Is Chrono Trigger a Feminist Game?
*Spoilers for the 1995 Super Nintendo title, Chrono Trigger.*
Looking back on it after nearly twenty years, the world as it was in 1995 is, simultaneously, almost unrecognizable and yet somehow familiar to the point of surreality. The world economy was recovering from a recession, and Western military forces occupied the Eastern Bloc and the Middle East.
In the mid-90s, the United States sociopolitical landscape was in a progressively transitional period. Instituted in 1994 and repealed in 2010, the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy was an important, if controversial, step toward making military policy respectful of sexual orientation. Despite the tentative foothold on progress gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals managed to achieve, however, the trans* community would not begin to see such advances until the later part of the decade. Today, LGBTQ individuals and their allies continue to fight for equality based on sexual orientation and identity.
Much of this late 20th-century social progress can be attributed to the rise of third wave feminism. The second wave of the 1960s and ’70s focused on an expression of universal womanhood, one which largely ignored the experiences of marginalized women, including: women of color, lesbians and bisexual women, lower-class women, and women outside the gender binary–which is to say, trans*, genderqueer, and gender-fluid individuals. Third wave feminism, fomented in the early 1990s, sought to correct these failings.
Third wave feminists insist that, while the category of “women” was defined politically according to biology and socially constructed gender roles, anyone can and should be able to self-identify as a “woman.” They embrace those things–such as cosmetics, brassieres, and high heels–which second wave feminists considered oppressive and restricting. For third wave feminists, womanhood is whatever a woman defines for herself.
This is the environment out of which Chrono Trigger, the critically acclaimed Japanese role-playing game (JRPG), launched on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1995. Although games continued to be released for the platform until 2000, Chrono Trigger came late in the SNES’s tenure as Nintendo’s flagship console, with the Nintendo 64 (N64) launching the following year. In the years following its release, the game has been ported to a variety of different platforms, including Playstation, Nintendo DS, and Wii Virtual Console, and spawned two sequels.
As GamerGate continues to rage on in its attempt to silence women with the nerve to speak out about marginalization, replaying classic video games is an exercise in retrospective awareness. Sometimes we hold fond memories of a title, only to have them tainted when we replay it as an adult. Some games are easy to categorize in terms of their friendliness–or animosity–toward women, but we often find ourselves taken aback, whether by the pre-ESRB horror that is Custer’s Revenge, or by the emotional depth given to female characters like Final Fantasy IX‘s Eiko and Dagger.
When I sat down to replay Chrono Trigger last month, I was anxious. What if it wasn’t the bastion of girl-power I remembered? Call me silly, but sometimes being blatantly insulted by your entertainment has a way of destroying its appeal. Thankfully, Chrono Trigger remains highly respectful of its female characters, even when it utilizes tropes that would generally demean them.
Chrono Trigger‘s narrative begins with the spunky Marle–who is actually Princess Nadia in disguise–accidentally travelling 400 years backward in time after a conflict between her Pendant and Lucca’s teleporter creates a time portal. Together, hero Crono and inventor Lucca mount a recovery operation, during which they learn that Marle has been mistaken for her own missing ancestor, Queen Leene. Because no one rescues Leene in this altered past, Marle disappears as a result of the created grandfather paradox, leaving Crono and Lucca to find the missing queen and repairing the rift in time.
Chrono Trigger, more than anything, is a classic time-travel narrative. Shortly after rescuing Queen Leene and Marle, the party learns of a coming apocalypse and attempts to defeat Lavos, its harbinger. Because of the variables players may activate through their choices in the game, Chrono Trigger features multiple endings, including six different scenarios for fighting Lavos.
This retrospective is not intended to discuss all of these endings, nor will it examine every female character in the game; notable exclusions include Queen Zeal, Schala, and Atropos XR. Instead, the discussion here is limited to examining Chrono Trigger‘s protagonist, its three playable female characters, and its trans-friendly boss. Ultimately, the game is a fantastic example of third wave feminism’s positive influence on video games.
Crono: Silent Protagonist
But let’s start with Crono. He doesn’t say much; that’s kind of his thing. The silent protagonist was not a rarity in the 16-bit era. Chrono Trigger uses that trope to its advantage by making every other character read their own interests into Crono’s silence. The interesting thing here is that this strongly resembles the treatment of women’s silence in media. For the large part, silence gets read as complacency or contentment, and this holds true even when the individuals in question have been either forcibly silenced or otherwise denied their voices. Although Chrono Trigger‘s silent protagonist is admittedly more interesting in retrospective analysis than in the game’s heyday, that does not diminish its deconstructive potential.
In contrast to Crono’s muteness, Chrono Trigger features three vocal, female playable characters: Marle, Lucca, and Ayla.
Marle: Espionage Royalty
On the surface, Marle seems like a pretty standard female lead in a JRPG: she is a feisty princess who tries to escape her restrictive palace life by disguising herself as a commoner, uses curative magic, and is romantically interested in the hero. She might be a little bit of a manic pixie dream girl, and she might get us thrown in jail, but we love her free-spirited nature.
Throughout Chrono Trigger, Marle refuses to be defined by her class or sex. She’s a fantastic stealth operative who manages to sneak out of her home in the heavily-guarded Guardia Castle and convince everyone she meets that she is a commoner. When she gets displaced in time and sent back to the Middle Ages, Marle takes advantage of her resemblance to Queen Leene in order to secure a safe place to stay until Crono and Lucca arrive. Back in her own time, she stands up to both the King and the Chancellor when they ignore her and frame Crono for kidnapping. Marle: crushing the patriarchy, one jump for joy at a time.
Lucca: Engineering Whiz
Lucca is easily the most recognizable woman of Chrono Trigger fame. After an accident caused her mother to lose both legs, Lucca took up the study of science and mathematics. In the present, her engineering chops are unmatched. In the opening of the game, Lucca has two inventions on display: her fighter-training robot, Gato, and her teleporter, which is admittedly unpredictable, but so is the TARDIS, so we are not holding that against her. When the party encounters Robo, Lucca not only repairs him, but also reprograms the robot to be their ally. Think about that: even technology thirteen hundred years more advanced than her own is no match for her intellect.
Not only is Lucca a fantastic role-model for young women interested in the maths and sciences, but she is also a woman who needs a man about as much as a fish needs a bicycle. At no point in the Chrono franchise lore does Lucca marry or have a love interest, and, although she does reveal some sexual attraction toward Glenn, she is in no capacity a tomboy pining away for her best friend. Lucca isn’t alone or unhappy with her life; she’s living it on her own terms.
Ayla: Leader of the Pack
The last playable female character in Chrono Trigger‘s lineup is Ayla. A cavewoman from the year 65,000,000 BC, Ayla is the chief of the Iokan Tribe and a–very–distant ancestor to Marle. She owns everything about herself, including her political power, her physical strength, and, perhaps most importantly, her sexuality. When she first meets the party, Ayla makes a flirtatious remark toward Lucca, who politely turns her down. After her adventures with Crono and the gang are over, she returns home to propose to her male love interest, Kino.
While she embodies many characteristics traditionally considered masculine, Ayla embraces her femininity–in the form of maternity–as well. Although we do not know what kind of a mother Ayla becomes, we do know, because of Marle’s existence, that she has at least one child. It is no stretch of the imagination to think of Ayla as the woman who has it all, regardless of how much information we lack.
Flea: Trans-Friendly Boss
In addition to its female characters, Chrono Trigger has Flea: a possibly-transgender boss. Flea is difficult to define as trans*, however, because he is always referred to with masculine pronouns–and in Chrono Cross, in which he is a secret boss, his sex is clearly denoted as male–yet he has long pink hair, wears a skirt, and carries the stealable item Flea Bustier.
Neither Chrono Trigger nor either of its sequels gives much backstory on the character, so we may never know exactly how Flea self-identifies. We do know, however, that he considers himself male, regardless of how he performs his gender. When Flea is mistaken for a woman in Chrono Trigger, he quickly corrects the party–“Hey, I’m a GUY!”–and goes on to say, “Male… female… what’s the difference? Power is beautiful, and I’ve got the power!”
Flea’s gender ambiguity is not censored in the North American game releases. This was not typical for games at the time, or even for Chrono Trigger itself, since the come-ons Ayla directs at Lucca were completely removed from US versions. And while Nintendo’s Birdo character was originally referred to as “a boy who likes to dress up as a girl,” most recent Mario titles present him as Yoshi’s cisgendered girlfriend.
Instead of seizing on Flea’s difference for offensive and cheap puns, the game presents Flea in a neutral light: the portrayal is neither sympathetic nor condemning, because Flea is who he is, and that’s okay. This level of respect for others dominates the SNES title, but the promising trend of which it was a part has been somewhat lost along the way. While it is being slowly recovered through franchises like The Sims, The Elder Scrolls, and Mass Effect, non-heterosexual and non-cisgender characters remain few.
One of the most surprising things about Chrono Trigger is the extent to which it attempts to be inclusive. Oftentimes, entertainment media that try to diversify their casts make the mistake of including only one representative; think Tauriel in The Hobbit, Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: the Next Generation, and Token Black–in a case of underrepresentation meeting self-awareness–on South Park. The problem with these singular portrayals of diversity is that they offer only one minority voice to speak, effectively consolidating the experiences of all queer/Hispanic/female/elderly/etc. persons into an ignorant monolith.
Going against this unfortunate trend, Chrono Trigger not only features several respectful and diverse representations of women, but also shows gamers the experiences of different women in the same intersections. For example: Marle and Queen Leene are both royal women whose power is second to a man’s, while both Ayla and Queen Zeal hold absolute power in their positions. Lucca and her mother are both women with disabilities: Lucca has a vision-impairment, while Lara is a double-amputee. Rather than tossing gamers a single example of a woman in a particular situation, Chrono Trigger makes an effort to show the complexities of individual lives.
Chrono Trigger presents players with a diverse cast of female characters. While Marle, Lucca, and Ayla share very few similarities, none of them is a stereotypical portrayal of a woman. Each has her own strengths and weaknesses, just like any real woman you meet. While we don’t know how Flea identifies, we do know that s/he is a gender non-conforming character, whom Chrono Trigger shows in a positive–for a villain–light. A retrospective analysis reveals that Chrono Trigger fully embraces the values of third-wave feminism by letting the characters it presents be exactly who they want to be.
What do you think? Leave a comment.