Michael P. Williams’ Chrono Trigger is the second offering from Boss Fight Books, following Ken Baumann’s Earthbound. Chrono Trigger maintains the basic aesthetic mode that has underlined Boss Fight so far. In this book, you will find a reading of a videogame heavily influenced by the personal life of the writer. Every word of analysis or description is met with another that contextualizes how Chrono Trigger has become so interweaved with and contaminated by Williams’ life experience. For example, Williams lived in Japan for a time, and so there are ample comparisons between Chrono Trigger, developed in Japan, and Japanese culture, language and locations; because of Williams’ association between Chrono Trigger and his youth, there are plenty of chapters that hinge off of his fascinations at the time, like strategy guides and the videogame hype machine of the 1990s.
I don’t mention the personal nature of the book to suggest that it isn’t good or worth reading, but rather to draw some distinctions between how Williams engages with personal, literary writing in the context of games. With Earthbound, I argued that the self-indulgence of the writing often hampered the text; Baumann often stepped on his own toes by revealing too much of himself, or lingering too long on an anecdote that delivered very little. Williams rarely makes these mistakes. Instead Chrono Trigger gives us a measured set of loosely related essays that cover many different facets of its namesake game, like development, translation, the consistency of the narrative, and how the world of the game is segmented along racial and gendered lines.
It is in the chapter that delivers that analysis, titled “Straight? White? Male?” that Chrono Trigger began to feel more like a well-argued book, standing in contrast to the opening chapters, which read like a forum debate’s worth of concepts and terms that Williams evokes in order to give legitimacy to writing about videogames. “Empathic” and “goal-related” engagements are deployed as ways that players begin to identify with characters, but these feel more like slight citations to get us on board with an idea that any reader of this book is already going to be accepting of by virtue of the fact that they started reading it: It is worthwhile to think about a game. Combined with this is the issue that Williams is stuck attempting to explain Chrono Trigger, a lengthy and complex game (by virtue of being about time travel), in a very small amount of space. At the end of it, it does less to get me up to speed on what is he writing and more to confuse me about the characters, times and locations in the game that he is discussing.
However, by the time that Williams gets to “Straight? White? Male?” he is writing fewer paragraphs of sporadic information and instead turning to tightly-tuned arguments. In this chapter, for instance, he looks at the racial makeup of Chrono Trigger and reads it through the concept of kokuseki, or the Japanese conception of legal nationality. He follows up with an argument for why the gender division of the world of Chrono Trigger, which he calculates, might be reflective of the politics of Japanese life during the time of development.
There has been quite a bit of talk in the videogame criticism world about reading code. Developers and critics like Darius Kazemi and Robert Yang have spoken loudly and often about how it might, sometimes, be very helpful and informative to be able to read the basic system that underlies an aesthetic object like a game. While Michael P. Williams is not looking at the game code of Chrono Trigger, I would say that the strength of this book comes from his desire and ability to look at the social codes, the basic assumptions, that enabled specific forms of development for the game he is analyzing. This comes in various forms: explaining the gendered nature of a smoking room in a Japanese school, or the unique Japanese relationship to natural disaster in both the contemporary period and the past, or even two distinct interviews with translators Ted Woolsey and Tom Slattery that get to the heart of the material hardware restrictions and symbolic linguistic decisions that ultimately determined the shape Chrono Trigger took for the Anglophone world.
I deeply enjoyed the latter half of the book, but I do need to be clear about some of my hesitation around the first half. There is a chapter where there is page upon page of just pure description of the Chrono Trigger recruitable cast that is almost unbearable. In another section that I was confounded and disturbed by, Williams decides to show his frustration with a difficult minigame by writing that he “threw the controller at the screen and called the opponent a goddamn fuckwhore,” and while slightly-not-exciting writing and a weird use of cursing for dramatic effect aren’t equivalent, they are both symptoms of a larger substrate problem in the book, which is simply that Williams is not the strongest writer to ever put hand to keyboard.
Ultimately, missteps aside, I enjoyed the book. It holds the attention of a non-Chrono Trigger fan (like me), but contains enough “inside baseball” about the game, the developers and an average player’s interactions to keep even the most hardcore enthusiast involved.
Cameron Kunzelman thinks about Gamma World at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.