[Currently listening to: Lost Odyssey OST. Branching out in a desire for more Uematsu.]
A new year brings with it an air of the unexpected. Much as we try to prepare for whatever life throws at us, most times it flat out slaps us in the face with a fish when we’re not looking.
It’s a good idea to pull out the face-slapping fish in your writing too (in moderation, you understand. Your readers don’t want to smell all briny). The plot is going as predicted, and then – WHAM! – what just happened? The characters are in disarray, your emotions are rocked, and you can’t see any way this sudden twist will be resolved.
Some authors pull this trick far too often – so that what used to be unexpected becomes predictable. Others shy away from it altogether, which can be fine depending on the genre and goal of the author. But if you’ve decided your story needs a bit of a jolt, let me just tell you –
Chrono Trigger can show you how it’s done. ‘Cause that game killed off its lead.
Let’s preface this bold move a bit, just to strengthen its poignancy: Back in the 90’s, JRPGs were hitting the big time. Final Fantasy IV and VI were quick sensations (though under different numbers at the time) boasting characters of distinct goals and struggles. Titles like Earthbound and Secret of Mana were developing their own fan followings with unique world-building and atmosphere. A year after Chrono Trigger‘s release even Mario would get in on the RPG game and leave an unforgettable experience of his own.
That’s not even mentioning the RPGs released on the Sega systems, or numerous titles that never made it across seas to the states. Truly, it was a decade for Role Plays, and the stage was set for Chrono Trigger to be the pinnacle of them all.
Aside from the Final Fantasies, most RPGs adhered to the “silent protagonist” trope: the game’s lead character would never speak, and if he needed to get a point across he would either pantomime or rely on other characters to emote for him.
Crono, leading teen of Chrono Trigger, kept true to the “silent protagonist” tradition. He could look shocked, happy, serious, or thoughtful – but never spoke a word. (Well, aside from one particular ending.) At the point of CT‘s release, RPG fans would know the drill by now. Crono was simply a device to move the player and the plot forward; he was the mainstay and common denominator that allowed interactions to occur among other, more three-dimensional characters. Nothing ever happened to the silent protagonist.
And then, three-quarters into the game, Squaresoft rocked the boat. Crono stood his ground too early against Lavos, the story’s ultimate menace, and was blown to pieces. The mainstay of the game was gone.
It wasn’t any sort of quick gimmick, either. The other members of your party wake up the following morning, and Crono is still dead. You watch them come to grips with this reality and sort out their emotions. You take control of the party and walk them outside the tent into an uncertain world. For at least an hour of gameplay you don’t even have the opportunity to change Crono’s fate. What’s more, you don’t even have to finish the game with him alive.
This was unprecedented in the gaming world, and would (I’d argue) still be considered a bold move today. Chrono Trigger dared to explore a question JRPGs hadn’t yet asked: what happens when the main character dies? How do the others in the team carry on? How does it affect the trajectory of the story? And I think that’s the true purpose behind surprising your audience. If you create any plot twist just for the sake of shock value, you’ve missed the point entirely. The unexpected should serve the impact of the story, not meet some “I can’t believe that just happened” quota.
In real life, surprises can seem to have no bearing or meaning on the ultimate scope of our days. (And that’s a Faith post waiting to happen right there.) In fiction, however, we’re given the opportunity to create structure and a message through plot twists. If you think you need a dash of the unexpected in your story, don’t forget that it needs to matter in its own right.
Because even if those silent protagonists never speak, they can still make a strong statement for the story.
Chrono Trigger is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can purchase and enjoy this game.