What makes for a good dramatic moment in video games?
And to be clear, I’m talking about grand, sudden, striking events that stir us, not maudlin, over-the-top moments of melodrama. Of course it’s all too easy to mess something up and cross the line from the former to the latter, but I’m more concerned with what makes us feel the stakes in a game are real or care about the events transpiring. While I’ve talked before about how difficult it can be to convey emotional video game content to people who haven’t played the game themselves, I do want to offer some examples of dramatic elements in a game. For this, I’m going to look at Square’s Chrono Trigger.
Chrono Trigger is regarded as one of the best RPGs of all time, so there’s little need for me to argue the dramatic capabilities of the game. Instead I’m going to take advantage of its quality to pinpoint a few of the ways games create drama. In particular, I’m going to be looking at direction, design and sound. If you have not yet played the game and had any interest in doing so spoiler-free, now would be the time to stop reading.
Upon turning on the game, Chrono Trigger opens with an iconic sequence of a swinging pocket watch set to the wonder-inspiring track A Premonition, which swells up as the title appears. It’s followed by a demo, with the powerful, exciting song Chrono Trigger. This opening constructs the drama of entering a story-driven RPG perfectly, inspiring feelings of mystery and adventure. The video below contains the whole sequence. (sequence starts at 0:12)
Everything from the ticking of the watch to the rise and fall of the music start the game off with a grand sense of drama, hooking the player before they even start the adventure.
Throughout the game, Chrono Trigger ensures it keeps our interests, with stirring music, detailed sprites and environments with very heavy atmosphere.
A very tense scene early on, our hero, Crono, is made to stand trial for the kidnapping of the princess of Guardia. Though Marle (really Princess Nadia) willingly accompanied Crono, proving this to the jury and the prosecuting Chancellor out for Crono’s blood isn’t easy. Several witnesses will be brought in to confirm or deny the accusations against Crono’s character, and the player realizes early on that these witnesses are testifying about actions they took at the carnival Crono visited at the beginning of the game. Let’s watch.
The scene opens displaying the grandeur of the royal courtroom, with a stained glass representation of justice looming down on the defendant. The music that plays is very refined and punctuated with swift notes that indicate both the serious nature of the courtroom and a hint of dread for the possible verdict. Observers on the sides share reactions and thoughts as they stare on in judgement. In fact, the very perspective in this room is different from that of much of the game thus far. The courtroom is tall, and doesn’t center on your character by default. It’s an alienating feeling and a vulnerable situation.
Finally I want to add an example that opted for minimal music and another disconcerting perspective. This scene blends player interaction with the drama of the story in a unique way, with the character being both present and removed from the action. In this scene, party member Lucca (who has been renamed “Lena” in this playthrough) gets a chance to go back to the past and revisit a difficult day in her life.
The action taking place in the scene is between young Lucca, her mother Lara, and the machine. As the machine sounds grow ominous, the player must guide Lucca to the control panel and enter the password correctly to stop the machine as her younger self and her mother continue to act in real time. The pressure of the time and the reality of the danger Lara is in create a very tense situation. Again, the alienation from being the dominant perspective also contributes to anxiety that the player must overcome in order to save Lara’s legs. Of course, there’s an alternate scene should the player fumble with their fingers for too long.
Chrono Trigger is a stellar example of a game that creates true drama for the player. The attention to detail by the art and sound directors, as well as their crews, is self-evident, shining through each passing moment of the game. About the only common complaint I stumble across when people are discussing Chrono Trigger is that it’s “too short,” which really speaks to the quality of the game – that people simply wanted more. My examples were but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scenes that you can really dig into. There are far more settings and situations with their own atmospheres that tell a compelling, dramatic story.
I hope this was an interesting read, and I hope that I followed my own advice and explained my claims well enough for people to understand them. If you have any thoughts or feel I can explain something better, or just want to add examples of your own, feel free to do so in the comments!