If you had the power to change the present by traveling to the past, how would you use it? That’s a question many books, films and even games have asked over the years. Would you use it for flippant wants? Would you use it to change the world? Would you even use it at all? Steins;Gate asks these questions of its characters too, but within a story so intelligent and gripping you won’t be able to put it down. Steins;Gate incorporates gameplay to tell its story in a way only visual novels can do, and where others fail, it goes above and beyond.
Akihabara, Japan. 2010.
In a tiny apartment above a CRT TV store, the Future Gadget Lab accidentally creates a machine capable of sending emails to the past. Led by self-proclaimed Mad Scientist Rintaro Okabe, the lab members (Okabe’s two friends, Mayuri and Daru) start experimenting on changing the past. But when young neuroscientist Makise Kurisu reappears at their lab after Okabe saw her dead a few days earlier, he starts to realise just how significantly the present might be changed due to their manipulation of the past. As they continue to send emails back in time, the present starts to unravel and the lives of the lab members and their friends are put on the line. As you’re probably aware, the “oh no, we played with time travel and messed everything up” plot has certainly been done many times before. What sets Steins;Gate apart are three main components: the intelligent nature of the story, the cast of characters, and the gameplay elements that assist in telling it.
Though the scientific explanations may deter some players, Steins;Gate takes time to explain exactly how time travel science works in its world and keeps true to it the whole way through. There are numerous references to Japanese anime and games too, though a handy in-game encyclopaedia provides a more in-depth explanation of many terms if you need assistance. The game also avoids the common pitfall of visual novels — inserting far too much filler content to pad out the story; every scene is relevant to the tale and every line of dialogue is there to engage the player and contribute to characterization. Aside from a single CG and extremely brief scene, there’s no fanservice either. Though the first half of the 15-25 hour story is slower than the second, it never drags or meanders away from the central narrative. And with twist after twist thrown at the player in the second half, the events of the first are necessary to drive home the full dramatic effect.
As a semi-delusional, aspiring scientist, Okabe is a fantastic protagonist who rarely falls into cliché. Even as he mutters about international conspiracies and answers pretend phone calls, he’s relatable, and his lack of traditional heroic personality traits only serve to endear him to the player. His friends (Mayuri and Daru) are both otaku, obsessive fans of anime and anime culture, and serve important roles in the story that allow them to develop and grow. Other characters join the Future Gadget Lab throughout the story too, and each new member is as unique and interesting as the last. There are no visual novel stereotypes among the cast in Steins;Gate, and the only part-time tsundere is subtly mocked for being exactly that. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the cast, and even all the secondary characters, is the way that they’re bound together through time — in ways that will make your jaw hit the floor when they’re revealed.
Like most visual novels, Steins;Gate features multiple endings that you can reach based on choices you make throughout the game. Unlike most visual novels, Steins;Gate features no dialogue choices. Instead, all your decisions are based on how you use Okabe’s phone. Will you answer your calls and reply to text messages or ignore them? Will you send an email to the past or let the future occur as it is destined to? This is how Steins;Gate guides you to one of six endings, and it’s a cleverly understated way to do it. The choices, particularly late in the game, are intense and I often sat for a time weighing my options because I genuinely cared about the characters they would affect. On a first playthrough it’s not always clear when you can/can’t make a choice, but after you reach a single ending the game prompts you with an icon. If you’ve seen the anime, the game’s equivalent path is the true ending — essentially a drawn-out version of it. The other character-related endings feature various differences, but there won’t be any real new surprises.
If you’ve had a look at the screenshots to your right, you’ve likely noticed Steins;Gate’s unique aesthetics. The entire game features a grungy look that lends itself to the ominous, sometimes paranoid, tone of the game. Plenty of CGs pad out the adventure too, with beautiful art depicting the events that take place. The entire game is voice acted only in Japanese, but the original actors do a wonderful job of portraying their characters and deliver convincing emotion in their dialogue. The soundtrack doesn’t stand out quite as much, but it still does a solid job of building tension, relating emotion, and foreshadowing terrible events. The visuals and sound work together in a way that truly immerses you in Steins;Gate’s world.
I wish I could gush more about how wonderful the story is and all the twists and turns that take place, but it would be far better to experience it for yourself. Steins;Gate is a gripping visual novel filled with plenty of content, dynamic characters, memorable visuals and an unforgettable story. If you’re a visual novel fan or have been curious about the genre then it’s an unmissable adventure. I cannot recommend Steins;Gate highly enough.
As Okabe might say, your choice of playing Steins;Gate has already been determined by Steins Gate itself. Remember, the Organisation is always watching. El Psy Kongroo.