Electric Soul

For all their supposed superior intelligence, robots can be pretty stupid. They may be handy if you need someone to calculate pi to the thousandth place, but when it comes to the really tricky questions, they don’t have a clue. Present them with a paradox and they’ll blow a gasket. Read them a sonnet and steam will shoot from their ears. They can plot the very vectors of time and space, but they just can’t fathom “this emotion you hu-mons call … love.” You’d think that with all their advanced circuitry, they could just Google it.


Our chrome cousins can be forgiven for flunking the big questions about life. After all, they aren’t exactly alive. Like many fixtures of science fiction, they serve to remind us of what we’re not. Nuts and bolts versus blood and guts. Unflinching steel versus frail flesh. Usually these differences create a yawning divide, with thinking, feeling squishiness on one side and ruthless mechanical efficiency on the other. But for all their strength, we often remember robots for their weaknesses – from C3PO’s effete bumbling to Hal 9000’s slow spiral into paranoia. To this list of classics I’d add one more: Robo from Chrono Trigger.

While RPGs commonly revolve around saving the world, Chrono Trigger raises the wager – in Square’s time-hopping classic, the entirety of human history is under threat. As your party travels through time to confront foes in the past and future, they trace the lifeline of their planet, from prehistory to post-apocalypse. At stake are matters of global destiny, and the rise and fall of civilizations – those which end not with a whimper, but with a bang. These grandiose, yet impersonal, themes threaten to overwhelm the story if not for the individual portraits of your party members interspersed throughout, casting this epic quest as something more intimate. Of these, Robo’s story is one of the more personal – despite him not being a person at all.

During one trip through a time-warp, your party finds itself cast forward through time to a bleak future. It is a place of despair – harsh winds wrack the jagged ruins of cities, where small pockets of humans cower, waiting patiently for extinction. It’s here that you encounter Robo, a heap of corroded scrap in an abandoned facility. With a little effort, you revive him, but time has taken its toll. He remembers his serial number but not his name. After seeing the grim state of his surroundings and learning of a cataclysm that rocked the world three centuries earlier, he and your party agree: This future should not exist at all.

But in the face of this inglorious fate, Robo remains quiet and contemplative. For him, it becomes a question of existence: Having been restored from his derelict state, Robo literally returns from the dead to join your party, a fact not lost on him. Then there is the circular logic of the quest itself: If the party succeeds and his future is averted, there are hints that he may disappear as well, a quantum event unspooling into the ether. So while other characters focus their sights outward, Robo’s journey is more introspective, one tied to body and to place.

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This philosophy is not some standard vainglorious rhetoric about thwarting evil, but a humble inspection of self. With his memory wiped clean, Robo is free to reshape himself into something greater than the world that produced him – something more human, or at least more humane. He fosters ideals that stand in stark contrast to this future and run counter to the calculating laws of robotics. He suggests that pacifism is the best solution to conflict – not a common point of view among those who can shatter concrete with their fists. Early on, he is pummeled to bits by a gang of robots who accuse him of being a “defect,” all the while begging the party to spare his tormentors. Yes, they’re trying to kill him – but they’re his brothers, you understand. Chalk it up to sibling rivalry.


Robo’s altruism raises a question of ethics. Left to its programming, a robot is liberated from the ambiguity of free will; it simply does as it is designed to do. Even Isaac Asimov’s famous laws, which dictate whom a robot can or cannot harm, serve to defer morality. Hardwired according to these restrictions, a robot may be civil, but it cannot be kind. Robo, on the other hand, behaves for no reasons but his own. He chooses to be good – and is prepared to suffer the consequences. Throughout the story he is smashed, thrown into a garbage chute and crushed between closing doors, but he is always stoic about his fate. Rather than be an impervious hunk of metal, his robotic body seems to invite punishment – he is willing to be torn to pieces, so long as blood isn’t spilled.

This tendency toward self-sacrifice directs the game along a starkly moralistic path. At one point, your party meets a woman responsible for a small sapling with great potential. She has been ordered to burn it, but you may advise her to plant it in secret. Though it has no immediate results, this disobedience effects a profound change thousands of years in the future – as long as someone spends centuries caring for the budding flora. In order to assist her and ensure the seeds flourish, your party may abandon Robo in the past. A quick jaunt through time later, the desert has become an abundant forest, while Robo himself is a mud-caked wreck. After some repair, Robo comes to. He is overjoyed, but distant – there is a lot on his mind. He and the rest of your party spend an evening camped among the trees he has spent lifetimes cultivating. They talk.

Of course, time travel moves along its own logical loops and whorls. Though you reunite with Robo in the present, he labors on in the past; a trip back in time shows an earlier version of Robo chugging perpetually along, tilling and seeding the earth. No matter where he goes and what he does, his past self will toil on, a victim of his time and place. It’s alternatively heartwarming and pitiful – but a later event puts it into perspective. Back in the future, Robo confronts his maniacal maker, and is finally rewarded with his history and his name: Prometheus.

It’s a fitting allusion. Prometheus, the Titan of Greek myth, was a thinker as well. Seeing the miserable plight of humankind, he stole fire from his creators and shared it with the world. For this act of mercy, he was punished, lashed to a mountainside where every morning a great bird would come down to tear out his liver, and every night his body would be restored. Immortality as a cause of suffering, kindness met with cruelty – Robo may be from the future, but his make and model are ancient.


Cast in this mythical light, Robo seems doomed to misery, living a half-life between masochism and martyrdom. Taken cynically, he could be understood as a warning against those who would disturb the status quo. Other robots are perfectly content with their role as gleaming murder machines, and whatever humans are left have long ago embraced their fate as the last of a dying tribe. But as a survivor of an unforgiving future, Robo truly is a defect – a glitch in an otherwise working system. It’s only because Robo can think for himself that this world becomes a nightmare – one the planet itself must wake up from. But if this false future doesn’t belong, then neither does he. To fix the world may be to destroy himself.

Yet back there in the forest, things seem different. In the desolate industrial future, Robo is a total failure: His weaknesses are exploited, his sentimentality ignored. But down among the roots and trees, he is somehow at home. Though mechanical, he has a knack for the organic – a love of all life, great and small. Even after wrecking himself through years of hard labor, he seems nourished from the experience – at peace with things.

While the rest of your party sleeps, he shares a secret with the girl who salvaged him from the future and repaired his injuries. Hidden deep within his body, he has kept a small drop of resin, turned into a knot of amber over the centuries. He gives it to her as a gift. This moment reminds me of a newer mythology: the Tin Man getting his heart. Through his tireless service to others, through his goodness and humility, he has finally won something for himself.

He earns a soul.

Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, which is pretty much a post-apocalyptic wasteland with better coffee. When not trying to erase himself through paradox, he blogs at www.kingandrook.com.

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