For context, there is an SNES/PS1/DS game called Chrono Trigger, and it’s a favorite of mine. Besides being a fun RPG title, it boasts one of the most thought provoking and emotional stories of any game I’ve ever played. The setup (extremely simplified) is that three teenage protagonists (Crono, Marle, Lucca) from the year 1000 AD discover time travel, and end up going to the future (2300 AD). There, they learn that in 1999 AD, a demonic creature called Lavos will rise from the center of the Earth and destroy human civilization as we know it. This knowledge inspires our three heroes to go back in time and prevent this catastrophe from happening. Along the way they make allies in other time periods, and come to believe that the key to stopping Lavos is by fighting a Mystic Lord named Magus in the year 600 AD. They arrive at Magus’ castle while he’s in the middle of summoning Lavos. After a long struggle, the time gate spirals out of control and sends Magus and the collective team into two different time periods.
That more or less takes us to the best part of the game, when you’re sent to the year 12,000 BC where an Ice Age rages on land, plaguing the Earthbound people who live there. But above the clouds, there’s a floating continent called Zeal. At first you explore two stunningly advanced cities, Enhasa and Kajar, wondering how on Earth these people from so far in the past could have achieved what no other civilization before or after ever could. However, your question is answered as soon as the team enters the Queen’s Palace. There, the inhabitants openly discuss the source of their power–Lavos. They are blissfully unaware of the malevolence their entire society has come to rely on.
The so-called “Enlightened Ones” of Zeal speak so enthusiastically of Lavos it’s absolutely frightening consider what you’ve already seen of his future exploits. The whole dynamic is one of the most delicious examples of dramatic irony I’ve seen in any media. While the country is misguided and ultimately doomed, there’s a wonderful emotional contrast as you can’t help but admire their standard of living and advanced technology. The looming sense of danger is punctuated by Doreen’s greeting. (She is a demi-goddess/eternal being whom you’ve already encountered in later time periods.) Her words are the first thing said to you when you enter:
“This is the eternal Kingdom of Zeal, where wishes come true–but at what price?”
(Retranslated in the DS version as: “This is the Magical Kingdom of Zeal, where dreams can be made reality. But nothing in this world comes free. There is always a price to be paid.”)
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Zeal is another manifestation of a common theme in literature; the idea that the past was some idealized perfect era while the present has receded from that glory. For us in the Modern West, it might be the memory of Ancient Rome, the seemingly unbeatable Empire which united all of Europe under one government only to dramatically implode into itself. (And even in Roman times, the contemporary writers were always looking further still into the past for that mythical golden age, just to give some evidence how far back this trope existed.)
In Zeal, man lives in harmony with sapient mystical creatures. Every room has a bookcase, and every person is dressed in lavish clothes. The walls are made of gold, with Tyrian Purple shields, banners and statues adorning them. The populace is well-read on current events and proud of their civilization’s achievements. They study dreams and magic academically. Not only is every Citizen a sorcerer, but they’ve stored the natural elements within books and invented capsules which enhance one’s power. They’re on the verge of launching flying machines as well as a palace built under the Ocean itself. (This Ocean Palace will allow them to draw even more energy from Lavos.) In short, it’s the perfect example of a Utopian Society. I’d even declare it my favorite fictional society, both in terms of interesting storytelling and a place I’d like to live. The only problem is that it’s governed by a mad Queen who’s become possessed by Lavos’ influence. But y’know, besides that it’s great.
Yet, Zeal is also a thought-provoking and subtle parable for our own modern world. While the upper class lives in unparalleled luxury and triumph, the magic-less Earthbound people live in dismal squalor below. These underclass humans are forced into slave labor to support the lifestyles of the Enlightened Ones. The incredible technology and magic which Zeal has pioneered is only possible because of the Mammon Machine tapping into the dark energy of Lavos. This power is ultimately outside of their control or understanding and eventually leads to an environmental catastrophe which will destroy Zeal and most of the Earthbound continents. It took me going through the game several times before I realized how similar this was to our own society. Just replace “Lavos” with “carbon fuels” and “the Mammon Machine” with “engines and industry.” The stratification of wealth is comparable as well.
The Lone Voice of Reason
Within this overwhelming setting, you come upon a woman with an equally compelling presence–Princess Schala. On the one hand, she’s said to be the most magically gifted person in the world. But in terms of personality, she’s decidedly humble and selfless–the only one who’s not babbling philosophical gobbledygook, providing exposition or fervently awaiting completion of this foreboding Ocean Palace. Schala alone among the Enlightened Ones has the perceptive foresight to realize that this is all going to lead to ruin. She alone recognizes the inherent worth of the Earthbound people. She is doting and protective towards her little brother, Janus, while everyone else seems so selfishly wrapped up in the promise of greater power they expect the Ocean Palace will bring. In short, Schala is a lone example of empathy in a nation dominated by…well, zeal.
Aesthetically, Schala has a very pretty name–it sounds like snow falling, or running water, it just rolls off the tongue so easily. This is accentuated by her theme music, which contrasts so heavily with the bombastic and tense tracks associated with Zeal Palace and later, the Ocean Palace (the two areas where she’s encountered.) Incidentally, her name was originally supposed to be Sara, however a mistranslation occurred. I’m glad it did, because while Sara means “Princess,” it’s just so common and plain-sounding of a name. “Schala” is a one of a kind name, and therefore helps the character stick out immediately.
In one of the game’s several twists of fate, one of our heroes’ chief antagonists up to this point, Magus, is ultimately revealed as Schala’s brother Janus from the future. Like our heroes, he too was sent back to this time period after their last fearsome encounter, now as a full grown man with knowledge of what is to come. Rather than use this gift to try to undo the great calamity and save his sister, Magus willfully allows it to happen again. It’s revealed during the climactic Ocean Palace standoff that Magus’ intention all along was never to use Lavos as an ally against humanity (as our heroes had previously thought). Instead he wanted to summon Lavos in order to defeat the beast out of revenge for separating him from Schala in the first place.
What’s important to note though, is that Magus allow his desire for vengeance to overpower his love for Schala. He took on a disguise and utilized his knowledge of what would happen to earn the Queen’s trust as a prophet. But rather than dissuade her from continuing to build the Ocean Palace, he encouraged it. After Lavos is summoned and destroys everything, Lavos allows Schala to die all over again. His power is so great that he could have offered to activate the Mammon Machine in her place and kept his beloved sister out of the vicinity of Lavos altogether. He does not do this. And ultimately, Magus allows Schala to use the last of her powers to teleport himself and our heroes to safety, rather than helping her to escape in his place. Like the other residents of Zeal, Magus thought he could overcome the power of Lavos, but he failed, and were it not for our heroes he would have died along with everyone else as a consequence of his hubris.
I find Magus comparable to Severus Snape, in that a late-stage revelation explains his actions but does not excuse them. He still manipulated the Mystics’ cause for his own selfish purposes in 600 AD, and let Schala die on his watch despite that being the very thing which first drove him on this path for revenge. He becomes an ally of our heroes against Lavos from this point on in the story, but still openly shows his contempt for them. Magus is not redeemed in the story by his ultimate motives and background, only fleshed out into one of the greatest antiheroes in videogame history. In the context of the story, and the theme of time therein, he’s an allegory for how those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
There are literally films, novels and epic poems which don’t have the storytelling mastery and character development that is present in the Zeal Arc or Magus’ characterization. A lot of it is nothing new–idyllic Utopian civilization, save the princess, revenge fantasy, etc–but it’s played out so masterfully that you’re on the edge of your seat regardless. The modern trend in media, if Game of Thrones and The Last Jedi are any indication, seems to be that subverting as many tropes as possible is the way to go. I would offer Chrono Trigger‘s plot as a strong counterargument. Tropes are not inherently bad things–they exist for a reason. The key is doing them well, and in a way that feels new.
As for Schala, her ultimate fate has since been the subject of one of the great unsolved mysteries in videogame history. It’s one I don’t expect we will ever get a satisfactory answer to, considering Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) seems to be uninterested in concluding the series (and probably lacks the talent to do so in a satisfactory manner anyway.) According to an epilogue in the DS re-release, and the sequel Chrono Cross, Schala was forcibly bound to Lavos and became the Dream Devourer (later called Time Devourer). However….aside from being really lame, aside from the fact that she doesn’t even look like Schala in the sequel…that game still ends on something of a cliffhanger. It also makes no sense within the canon of Chrono Trigger, where you can fight Lavos after 12,000 BC (when he would have bound with Schala) and she is not with him.
Overall, Schala is a very tragic yet inspirational character–similar to Princess Diana in fact. She’s like a combination of all of my heroes with one of my favorite tropes (the lost Utopian past). She’s the big sister I wish I had growing up. And another great example of a theme I referenced in another post–how there are no great countries, families, or institutions but only great individual people. Schala is similar to George McGovern, Scipio Africanus and Hannibal Barca as a person whose talent and insight were wasted on an unworthy group of peers, to the detriment of all three societies. Finally, as her fate remains an unsolved mystery, she’s similar to SMiLE, other lost media, the Voynich Manuscript and the unsolved murder mysteries I’m often fascinated by. It’s frustrating not to have the answer, but the speculation means her story will linger in our minds forever.