Release Date: March 31st, 2014
Publisher (Developer): JAST USA (Nitroplus/5pb)
ESRB Rating: “Mature” for blood, language, partial nudity, sexual themes
Steins;Gate is a game that makes you aware of the absurdity of what you are doing. When explaining yourself involves sentences such as “my character is about to take on this cat-eared maid in an anime based board game in order to find out information that may be the key to unlocking access to a an international conspiracy”, you start to understand how deep into the rabbit hole you’ve gone.
Originally released in 2009, the absurdly punctuated visual novel has since been ported to numerous platforms and spun off into other games, manga and an anime. It’s mostly known here in the West by that last one, with many entirely unaware of its origins as a VN. That’s rather par for the course actually, as publishers have generally found that the anime adaptations of similar VNs tend to be more palatable to Western sensibilities. Steins;Gate however has become popular enough that publisher JAST USA has seen fit to bring it officially to the west in its original form. This places it in a strange place where viewership has largely been directed towards the anime, with fan translations of the game in circulation for those willing to seek out an import copy.
For those who managed not to be exposed to any of Steins;Gate’s various media, let me give you the run down. It’s a visual novel where you play the role of Rintaro Okabe, a delusional, unreliable narrator who tells everyone he is a mad scientist named Hyouin Kyoma. He is apparently hounded by “The Organization” and frequently gives updates into his cell phone, despite nobody else being on the line. Flanked by his childhood friend (of course), Mayuri, and his ultra otaku super hacker buddy Daru, he runs the “Future Gadget Laboratory”, an apartment above a CRTV shop filled with junky inventions. He is content to live in his delusional world until one day, when he experiences some strange and traumatic events. These start him on the path to uncovering a vast conspiracy that will take place across time itself. Set in Japan’s Akihabara (basically an otaku Mecca), Steins;Gate combines absurdly deep game and anime otaku culture with theoretical physics psuedo-science. Naturally.
In that aspect, Steins;Gate is basically a litmus test for how stuck into the ever pervasive Japanese otaku culture you are. Though it contains a glossary for various important vocabulary (which you will undoubtedly use), enjoyment will be largely derived by how much you enjoy that aspect of Japanese culture. It’s a game that couldn’t exist here without the spread of international culture the Internet has brought. Steins;Gate constantly spoofs and borrows from a variety of anime (the JuJu’s Bizarre Adventure ones are my favorite) as well as @channel, an obvious nod to 2chan (Japan’s predecessor to 4chan). If none of those words made any sense to you, you’re definitely going to find yourself lost within the labyrinthine use of its memes and tropes.
As for the narrative itself, it is rather interesting. Steins;Gate hits it off immediately with a recognizably anime presentation, eyes like plates intact, and rendered with cloudy colors and just enough production to keep it from treading into the well worn “generic anime” look. The vocal performances are well done, particularly Okabe’s, as his mad scientist cackle and panache for the overdramatic brings out a lot of energy and range. It works to give the characters weight and build up a player’s attachment to them. While there are still a few of the usual character quirks thrown in, some of them even manage to grown on you thanks to the strong performances. (Except for the cat girl’s. Nyanot for me.)
The use of the initial mystery, as well as Okabe’s recognizably unreliable narration pulls, you into Steins;Gate‘s story. While the supporting cast provides some interesting arcs and reveals of their own, Okabe remains the most interesting character and crux. For the first half of the game, you’ll find yourself wondering how much of what is occurring is believable thanks to Okabe’s obvious instability. It keeps you at attention, which is good, because the game is a slow burn. While the dialogue is consistently entertaining, a lot of the sideplots work more as amusing asides rather than advancing the plot. When the story does kick into gear in the second half, it dips hard into a lot of theoretical, pseudo-science physics, and brings along with it more narrative weight. The story is still packed with gags and lighthearted dialogue, but it also becomes punctuated with terrifying moments of existential terror and horrific fates. There are moments of desperate chaos as you move into temporal loops and aggravate worldlines. The stakes are inevitably raised.
Depending on the choices you make, the third portion of Steins;Gate can feel a bit uneven, however. During moments in the story, you’ll be able to influence the plot in some way by either choosing (or not choosing) to perform an action on your cell phone. You’ll be able to call people at key points or reply to their texts. Unfortunately, this is where Steins;Gate becomes a bit problematic.
Actions are rather prescribed, as you are not able to make calls or send messages outside of certain moments, despite almost always being able to pull out your cell phone. Calls are made when Okabe needs to get a hold of someone and texts are replied to via a hyperlink system that has you picking out key words to compose a related message. These words don’t give you any real indication of the content of your reply, and you cannot back out of the message once Okabe has composed it. Aside from key moments, Steins;Gate is nearly opaque in what needs you to do in order to influence the direction of the game. You never quite have an idea of what saying, or not saying, something will lead to, and there are some actions that you’d be hard pressed to think to perform without a walkthrough. For example, as a part of reaching the True Ending, you need to purposefully mistype a number ten times. It’s unnecessarily unwieldy and arbitrary, removing the sense that you are truly influencing the story with your actions and instead are meeting criteria.
There are a host of alternate endings of course, and in true visual novel style they accompany a romance with one of the female characters. It’s a shame because Steins;Gate‘s cast is made up primarily of female characters who feel written well enough to stand alone and feel trapped in the role of consolation prize. Some endings work better than others, but there are some that definitely feel constrained by the need to satisfy the character route romance expectations of the genre rather than provide another ending that works for the story.
Otaku’s Guide to the Temporal Galaxy
For those with a taste for the Japanese brand of otaku culture and time travel narratives, they’re likely to find a story in Steins;Gate that’s worth experiencing. The problem is, that exists alongside an animated series that is likely paced better and takes up half the run time. In its original form, Steins;Gate is best experienced with a printed guide to the appropriate choices next to you to prevent you from performing what amount to the “incorrect” choices. The little interactivity there is for the most part negated the opacity of the choices. Despite that, I did find myself legitimately entertained by writing and eager to make it to the next plot point. It embraces the tropes of genre while providing enough deviation to avoid cliches and remain memorable. I just can’t recommend it without a host of qualifiers.