Remember when I wrote something about ethical choices in videogames? Uh, I won’t blame you if you don’t, it was a long time ago. Back then I said that there was a specific choice in Chrono Trigger that I wanted to write about in more detail. And then … erh, I didn’t do it. Months passed! But it’s been nagging at me all this time!!!
So I’ll write about it on this fine, sunny day! Spoilers for Chrono Trigger will follow, and I recommend you play this game, because it’s vey good.
Of course, I am talking about the scene at North Cape in 12,000 BC, after the fall of Zeal. The interesting thing about Chrono Trigger is that there aren’t actually a lot of yes/no choices that directly affect the story. It can be argued that this scene doesn’t affect the overall story either.
Anyway, you run into Magus, he talks about his past and proceeds to insult the recently departed Crono, pissing everyone off. Magus then asks if you want to fight him, and you can choose between Yes and No. Actually, if you manage to make it to this scene completely unspoilt, you really don’t know what the consequences of your decision will be. Turns out that if you fight Magus, he will die, but if you turn around and walk away, he’ll decide to come along and help, as your seventh playable character. Which is really the only good decision that man has ever made in his entire life.
I wasn’t completely unspoilt when I reached this scene. Actually, if you stop at the shop before heading to North Cape, you can buy a scythe, which is a dead give-away that famous scythe-user Magus is going to become a playable character! So you ought to have an inkling of what’s to come, and go into the scene with certain expectations? Man, why wouldn’t you want Magus to join you?! At this point in the game, you are without Crono, so you can really use a strong character like Magus. What’s more, there’s no advantage to killing Magus! You don’t unlock or get anything you wouldn’t have gotten anyway. The only real difference is that you see a glimpse of Frog as a human, at the very end of the game. In my opinion, that’s not a good enough reason. I’ve never killed Magus. (Well, I did it once in order to check the alternative dialogue, but I felt awful and immediately replayed the scene, I never made a savefile without Magus!)
I was surprised to discover that there were people who knew all of this, who had played the game before, and still prefer to kill Magus!
Murderers! I have read a few justifications for it, and none of it is convincing:
- “I killed Magus because he deserved it.” This one bothers me fundamentally, because while it’s true that Magus has done a lot of bad things, he’s not actually a threat anymore. I mean, the people who say this do know that if you leave him alive, he will be helpful, he won’t do anything evil anymore … It’s basically the death penalty purely as a means of punishment, even knowing that no further crimes will occur! I oppose this. I oppose the death penalty on principle, but in a case like this, it’s just so … spiteful.
- “I killed Magus because I like Frog!” I like Frog, too! But … well, I also think that the best solution to a revenge arc is to have the protagonist overcome their need for vengeance. It’s very poignant and satisfying to have Frog declare that killing Magus is pretty much pointless because it won’t change anything about the terrible things that have happened. This is Frog proving that he’s a better person. It’s also an ultimate sign of victory over Magus, because Frog doesn’t even regard him as a threat anymore, he doesn’t even bother fighting him. Like Magus isn’t even that important.
The thing is, I really don’t understand how you can feel happy or triumphant after killing Magus. The game doesn’t exactly punish you for this choice, but it doesn’t treat Magus’ death as a cause for celebration, either. Instead, he dies and you can pick up his amulet from the ground, and then … a sad piece of music starts playing. Remember this amulet from an earlier scene? Schala gave it to him when he was a child, hoping that it would protect him! D: Yeah … the game wants you to realize that you didn’t kill Magus, the famous evil sorcerer, but you killed Janus, the scared and lonely prince of Zeal who was traumatized by the loss of his sister and the downfall of his home kingdom. Oh, and even if you kill Magus, he still tells you how to save Crono, so … I really cannot understand how anyone would feel satisfied with their decision in this moment. You killed someone who was no longer a threat, who was willing to help you, the game plays sad music … I think that you have to be really tonedeaf to consider this a triumph! The game is telling you something else entirely.
After all, it is canon that Magus survives. That is, he is alive in both sequels to Chrono Trigger. Alright, we don’t really know what’s up with him in Chrono Cross, but the game does confirm that Magus fought alongside Lucca & Co. in Chrono Trigger. So while the game leaves the choice up to you, it clearly prefers Magus to be alive.
And so do I. :) I really love it when former villains join my JRPG parties! I also really like Magus in particular. His animations are so cool, especially the hand gestures he does when he casts magic, or the way he adjusts his gloves or just stands there with a hand on his hip, all sassy. He has an engaging backstory. He’s great, OK?
Still, it’s a little disappointing how nothing really changes about the game if you have Magus with you. Very few NPCs even react to his presence. You’d think at least some people in the Middle Ages would know what Magus looks like? You can even visit Cyrus’ ghost with Magus in tow, and it has no effect on the scene. Which is kind of a shame, because it’d be really fun if inconsiderate decisions like that would get some kind of punishment. ;D But even though Chrono Trigger is a game that puts its protagonist on trial for perfectly normal JRPG hero behaviour, it is still fairly conventional most of the time. Of course, there were probably technological limits to what a 1995 SNES game could do in that regard, but it feels like a bit of a lost opportunity.
Anyway, I still get a kick out of parading Magus around town. And even if there are no cutscenes or dialogue to develop their relationship, I like having Frog and Magus in the same team just because it’s really cool for former enemies to work together. These things may not be spelled out in the game itself, but they are easy to read into these scenes. A lot of Chrono Trigger‘s depth or emotion is “only in your head”. No one goes “You know, maybe we shouldn’t have killed Magus. Schala would be heartbroken if she knew we killed her little brother.” But you’ll probably be thinking that anyway, because of the cues the game gives you. And doesn’t that make it more impactful? I mean, sometimes a game spells out everything to you. This gets the job done, but it’s a much bigger achievement to make you feel something without explicitely telling you the correct emotion in words! I really think that Chrono Trigger is damn good at this sort of thing. This isn’t quite “show, don’t tell”. But maybe “don’t just let the player know, let them understand“.
(Also, I tend to interprete Magus’ attitude in the North Cape scene to be suicidal, trying to provoke the heroes in order to go down fighting. He’s pretty much failed at his life’s purpose and he’s relived his childhood trauma, it makes sense for him to have a death wish? So sparing his life isn’t necessarily mercyful, but it’s cruel in its own way. I like reading the scene this way because it makes it all the more dramatic!)
So … haha, you can probably tell why this discussion wouldn’t have fit into my post about ethical choices. While it’s possible to decide Magus’ fate based on moral qualms or one’s idea of right and wrong and appropriate punishment, there are so many other factors that might influence your decision. I mean, I admit that my main reason for leaving Magus alive was that HE’S SO COOL! And I love that plot twist! And it’s so cool to have Magus in your team during these dramatic scenes! Even if it’s all in my head. <3
But when you approach it as a question of morals, I also see no other option than to leave Magus alive, because I don’t think it’s right to kill people if it can be prevented.