Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Philosophy and Ethics of Chrono Trigger

I ran into a book recently called Final Fantasy and Philosophy, part of a series analyzing popular works of media in the light of their philosophical underpinnings. In this title based on the Final Fantasy series of video game RPGs, they talked about the nihilism of its villains, the occasional identity crises of its heroes, how often characters ended up duped and simply used as a tool by someone else, and how players fill in the gaps for the story of a game in a way that's different from other media. But the section I found the most interesting was analyzing the ethics of Final Fantasy characters according to the views of different philosophers: Thomas Hobbes would apparently have been disgusted by the irrational altruism of some fantasy heroes, John Stuart Mill as a utilitarian would have judged them solely on the consequences of their actions, and Aristotle would have dealt out approval or disapproval based upon the purity of the motives for which they engaged in their heroic deeds.

It was interesting seeing the entertainment of my generation dissected in a fairly readable fashion by writers who were clearly fans of the games themselves. One title from a sister series I wish they had taken a
crack at is Chrono Trigger, my love affair with which is documented elsewhere, and which I've recently gotten my girlfriend addicted to through a bit of geek evangelism. So in that same spirit, I figured I'd try to do a similar analysis for Chrono Trigger. Spoilers will ensue, but if you haven't played the game at any point during the last 14 years in which it's seen release on the Super Nintendo, Playstation, and Nintendo DS, drastic measures will probably be necessary to motivate you. For the uninitiated who need a recap, you could start with the game's Wikipedia article, although I'll explain most of the important points as I go.

One of the interesting features to Chrono Trigger is the extent to which your choices have actual consequences in the story. Video games are notorious for letting you get away with anything, it's assumed that anything in the world you can interact with you're supposed to. You can typically burst into people's houses and take anything that's not nailed down (or if it is, pry it loose), and help people or ignore them as you see fit. Early on in Chrono Trigger you're put on trial for "kidnapping" a princess when she simply ran off with you, and whether or not you're declared innocent or guilty depends upon a variety of actions you might have done or not done. If you tried to sell off the princess's pendant that's a strike against you, likewise if you stole someone's lunch, and the extent to which you're honest about the mistakes you made also affects the result. It puts you in a reflexive state of mind very early on in the game, the decisions you make very well could have consequences, you're not necessarily just going to watch the story play out for itself, your actions could conceivably change the course of events.

This idea reaches its culmination in a variety of "what-if" scenarios that make up the game's endings. Your heroes are technically capable of doing what it takes to save the world at almost any point in the game's story, and the point at which you decide to do so and short-circuit the game's plot decides what ending you'll get. As a result of your meddling in time you can end up changing the family history of one of your main characters, cause humans to no longer be the dominant species on the planet, or set off a battle to the death between two of your potential protagonists.

But concerning the questions of ethics that Final Fantasy and Philosophy raised: how defensible are all of the heroes of the game in their motivations for trying to change the fate of the world? The trio of characters you start the game with, Crono, Marle, and Lucca eventually learn that the future is a wasteland with humanity virtually destroyed because of a planetary parasite named Lavos, and they decide to devote themselves to stopping that from happening. They aren't exactly fighting for their own lives, the disaster which ruins the planet occurs a thousand years after the time in which they live, they could theoretically live out their entire lives along with the next fifty generations after them before the human race is placed on the verge of extinction.

In The Last Question, Isaac Asimov makes the point that all human civilization is doomed to eventually die: unless entropy could somehow be reversed, all the usable energy in the universe will eventually be spent and humanity will die out. Humanity's lifespan is limited by the amount of available energy in the universe making the death of the human race inevitable. If Crono and company could go far enough into the future they might always find be able to find a post apocalyptic state where humanity has died out. Still, intervening in the events connected to Lavos could buy the human race millions or billions of years, at the risk of endangering the lifetimes of Crono and his friends. From a utilitarian standpoint, the trade-off is clearly worth it, but does it past the test of Hobbes' self-interested morality?

When Crono and his friends make the decision to save the future, they're fugitives from the law in their own time—Crono as a result of a false kidnapping charge, Lucca for breaking him out of prison, and Marle for abandoning her kingdom for the sake of her friends. Although they could ignore the coming crisis and simply live out their lives, they have very little to lose in terms of their connections to the present. As far as their connections to other time periods are concerned, at that point, they could either live out their lives in the past, which they already learned might prevent them from being born in the future if they alter events, or they could live in the post-apocalyptic future they're trying to prevent. In a sense, their quest to save the world is also about finding a world for themselves that they could live in. Both because they're unwilling to accept a timeline in which their world is destroyed, and because nothing else in their lives shows any promise at that point.

From the point of view of pure self-interest, their most viable way to improve their lives might be to find a point in time where their actions couldn't erase their own existences and in which they could live out their lives without interference. Much like the specter of global warming or environmental disaster centuries off in the future, it's hard to argue for why anyone would devote their lives to preventing a far off calamity at their personal expense, other than feelings of self-righteousness or a strong psychological need to know the future will be viable for much longer than you and your children's children will be around. In the end their motives probably aren't purely selfish, or purely noble, they're leaving behind one world to try to fix another.

The next character to join the group's quest is Robo, a robot abandoned in the future by his creators and originally part of a group of AIs intent on cleansing the planet of humans and making it a viable place for Lavos's spawn to breed. He turns on his fellow AIs and joins Crono and the gang on their quest, motivated initially not by abstract moral principles or even a concern for the human species, but simply out of loyalty to his friends who had helped him. Much like the others, he has few connections to the world which are even worth severing, and joining Crono and the others simply gives him something to do with his life. A life that may even be effectively immortal: at one point the party is able to drop him off in the past to help repair a forest and pick him up four hundred years later. In Robo's case, living out his life apart from the influence of Lavos' destuction of the world may not even be a possibility, at some point he might simply be forced to either live in a future in which he is one of a handful of intelligent life forms or create a different future for himself to live in.

Another character who joins the party does so largely out of loyalty to the group, a woman in pre-historic times, Ayla, helps the party recover their means for travelling through time, which gets her tribe in trouble and causes the party to help her in return. After that point she simply is along for the ride, it's not even clear she understands the full significance of the quest her friends are involved in other than her loyalty to them for their assistance.

The last pair of characters face the most complicated tangle of moral choices. Frog was cursed by the magician Magus and turned into a frog-like creature, and joins Crono at first simply for the sake of revenge and to end the war that has harmed the people of his time period. When Magus and Crono's party are hurled through time as a result of their battle, Frog stays on to seek his nemesis, and eventually comes to stay with Crono's group out of loyalty to Crono for his assistance and presumably sharing in their goal of saving the future.

The last playable character in the game is Magus, who could be seen as either a villain playing at being a hero or a hero playing at being a villain. His role is unique in that you have the option to either kill him or let him join your party. The reasons for killing him would be that he's regarded as an evil man who's responsible for a lot of misery and death: he started a war between humans and magic users, he killed Frog's best friend and turned Frog himself into an amphibian—a curse that can only be removed with Magus's death. The reasons for letting Magus live are a little more complicated. Magus was originally a prince of a kingdom in the distant past that had discovered a way to siphon off Lavos's energy and turn it into magic and other amazing abilities. He was virtually abandoned by his mother in her quest for immortality, left with only his sister and his cat for company, and after Lavos finally awoke and destroyed their civilization he was hurled into the future. Finding himself abandoned as a child in the middle ages, he sought to acquire enough power to get his revenge upon Lavos, only to be hurled back in time to his kingdom before the disaster as a result of the fight with Frog and Crono, whereupon he tried to defeat Lavos himself unsuccessfully.

Are Magus's actions defensible from a utilitarian standpoint? Possibly, if only because his actions had the potential to cause more good than harm, even if his own motives were essentially driven by a selfish desire for revenge, and offset by his sadism and cruelty in dealing with those less powerful than himself. Whether or not Magus's crimes outweigh his potential for good is a choice that's left up to the player. Frog can either kill him and avenge his friend, or let him live, in which case Magus offers his services to the group in trying to save the world.

Unlike Crono and the others, Magus has very few human connections motivating him—when you see him as a child he's an emotionally stunted and withdrawn youth, and when you encounter him as an adult he's a detached and cynical man. As a child he only cared about his sister and his cat, as an adult he even ignores his cat when it runs up to him. However, he is willing to risk his life to protect his sister and listens to her wishes (and those of his younger self) in sparing Crono and his friends when given the chance to kill them. There's not even any evidence he forms any attachment to the group if he joins Crono's side: when Robo lists his friends that have changed him Magus isn't included in the list, and if the group saves the world alongside him, Marle asks if he plans to go search for his sister, and Magus leaves without saying a word. The only things Magus does to redeem himself is to tell the party how they can save Crono in the event that Frog chooses to kill Magus, and to offer his help to the group in rescuing Crono and defeating Lavos in the event that you spare him.

Magus approaches pure nihilism at some points in the game. In one ending he states: "If history is to change, let it change. If the world is to be destroyed, so be it. If my fate is to be destroyed, I must simply laugh." But in spite of his apparent resignation to futility, he follows it up by saying "I'm coming, Lavos." Similarly, after telling Crono's friends that all who oppose Lavos meet certain doom, he chooses to join them in their quest regardless. Faced with confronting a being who represents the very source of his own power, he considers it an impossible task but chooses to try anyway.

The game gives you the option to kill him or not because either choice is understandable in a sense—after you finally hear Magus's story, you know enough about him to decide for yourself whether or not it excuses his actions and whether or not making Frog whole, achieving revenge, or having the help of a powerful wizard in saving the world is more important. The choice as presented to the player isn't even whether or not to kill him or have him join your party: it's simply whether to kill him or not. If Frog refuses to take Magus's life and abandons his quest for revenge, Frog simply walks away, and Magus soon chases after him to offer his assistance. The player has to decide whether they feel more sympathy for improving Frog's situation or Magus's, and to determine whether Magus's campaign of revenge can be forgiven, and whether the consequences of Frog achieving his revenge are worth it.

Going back to the different views of ethics, how would the famous thinkers of the past have weighed this modern fable? Plato believed that revenge should not be executed for the sake of achieving justice but to prevent offenses from recurring, which would make Lavos a fitting target for revenge but Magus an unworthy one. Aristotle similarly believed that revenge had to be exercised in moderation against appropriate targets, while Christian philosophers would say that undertaking revenge was the domain of governments and God, and best left to a higher power, whereas acting in defense of others would be acceptable. John Stuart Mill might argue that killing Magus would only be worthwhile if the good done by it outweighs the evil, and that unless you could claim that turning Frog back into a human outweighs taking a life, the sacrifice would not be worth it. And Immanuel Kant might simply argue that every evil action deserves a proportionate consequence, and that Magus ultimately deserves to die for his actions in ending the lives of others.

Ultimately however, the only opinion that matters in the game is the player's, and the game both sets up the moral challenge and allows the player to resolve it as they see fit. The player fills in a story in a few ways, making choices to affect the plot, and naming each of the game's characters, although as previously stated, with only three exceptions, the characters have an underlying identity and name behind the one you give them, your ability to make them your own is necessarily limited.

Chrono Trigger ends with a bit of self-interpretation: the initial explanation presented for your ability to travel through time is that Lavos's energy creates distortions in time that your party is able to use. At the end, the characters suggest that it may be a different phenemenon, that you may be experiencing the planet watching its life flash before its eyes after it was destroyed by Lavos, based on the fact that all the time periods you visit are a reflection on important events connected to Lavos and the fate of the planet. In the game the desire to travel through time is really just a desire to fix your mistakes and correct what went wrong, and by the end of the game you have a chance to set a number of events right and help repair the lives of each of your main characters. Crono and his friends come to face with death several times, sometimes being forced to accept it, and sometimes being able to overturn it.

Chrono Trigger is a game that's enjoyable both to play and to reflect on, it isn't simply all nuggets of philosophy to chew on or an enjoyable transient experience that shines purely in the moment, but a little of both. It's a well-executed game that manages to get a number of things right at the same time, and I'd still point to it as the best example of its particular class of game that there is.

For those who want more, this author has come up with an existentialist reading of Chrono Trigger that looks in depth at the whole plot of the game, not just the main characters and their motivations.