Book Review: Boss Fight Books - Chrono Trigger
Posted by Philip J Reed
There's more than one way to revisit the past
It's difficult to write about video games. Believe us, we know. The medium is, strictly speaking, a compound one. Whereas writing about works of art in most media entails a relatively straightforward discussion of how well or poorly the work in question used the tools available to that medium, writing about video games is much more complicated, because video games pull together aspects of all media.
When writing about a novel, you'd want to discuss how well it's written. When writing about a painting, you'd want to discuss how it looks. When writing about a CD, you'd want to discuss how it sounds. When writing about a video game, you'll want to discuss all of these things, and a lot more. Your favourite video game — whatever game that might be — is an omnibus. It collects and arranges various, disparate pieces of art, and assembles it into a single volume. The soundtrack, the art, the writing, the controls, the length, the depth. And even then we're only scratching the surface.
Of course, the obvious corollary that comes to mind is film. Films are also combinations of many disparate moving parts, and like the best video games the best films make the combination feel as seamless and organic as possible. But why is it comparatively easy to discuss film? The answer is obvious: video games are interactive. While everybody who watches a film will see the events play out in the same sequence at the same pace, video games offer a constant stream of choices, and a stage that might last around two minutes for one player might last closer to a half hour for somebody less skilled.
As such, the audience for video games has to bring along not just an open mind, but a level of tangible dexterity, reflex and lateral thought, all of which are intended to be challenged in increasingly difficult ways. If you fail those challenges, you don't get to experience the entire piece.
It's an interesting challenge for those writing about the medium, and it's precisely the reason not every writer is capable of writing about the medium; in a very real, very quantifiable way, every player's experience will be different.
This is the hurdle Boss Fight Books potentially had to face. By producing six isolated volumes about six isolated games, they fenced themselves into a corner. Right? After all, how do you write an exhaustive volume on a single title when literally every person who plays that game will have an experience unique from your own?
Boss Fight Books found an answer that, so far, is working quite well for them: you don't worry about it.
Instead of attempting to capture a larger, cultural portrait of the impact a specific game has had, both Boss Fight volumes to date have doubled down instead on one particular experience: the author's.
Little attempt is made to relate the author's experience to your own. You are not asked to buy into specific interpretations of characters or moments or gimmicks. In fact, in many cases, it would be impossible; much of the resonance in these books ties not into verifiable, documented fact, but rather personal recollections and associations.
Oddly enough, this is the most effective way of capturing the protean phenomenon of interactive media. Everybody's experience is different, and the best way to illustrate that is not to provide a vast sampling of those experiences, but to drill down intently into only one. The closer we get to understanding the hyper-personal resonance between the game and the author, the easier it becomes for readers to see, and appreciate, this frequently ignored fact of gaming. Two people may have bought the same cartridge and played it beginning to end without having done anything the same way, let alone emerging from the experience with the same feelings.
The second (and most recent) book in this series is Chrono Trigger, by Michael P. Williams, and like the game on which it's centred it winds backward and forward through time, periodically stepping back to marvel at unforeseen impacts of small decisions made at seemingly irrelevant times. It seems to be heading in one direction, before pivoting sharply and diving in another. At times we read about what's happening in the game, like a walkthrough with a literary bent. Then we're reading a manual of design. And somewhere, in the negligible space between two sentences, we've slipped into Williams' autobiography.
It's a twisted, entangled approach that impressively marries disparate artforms...which is why it's exactly the right way to talk about the video games that do the same thing.
The previous title, about EarthBound and written by Ken Baumann, set such an impressive precedent that the second volume — whatever it was — seemed like it would be doomed to impossible comparison. But Chrono Trigger is a more than worthy follow-up, at least in part because of the choice of game, which lends itself extraordinarily well to nostalgia, to surprise, and to a looming darkness at even the sunniest times.
The books, of course, are as difficult to discuss as the video games upon which they are based. Some readers might go into them expecting a chronicle of the game's development, release, and reception. Others might go into them expecting analysis and deconstruction. It's probably safe to say, though, that unless you've been cautioned ahead of time, you wouldn't go into them expecting a skittering, sprawling personal narrative. And yet it's through this personal narrative that we get to know the game more intimately than we ever could if we were simply pulling it apart in order to count its nuts and bolts.
Chrono Trigger and EarthBound both have allowed us something that we didn't even know we needed: the ability to play these games through the eyes, ears and emotions of somebody else. The author is our avatar, controlling their own avatar on a little screen, somewhere else, decades in the past. At times, the game is turned off and removed from the console, but the narrative continues. Why not? Art is always a composite entity, built not only of what the artists brought to the project but of what the audience was carrying with them. EarthBound did an excellent job of illustrating for us the magnitude of those personal resonances and associations, and Chrono Trigger ups the ante with an almost obsessive attention to the smallest details, feeling somehow more technical and more human at once.
Chrono Trigger comes from a place of love, and it's infectious. It's not a list of features and the differences between ports — though those do get discussed — and it doesn't end with an itemized, scored breakdown of Graphics, Sound and Awesomeness. Williams talks about what the game did and what it contains, but games are more than lists of ingredients. Games are experiences, and so far Boss Fight Books has come as close to capturing games as experiences as might actually be possible.
It goes without saying at this point that Chrono Trigger is a great game. This book will do nothing to enhance or to detract from that reputation. What it does, however, is the impossible: it allows you to travel back in time and see it again, for the first time, through a fresh set of eyes. You've made your journey through the game one way. Maybe several ways. Maybe dozens of ways over the years. But you've never made it through the game as Michael P. Williams, and the uniqueness of his perspective is enough to make the entire game feel like a sustained instance of deja vu. You've been here before. You recognize everything. And yet...you also feel as though it's all new.
When people write about video games, one theme that recurs often is the concept of "replayability." Sure, the game might be fun to play...but when you're done, will you want to play it again? Boss Fight Books in general, and Chrono Trigger in particular, add a suggestive complication to the question: whether or not you want to play it again, aren't there other ways of revisiting it?
Chrono Trigger suggests that there are. We can dissect. We can meditate. We can take what we've learned about the structure of the game and compare it against the structures of great plays and other heroic adventures. We can ponder its philosophies on inevitability and reversibility, and assess the directions our lives have taken. We can shape the outcome of a game by pressing some buttons, or we can shape our perspectives on the world we inhabit by absorbing deeply its (not always intentional) lessons.
Chrono Trigger not only caused us to revisit and reappraise the already great game, but the book itself has lingered, turning over, revealing more about itself as time passes and more thought is turned over to it. Boss Fight Books, so far at least, seems to be experimenting with identity, using classic games as springboards from which they can explore the human condition. It's almost as though they've changed something in the past, and provided an alternative future where video games no longer rot young minds and incite violence, but spur philosophical discussions and self-improvement.
If writing about video games had always been this good, we'd be having very difficult discussions about the medium right now.