Friday, March 17, 2023

Green Guys: What I learned from Four Herbacious Heroes

Among other things, legends say the patron saint of Ireland used the shamrock to explain the holy trinity.

Well, in true geek fashion, I made a brief attempt to connect with the origin to our yearly day of green, and then took a wild left turn into one of my favorite fandoms.

Rather than use a shamrock to enlighten and inspire you, I’ll use four walking and talking flora from Chrono Cross. Join me as I dive into one of the last JRPGs from the PS1 era.  

The plot of Cross involves traveling across dimensions. The main character, Serge, gets pulled into another world strikingly similar to his own, with another village just like where he grew up, with alternate versions of his mom and girlfriend, but not him. Yes, Cross did alternate universes before Everything, Everywhere, All at Once and Marvel made them as domestic as forgotten passwords. 

What Cross does with this alternate dimensions theme was delve into both the fun and the deeper existential meaning of choice. When paths stretch out before us, do our choices lead us where we truly desire? These questions weave themselves through wild, whimsical, and dreadful possibilities. This is a fantasy story complete with dragons, mermaids, demi-humans with various animal-human combinations, and also characters created in a lab, grown from the ground, made out of straw, or transformed in an emperor’s new-groove style accident.

Cue the plant people, my modern-day shamrock object lessons.

I give you rules to live by from four Green guys. Or, a straw man, a flower child, a veggie warrior, and a man who loved fungus so much, he became a mushroom.

Lesson #1: Don’t take yourself so seriously.

After Serge has realized he is in a new world, he enters what he expects to be the home of a dedicated fisherman from his village. Instead he finds a man who has given up his boats, fishing nets, and livelihood, and has become obsessed with a cult. Great side-plot for a kids’ game, right? Anyway, if you spoke to the cult-man’s alternate identity in Serge’s home world, and received a shark-tooth item from him, and then present this item to cult-man, he has a moment of doubt about whether his choice to give up his fishing was correct.

Then the idol pinned on his wall speaks. He tells cult-man to quit wasting his time, and introduces himself to Serge as Mojo, because he's ready to get out of cult-man's dingy basement. 

Mojo is an icon, come to life, presumably made from straw, and very unwisely wearing lit candles on his head. Don't they say people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, and straw people shouldn't wear candles? He shows a compassionate zest for life and wacky sense of humor. We don’t get much more unique content from Mojo for the rest of the game, but his rubbery movements and bizarre appearance are a reminder to lighten up, and straighten out if an obsession has taken over your life.

Lesson #2: Be confident and don’t let anyone put you down.

Later in the story Serge and his friends meet a scientist. If you collect an item from a nearby swamp and return to this scientist, she rewards you by introducing you to her Frankenstinian creation, a three-foot tall, adorable plant-child straight out of my-little pony. She is named NeoFio, a spunky and sassy lab experiment and pint-size fighter. During battle, several of Neofio’s attacks involve horrifying, long vines shooting out of her cute little poofy sleeves, and throttling the largest enemies. Neofio has one of the cutest looks of all of Cross’s cast, and yet she was created to be a soldier, of sorts. 

Neofio is a great example of that thing a lot of writers love to do, subvert your expectations by making cute characters capable of massive feats of strength. Our natural tendency is to underestimate things that are adorable, or small. Neofio is a reminder things are not always as they seem.

Lesson #3: The cave you fear may hold the treasure you seek.

Turnip is a philosopher, warrior, and existential pontificator, residing firmly on the opposite end of the spectrum from Mojo, and verbally much more flowery than Neofio.

Turnip is recruited to the party near the site of a devastating fire. The first stage of recruiting him is to cool down a hot patch of ground near the site. Then, later the player puts a dog-like character in their party, who then digs in that spot. Turnip hops straight out of the ground, and joins with you.

Many of the playable characters in the game are made unique through a novel piece of code in the game that gives them a unique accent. Turnip uses formal language we might recognize from the bible, with ‘thees’, ‘thous’, ‘doths’ and ‘doests’. He also has a tendency to contemplate the origin of his existence in his very few pieces of dialogue unique to him. His need to probe with the deep questions of life may not lead to warm and fuzzy answers, but reveals a grit and intellectual strength we would expect about as much as a toddler in a flower suit destroying a full grown man with horrific plant power. I find myself rooting for turnip, with his adorable little cape, sword, and fancy grammar.

Lesson #4: Learn what you’ve got before it’s gone.

In Serge’s home world, there is a sick man being tended to by his daughter. In another world, this man neglects and takes advantage of his daughter, leaving her to manage their family business alone while he forages for mushrooms. Serge happens to find the mushroom later in the game, and present to him. Unfortunately, the man eats the mushroom, and it transforms him, you’ll never believe this, into a mushroom. 

Funguy initially joins the party out of spite, hoping to make sure they help him to find a cure for his condition.

But later when Funguy sees that his daughter no longer recognizes him, and the choice to return home has been taken from him indefinitely, the tone of his quest changes. Funguy becomes a wayward father hoping to regain the daughter and life he has lost.

Chrono Cross was a game that received heavy criticism for breaking the mold set by its predecessor, Chrono Trigger. The core fanbase of Trigger grew so loyal, they saw the bold changes and new direction of Cross as total misjudgments, and frank failures.

One of these changes was the creation of numerous playable characters, some with side-quests and deep, emotional back stories. Others, like our four herbaceous heroes, had mere hints of background and character development. The fun of collecting over forty playable characters is often overshadowed in the community’s commentary about the lack of depth in these many characters.

However, what I do find in the many minor playable characters is a sense of possibility and fun. Despite four fellow flora joining the party, their concepts and extant back story are widely diverse, and even their mannerisms, in the form of character art, accents, and a unique content indicate care and intention from the game developers. The art, battle design, music, and writing of Chrono Cross show huge amounts of experimentation and talent. 

It was probably never intended for all 40+ playable characters to have the same level of back story as, say, certain playable characters like Karsh, whose side-quest is truly epic and deserves a game of its own, or the maddeningly difficult side quest to recruit, Skelly, a circus clown who you gather together, bone by bone. The minor and perhaps less impactful characters do more than just add fluff to the game. They accentuate the themes of deep introspection, fun, and human frailty. They are the extra flourishes on an already masterful symphony of story and exquisite gameplay that is about branching paths of agency and diverse individuals with an endless array of expression and life stories.

Remember, don't take yourself so seriously, be confident, the cave you fear holds the treasure you seek, and learn what you've got before it's gone. Do these four things (I know the third isn't something you do, necessarily, but you'll figure it out) and all your problems will be solved. Pretty sure that's how written advice works. Isn't the internet great?

Hopefully, if you ever try Chrono Cross, the remastered version released last year, or the mobile spinoff game, Another Eden, written by the same artist who wrote for Trigger and Cross, you’ll see why I love this game so much, and why even four of the silliest and most bizarre characters deserved a blog post that went way longer than I ever expected it to go. 

Take care! And Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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