One of the keys, in my opinion, to making good games is understanding good games. I mean, each of us has games we love, but how often do we stop and think about WHAT makes us love them? What is the component that transforms a good game into a classic?
Today, I’m going to take Chrono Trigger, a game that many of us know and love, and examine what I think it does so well that makes us love it.
I tend to find that generally, every game I love has one key component. One thing that it does so much better than almost any other game. That isn’t to say that the games don’t have other good qualities, in fact, usually good games are really well rounded and don’t have a lot of qualities that AREN’T good. But there is almost always one key component that pushes it over the edge.
So what is that component with Chrono Trigger? Is it the mechanics? They ARE good. But are they excellent? How about the characters? Also, here the game is pretty competent, but really this game isn’t a character study, and none of the characters have that much depth to them.
The key in my opinion to Chrono Trigger’s success lies in one thing: Pacing.
Chrono Trigger is paced nearly perfectly, having a tightly told story that keeps the player moving and interested throughout the whole game. To improve our own games, let’s examine a couple of ways it does this.
Chrono Trigger avoids doing something that I think is a real weakness with beginner game designers and writers. It never does a real info dump. Everything you learn in the game is done over time, with small pieces that fit together like a puzzle.
Let’s take Lavos for example. This is what we learn about it and when:
- Lavos destroys the world in 1999. This is learned a couple of hours into the game when the party is traveling through the year 2300.
- After traveling to modern times, we learn that Magus “created” Lavos in 600 AD.
- After defeating Magus, we learn that we were wrong, and that Magus was SUMMONING Lavos, who existed long before that.
- In 65,000,000 BC, after defeating Azala and saving humanity from the Reptites, you learn that Lavos crashed down from space during this time period.
- Later, in 12,000 BC, you learn that Lavos is the source of Magic in Chrono Trigger, and that it had awoken once in this time period due to humans attempting to use its power for themselves.
All of this plays out over HOURS of gameplay. You don’t learn a whole lot about Lavos at any one time, but you end up knowing a lot. Don’t dump a bunch of info on your players all at once. Spread out how and when you give information. Let them discover it slowly through play.
Always Give the Player Short Term Story Goals
Another part of why Chrono Trigger excels in pacing is its strong use of short term story goals. Even though you get the main story goal a couple of hours in (stop the Day of Lavos from happening), you are always approaching it in shorter term goals.
And not just “if we do this, it unlocks the ability to do that”, you are almost always working towards a short term goal you think will end Lavos in the immediate, which usually then gets changed to a new short term goal soon after.
Progression of short term goals used in Chrono Trigger
- Save Queen Leene
- Escape prison
- Find a way back home
- Recover the broken pieces of the Masamune
- Find Dreamstone
- Recover the Gate Key from Azala
- Fix the Masamune
- Defeat Magus
- … etc.
Its almost never “travel through this zone to get to another zone”, and you are almost always trying to accomplish something directly. Chrono Trigger gives the player lots of smaller quests that can be finished in short amounts of time each, giving the player a sense of accomplishment at regular intervals.
You never feel like the game isn’t going anywhere. You are always heading to new locations, fighting new enemies, and solving new problems.
Don’t overstay your welcome
Chrono Trigger is a tightly plotted game. What I mean by this, is that it doesn’t have a lot of cruft. We usually think of JRPGs as long 40-50 hour games, but Chrono Trigger is actually somewhere in the 20 hour range.
The game isn’t any longer than it needs to be. It flows from one moment to the next without a lot of filler that just wastes time. There just literally isn’t any wasted time in the game. Every plot point either teaches us something about the world or teaches us something new about what we are facing.
Don’t add length that isn’t necessary. Tell the story you want to tell. If you have something extra, always ask yourself: Does this add something substantial to the game, or is it just wasting the players time.
Chrono Trigger is a wonderful game to study to learn good pacing. Do you have any other examples of why Chrono Trigger is paced well? Maybe another game that is paced perfectly as well? Or maybe you want to tell us about how another game does its thing really well? Tell us about it in the comments section below.