The Element of Surprise – Killing the Lead in Chrono Trigger

[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.

Meeting Characters – the Dynamic Way! (Part II)

[Currently listening to: My dad chopping up pickles for a potato salad. Ah, vacation.]

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Welcome to our next installment of dynamic introductions! If you recall, last month we talked about introducing characters out of a sense of need. This month we’ll look at meeting a character to establish motivation.

But enough prelude; let’s get to the good stuff!

  • Robo & Magus: Chrono Trigger

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You can’t keep me away from my CT. It just ain’t gonna happen.

By the time Crono, Marle, and Lucca run into Robo, we’ve had a great deal of excitement: Crono has just escaped execution, the trio find themselves sent to a dystopian future, and they’ve just discovered a planet-consuming parasite will be the doom of their world.

With so much plot on our plates it’s a good time to offer a more unassuming character introduction – though without losing the pace. This is where it helps to inject a little motivation into the scene. What do I mean?

Well, when the trio meets Robo in Proto Dome, the setting is pretty relaxed. The team is in no immediate peril – unlike in the intro to Frog or Ayla – and it’s a good time to allow for extra character and plot development.

In this case, we begin to learn a little more about Lucca and some of her motivation behind being an inventor. PLUS, when introduced to Robo we learn something of his own background; and his offer to help the team sets in motion his own incentive for helping to save the world.

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If you’re looking for the ultimate introduction via motivation, though, it’s really best if we move on to everyone’s favorite blue-haired anti-hero (anti-villain? Whatever): Magus!

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Magus has a kind of dual introduction: meeting him results in an almost immediate knowledge of his core motivations, but you also get to dynamically kick the crap outta him while his sweet, sweet theme plays in the background.

What do we learn about Magus upon first meeting him? Well, I’m soooo glad you asked me to answer that in a group of three factoids!

  1. He’s assumed to be Lavos’s creator but is in fact interested in slaying the creature.
  2. He has significant magical prowess – being able to cast all types of elemental magic we’ve seen so far.
  3. He’s certainly interested in the fact that Frog can wield the Masamune, but that doesn’t seem to be his primary concern.

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This is definitely enough juicy character background for players to get intrigued. If he already knows about Lavos AND has a vendetta against it, there’s no doubt we’ll become more acquainted with Magus as the game progresses.

And now for a somewhat different take on meeting to establish motivation:

  • Alena, Kiryl, & Borya: Dragon Quest IV

This is a unique scenario in that the characters themselves already know each other, so the “meeting” is less about introductions and more about how (and why) they all get into the same stew.

Alena, perhaps a pioneer of the “tomboy princess” stereotype, is set on adventure and combat outside her castle walls. She would prefer to travel alone, but her fretful retainers Kiryl and Borya have other ideas (and motivations. See what I did there?).

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When we get these three in a party together we’re alerted right away to their individual goals. Alena, we already know, is eager to explore the world. Kiryl makes it quite obvious is totally discreet about the fact that he’s traveling so he can crush on Alena in close proximity. Borya establishes himself as the begrudging papa bear who insists that he finds Alena insufferable, but worries over her nonetheless.

With party chat these motivations are far clearer as the journey progresses, but even without that feature it’s clear from Kiryl’s and Borya’s insistence to accompany Alena that they’ve got their reasons for sticking around.


Using motivation in a character introduction not only makes the meeting of characters more memorable, but it also creates intrigue that can carry through the story and hold your audiences attention.

You know what time it is now: sharing time! Talk about your own favorite character motivations in the comments below!


Chrono Trigger is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can purchase and enjoy this game.

Dragon Quest IV belongs to Square-Enix. You can purchase it to play via Nintendo DS or as an app on your phone. (Go with the phone for party chat.)

Meeting Characters – the Dynamic Way! (Part I)

[Currently listening to: Mega Man remixes.]

I’m starting to realize the value of a dynamic introduction.

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Typically, I adopt the Dickensian manner of characters meeting each other: an individual bumps into another individual and discovers a memorable quirkiness about this new acquaintance. These two characters now proceed to quip about their backstory at length (or sink into a tense silence where they hide something important about themselves) and join each other for my convenience as a writer who wants people to meet because plot, that’s why.

But far better introductions are made out of need or a certain character’s motivation. It gives a better glue to the upcoming relationship between characters than if they were just to meet by happenstance.

Video games by rule must pull this off if they want to keep a good pace in gameplay. So over these summer months we’re going to have a look at the ways we can adopt a VG method of character introductions.

(These introductions will mostly include heroes meeting fellow heroes/anti-heroes. I feel like the subject of meeting the villain is a whole ‘nother topic on its own.)


Part I: Meeting Out of Need
  • Frog & Ayla: Chrono Trigger


In an attempt to rescue Queen Leene and restore the timeline’s continuity, Crono and Lucca find themselves in a pinch when they’re assaulted by Fiends at a highly-suspect chapel. Just when they think the battle is theirs, one Fiend catches Lucca off guard and assaults her. Is it all over for Lucca? Will she die a brutal death 400 years in her world’s past??

No, because outta nowhere this frog warrior springs in and cuts that Fiend in half (at least, that’s how I interpret the flickering pixels). And he’s like, “Don’t let your guard down, fool.”

And Lucca’s like, “AAH, GROSS, A TALKING FROG.”

And Crono’s like, “…”

The party of three goes on to form a brief alliance based on their mutual search for the Queen, but already we know a great deal from Frog’s dynamic entrance with him having to explain very little:

  1. He is in some way connected to the Queen.
  2. He’s more than skilled with a blade.
  3. His physical appearance is unnatural (revealed by Lucca’s shock upon seeing him).

How would it have been different if Crono and Lucca just randomly bumped into Frog while they were exploring Guardia castle? They might spend a few dull text boxes explaining to each other why they mutually need to find the Queen, then figure out why they should join forces; and if the writer was feeling particularly verbose he could add in a dash of Frog angsting about his appearance.

Instead, since the three of them must meet in the immediacy of a search-and-rescue mission, the introductions have to be brief – and give just enough intrigue for us to wonder how this Frog fellow is going to contribute to the rest of the story.

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Ayla’s introduction is practically identical to Frog’s, but it drives home the same point: introductions made out of need reveal the essentials of a new character. This primal woman can mow down six imposing Reptites. BY HERSELF. Ergo, the player knows right away, “Dang, don’t mess with this chick.”

You know what this post needs? A kick-butt gif.
You know what this post needs? A kick-butt gif.

Her scenario also establishes the setting, as well as many of her own plot points:

  1. There’s man-dinos terrorizing the prehistoric era.
  2. Humans and man-dinos are apparently not on friendly terms.
  3. …I don’t really have a third point. I just like writing things in three’s.

In summary (wow, this went all “college thesis”, didn’t it?), Frog’s and Ayla’s intros play out brilliantly when it comes to setting up their interaction with other characters in the party – as well as drawing the players into their personal stories. We don’t need long exposition telling us who they are or why they’re intent on joining up with our heroes.

Oh, but don’t you dare think we’re done yet. We’ve got to talk about one more character from a different video game:

  • Jeff: Earthbound

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Who doesn’t love this nerd? And why DO we love this nerd? Is it the diverse array of firearms at his disposal? That stylin’ green slacks-and-coat combo? The fact that he can create a beam gun out of a broken harmonica?

Well…yes, actually. ‘Cause that’s all pretty boss.

But alongside all that, he’s a character that arrives out of need, which gives the player a sense of purpose as we lead him toward rescuing Ness and Paula.

Our introduction to him is far different from how we’re introduced to Frog and Ayla. We don’t get to see his interactions with the other characters immediately; instead, we’re brought into his personal world and shown what he must leave behind and face in order to help a couple of strange kids he doesn’t even know.

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We’re essentially drawn into his needs as he tries to respond to the needs of new friends. This is itself a genius move, because it creates empathy without requiring excessive explanation about this new character.

So now that I’ve geeked out for lines and lines on this post, here’s a question for the comments section: what makes a character introduction stick with you?

Next month we’ll look at “Meeting to Establish Motivation”. No sneak peeks at the characters I’ll pick for that topic; you’ll just have to come back to find out!


Chrono Trigger is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can purchase and enjoy this game.

Earthbound is the property of Nintendo and Shigesato Itoi. You can play it via the Wii U virtual console.

Writing Redemptive Characters – Frog from Chrono Trigger

[Currently listening to: the Undertale OST again. Even after 50+ listens, Megalovania never gets old.]

A common plotline in stories is the redemptive arc: the journey of a character from failure to hope. Think of Thor in the Marvel movie (I don’t read the comics, okay), who is cast down from Asgard and must overcome his flaws in order to be worthy of Mjölnir again. We root for him to reconcile his failures because it’s something all humans confront and desire to conquer.

(Aw yeah, appealing to other geek groups on this vid-ja game blog.)

But what traits in a character make for a memorable redemptive arc? Look no further, all y’all story buffs, because to solve this problem we’re going to delve into the psyche of the GREATEST VIDEO GAME CHARACTER OF ALL TIME.*

*Blanket statements on “Game & Write” are purely subjective and should not be considered absolute fact. But seriously. This dude.

Believe you me, I’m going to have a lot to say about Chrono Trigger on this blog (Lord willing I keep this nonsense going). So much brilliant storytelling to discuss in that game. SO MUCH. It may have even been the first video game to show me what such a medium was capable of. But I digress. Let’s look at why Frog’s story of failure and redemption is so amazing.

Spoilers abound, naturally.

Even his successes aren’t enough.


When Frog saves Queen Leene – and we see how capable he is at the rescue – it comes as a surprise when he announces his retirement as her guard. He’s clearly no slouch and was in fact (we can assume) the only castle member to see through the Chancellor/Yakra’s ruse.

Despite all this, he’s in a place of such regret that near-failures are enough reason for him to retreat.

A character’s broken past can affect them in many ways. What I like about the approach for Frog is that he isn’t a screw-up when introduced, so we have no reason to believe he should doubt himself. This character we start off admiring is given dimension through his unexpected self-abasement. He might be more like us than we supposed, and that makes us want to know more.

His struggle is not his whole personality.


Let me make something clear: I hate strongly dislike sullen characters (and I’m ashamed to say I’ve written a few). In the fictional realm, imbuing someone with too much “sulk” can make for a flat and unlikeable person.

(I’m looking at you, Squall; the Edward Cullen of Final Fantasy.)

But before I polarize this entire conversation – *ahem* – Frog’s brokenness works because it’s not in our face ALL THE TIME. He has hurts that keep him guarded, but he’s still cordial to friends and retains a sense of honor.

He doesn’t blab his whole story.


Many RPGs have this point where everyone’s gathered together (usually around a campfire – uh, like that Chrono Trigger scene, I guess), and one or more characters decides this is the perfect time to fill twenty minutes with bloated backstory.

Now, I enjoy a good dose of backstory as much as the next person, but a video game should also, y’know, be about GAMEPLAY. A half hour onslaught of character background not only loses my interest, it’s also a sloppy demand that I care about a person just because I’m aware of every experience they ever had.

Frog’s backstory takes, maybe, five minutes, and he never shares it in dialogue. As far as we know, the others on the CT team never heard it from him. The player knows only what’s necessary to understand his internal struggle.

I guess in summary: Backstory should serve character. A character shouldn’t serve his backstory.

His redemption isn’t immediate.


I suppose this one is dependent on whether you choose to complete the game’s sidequests or not. (And why wouldn’t you?)

Frog’s initial purpose in the grand scheme  (or “dream”; hehe, in-game pun) is to defeat Magus. He bears the Hero’s Badge, can wield the Masamune, etc., so the game writers could very well have said, “Once the Magus fight’s over, Frog’s story is done. We’ll resolve his baggage, make him hunky-dory, and get on to that way more interesting floating magical kingdom deal.”

The great thing about Chrono Trigger is: every character’s story is never quite done, even when their main purpose is served. (Well, our silent protagonist Crono is debatable, but whatever.)

From a story perspective, this is a key element. We’re all works in progress, and rarely are we ever 180-degree changed by one event. Besides which, the CT writers – whether aware of it or not – showed through Frog the difference between a surface action (whuppin’ Magus’ sorry backside) and addressing the inner healing that needed to take place after the surface problem had been dealt with (Frog confronting his guilt over Cyrus’s death and accepting his role as Hero).

His redemption doesn’t come from himself.


This is perhaps a matter of preference, but…I generally don’t appreciate self-actualization stories. Like: the character who’s got a struggle but ends up solving it because they “discovered their greatness within”. It can work, but a character’s redemptive relationship with only him/herself feels…empty. With Frog, he’s able to heal because of the impact Cyrus’s life had on him.

Which, you could argue, makes him the humble Hero he is instead of one who self-affirmed his baggage away and now thinks of himself as da bomb.

His overall change is subtle.


Even when he comes to terms with his past and makes peace over his failures, Frog doesn’t become a completely different person. He’s still a bit serious, a bit snarky, and he keeps up the role of honor-bound swordsman. We only know about his change because he finally accepts Queen Leene’s offer of a home and expresses closure when leaving Cyrus’s tomb.

And really, don’t we all keep an intrinsic personality, even when we deal with external change? It’s the nuance that makes Frog’s redemption so relatable: He didn’t have to change himself to receive forgiveness.

Perhaps these observations are less of a guide to writing a redemptive arc…and more just me going full geek while I have you readers at my mercy. But I hope the study at least gave you a little inspiration! If you’re familiar with Frog/Chrono Trigger, what are some other qualities you connect to in the character(s)? Has a different video game taught you the importance of a certain value?


Chrono Trigger is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can purchase and enjoy this game.