Chrono Cross, environmentalism, and a world without humanity

There is a moment, a little less than halfway through Chrono Cross, that pains me more and more each time I revisit it.

Chrono Cross is a game about many things: it is a game about a young man who suddenly finds himself in a parallel world; it is a game about several cultures trying to co-exist in an idyllic, tropical archipelago; it is a game about how tiny differences in one life can effect staggering changes in the lives of others; it is a game about a 6-foot-tall animated voodoo doll. Mostly, though, it is a game about humanity and its relationship with the planet.

The moment I’m talking about, the moment that slipped keenly between my ribs and nestled uncomfortably in my stomach and which stings a little bit more each time I think of it, is the moment that this theme first became clear to me.

A little less than halfway through Chrono Cross, your quest takes you to a location called “The Dead Sea.” Unlike the vast majority of the game’s map, you can’t see the Dead Sea from a bird’s eye view, it is nestled in an obscuring fog. Opening the gate to this region is a big to-do; it requires you to fetch a McGuffin and fight some nasty enemies. And then, when you finally arrive, you understand why.

The Dead Sea turns out to be an apocalypse in microcosm. It contains a city from the future, trapped mid-implosion amidst time-frozen waves. Shattered skyscrapers preside over crumbling freeway overpasses. It is unlike anything else in the game’s world. As you walk across water to reach the heart of the haunted place, you can examine artifacts from this unfortunate cataclysm: discarded robots, the remnants of storefronts, half-working computer systems that hint at the nature of the world’s end.

When you finally arrive at the center of the ruins, you meet a very conveniently-placed storyteller, who explains that the Dead Sea is an alternate future of your planet— an apocalypse averted — that was, through an unknown process, preserved. It was condensed into a tiny inlet of a minor archipelago, an unimportant corner of the world, and sealed away. He calls it “Time Crash Ground Zero.”

This armageddon was prevented, he explains, by a group of determined adventurers not unlike the one you are now controlling, as the player! These headstrong individuals traveled through time and rewrote the history books, seeking out the nature of the apocalypse and destroying the destroyer. They saved (have saved, will save, are saving) the future, and the detritus has gathered in the Dead Sea.

And this is it: the bit that gets me, a little bit harder each time:

This one. This part right here.

“They realized,” says the storyteller, speaking of these adventurers, “they could not turn their backs on our planet, even if its death would not be anywhere near their lifetime.”

From the very first time I ever played Chrono Cross, this felt like an accusation.

As a young man on the verge of adulthood, I could quite clearly see a future in which the world was threatened by destruction — not by a monstrous, alien parasite which would punch through the Earth’s crust and rain brimstone down upon shining, domed cities, but at our own hands, a result of our poor stewardship of our pale blue dot. And, controller in hand, I found myself asking: Though its death would not be anywhere near my lifetime, could I turn my back on our planet?

Chrono Cross began development in 1998, which was by far the hottest year ever recorded at the time. (When you hear that “nine out of the ten hottest years in the historical record have occurred this century,” 1998 is the tenth.) 1998 also saw the tail end of a particularly strong El Niño, which caused unusual weather patterns and unseasonably high temperatures around the globe. That same year, Japan signed the Kyoto Protocol.

Environmentalism and conservationism were themes that had started to bleed into pop culture in the mid-’90s (think Captain Planet or the games of the Sega Genesis). Square itself, a few years earlier, had released Final Fantasy VII, a game in which a mega-corporation’s exploitation of the planet’s life force is one of the central conflicts. But Chrono Cross is a step above. It is very nearly a manifesto.

Like most role-playing games, Chrono Cross is about saving the world, and by extension, saving humanity. Except Chrono Cross, more than just about any of its contemporaries, wants to ask the question: “Is saving humanity the same thing as saving the world, or are these two concepts opposed?”

The game’s first “dungeon.”

The world of Chrono Cross is the kind of setting one might concoct if one imagined the rosiest possible outcome of global climate change: a beautiful island chain, tucked away from the world, where the denizens wear light, colorful clothing and the only travel possible is by boat. In the El Nido Archipelago, the ocean is omnipresent, the sun glittering off the waves in the background of nearly every outdoor location. Indeed, in many places, the ocean seems to be creeping out of its watery bounds and onto land: forests of coral overlook white shores, and primeval cycads provide a Devonian backdrop to the game’s first battles.

As you leave your home village and begin to explore El Nido more fully, however, it becomes evident that even among the lush, verdant islands of the archipelago, humanity has begun to alter its environment — with a negative effect on the archipelago’s non-human inhabitants.

An explorer researching the ruins of Sky Dragon Isle comments that “A hundred years before humans from the continent came here, the Dragonians and demi-humans still existed in great numbers.” These demi-humans have been exiled from their home in Marbule, which has become haunted in their absence.

When your companion Kid is poisoned and the only means of saving her is by obtaining a substance called Hydra Humour, Serge finds himself out of luck — because humans have hunted the Hydra to extinction in El Nido.

In one of the game’s two parallel worlds, the flowing pools of water that cover Water Dragon Isle have run dry, and in the other world, a group of dwarves are slaughtering the island’s natural inhabitants, the fairies. When Serge and company try to intervene, the dwarves malign the whole human species, calling us “heretics of evolution,” “destroyers of the planet.”

When you encounter the Blue Dragon after the dwarves have been defeated, the creature asks: “Wilt thou live on with thy mother planet… Or wilt thou turn thy back on the planet and tread another path?” This question, too, feels like an accusation: Player, wilt thou turn thy back on the planet?

Chrono Cross builds its examination of this question by means of a deft, three-act structure — which, while not made explicit to the player, nevertheless is focused around a series of deliberately escalating existential quandaries.

Standing at your own grave.

The game begins as a story about an individual confronted by a reality in which he does not exist, a parallel world in which he has died a decade ago. As the player takes on the role of Serge, they are confronted with issues of identity, loss, and consequence. The first act of the game is an exploration of the question “What would change in a world without you?” The player explores Serge’s hometown to discover that no one recognizes him, and a trip just outside the village sees Serge standing over his own grave on a promontory overlooking the ocean.

Lynx — the face of the enemy.

Later, Serge finds himself stripped of his body, trapped in the guise of his former antagonist, a demi-human called Lynx. This second act of the story (in which you journey to the Dead Sea and are subjected to the gut-punch line that still needles me) asks the player to consider the question: “What would it be like to be the enemy of all you meet?” As you interact with townsfolk, shopkeepers, and even former allies, everyone seems to loathe you. You’re greeted with distrust, hostility, and even threats of violence by people who once fought by your side (when you were Serge). This experience of wearing the face of the villain primes the player for the game’s third act, which combines and expands the questions asked by the first two:

“Are we the enemy of the planet? What would the world be like without humanity?”

Lavos’s plans revealed.

Chrono Cross is the follow-up to an SNES game called Chrono Trigger. In the midst of the final battle of Chrono Trigger, it is revealed that the alien parasite Lavos has been harvesting — and shepherding — all life on the planet in order to further its own designs. Your group of determined adventurers — the ones who could not turn their backs on the planet — has traveled back and forth through time in order to prevent Lavos from rising in the year 1999 and destroying all human civilization. This revelation — that Lavos is partially responsible for humanity’s ascent — is meant as a final barb, one more incentive to destroy the miserable leech before it can destroy the world. Not only are you saving the future, but you’re also shrugging off the yoke of your invisible puppetmaster. It’s a pretty effective moment, but it comes at the very end of the game and isn’t meant to be explored further.

The final third of Chrono Cross, on the other hand, is built expressly for this purpose: to delve into what it means for humanity to be the “Children of Lavos.” After Serge regains his body, he learns that humanity rose to prominence — and gained its destructive tendencies — through contact with the alien parasite. (A comparison to the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey seems apt.)

Terra Tower.

In the lead-up to the game’s final climax, Serge and his allies must confront a world in which our species never ascended to the world stage. The final area, “Terra Tower,” is a floating fortress which has been pulled back in time from a future in which the extinction of the dinosaurs never occurred, a future in which they were able to evolve “more closely with the planet,” as the game explains, to become an intelligent species in the place of humanity.

What might the denizens of such a world say about human interlopers? As you make your way through Terra Tower, you fight several avatars of the elements — the voices of the planet. Here’s what they have to say to you:

THE-OCHRE-LANDS-HAVE-DRIED-UP-AND-WITHERED… IS-IT-YOUR-WILL-TO-CHOOSE-DESTRUCTION…?

MANY-HAVE-BLED-SUFFERED-AND-PERISHED… IT-IS-YOUR-TIME-TO-DIE.

RETURN-OUR-TREES… GIVE-BACK-OUR-GREEN-FORESTS…

DISRESPECTING-THE-ORIGINS-OF-LIFE… MOTHER-SEA-SUFFERS… YOU-MUST-PAY-THE-PRICE.

And then, of course, you destroy them.

There is definitely a sense in the final battles of Chrono Cross that yes, these avatars of sea and earth and sky have a point. As Serge and his companions, you’ve witnessed first-hand that the humans of the world have put their own interests above that of the planet — sometimes violently. When the great Dragon God — the planet’s ultimate weapon against its violent oppressors — asks you “Must one kill other living things in order to survive? Must one destroy another world in order to allow one’s own world to continue?”, it’s easy to read it as the typical pseudo-philosophical posturing of a villain before the final battle commences. But as forests continue to be clear-cut, the ocean becomes increasingly acidic, and dry lands become deserts, these questions start to sound less philosophical and more practical. If we destroy another world, can our own world continue?

The very final battle of Chrono Cross, once the Dragon God has been defeated and Terra Tower crumbles into the sea, is a fight against Lavos, humanity’s progenitor and erstwhile destructor. Serge and his friends step into a space outside of time and find that Lavos has merged itself with a girl called Schala, the last great loose end left untied by Chrono Trigger.

Serge, Schala, and the Devourer of Time.

There are two ways to engage this enemy, this human/alien hybrid which the game calls the Devourer of Time: You can meet it with blind aggression, bombarding it with your strongest spells and techniques, until it is destroyed.

Or you can attempt to summon each of the game’s six elemental types in turn: Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, Darkness, and Light, and unite them with a special element called the Chrono Cross. If you can achieve this symbolic harmony of the natural elements, Schala is safely extracted from Lavos, who dissolves into the ether.

One more time: To earn the “true” ending of Chrono Cross, you must bring the elements of the natural world into harmony, freeing humanity from the grasp of the thing which makes it prolific, which makes it destructive, which causes it to devour.

This process is abstract — the game essentially asks you to cast six spells in sequence without being interrupted — but the symbolic suggestion is obvious: if we want to avoid becoming that which destroys the world, then we must exorcise whatever part of ourselves consumes the planet to further our own growth.

Even as an adolescent, I was deeply affected by this. That barb that lodged in my chest at the game’s earlier accusation abated, and I was filled with a sense of catharsis and purpose. This is what we have to do, I thought.

And now, “Can we do it?” is the question.

In one of the game’s final scenes, Serge awakens on the beach to find his friend Leena standing over him. She doesn’t understand his mumbling about the world without humanity and the great oppressive forces that he’s overthrown. She thinks it’s all been a bad dream. She tells him: “Come on, Serge. Our summer’s just started.”

It is a uniquely hopeful and forward-looking moment, and one that I still cling to, which seems to hover before me on the horizon like the sun glittering on the waves.

“Our summer’s just started.”

It’s a nice thing to think about, anyway.


This piece is a heavily modified version of an essay I wrote for the now-defunct Five Out of Ten Magazine.