Revisiting Lightning Returns’ Time System through Music
Nova Chrysalia is a nuanced piece of music that helps give solace a video game world that is constantly in a race against time.
One of the biggest letdowns from the release of Cyberpunk 2077 — well, besides the sheer unimportance of the life paths, the terrible performance on base consoles, and the poor pacing of the narrative — was the day and night clock. Prior to release, CD Project Red developers infamously said that some 1,000 NPCs will have daily routines. These would happen seemingly organically, with the AI creating something of a living and breathing world that existed around the main characters purview. Whether V interrupted or not, these NPCs would move around the city, completing their daily tasks as time ticks away on the in-game clock.
Yeah, that was a lie.
Maybe CDPR’s promise was too ambitious, especially for a game that needed at least another year in the oven. But despite not coming to fruition, Cyberpunk’s absent clock features don’t discount the importance of time passage in games.
Whether we like it or not, games are getting closer to uncanny simulations of real life. Graphics technology allows for better rendering of visuals and even the recreation of unique musculature, like in Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Even at a more granular level, features like Sony’s adaptive triggers, Nintendo’s HD Rumble, or even just VR headsets are squarely focused on blurring the line between game and reality.
Day and night cycles are similarly a function of reality in games, engrossing players by adding a sense of progression to the world beyond completing missions and finishing chapters. Think back to Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal. The second generation Pokémon games introduced the real time clock to the series, creating three distinct times of day for the overworld. Morning, Day, and Night helped to govern some of the games systems, like telling Eevee how to evolve or influencing the availability of some Pokémon.
More importantly, it helped to establish the game’s region, Johto, as part of a real world, in which time passes and events happen on a temporal schedule.
Animal Crossing boasts a similar feature, using real time to govern the types of bugs and fish that are available, as well as the villagers that visit your settlement. Animal Crossing even takes things a step further, featuring unique music tracks depending on when you play the game. Seriously, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has a different song for every hour in the game, all based on the original, main theme song.
That got me thinking — the interplay of music and in-game time is of subtle importance to video game world building. The same way your mood in the morning is probably drastically different from your mood at night, music in games helps players to relate to their surroundings and objectives.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any song that better interacts with it’s game world than “Nova Chrysalia” in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
To be clear, Nova Chrysalia refers to a few things. In part, it refers to Fabula Nova Chrystallis, the subseries of Final Fantasy games of which Lightning Returns is a part. The story goes that after Final Fantasy XII, Square Enix wanted to develop a core lineage of games that shared a mythos, similar to the Final Fantasy VII universe that spanned games, movies, and novels. Final Fantasy XIII would be the first game in the series, though it would soon include the spin-off title Final Fantasy Type-0, some mobile games, and briefly, Final Fantasy XV before it was removed from directly referencing the other games in the series.
Nova Chrysalia also refers to the world of Lightning Returns. After the events of the first two games, Lightning Returns sees our titular, floral-haired protagonist existing as a sort of spiritual guide, helping souls find salvation before the end of the world. Lightning travels across the world completing missions and meeting with companions old and new in an effort to bring some semblance of peace to a decaying world.
But within the context of the game, “Nova Chrysalia” also refers to what might be my favorite track in all of Lightning Returns’ stellar OST.
Composed by Mitsuto Suzuki, “Nova Chrysalia” melds the orchestral flair of fellow Final Fantasy XIII composer Masashi Hamauzu with gothic inspiration. The world is doom-bound in Lightning Returns, and places like Luxerion, despite being a regal and urban cityscape, are at their wits end. As rifts in time-space spawn monsters and cloaked cult followers pace the streets, Luxerion fosters uneasiness.
This, however, is in contrast to Nova Chrysalia, which features a beautiful choral section that adds a hint of levity to the dark city.
Coming from Final Fantasy XIII-2, on which Suzuki also composed, “Nova Chrysalia” is, for lack of a better word, more dramatic. In the Lightning Returns prequel, Suzuki composed themes like “Historian Crux” as well as the aggressive mixes that play when monsters populate the over world.
But in both cases, Suzuki’s work on XIII-2 played closer to that of arranger, using Hamauzu’s existing work as a foundation to further develop nuanced music. The Historian Crux piece in particular is something of a super cut, featuring melodies and instrumentation from other songs on the OST.
Nova Chrysalia, however, feels wholly unique, fitting in with the style of Final Fantasy XIII and its use of violin solos to represent the titular character while diverting from Hamauzu’s almost orchestral rock style of composing.
Let me give a bit more perspective to the song. Lightning Returns operates similarly to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. An in-game clock continually ticks away as Lightning saves as many individuals as she can. But while Link could use his ocarina to change the flow of time and follow different quest lines, Lightning is bound to the clock, forced to complete missions to drip feed Eradia into the world and increase the game time to as many as 13 days.
If you know anything about my gaming habits, there are two things I can’t stand. Stealth, and time limits. On the time limit front, Lightning Returns fills me with a sense of dread. Knowing that I can’t complete every mission at my leisure is nerve racking, even with in-game abilities like Chronostasis allowing me to momentarily pause time. I play role playing games methodically, taking time to explore every town nook and dungeon cranny to find useful items or secrets.
Despite this stress, I have to thank the song “Nova Chrysalia,” for keeping me hooked on the game long enough to see it through. The song is something of a hidden gem. Much of Lightning Returns’ OST is broken into locations and times of day. In the case of “Nova Chrysalia” the song plays specifically in the mornings. But unlike some songs which span city or area limits, “Nova Chrysalia is limited to a specific section of Luxerion, making its creeping violin and piano melody a harmonious treat to start an in-game day.
Though Lightning Returns might be my least favorite game of the trilogy to play, songs like “Nova Chrysalia” demonstrate how the sound team helped tell the story of a dying world. They injected character into every fiber of every city, providing players an experience that engulfed them emotionally as they plotted out how to spend fragments of time.
In my eyes, Lightning Returns might not be a perfect game, but “Nova Chrysalia,” and much of the soundtrack for that matter, help keep me invested through the stress of the passage of time.