Square's Chrono Trigger stands out as one of the best RPGs from the Super NES era of gaming and would later go on to spawn a semi-sequel in Radical Dreamers, an actual sequel for the Sony PlayStation, and enhanced remakes for both the PS1 and the Nintendo DS as well as mobile platforms. The story of how a band of unlikely heroes band together via time travel to destroy an ancient space parasite eager to devour the planet is one of gaming's most detailed, most surprising tales, and while the game offers plenty to do and many sidequests to explore, one subplot was dropped from the game during development because it was deemed too depressing. In a game where time and fate regularly screw with the protagonists, how depressing did a story element have to be in order to be scrapped?
Before answering that, let's recap. Late in Chrono Trigger, the main protagonist, Crono, is blasted into atoms by the aforementioned space parasite, Lavos. The other heroes escape the carnage, but Crono is truly dead and it's possible to finish the game without him. Thanks to time travel, however, it's also possible to go back to the moment of his death and swap him out for a lifeless Crono clone. The clone is obliterated instead, Crono goes back to the future with his friends, and everyone can resume fighting the good fight as if the whole thing never happened. As the game's story planner Masato Katō revealed in an interview translated by The Chrono Compendium, the original plan for this plot was far darker and provided an even greater example of time acting as a judgmental force.
There was also a time during a meeting when the idea of the main character dying came up, and the whole room suddenly burst into laughter. I seemed to be the only one who thought “That was a serious suggestion, what’s so funny?” and sat looking blank. (laughs) Although at that point Mr Horī did say “Hey, that might be pretty interesting.” Incidentally, the idea that I had at that time was for Crono to really die, and the others would have to go back in time and enlist a version of Crono from the night before the Fair. Then after the final battle they would have to return him to that point in time and bid him farewell. But that idea was rejected (laughs). They said it had to be a happy ending, so we eventually settled on the story with the clone as it is today.
The protagonists would have access to a spare Crono through time travel, but would have to return him to the moment he left his relative present in order to avoid corrupting the timeline. It's a very Back to the Future idea reminiscent of the film's subplot involving Marty McFly struggling to tell Doc Brown that furious terrorists would gun him down in the future. How would the party have explained to the Crono from the past that they needed his help without divulging information about his own future? While I'd hate to have seen Crono die permanently, it would have been interesting to explore this subplot as an optional quest. The choice would be yours: do you fight to save Crono by replacing him with a clone at the moment of his death or do you take the easy way out and recruit a younger Crono knowing that he'll still die later once you're done with him? Perhaps the gaming world wasn't ready for that kind of thing in 1995, but as games have grown deeper and grittier, I think today's audiences could handle the choice and its consequences. For death to matter in fiction, it has to stick. Just ask Aeris.