I was planning to analyse a couple of other games first, but these plans were disrupted by my recent discovery of Steins;Gate and the subsequent clearing of one of the game’s six endings. This experience left me bewildered, my head swirling with contradictory emotions. I have to get these feelings off my chest lest they consume me!
But before I do that, let’s have a few lines of data. Developed by 5pb and Nitroplus, Steins;Gate is a visual novel that started its life on the Xbox 360 back in 2009. It was then ported to various systems and spewed a whole array of by-products—such as an anime adaptation, a manga and so on. Steins;Gate made its debut in Europe in 2015 with its PS3 and Vita ports—the latest being the one I own and played. Steins;Gate had the distinguished honour of being the first full-blown visual novel I ever played—but certainly not the last, perish the thought.
Haunting and mesmerizing
Now that the data part is over, let’s go back to my whirling feelings. I’ll be blunt: I was totally transfixed by Steins;Gate. It enthralled me and fascinated me more than any book or movie, probably because it combined the best of these two worlds: an glorious emphasis on text, concepts and exposition and a strong visual identity relying on a unique art style and the display of a few key locations that become engraved in the player’s mind. I swear that by the end of my run, I felt like I had spent my whole life in in-game Akihabara, even though said in-game Akihabara was nothing more than a couple of fixed screens; as for Okabe’s lab, it had become as familiar to me as my own flat. That is how incredibly evocative Steins;Gate is.
I have to admit that I was a bit suspicious at first, when I discovered that the narrative revolved around time travel. I am old enough to have seen my fair share of stories about the matter, and I was a trifle afraid that Steins;Gate would bring nothing new to the fold. That fear partly materialized, but not to the extent that I dreaded. Steins;Gate reuses a lot of concepts attached to the notion of time travel, that much is undeniable, yet it manages to combine them in an enticing way that feels fresh enough to avoid any feeling of déjà vu. Steins;Gate even steps as far as to pay homage to famous works of fiction involving time traveling, from Groundhog Day to Back to the Future.
The exposition part is quite lengthy yet absolutely fascinating. As far as I’m concerned, it was definitely the best part of the game, with its encyclopedic feel and dedication to cover many specialized subjects, from modern physics to otaku culture. I love gorging on knowledge, and it was a sheer delight to absorb all that data—some of it familiar, some of it brand-new to me. I also lapped up the overall tone of these exposition chapters: they were pleasantly self-derisive, filled with dark humor and poking fun at the otaku culture and the obsession with conspiracy theories. That self-derisiveness is gloriously summed up by main character Okabe Rintaro: self-dubbed Hououin Kyouma, this college student is the perfect chuunibyou, a young man full of himself clinging to delusions of grandeur and prone to bouts of paranoia. The rest of the crew dismiss him, sneers and pokes fun at him on a regular basis, and it was not long before I mentally started doing the same, grinning at the guy’s outlandish behaviours. Talking about the rest of the crew, they also convey a parodic charge, although less developed that the one shouldered by Okabe. That being said, these characters are far from being only parodic devices poking fun at anime tropes: they are deeply complex and interesting characters that beg to be discovered, and they turn out to be quite loveable despite their flaws—including unstable, near-manic Okabe. It certainly helps that the voice acting is nothing short of stellar, giving the whole crew an undeniable presence and charisma. I loathe voice acting in video games as a rule, but I absolutely lapped it up in Steins;Gate—to the point where I regularly hear the lines and voices of the characters ring in my head.
Although I adored Steins;Gate, it would be a lie to say that I deemed that game pristine and perfect in every aspect. There were things that rubbed me the wrong way; and not surprisingly for a visual novel, these points of contention were all connected to the narrative. Since I only cleared one ending, it is too soon yet to assert the presence and intensity of hypothetical plot holes, so I won’t dive into that particular matter; instead, I want to expose the many small incoherencies present in the game. These incoherencies are minor and may seem rather innocuous taken separately; but once you ingest them all over the course of a full run, they sap the narrative and spoil the impact of the storyline. I divided them into three mains categories that go as such:
—Are you rocket scientists or what?: If there is one thing that I thoroughly dislike while discovering a work of fiction, it’s definitely to be more perceptive than the characters themselves and to guess things long before they do. It breaks the immersion and prevents me from being as swept away by the story as I would like. In the case of Steins;Gate, the most gloriously irritating example is the Lifter issue: as soon as the crew started talking about the matter, I thought that the lifter was probably one of the many TV monitors present in the Braun shop downstairs. The PhoneWave only functions during the shop’s opening hours, so that should ring a bell, right? Well, no. The crew spends several chapters wondering what this mysterious lifter could be, and even supposedly genius scientist Kurisu doesn’t have a clue about the matter. Also, how can they not figure out that the supposed satellite imbedded in the Radi-kan building is very likely a time machine after having seen the PhoneWave go through the floor in similar fashion? They saw with their own eyes that a time machine “gains mass for unknown reasons” while operating, as Okabe himself states it, so why don’t they make the connection when I, reader/player, can make it without a hassle? Honestly, I find a trifle hard to take these characters seriously when it turns out that I can outwit them on a regular basis. (EDIT: after finishing the game, it turned out that these two facts are not related at all. Suzuha's machine is embedded in the building because the destination coordinates were a bit off, and the extra weight gained by the PhoneWave while operating is never refered to again. So not only was this weight matter totally useless as far as the plot was concerned, but it also allowed me to spot from afar what should undoubtedly have been one of the game's main plot twists. Great job, writers.)
—Ad hoc arrangements with realism: AKA the Lukako affair. You seriously want me to believe that Lukako has the exact same physical appearance as a male and as a female? This is just… dumb. Dumb, and utterly lazy to boot. I’m starting to suspect that these similar looks are only a plot device to justify the fondling scene that occurs after Lukako’s sex change, and let me tell you: if it turns out to be the case, then I’m going to be intensely pissed off. Like, there will be blood. I will forgive this sheer display of complacency only if it turns out that Okabe is an Unreliable Narrator and that the whole narrative is only a mad fantasy born from the darkest recesses of his mind. Likewise, why does Faris still sport her cat ears, maid outfit and irritating “nyans” even after her D-Mail eradicated all trace of moe culture in Akibahara? That makes absolutely no sense. I could also mention the fact that Kurisu, who started the game giving conferences about modern physics, suddenly produces a PhD in neurosciences from thin air when the narrative calls for it. Hum, isn’t that a little bit too convenient? And these are only a few of many, many similar occurrences.
—How could you miss that?: This category is the worst of the bunch, because it involves the characters not reacting to keys elements that they should react to. The most blatant and shocking example is the scene in which Suzuha exhorts Okabe to be wary of Kurisu; during that scene, Suzuha states that Kurisu is widely acknowledged as the creator of the time machine. When this happened, I stood gaping at the screen, my eyes bulging and my head spinning: this was as good as a confession from Suzuha—a confession that, as we suspected, she was hailing from THE FUTURE!!! And guess what Okabe does when hearing that bombshell? Well, I’ll tell you: nothing. He doesn’t react. He doesn’t even seem to register the information. Why on earth…? I’m sorry, but this is just too hard to swallow, even in the hypothetical context of a twisted narration by Okabe. Still, I hope there will be at least an attempt of sorts to justify this massive incoherency at some point, or I will be even more sorely disappointed.
These incoherencies aside, my main and biggest gripe with Steins;Gate is the subtle yet unmissable change of the narrative’s tone as the story progresses. I resent the game for slowly but surely becoming the very thing that it seemed to be taking the piss out of at first, i.e. a very classic and cliché Japanese anime storyline rife with tropes—the very tropes that were cleverly parodied in the exposition chapters, of all tropes! Oh, the dismay! And yet it is hardly deniable: our teenage characters (check) unearth a global conspiracy totally by happenstance (check) and put themselves in hot water in the process, which creates a strong and enduring friendship bond between them (check). As the story progresses, they try their hardest to shed any shred of subtlety and turn into complete anime tropes: Kurisu goes from clever, witty scientist to tsundere, Mayushi gets dumber and airier by the chapter, Daru goes from super-hacker to perverted otaku and Moeka turns out to be a secret agent—who obviously finds herself holding our heroes at gunpoint while donning a tight leather jumpsuit. Why, of course! And what about dear old Okabe, you may ask? Well, Okabe starts playing god and suddenly develops some romantic interest for its female comrades. I guess I should have seen it coming, given the increasing frequency of hentai sequences over the course of the game. Okabe peeping at the girls in the shower by accident, Okabe fondling Lukako’s privates, Suzuha stripping to put Okabe out of a bind, Lukako donning a skimpy cosplay outfit: you name them, Steins;Gate has them. After the delicious binging of data provided by the exposition chapters, this turn of events stings. HARD. On top of that, some perfectly decent self-derisiveness was wasted in the process: all the delicious irony displayed in the exposition is reduced to naught as both the characters and the narrative abandon the parodic sphere to move into full-blown cliché territory. For instance, Okabe’s hilarious chuunibyou-ness automatically loses all its satirical charge when it turns out that, drums rolling, there is a global conspiracy after all and he’s the one who uncovers it. That is a terrible waste, if you ask me, and definitely not what I had signed for.
That being said, my final judgement about that tone issue is actually still pending. I only uncovered one ending out of the six, and I still have to discover if Okabe is an Unreliable Narrator and if everything that happens in Steins;Gate is a product of his deranged mind. If that were the case, the initial irony of the game would not only be salvaged, but also grow more potent and enjoyable. Although I honestly disliked seeing the narrative morph into a cliché anime storyline, this evolution would take a whole new meaning and regain its parodic charge with full force if it were caused by Okabe’s chuunibyou-ness. So I will wait, and hope for the best.
Irreversible Reboot (SPOILERS!)
“Irreversible Reboot”, a.k.a. "Suzuha Ending", is the fifth ending of Steins;Gate and the one that I unearthed after six chapters and roughly fifteen hours of assiduous reading and button-pressing. This is a very unsatisfactory ending that ends on a nasty cliffhanger and raises more questions than it answers. On top of that, it feels both quite abrupt and awfully rushed: the time loop occurrence at the end of the timeline seems to come out of left field and is not really explored in depth. Okabe’s sudden romantic interest for Suzuha is hardly more believable and gives the narrative a mundane touch that is not exactly welcome at the point of the story, when the tension is supposed to be at its peak. The rest of the crew is neatly ousted in order to concentrate on this brand-new idyll—including Mayuri, whom Okabe was striving so hard to save from death just a few minutes before. Fickle crazy scientist is fickle! As for the cliffhanger at the very end, this is just downright sadistic, and I can only hope that the outcome of Okabe and Suzuha’s ultimate decision will be exposed one way or another in one of the other five endings.
Talking about the other five endings—which I obviously want to witness—I started wondering how difficult it would be to unearth them. Given the game’s insistence on the Butterfly Effect concept and given how reduced the gameplay input is, I suspected that the timeline branching would be influenced by minute choices, and that hunch was confirmed by the browsing of a couple of FAQs. The question now is to determine whether I try to navigate the game all by myself or if I rely on FAQ charts. If there is any kind of logic behind the mandatory choices to make for each timeline, I’m pretty confident that I can uncover it with enough patience; on the other hand, if these choices are completely random, then I don’t even want to think about trying to pinpoint them, and I will run straight to a time-saving FAQ.
The decision is still pending for the time being. The idea of navigating the game all by myself is undeniably tempting; even though it would imply taking notes, using save files by the truckload and globally losing a lot of time trying to figure out how the game operates, it would also be a thrilling challenge deliciously reminiscent of old gaming days, when internet was not around to get you out of a bind and you could only rely on your own brain cells. On the other hand, the use of FAQs would allow me to immerse completely in the storyline and to enjoy it to the fullest. I have to admit that the idea of playing the game with the Skip mode on is seriously off-putting; I’d rather reread the full story every time and get soaked in the engrossing atmosphere of Steins;Gate. There will be at least one more post about Steins; Gate, if not more, although I don’t know when these posts will come. For the time being, I am taking a small break from the game and digesting the whole experience; but I will dive back into it in a couple of days— after having printed a couple of FAQ charts just to be safe. For now, thanks for reading and be my guest anytime!