Chrono Trigger: Communication

My last session, which mainly focussed on obtaining and repairing the broken Masamune sword, ran into two opposite extremes of iffy game design. First, the highly linear intro section came to an end, leaving me with more or less complete freedom to explore and little guidance about what to do next. I don’t mean that there was no guidance whatsoever, but you had to actively seek it out by talking to NPCs, unlike the earlier sections. I talked to enough random NPCs to form an idea of where I was supposed to be doing, but some of the Vintage Game Club participants had more trouble. Some veered off course entirely, wandering into eras other than the one that advances the plot at that point. (I myself paid a premature visit to 65000000 BC, but that was out of curiosity, not confusion.) Others skipped ahead in the story, going to newly-available spots on the map just because they were newly available, not knowing why they were supposed to go there.

Such are the perils of allowing the player freedom when you don’t really want them to have it. Perhaps this is why it was immediately followed by the opposite approach: extreme gating. “Gating” refers to the techniques game designers use to keep the plot in order: preventing the player from leaving an area until they’ve made a particular discovery, for example, or leaving out dialog options for an NPC until it’s time for the events they trigger. In its most benign forms, you don’t even notice it happening. In the worst case, the player attempts something that isn’t supposed to happen yet and is frustrated in the attempt without knowing why. This happened when I brought the broken Masamune blade to the game’s master weaponsmith, only to find a note indicating that he was out of town, and also when I visited the sometime-PC known as Frog in his froggy den, hoping to get him back into the party, and his only response was to bemoan his unworthiness in painfully bad pseudo-archaic dialect (“Thee hath returned?”).

These problems are symptoms of opposing design philosophies, one favoring player freedom over narrative, the other favoring narrative over player freedom. So it’s a little strange to see them together in the same chapter. If a game is going to have one of these problems, I think I prefer it to have the too-much-freedom one — but then, I would, since I didn’t have serious problems with it this time round. In general, though, it’s probably a bad idea to regard it as a choice between the two. The real underlying problem in both cases is communication — that the author’s intentions are unclear to the player. It’s possible to overcommunicate, to make the player feel like you’re treating them like an idiot by assuming they can’t figure anything out. But in general, that’s a less deadly problem than undercommunication.

2 Comments so far

  1. malkav11 on 6 Apr 2009

    That sort of thing is why, where many people bemoan the fact that Final Fantasy X is on rails until almost the end of the game, where you can finally roam around, and still doesn’t really have an overmap….I loved it. Because the world map in FF games inevitably left me confused as to where I was supposed to be going and what I was meant to be doing. If not consistently, then at least at one point or another during them. It’s also why I tend to rely heavily on strategy guides and/or walkthroughs for these things.

  2. Merus on 7 Apr 2009

    Most JRPGs have this problem – they started out being very open until Dragon Quest IV, which introduced a very heavily gated plot at the beginning, then swinging wildly towards a wide-open adventure where you have to work out where to go. Most 16-bit RPGs of the era, including Chrono Trigger, aped this structure because Dragon Quest is a huge influence on that genre.

    Final Fantasy VII sounded the death knell for the wide-open design, and most JRPGs since have been extremely gated affairs, and usually pretty poorly implemented by Western standards at that.

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