Opinions are a funny thing, aren’t they? We all have them, we love to share them and, for some reason, we can’t fathom the idea of somebody else having one different to ours. But possibly the most bizarre thing about them is how they can change. We can go from liking something to hating it and vice versa. It’s all very weird. Why am I bringing this up? Because of my experience with today’s subject, Steins;Gate.
Now, Steins;Gate isn’t an old game that I played as a child and am now looking at to see if it holds up or anything. It only came out in Europe last summer (though it originally came out in Japan in 2009), but it sticks out as possibly being the only game I’ve played where my opinion of it radically changed whilst I was playing it. Such an oddity deserves to be documented and shared with others. I guess you could say this is the will of Steins Gate itself. Let’s get started, shall we?
First, a plot summary. Just a head’s up, Steins;Gate is a visual novel so there’s a massive emphasis on story. This means that this summary is going to be a bit lengthy so bear with. There’s a lot to go through.
The game begins with teenager Okabe Rintaro and his childhood friend Shiina Mayuri attending a conference about time-travel. Whilst there, Okabe comes across the genius prodigy, Makise Kurisu – more specifically, her body face down in a pool of blood. Okabe runs out of the building in a panic and proceeds to send an e-mail from his phone to his friend Hashida Itaru (or Daru, for short), telling him that he found Kurisu stabbed to death. The moment he sends the e-mail, however, he’s struck with a strange sense of nausea and, before he knows it, the once busy streets have emptied and what looks like a satellite has seemingly crashed into the very building he was in. As if that wasn’t weird enough, he learns from Mayuri that they never went to the conference due to it being cancelled, and he and Daru later run into Kurisu, alive and well.
It’s soon revealed that one of Okabe’s experiments (he and Daru run a ‘lab’ where they mostly build useless junk) has resulted in them accidentally converting their microwave oven into a time machine. While it obviously can’t send a person back in time, it can send e-mails, which they later nickname D-Mails. With Kurisu and other friends on board, Okabe proceeds to experiment with the device, which winds up getting them involved in something much bigger than they imagined and a lot more dangerous. Soon, Okabe finds himself the only one who can save his friends, and even the future itself.
It’s hard to really write about the overall story without delving into massive spoiler territory but I will say that, at first, it was a bit of a slog to get through. The opening holds a lot of promise as we’re introduced to Okabe and Mayuri – both of their personalities and their relationship with each other is established but there’s still a level of depth to them that we’re not aware of just yet, particularly Okabe.
He serves as the game’s POV character; we see everything through his eyes and are privy to all his thoughts. He’s also a classic case of the ‘unreliable narrator;’ it took me a while to really pinpoint what kind of person he was, which makes him all the more interesting… at least to start with, but I’ll get to that later.
The initial mystery is also really good. You have a seemingly murdered Kurisu, the satellite suddenly appearing, the streets being filled one second and then empty the next and then Kurisu being completely fine. Steins;Gate practically does everything right to lure the player into its world. It’s just everything that happens immediately afterwards where it kind of slows down.
There’s a lot of pottering about for the first half of the game. In between the characters experimenting with their time machine, they’ll just be hanging out with each other and doing whatever. While it’s a good way of introducing us to the overall cast and establishing characters and all that good stuff, it does almost feel like nothing is happening for a really long time. It doesn’t help that it’s main characters weren’t all that likable to start off with.
That’s not to say the whole cast is bad – it’s not. Kurisu is easily the best character in the game; incredibly smart, friendly but a tad socially awkward and also a massive nerd (which she poorly tries to hide). Most of the game, however, is spent with Okabe, Mayuri and Daru and, to be honest, they weren’t all that great.
Mayuri fits the trope of the ‘ditzy young girl’ character; she’s very spacey and refers to herself in the third-person a lot. There’s technically nothing wrong with that except it felt like she existed to tick a box – like the writers thought “we need this character type.” She was ditzy for the sake of being ditzy.
I also really didn’t like Daru. Think of the classic stereotype of a fat nerd who sits in the dark all day on their computer – that’s him. While it was never a constant issue, there were a few scenes that involved him making really pervy and uncomfortable remarks about some of the female characters. There’s a running joke of him tricking Mayuri into saying innuendos and him getting a nosebleed for it. Yeah, that’s the sign of an appealing character, isn’t it? (note the obvious sarcasm) Plus, he has moments of pure obnoxiousness that I couldn’t stand.
But that’s nothing compared to Okabe. For the longest time, I couldn’t stand him, and that’s not a good sign considering he’s the main character. See, Okabe is what the game refers to as ‘chuunibyou’ – without spending ages talking about it, he’s essentially a massive man-child and he spends a lot of time pretending to be a mad scientist called Hououin Kyouma. Basically, nobody can have a serious conversation with him. He rambles about a mysterious Organisation that he’s fighting, he has fake conversations on his phone and he keeps making shit up to get out of things. He rarely drops the act, even when receiving complaints from his landlord. He could also be incredibly insulting, particularly to Kurisu (though she has no problems throwing insults his way). In short, he was almost insufferable.
This is probably sounding like a damning indictment of the game but I should clarify that these were first impressions and, for whatever reason, I soldiered on purely because I wanted answers to the mysteries that had been set up. Then I hit the halfway point, or as I like to call it “the part where shit got real.” Suddenly, I became concerned for these characters; I was actively scared about what was going to happen. Again, I can’t go into too much detail but what I think happened was I began to understand them a lot more.
See, the first half of the game isn’t, in fact, a colossal time waster. Not only was it setting up its story, it was subtly integrating me into its group. At first, they were strangers that I just didn’t get but I had spent so much time with them that the moment bad things started to happen, I empathised because, somehow, I had begun to care about them. It was weird.
The second half of the game proceeds to show the cast in a different light. Not only is Okabe’s behaviour explained but he develops; he’s forced to grow up and act more responsible, but the Hououin side of him never goes way and he actually invokes it as a means of helping people (though he does make some REALLY stupid decisions).
We get to see some new sides of Mayuri that show she’s not just the typical ditz (not to mention she goes through some major shit) and even Daru became a lot more tolerable. He may be obnoxious but it’s shown that he knows when to reign it in and can be counted on as a friend. Plus, much like Kurisu, he doesn’t tolerate a lot of Okabe’s antics and is more than happy to ignore him whenever he’s ranting.
This is what I was talking about at the very beginning. My opinion didn’t change over time nor did it change due to a second playthrough – Steins;Gate managed to pull that off during my initial run of it. Is that a testament to its writing? I think so.
The only other thing I can really say about the story is that there’s a lot of science talk. See, the characters don’t just say that they’ve built a time machine and that’s that. No, they will go to extreme lengths to explain how everything works. As far as I can tell, it’s all theoretical physics but props should be given to the game for trying to justify its science. Granted, it could all be made up – I don’t know, I’m not a scientist – but I didn’t feel completely lost whilst they were talking about it, though it could be a bit overwhelming for some.
Now, at this point, you might be saying “But what about the gameplay? This is a videogame but you haven’t mentioned the gameplay yet.” If you are, then you either missed the part where I wrote that Steins;Gate is a visual novel or you don’t know what a visual novel is.
There is virtually no gameplay in Steins;Gate, with the exception of the Phone Trigger system. There are certain points throughout the story that Okabe will receive phone calls and text messages, and you decide whether he responds or not.
With phone calls, it’s a simple decision of either answering the phone or not, though there are a few instances where you have to make a call in order to progress the story. As for text messages, they will sometimes contain highlighted words or phrases that you can select in order to respond to them. Depending on which one you pick changes what Okabe’s response is and this can result in learning some new details about the other characters or unlocking new wallpapers and ringtones for your phone. Again, though, you can ignore these too if you want.
Now, there is a reason for all this freedom of choice as Steins;Gate does have multiple endings – six of them, in fact. But most of them are pretty easy to unlock. One of them requires you to simply get through the story – it doesn’t matter what choices you make regarding the Phone Triggers. For three of them, all you have to do is make a simple decision at a specific and very blatant point in the story; it’s impossible to miss them. It’s the other two endings where the choices you make really matter, as they both require to make a very specific string of choices. There’s no room for error with them and I honestly don’t know how anyone is meant to figure them out on their own. Arguably, you can just use trial-and-error but I’m pretty sure that would take frigging forever. Honestly, just use a guide for getting the last two. It’ll save you time and sanity.
And that’s… pretty much it. I honestly can’t think of more to write about without divulging into the story itself. But I will say that when I started playing Steins;Gate, I was wondering if it would get any better or if I made a terrible mistake. By the end of it, I was grinning like an idiot and in desperate need to talk to somebody about it.
If you’ve never played a visual novel before or aren’t familiar with the tropes and stylings of anime, Steins;Gate is definitely not for you. If you are fan of these things, though, chances are you’ll enjoy Steins;Gate for what it is – a story filled with mystery, humour, darkness and a lot of emotion. If you find yourself struggling through its opening acts, I implore you to at least stick with until the half-way point. You may just fall in love with it like I did.