Cross My Heart

I’ve complained a lot about CrossCode, so I thought I should talk about why I’m still playing it. What I love about it. And that’s the story and characters.

I’ve been holding off on talking about this aspect because I’m not done with the game yet - I’m about thirty hours in (and I’ve seen a couple people say it’s fifty hours long) and later surprises could certainly change what I have to say. But the story and characters have been so consistently excellent that I feel totally safe heaping on some praise.

A lot of what I could say is positive but generic. The writing is good. Characters have distinct and consistent personalities and quirks, and there seems to be a ton of incidental dialog reacting to various enemies and environmental features to make them feel more alive and organic. Characters are likable (except for Apollo, but we’ll discuss him another day). The storytelling is fantastic, giving out answers and asking more questions at possibly the perfect rate and making sure you have reasons to care about things and people before asking you to care about them.

But there’s some more specific praise deserved here as well. The following will have minor spoilers.

For longer than I can remember, I’ve seen people complaining about how RPGs always end up with huge save-the-world stakes. Done well it can feel epic, but it can also be hard to relate to and it can become tiresome after a while. Wouldn’t it be nice to sometimes have RPGs with smaller, more personal stakes?

CrossCode has deeply personal stakes that I find quite easy to relate to and which give the story’s emotional moments incredible resonance. To be a bit reductive about it - the stakes are about making friends and how important and powerful that can be.

The fact that the story is set in an MMO is perfect for this. Many players of my age, especially those who had difficulty fitting in and making friends in real life, are likely to remember what a wonderful surprise it was to go online, become someone else (often someone truer than our normal self), and make friends with life’s social barriers stripped away. Expressing sides of the self that we’d never let out in public and being accepted for them - and, in MMOs, teaming up and accomplishing things together - is huge and fulfills primal needs that many of us found woefully unfulfilled in our offline lives. The friendships we made this way could feel shockingly deep and important. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first friends I made in City of Heroes. And I see us in Lea and the friends she makes.

CrossCode has a few plot elements that push that angle further. For one, circumstances prevent Lea from having much of an offline life - her online friends are the only friends she can make. For another, an issue with her voice synthesizer means her communication is extremely limited - at first she can’t speak at all, though over time she gets a small handful of words hardcoded in. But because MMOs are about working together and sharing experiences, she can still make deep and powerful friendships with her fellow players. Her near nonverbal status can easily be read as a metaphor for certain types of autism spectrum or similar disorders, and it doesn’t stop her from making friends who clearly value her. Her friends find ways to communicate with and relate to her and clearly enjoy spending time with her. That’s wonderful.

I don’t play MMOs the way I used to. Those friendships forged in safe self-expression and shared goals are what I miss most. I love how CrossCode’s story is based on celebrating those friendships, with strong enough writing and characterization to also scratch that itch in a parasocial way. The reason I keep playing CrossCode, in spite of all my frustrations, is to spend time with Lea and her friends. They are very easy to love.