Author Topic: Deep dive on Robo, free will, and the nature of personal growth/change  (Read 3237 times)

Jackson Wagner

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My recently-posted short story, "Do You Believe In Fate?", (main thread here:, text here:, narrated video version here:, tries to explore some philosophical questions about time and human freedom from the perspective of each one of Chrono Trigger's main characters, but really the meatiest part of the story is a big love letter to Robo, and the fascinating sci-fi complexity of his journey.

Here is a summary of the Robo chapter, which is the longest and final of the six perspectives that Crono considers when trying to answer the question "Do You Believe In Fate?":

Robo and Mother Brain.  Like Robo, we are ultimately deterministic thinking-machines existing within the same physical universe that we seek to act upon.  In light of this, how should we think about things like choice, freedom, control, and the process of personal growth/transformation?  Are some mental experiences and personal changes less "genuine" than others, if they are caused by identifiable physical mechanisms like the influence of drugs or hormones, and how is this different from more legitimate influences which are also ultimately physical?
Robo's forest and the Entity.  We can try to understand the world through science, but there will ultimately always be some limit -- whatever causes / creates / substantiates our universe with its rules of time, physics, and mathematics... must ultimately be beyond time, physics, and mathematics.  How should we think about the ultimate question of what lies outside the universe?

And here is the full chapter!

Robo’s journey has been longer and stranger than any of the others’. Created as R66-Y by the Mother Brain of Geno Dome’s automated factory, Robo was originally designed for the sole purpose of bringing Mother Brain’s electric dream into reality: the last fragments of humanity overpowered, the world remade as a robot utopia of logic and steel. Then as now, Robo’s decisions were made freely by his own mind, acted out by his own will. But what does it mean to be free, if your very mind was moulded by another’s hand?

To live with a pre-programmed mind sounds horrid to Crono – until he considers his own circumstances. His parents, his friends, the culture and country and class and era of his birth, beyond that the impact of heredity and evolution, a chain of cause and effect stretching back millions of years, all the way back to Ayla, and beyond! At least Robo could hope to list the forces that had a hand in his genesis; Crono would never have a chance to fully comprehend the myriad influences on his identity.

But Robo’s premeditated destiny was not to be fulfilled – he broke down in Proto Dome, and lay there inert for decades until Lucca repaired and reprogrammed him. Since then he’s been living and adventuring with Crono, Lucca, and the rest. He’s made friends with everyone, and – though he joined their party merely out of gratitude for Lucca’s repair work – Robo is now as dedicated as anyone to stopping Lavos and saving humanity. Crono assumed that he was watching a change of heart – but was it really just a change of circuitry? Think back to when they visited Geno Dome: the other automatons called him defective, they said that his mind had been subverted, that he had forgotten his true purpose. Robo opposed them: he said he had not been subverted, but had merely traveled and seen farther than they – that it was new data, not new programming, which was responsible for his new behavior.

Why is the one respected, the other despised? It’s wonderful to “change one’s mind” after some new experience or re-consideration… but to be changed? To alter the very method of one’s thinking and not merely the content of one’s beliefs? That’s a different matter – indeed, it might even be a different person. In Robo, Crono can’t help thinking that a change caused by new data is somehow more real, more genuine, more earned, than a change caused by new programming. But in fellow humans, it’s different: to have a “transformative experience,” to be a “changed man,” for humans the deepest and most meaningful changes are closer to changes in programming. To alter opinion and behavior based only on new data is weak, shallow – mere flip-flopping.

And were Robo’s words even true that day? Crono knows that he had been reprogrammed, modified at least slightly. During her repairs, Lucca removed Mother Brain’s instructions, she said: that way, Robo would not harm us. When she did that, was she restoring Robo’s true self, reversing the pathology that Mother Brain had injected into the robots coming off her assembly lines? But the robots at Geno Dome weren’t mindless or insane – they were perfectly rational beings, albeit with some built-in predisposition towards a radical ideology. By what metric do we judge Robo’s mind superior to those of Mother’s minions? Perhaps it is impossible to speak of a “true self”; could it be that the thought of “repairing” a personality is, fundamentally, an absurdity?

When they confronted Mother Brain – her menacing, holographic image flickered and sheared across the monitors like reflections in a shattered mirror – she claimed to reveal Robo’s secret, his special mission. She said he was a custom design, programmed to live like a spy among the humans and attempt to befriend them, the better to record and analyze their strengths and weaknesses, to understand the way they think.

Was she telling the truth? There’s every chance that Mother’s programming ran far deeper and more subtle than what Lucca thought she saw. But if Mother Brain’s programming survives inside Robo, then what Robo had seen of the outside world really was able to change him, because he opposed her boldly and without hesitation.

Or was it really just a desperate lie, an attempt to sow suspicion among their party and win Robo back to her side? If so, the ploy failed to save her – but it did not fail to demonstrate that she had developed a keen understanding of human psychology. For a long time after Geno Dome, Crono had watched Robo very closely. He had wanted to trust Robo, he knew that he had changed – but somewhere in the back of his mind, Crono couldn’t shake off the suspicion. For days after her death, thanks to those comments, Mother Brain had ruled a part of Chrono’s thoughts, making him fear that she might also be ruling a part of Robo’s. Maybe that’s the secret: for her, reprogramming wasn’t even necessary to gain control. Understand the program well enough, feed it the right data, and you can control the outputs without ever influencing its internal operations. Maybe that’s what fate really looks like, when you see it up close.

And to defy fate? Control the inputs, perhaps, to achieve the outputs you desire. But of course, those desires are merely the outputs of past cycles. In that case, iterate: take the old outputs and use them as inputs for the next cycle. You’ll certainly go somewhere, but how do you know if you started in the right place, and how do you tell when you’re headed in the right direction?

Ask Robo – he’s put in more cycles than anyone. Growing up, Crono had often heard the legend about Fiona, the woman who died in the middle ages trying to protect the forest near her home from Magus’s armies. After we had traveled to that time, stopped Magus, and actually met Fiona, Robo volunteered to stay behind and help her cultivate the fledgling woods. Crono left him there, and zipped forward to 1000 AD – in total, only a few hours for Crono and the other humans, but four hundred years for their mechanical friend. Working day after day, living alone like a hermit, in those many lifetimes he had turned the entire southern desert into a lush expanse of woodlands. They found his broken-down body preserved in a cathedral, venerated as a holy relic by those who came to celebrate the forest. When Lucca had finished rebuilding him for the second time, he told them his story – the things he had learned, the paths he had walked in his wandering thoughts, as the eons slipped by. He told of how, in his million hours of lonesome thought, many seemingly complicated things revealing themselves as simple and clear; other, seemingly simple things unfold into complex uncertainties. And he spoke of a puzzle which he had turned over in his mind for all those years.

It is possible to generate time-gates artificially, but apart from the one first spawned by Lucca’s experiment at the fair, all the gates they have encountered appear to have generated spontaneously and randomly, as if by some natural process. And yet, many of these gates link to moments of extreme significance in the history of civilization, of Lavos, and of the planet as a whole. Robo says that over the eons, he has sensed the presence of what he called “an Entity,” a conscious influence that may be using the gates, perhaps using even this very adventure, as a way of coming into being, of experiencing or re-experiencing the critical moments of its own existence – like how a dying man might see a vision of his life just before his death. The nature of this Entity, if it even exists, is a total mystery. But if a conscious force is alive and at work in the world in this way – if there is some invisible world-spirit guiding them, leading them on this tour through time, preparing them for their inevitable confrontation with Lavos – then Fate is surely the only word we could use to describe it.

But on the other hand, here’s Robo: an electronic automaton from the far future, designed originally by man, modified and manufactured to be a soldier for Mother Brain’s utopia, broken down for decades far from home, repaired and reprogrammed by Lucca to join an incredible adventure across thousands of years, finally a lonesome forest guardian, lost in thought for centuries, revered as a saint from a long-ago age… who would deny that such a being has transcended anything that fate might’ve had in mind?


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Re: Deep dive on Robo, free will, and the nature of personal growth/change
« Reply #1 on: December 06, 2023, 11:20:33 pm »
I've similarly wondered, in a series that evokes a lot of "dream" imagery (where time traveling and fixing history is considered akin to realizing your dream/fulfilling the planet's dream)—can Robo "dream" this way? Does Robo have what it takes to dream his own Turnip up in another dimension? Does he meet the requirement for whatever consciousness and sentience it takes in the series to persist as a ghost (like Cyrus), or dream other life into existence?