of monster are you?” and “You’re gonna have a bad time” and “You can feel your sins crawling on your back” and the Christmas tree in town has “Nothing for you” and “Kids like you should be burning in hell.”

And I just thought, “Are you f@$&ing kidding me?

“After the week I’ve had? After the very serious damage that happened on my watch, after the pain and the trauma and the subsequent non-closure, after nearly killing one of my favorite people in the entire world, trying to deal with that guilt with no help, then just being dumped back into my normal life, having to move on as if nothing happened, and the first thing I try to get my mind off of it all is telling me that I am a garbage human being for clicking a “Fight” button instead of a “Mercy” button, so that a bunch of moving pixels turn to dust instead of fading gray? That I should be wracked with guilt because a bunch of fictional characters don’t want to die even though they’re not real and if I wanted to I could just reset the game anyway? That I should be BURNING IN HELL FOR PLAYING A GAME, A GAME, the way I want to PLAY IT?!?!?!?!?!?

No.

NO MORE.

This is IRRESPONSIBLE.

The world has enough guilt as it is. You shouldn’t make people feel more guilt for doing something ultimately innocuous!

I WILL NOT stand for this!

I was playing the Genocide route just to see the ending.

Now, though…

it’s personal.

So I killed all those smug, sanctimonious preaching faces. I murdered Undyne, who told me that I was a world-destroying monster, when less than twenty miles away, a girl lay seriously injured for the rest of her life because of something I was responsible for. I know guilt, Undyne. Beating your boss battle is not guilt. Caving in the head of Muffet or Mettaton or anyone else is not a cause to feel shame, no matter how much this game wants me to think it is.

It took me about forty tries to beat Sans.

Sans, the joking douchebag. Sans, the fat skeleton thingy, who was perfectly content to sit around and do nothing until almost everyone else was dead, who proceeds to wipe the floor with your face again and again and again, telling you to burn in hell just because you were playing a video game in a way that he doesn’t like, even faking redemption just to immediately murder you if you fall for it.

It made sense, in character. In universe.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to slice his grinning face open with a True Knife. And I eventually did.


Was I a greater monster for murdering dozens of fictional characters, or for going on an ill-advised, spiritually-warned-against camping trip without preparing the participants adequately? Which was the worse sin, crawling up my back? Or did it matter? Guilt compounds. Voices, characters, lines, telling me it was my doing, that I was responsible, in both of these cases. They’re both wrong. I’m a monster for both of them. Everyone wanted to fight me, nobody wanted me around.

“You left the church, no longer believed in Mormonism. Therefore you had no spiritual discernment to avoid that trip.

Kids like you…

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So I beat Sans. Then I murdered Asgore in cold blood and sliced Flowey in half as he begged for his life. As long as I’m going to hell, I might as well go whole hog. What depressing message do you have left for me, game? What last, stinking epithet are you going to throw at my character, my SOUL? Let’s have it!

Then she appeared.

“Greetings! I am Chara.”

charasprite

Smiling. She actually seemed happy to see me. The first smile I’d seen in my direction in quite a few days.

“We have reached the absolute. There is nothing left for us here.”

That’s true. Everybody here hated me anyway.

“Let us erase this pointless world, and move on to the next.”

Sounds good to me.

“Right. You are a great partner.”

A…a great partner? As in…

…not a monster?

“We’ll be together forever, won’t we?”

Somebody knows all the terrible things I’ve done, what I am at the core…

…and they still want to be with me?

…..

Then she slashed the screen. Killed the world. The game closed, and upon opening it there was nothing left.

All those characters, calling me scum. All those fictional NPCs doing their best to pile on guilt upon guilt, shame upon shame, throwing hate and fear and all manner of loathsome bile my way…

…gone.


That was the first time since the accident that I had felt any hope. That I felt that, somehow, I could overcome all the negativity that my thoughts kept heaping on me. It wasn’t “Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault,” which was the only response I got from people about the accident, which didn’t happen often and wasn’t what I truly believed anyway. It was “I know what you’ve done. I know who you are. And I still want to be with you.”

I live alone. Due to some social anxiety issues (and, you know, being older than 30), I find it very hard to make friends. And even the friends and family I do have have to live their own lives, obviously. The only people who’ve ever even wanted to visit me in the past five years or so are those that went on that trip with me. Of those three, one had their life changed for the worse because of me, one is completely unable to talk about the subject with me, and the third…

…well, Johnathan could at least go home to his sister’s family, with a bunch of kids who hug him and tell him that they love him and want to be with him.

I went home to a bunch of fictional characters who told me I was a terrible person, up until Chara appeared. And yes, she is as fictional as all the other characters I had just turned to dust, but they were still the words I needed to hear.

“Those things you did? Killing fictional characters to let off steam about a real-life situation you haven’t come to grips with yet? Those characters wanted to give you more guilt, more shame, more self-loathing, but not me.

They don’t matter. All that shame…doesn’t matter.

Let’s erase that pointless existence, and move on.

Move on.”


Other voices suddenly were allowed through. “Ivy’s parents, your sister and her husband; Maddie; Ivy herself —  they were all tired. They had been through similar trauma that you had; worse, as they had to deal with the aftermath. They couldn’t go home and pretend it didn’t happen. They weren’t shunning you because they hate you now. Give them time, give them space, and soon they’ll have the emotional energy to reincorporate you into their lives. They need to support each other now before supporting you.”

“You may have done some irresponsible things. But that doesn’t mean that you aren’t worth being around.”

“The accident may have been your fault, it may not have been. Ultimately, that’s a pointless train of thought. Learn from it. Erase that pointless existence and move on.

Move on.”


A fictional person allowed me to be forgiven for murdering other fictional people.

Maybe that meant I could learn to forgive myself for injuring a very real person.


I can guarantee you that’s not the response the game intended you to have toward Chara at the end of a Genocide route. But I felt more love and gratitude for her than I had felt for anyone in a long time, for allowing me to finally make that breakthrough.

So I indulged her last request, to balance the books between us. You wanted to move on to the next world?

Hey, Chara, you wanna explore Skyrim?

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Oh, you just want to see Solitude burn down? I guess that can be fun.

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Yeah! Burn! Skyrim is for the Nords!

Or maybe you want to visit the post-apocalyptic world of Boston?

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Hmm… seems a little dark…let’s get you somewhere safer, with better lighting.

 

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That’s better. Within the echelons of an underground amoral scientific community experimenting on innocent surface-dwelling citizens. Seems like a fun time for all.

But hey, maybe you’d rather see what’s going on on the other side of the country. New Vegas, baby!

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Hey, that’s a pretty badass pose, with that green-and-yellow duster and all. But, as I recall, you’re more of a knife person…

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That’s better. Far more your style, I think.

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Ooh, creepy! I like it!

Or what if you want to see something more old-school? I hear Baldur’s Gate and the Forgotten Realms have some pretty interesting places to visit.

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You can even bring some of your old friends with you, if you want to (oh, and also that jerk Sans).

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Not in the mood for a group adventure? Maybe someplace simpler, a little more two-dimensional?

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Yeah, that seems better. An idyllic place, where nothing can go wrong.

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Well, the killer unicorns are pretty scary, but you seem to have that covered with your vampire knives. But you’re so small! How do I know that’s even you?

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That’s a little better. And you’ve made it to space, even! And for some reason are wearing a Starfleet uniform and a miniskirt?

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I suppose some games are harder to customize than others. Oh, well. Have fun bringing down the evil space penguins!

Though maybe all this action is pretty crazy. How would you fare somewhere far more down-to-earth, like on, say, a farm?

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Oh, I see, you’d…

…plant a field of golden flowers…in memory of your fallen family…

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That’s actually really touching, Chara. You do have a soft side after all.

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Though clearly it’s not your only side.


Though most of this “let’s put Chara in every game” thing I’ve been doing for a while now has been just for fun, there remains the part that has been therapeutic. You see, every time I see her, I don’t just see a character design. I see forgiveness. I see unconditional love. I see peace. I see the ability to let go of the past, learn from mistakes. I see someone who, fictional or not, believed in me at a moment when I felt that nobody else did. In some ways it’s like I’m playing with an old friend, who I can bring along in all my adventures, and who wants to be there just as much as I do.

It’s kind of ironic that this epiphany of self-discovery came from the Genocide route of Undertale, as forgiveness and being at peace with one’s mistakes form the emotional core of the Pacifist route of the game. Though in that case, instead of characters either calling you out for your terrible deeds (or forgiving you for them), you are the catalyst of their change. Through your kind words and deeds you help several people who have done terrible things to feel that maybe they aren’t worthless after all. One character, Alphys, a character that I didn’t really understand until after all this, is a prime example. She’s a scientist who performs some experiments at the king’s request to try to find a different way to break the barrier, but in doing so accidentally mutilates and mutates her test subjects. Stricken with guilt, even though she had no idea that what happened was even possible, she was unable to own up to her own mistakes, hiding them all in her basement lab, not returning the letters of the subjects’ own family members, obsessing over pop culture to ease her guilt, and thinking that she has to trick you into being her friend because in her mind there’s no way your friendship would ever happen naturally. Through your actions, and the actions of some of the other characters (particularly Undyne), she realizes that she needs to own her mistakes, learn from them, and move on. By the end of the game, she isn’t magically all better, but she has begun the process of learning how to forgive herself, with the support of those close to her.

Sound familiar?


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We’ve all had to develop our own ways to cope with the accident. Ivy, for her part, has developed somewhat of a fascination with death, though not in the way you may think. Less with an attitude of fear, or murder, and more the concept that within death there can be found new life and hope and joy (the Neil Gaiman/Tim Burton/Harry Potter approach to death). I don’t know how Maddie has coped as she hasn’t clued me in to her process at all. Maybe someday she will, maybe she never will; either way, it’s her own path, and at least outwardly she seems to be doing well. Johnathan still has his own family and faith to support him. And, as for me…

I don’t get a lot of support from people around me, which really is my own fault. I’m a fiercely independent loner who often doesn’t express his emotions for fear of embarrassment, especially since usually when I try I either get tongue-tied or say something that simply causes an awkward silence. The irony of the world is that few, if any, people care about how I feel because everybody’s trying to get others to listen to them talk about how they feel. Sometimes all your friends and your family are unavailable because they’re living their own lives and you find it hard to make inserting yourself into their lives your priority (and they’re sure not going to make it their priority). Sometimes the thing you need to hear to feel better about yourself comes from an unexpected source, like a character in a video game. But regardless of where it comes from, you grab onto that hope. You remember that hope. And you remind yourself of it every day of your life so that the good thoughts outweigh the bad.

Which finally, finally, brings us back to the necklace I found at FanX. You see, the 8-bit heart that comprises the Undertale logo is more than just a heart. It represents the SOUL, which in Undertale is a very real (if still somewhat metaphysical) thing. There are different colors of SOULs in the game that represent different people and/or concepts, but the red SOUL represents Frisk/Chara. By wearing this necklace, I’m literally wearing a symbol of Chara specifically. And since she helped me re-find my soul, I feel it appropriate to wear hers close to my heart.

It reminds me of peace. It reminds me to look out for those people nobody else has the time or the energy to look out for. It reminds me to forgive, and to seek forgiveness. It reminds me that goodness can be found even in the most unlikely of places. And it reminds me that, despite no longer believing in an organized religion, I too, still have a soul that I need to protect, heal, and help grow.

Though if some gas station clerk asks about it again, I’ll probably just tell them that it’s because I like Zelda, just to save some time.

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Chrono Trigger: Why A Redheaded 17-Year-Old Katana Wielder Is Actually You, and the Important Lesson That You’re Not The Center of the World, But You Can Change It Anyway.

Crono

(Note: the following post contains spoilers for Chrono Trigger: a Super Nintendo JRPG from 1995. If you haven’t played it, stop reading and go play it. No, seriously, go play it. Why are you still reading this? I can wait. It’s on Wii Virtual Console or, like, Android, for $10 or something, though apparently the Android version is based on the DS version, which is a good port though it adds some bonus dungeons that suck and makes Frog lose his King James accent, sadly. From this point on I’ll assume you’ve played it, as Chrono Trigger deserves to be in the general consciousness at least as much as, say, Star Wars does, if not more so.)

I’ve never made it a secret that Chrono Trigger is my favorite game of all-time. In fact, it is so good that for a long time it fooled me into thinking that JRPG’s were one of my favorite genres (that’s “Japanese Role-Playing Games” like the Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts series, as opposed to “Western Role-Playing Games” like Skyrim or Mass Effect which I actually do like a lot more in general). To this day I can count on one hand how many JRPG’s I actually enjoy, but Chrono Trigger stands head, shoulders, knees, and toes above all of them, maybe even on one of those pedestals on a hydraulic lift that can raise it even higher. And while there are about fifty kajillion reasons why (intriguing plots, time travel, cavewomen, a frog that speaks with an inexplicable Shakespearean accent, etc.), today I’d like to focus mostly on the razor-thin balancing act that is the protagonist of our story: a 17-year-old redheaded katana-wielding teenager with a single parent (and at least one cat) named Crono (so named because “Chrono” is six letters and the game only let you use five letters for names).

First, let’s provide come background information on RPG’s in general. Role-Playing Games are so named because you, in at least some small way, control how a certain character or characters develop. The level of control you have depends on the game, as does the amount of immersion into the role. For example, many modern-era JRPG’s have fully fleshed-out protagonists who have their own personalities and make their own decisions; you just basically tell them where to move outside of cutscenes and what attack moves to use in battles. This first type of RPG protagonist is barely immersive at all: you’re not supposed to identify with the character, you’re supposed to witness their story and maybe have a hand in some parts. Even in some stories where you have at least some control over their personality (such as Mass Effect where your choices boil down to choosing between “be a righteous hero” and “be a hero who’s kind of a jerk sometimes”), it’s still not your story. You just, as the player, have some influence on how it all plays out, and usually you have a lot more say in what skills/abilities you want the protagonist to develop than what kind of person you want them to be.

The second type of RPG protagonist is the one where the character you play is supposed to be your own surrogate. Games such as Skyrim, or most MMORPG’s, or pretty much any game where you craft a character at the beginning, fall into this category. Many of these games are based on a Dungeons and Dragons model, where you make up all your character’s attributes and personality traits, and while they can be immersive, it’s much more difficult to tell a wonderfully plotted, coherent story with good pacing and side characters, etc. More often these type of games end up being open-world sandbox games, where you can go around and do whatever quests you think your character would do (or whatever quests will get you the best rewards, if you care more about the gaming system than the role-playing aspect). Characters may react to your decisions, but usually only on a superficial level at best, so that all types of people can throw themselves into the protagonist role and not feel alienated by it.

There is a third type of RPG protagonist, however, that for lack of a better term is normally called the “silent protagonist.” This type of character is an attempt to blend the other two: the character still has a backstory and personality, but doesn’t actually say anything in order for the player to more closely identify with the character. A good example of this type of hero would be Link from the Zelda series (though whether or not that makes Zelda an RPG series is debatable, considering that you have no control over what kind of a person Link is or what he can do outside of “how many items/heart pieces/whatever you’ve picked up so far”), or Serge from Chrono Trigger‘s sequel Chrono Cross. This is a hard type of character to pull off, however; too much personality or backstory and it’s just the first type of protagonist that just happens to be inexplicably mute (and therefore the player doesn’t identify with them), but too little backstory or plot influence and the protagonist could virtually be played by a wet napkin with a sword and some magic spells, for all the importance they have on the story (and therefore the player doesn’t particularly want to identify with them, or if they do they’ve got to fill in all the gaps themselves). But the best example of this type of protagonist, and the one that most people hold up as the most triumphant representation of how to pull off this character, is, of course, Crono.

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The reason Crono works so well as a protagonist is that he’s enough of a cypher to pull you in to his place, yet he has enough influence on both the plot and the characters that you really feel like you’re experiencing what he is. The stakes are high, people’s interactions with you feel genuine, and you honestly feel like you are the person who is in this spot. And they pull this off with one main genius technique that I love, which is: Crono is not the focus of this story. This is not Crono’s story. But Crono is the heart of the story. Let me explain with a few examples.

The game opens with Crono’s mom waking him up just in time for the local Millenial Fair (so called because we’re in 1000 AD), and reminds us that our childhood inventor friend Lucca has an exhibit there. That is literally the entire backstory we get for Crono, and it’s all revealed within the first minute of the game. He doesn’t end up being some sort of pre-destined hero with a prophecy about him, his dad isn’t revealed to be a long-lost knight or the Prince of Darkness or something, and his hometown isn’t even destroyed by the main villain. All we know is that he’s the kind of person who would be good friends with someone as awesome as Lucca (and make no mistake: she is awesome), which I think fills in the blanks pretty well. I’d say that most of us would love to be the type of person who would be good friends with someone like Lucca (and later on, the type of person that Marle would want to hang out at the fair with), so that’s one point for wanting to identify with Crono right there.

65827-chrono-trigger-snes-screenshot-lucca-s-newest-inventionsHowever, from the moment Crono runs into Marle at the fair, the game stops being about Crono, and, with two or three important exceptions, the game is never about Crono again. Oh sure, he’s still the protagonist, but the story doesn’t focus on him anymore. At the fair the focus becomes Marle’s wonderment at the fair, then Lucca and her invention, then saving Marle in 600 AD, etc. It’s really other characters making your decisions for you. But the game does it in such a way as to make you feel like you’re really deciding to do those things. It’s like the old adage that you can make someone do anything you want them to do, as long as you can figure out how to make them feel like they came up with the idea. For example, when Marle disappears into the past near the beginning of the game, you have to make the conscious decision to follow her. From a game perspective, it’s obviously the thing you need to (and Lucca won’t let you leave the screen until you do it, saying basically, “Hey, YOU brought that girl here, YOU help us get her back!”) but when you do it the characters in the game praise your decision so much (Lucca’s dad compliments you on being such a “fine lad,” and when you do end up finding Marle she can’t thank you enough, in a more personal way than the standard video game “Thanks for rescuing me! Here’s your reward of 200G!” or whatever) that the player begins to think, “Hey, yeah, that was pretty noble of me, wasn’t it?” Thus you identify with Crono more. Two points.

OK, so you arrive in 600 AD, though you don’t know what’s happened yet, and it’s apparent that Crono is just as confused as the player is, as most of the NPC’s in town are, like, “What are you talking about, ‘Millenial Fair?’ Shut your pie hole!” (the “pie hole” line is actually in the game). He reacts as any of us would, but it’s clear that the NPC’s are reacting to him and not just spouting generic lines for the most part (even though, technically, they are just spouting the same lines over and over). Throughout this part (and, indeed, most of the game, though it doesn’t approach this level of “WTF just happened to me?” until 12,000 BC), the player discovers what’s going on at the same rate as Crono, and at about the time you figure it out, people stop treating you like an idiot for asking dumb questions (this would be at about the time when you follow the clues to head to the castle to find Marle).

23-CT4-20-07--025-e31Sometimes the game is really subtle about having you make the right decision. For example, Frog’s introduction consists of him jumping out of nowhere and slicing a snake-woman in half, then uttering some immortally awesome lines like “Lower thine guard and thou’rt allowing the enemy in.” Lucca freaks out because he’s a frog and Frog responds, “My guise doth not incur thy trust… Very well, do as thee please. But I shall save the Queen.” Sure, it totally butchers the English language, but it lays out Frog’s awesome character really well. So on one hand you’ve got a really awesome swordsman (err….swordsfrog) whose goal is the same as yours, and on the other hand you’ve got your childhood friend who’s freaking out about it for the most superficial of reasons (she doesn’t like frogs). The game then asks you what to do. Once again, from a game perspective it’s obvious what you have to do (go with Frog), and the game doesn’t let you proceed until you do. But they could have easily done something a bit more lazy like have Frog appear in a tavern somewhere and say, “Thou seekest the Queen? I also hath taken it upon myself to fulfill such a noble quest! Let us joineth our forces,” or something equally butchered. The decision is still the same, but with this type of presentation your mind is made up by considering what would be best in the game (“taking this character would sure prove to be an advantage in the upcoming dungeon”). But the way the game actually portrays it, it’s Crono being the peacemaker and voice of reason (“Come on, Lucca, calm down. This frog guy looks competent, sounds awesome, and just chopped a snake woman in half! What better help could we ask for on our way to save the Queen?”). It’s subtle, but the game is putting you in Crono’s shoes to make this decision, as opposed to just having you the player make a sound gameplay choice.

(Also, after he joins your party, the first thing Frog says is, “Mayhap a hidden door lurks nigh? Let us search the environs,” which is one of the most delightful lines uttered in a video game ever. It’s lines like these that make me prefer the SNES translation of the game to the DS one, which, while more accurate, left out Frog’s accent and made him a lot more bland.)

40-CT4-27-07--064-45dThere are tons of little decisions like this sprinkled throughout the story that you feel like you’re influencing events more than you, as the player, actually are, which serve to draw you into the narrative through Crono, even though his influence on the plot is minor at best. Other characters make the important decisions: Lucca convinces you to save Marle, Marle takes you home, Marle makes the decision to run away and lead the party into the ruined future, Marle is even the one who actually makes the decision to save the world from Lavos and kick off the main plot, and most of the rest of the game is spent either solving other people’s problems, or accompanying them as they solve their own problems. Every playable character has their own story arcs and moments in the spotlight, and while some are better realized than others (I’m looking in your direction, Robo), they’re all nevertheless well-rounded, fleshed-out characters who drive this plot to many wonderful places that I won’t get into now. But absolutely none of these plot points (including the endgame of finally defeating Lavos) are about Crono at all. In fact, beyond the intro, the game is only about Crono two more times, but both of these times are important to distinguish Crono as a character beyond “nameless RPG protagonist like you’d create for Skyrim or something.”

Let’s take the first moment: the trial scene near the beginning of the game. After the diversion to 600 AD to save both Marle and Queen Leene, you go to the castle in the Present to take Marle home (as a side note: I love how absolutely nothing pertinent to world history occurs in the Present. It just happens to be the time period where Crono, Marle, and Lucca are from, and the only plot that happens there (then?) relates to specific character arcs, not to the main “saving the world” plot.), and, as a result, get put on trial for kidnapping the Princess (Marle) by the chancellor. This sequence is brilliant for a lot of reasons, but for our purposes it puts the player once more squarely in Crono’s shoes. You see, no matter what the outcome of the trial is, the game afterwards continues exactly the same (plus or minus a few healing items you get in prison). So the game designers found an opportunity to make your choices at the beginning of the game actually have consequences without derailing the plot, and by framing it in this giant showpiece of a trial, they inflated their importance to make you, the player, take it seriously.

imageedit_1_8140213552Crono’s guilt (or innocence) is based entirely on seemingly inconsequential actions taken during the very first part of the game, when you’re at the Millenial Fair. During this part of the game, most players are still new to the game and most probably treating it like any other RPG, where you go everywhere, interact with everything, talk to everyone, and generally collect loot while getting to know the world, following the general adventure game/RPG advice “Take everything that isn’t nailed down or too heavy (and anything that can be pried loose is not considered nailed down).”
In most games this type of behavior has no influence on the story or gameplay other than item/information collection or mandatory plot advancement, or if it does it’s immediately apparent (for example, stealing will immediately set guards after you or something). But all the evidence brought up in the trial is based in things that you did during that beginning sequence, from good (e.g. helping a girl find her lost cat), to bad (e.g. eating a guy’s lunch when his back is turned) — things that most players did without even really thinking about it. Nothing is brought up that you didn’t have a hand in: nothing from Crono’s backstory, or from cutscenes that you didn’t have control over (except maybe when Marle got sent to the past, but even then you were the one that brought her there). In essence, you are put on trial, not just Crono, and the sentence directly involves your character and your actions. And directly afterward, when you get sent to jail, you get to decide whether or not to try to escape, or wait for your execution (that Lucca breaks you out of). This is the only dungeon in the game, by the way, that has this type of branching path: every other dungeon offers only one ultimate way through it. And it’s also the only dungeon in the game that Crono can do alone. To repeat: the only dungeon where you get to decide how to tackle it is the only dungeon that stars a solo Crono…i.e. you. How many points are we at on the “you are Crono” meter, again?

That pales, however, to the magnificence that is the Ocean Palace disaster and its aftermath. This is where serious Chrono Trigger spoilers come into play, and if you’ve read this far without playing the game, then I’m dead serious: stop reading now and go play this game! Are we good? Good.

32-CT-2933Let’s fast-forward the game to 12,000 BC, just after the party has rescued Melchior from the floating Mt. Woe. (I told you to go play the game. Now you’re probably totally lost if you didn’t.) Schala comes to the gritty Earthbound village to plead with you to stop her mother from awakening Lavos and killing everyone in order to achieve ULTIMATE POWERTM. Unfortunately, she then gets forcibly taken by Dalton to go to her mother to help her kill everyone (why do people love Schala again? You’d think she’d just say “no” or something. I know it’s her mother, but it’s the fate of the world at stake! Grow a backbone, woman!), and Melchior laments that all life is doomed now. Crono, however, steps forward and shakes his head “no” (since he doesn’t talk and all). Melchior asks, “You’re willing to challenge the queen?” and Crono nods “yes” while Crono’s theme song (AKA the main Chrono Trigger theme) blares in the background. This is significant. In every other instance after the trial, the plot has been forwarded by somebody else saying, “we should do this!” whether it be another party member like Lucca or an NPC. This is the very first time since the Millenial Fair at the beginning that the game has actually had it be Crono that makes the decision to save the day. And since the game has been subtly manipulating the player into Crono’s shoes throughout the whole game, it really feels like a defiant and heroic moment, not just for Crono and the party, but for the player as well. However, this is made even more significant by the events that follow, in what is probably one of the best (if not the best) scenes in video game history.

So Crono and company head back to Zeal and use the transporter to head into the Ocean Palace to stop the Queen from awakening Lavos and destroying everything. However, they are too late, and despite your best efforts, Lavos is summoned. This is the first sucker punch to the player’s gut of several that happen during this scene. The epic battle against the ultimate horror that is Lavos begins… and he immediately KO’s the party without so much as breaking a sweat. Punch number two. Then the mysterious prophet appears…and is revealed to be Magus! What? Punch number three! He’ll finally have his revenge on Lavos, which he has been planning for years! It proves entirely ineffective, and the #2 antagonist of the game, who is also one of the most powerful mages in all of history…is taken out by Lavos almost as an afterthought. That’s number four! Already this sequence has been a powerful one in showing just what Lavos is capable of and how screwed everyone else is.

120-CT-3033So what happens next? Crono, who has already been KO’ed once by Lavos, when he was still at full strength and had his party backing him up, rises to his feet, beaten and battered and all alone. At this point, you control only Crono. The other members of your party don’t get up. Magus doesn’t get up. Schala, who is also there, doesn’t get up, The Queen, who is perched on top of Lavos, just laughs at you. But you do the only thing you can do: try to fight on. Your party members scream at you, saying there’s nothing you can do; give up now. But you know you’ve gotta win, or at least do enough damage to be able to retreat and regroup or something. But no, Lavos screams and shoots a beam at you or something, and you literally melt into nonexistence. Crono is dead.

You’re dead.

But the game continues.

Schala uses the last of her power to get Magus and the other two party members to safety. Lavos erupts from the Ocean Palace and destroys the Kingdom of Zeal and basically the entire world. There are maybe ten to twenty people left on the entire planet. The remaining two members of your party wake up in the last village left, guarded by the pendant that Crono was holding for Marle but that he gave up right before he died. This is all told in cutscene, and this whole time you, the player, are probably hoping that, OK, now you’ll switch to Crono, who didn’t actually die but got sent to another time or dimension or something, and you’ll have to do some sort of solo dungeon or something to rejoin the rest of your party.

Then the ultimate punch lands.

The gameplay punch.

The “choose who you want to be in your party” screen comes up, and Crono (who up until now was permanently the first party member)…doesn’t show up in the menu.

This is the saddest moment in gaming history.

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So let’s talk about this for a minute. First off, the pacing in this sequence is absolutely brilliant. The climax builds with such an energy of hopelessness, but yet, spurred on by that one moment from earlier when Crono himself agreed to save Schala and the Queen and his theme music blared, you still hold out that sliver of hope (that, and you know the game’s not gonna have a downer ending, I mean, come on!). But, after Crono dies, everything quickly goes south. The “Lavos erupts from the ground” animation, previously only seen in 1999 AD (also know as the freakin’ Apocalypse time period), is used here to destroy Zeal, which then crashes into the ocean and causes a giant tidal wave. The destruction of Zeal and its aftermath has no music playing; just a giant crash, followed by the sound of water rolling out in a wave, on a totally black screen (which I argue is more effective than even the prettiest rendering with today’s graphics would be). It allows the player to finally breathe and relax after this huge sequence, and it also allows all the facts of what just happened to sink in. Then, after the most dramatic moment of the entire game, you get kidnapped by the comic relief villain Dalton and you go through this silly little segment aboard the Blackbird, where a boss runs away because he’s afraid of heights, and Dalton gets mad because the wrong theme music is playing, and you even have the chance to pull the old “help my cellmate is sick open the door!” routine, which gets especially silly if, say, Robo is the one to do it.

This sequence helps not only relieve the tension of everything that just happened, but it finally gives the party an unequivocal victory: an out-and-out villain is defeated, the team gets a flying time machine, and there was a lot less at stake. (Consider that this is the first outright victory the party has had for a while: the last major dungeon before the Ocean Palace was the Tyrano Lair, where an entire species got wiped out by Lavos, and before that Magus’s Castle, where you stopped Magus from waking up Lavos but didn’t actually defeat him.) What’s more, it gets the player used to operating without Crono as the main character. It, in essence, helps you realize that, despite the game putting you squarely in the role of Crono and then killing him off, the game continues. The story continues. Because the game isn’t about Crono. The game isn’t about you.

It’s bigger than that.

But even though you’re not really important by birthright, or by circumstance, or even by tragic backstory, you are important through the choices you’ve made and the people you’ve influenced. It’s at this point in the game where the plot virtually stops because the party wants to get Crono back. Marle especially (since she’s the romantic lead and all), but Lucca too, and everyone else to lesser extents. What’s especially brilliant about this is that you don’t have to save Crono. At all. You can just go ahead and defeat Lavos now, or do some endgame sidequests to prepare yourself and then defeat Lavos. The world can be saved without Crono, as long as those left can finish what he started.

37-LP_CT_7-15-07_--_067However, the game really pushes you toward saving him, and I don’t think anyone didn’t save him on their first playthrough. The sequence is appropriately epic yet at the same time personal: breaking all the laid-out rules of time travel thus far and climbing a post-apocalyptic mountain filled with Lavos’s offspring, yet involving winning a doll from the fair and talking to Crono’s mom (which you don’t have to do at all after the first minute of the game up until now). And it’s an emotionally wrenching scene when you finally do save him (you go back to the frozen moment in time where he died and switch him out for the doll that looks like him), especially if you bring Marle or Lucca along, but I especially appreciate the fact that, if you don’t bring either of those two, whoever’s in the party is basically all, “Hey, cool, Crono’s back; now can we get on with saving the world, please?!?” Because, once again, Crono’s not important. None of the endgame sidequests involve him at all, and you don’t even have to use him even if you do bring him back from the dead (though you should: he’s still probably the best character in the game in terms of combat). And if you do use him, you can throw him back to the second or third character spot, which you couldn’t do before, and in fact must do in some of the sidequests (some, such as Robo’s, require that particular character to be in the first party member slot). He’s not the protagonist anymore, and he’s barely even in the game at this point. The player has hopefully moved beyond identifying solely with Crono and is able to look at the world and other characters through different eyes now.

28-LP_CT_8-18-07_--_055This even extends to the endgame after defeating Lavos, which, while it begins with Crono waking up again, eventually moves to the last night of the Millenial Fair. The only controllable part of this section has Crono and Marle walking around the fair talking to various people, and interestingly enough, you’re actually controlling Marle, with Crono following behind: a reversal of the beginning of the game. The cycle is complete, and you can now leave the world of Chrono Trigger in the hands of the characters who inhabit it.

So what does this 5,000-word essay amount to in the end, other than the fact that I really really love this game? Firstly, it amounts to the fact that Crono really does embody the best of all RPG protagonist types. The story is focused and character-driven, like the first type of protagonist, yet you’re put squarely in Crono’s shoes and can’t help but identify with him, like the best examples of the second type. Secondly, it shows the masterful work involved in sucking the player into a storyline that is so carefully crafted that you can kill off the main character 2/3rds of the way through and have it be an emotional moment, instead of a “oh, come on!” moment. But most importantly, I think it teaches some life lessons that I kind of summed up in this post’s title but would like to reiterate.

Everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But most fictional stories have a protagonist who is the focal point of the story or a sideline observer who’s just the storyteller. And so most people, in real life, tend to think of themselves as one or the other: either the most important person simply because they exist, or some nobody that doesn’t really influence much. Just because we’re not a “chosen one,” or the focal point of the world, or even anyone famous, doesn’t mean that we don’t have the power to change the entire world, if we can find the right way to do it and get the right people to support us. Or better yet, find the right people to support. Lucca and Marle aren’t supporting Crono; Crono is supporting Lucca and Marle (and Frog, and Robo, etc.) You don’t have to be the most important person in the world, or even in your own circle of acquaintances, to be the most important person in the world to at least one or two other people.

The game’s not about you. But you choose how it ends.

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