99% science and 1% fantasy was, according to Wikipedia, the challenge that the developers of Steins;Gate, 5pb and Nitroplus+, had in their mind when creating this amazing piece of Visual Novel literature. Steins;Gate follows the story of a small Otaku club dedicated to creating gadgets to fight the war against ‘The Organisation’, a group that is probably based on more chuunibyou fantasies than reality. However, the group soon unlocks the ability to send messages to the past, and end up in the midst of an international conspiracy. The novel boasts 6 different endings, an interesting cast of characters and a storyline that is based on hard science theories. This is one of the best things that I have ever read in my entire life.
The premise of Steins;Gate, two words that are unrelated to each other but stuck together to sound cool by the games protagonist, Rintaro Okabe, is that an otaku fringe-science group unlock the ability to send messages to the past. Their group, the Future Gadgets Laboratory, is dedicated to fighting against the evil “The Organisation”, a group that seems to be made up in the mind of the laboratories leader, Okabe. However, his paranoia starts show some merit, when the group discovers some dangerous secrets while breaking into the servers of the international organisation, SERN, a play on the real-life CERN. The story is set in an alternative reality Akihabara, the otaku sanctuary of Japan, and touches themes that all otaku will appreciate.
What was particularly enjoyable about the story in Steins;Gate was that it utilised real-life scientific theories and combined them with the kinds of elements that people embracing the otaku culture are into. There are things in this story for the conspiracy theorist otaku, things in here for the anime otaku, the technology otaku, and even more. If you’re a person with a passion for some of the more geeky things in life, Steins;Gate definitely will have a topic of interest for you. Although, admittedly, the games strongest points are its physics and anime themes.
The story starts with the player character, Okabe Rintaro, and his hostage/childhood friend, Mayuri, attending some kind of press conference for some guy wanting to talk about time-travel. However, the conference is interrupted when a satellite apparently collides with the side of the building. While at the conference, Okabe meets a girl named Kurisu, an actual child-prodigy and scientist. However, she is soon murdered during the crash. In a panic, Okabe leaves the building and receives a strange phone-call, a call that would change the reality around him forever.
After witnessing the death of Kurisu and having the world change before Okabe’s very eyes we’re taken to the Future Gadget Laboratory. It’s here that we learn about the experiments that Okabe and his team, the Super Hacka Daru, and his hostage, Mayuri, have been undertaking with himself. Their most recent invention is the PhoneWave (name subject to change), a gadget that is supposed to be able to accept commands to the microwave from a text message. So, it could be used for heating up food from another room, for example. However, they found that if they enter a command differently, the machine would work backwards. Although for some reason, during the process, it turns food into gel, or jelly.
A big twist at the start of the story is that after the next day, Okabe goes to a lecture as a part of his university curriculum. Strangely enough, the lecture is headed by Makise Kurisu, the girl that he had just seen murdered earlier. After this, Kurisu somehow becomes a lab member and assists Okabe in understanding the PhoneWave (name subject to change). After conducting a few experiments, they quickly learn that the PhoneWave (name subject to change) can be used to send messages to the past. And each time the past changes, so does the world around Okabe.
Normally, during a change in the worldline, the people would be indifferent to these changes. This because the past is being rewritten, or the world is moved over to a new world line, or somesuch. However, Okabe has this power called the Reading Steiner, which allows him to retain his memories of previous worldlines, but at the cost of not having the memories of the him from that worldline. The interest in the story is how these worldlines are affected by Okabe and his experiments, and the consequences that those changes bring.
As a visual novel, Steins;Gate doesn’t have much in the way of player interaction. Instead, players sit through the story as it is narrated by the game. However, unlike traditional Visual Novels where the player can select different replies and things to certain conversations, the path of the story that Steins;Gate takes is determined much more subtly.
Every so often in Steins;Gate, the player will receive a text message or phone call on Okabe’s in-game cellphone. These seemingly innocent phonecalls and messages affect the pathway of the game depending on which parts of the messages that the player decides to reply to, or if they even reply at all. If you’ve never played through the story before, this is kind of strange as it feels like it’s a path prescribed purely by the games writers, but once you finish, you learn that there are six endings. I had to research on this to come to the conclusion that the phone is what unlocks the paths, rather than something I may have missed. It’s an interesting mechanic, and I really like the way that something so subtle is used to impact so greatly on the path of the story. It’s definitely reminiscent of the games themes of how doing one thing could drastically change the consequences later on in life.
The most remarkable thing about Steins;Gate, aside from its apparent scientific accuracy, is its cast of characters. Without the characters and the drama between them, Steins;Gate would not be as strong of a story as it is. Somehow the games dialogue pushes you along as you experience the games world through the eyes of Rintaro Okabe, with the interactions between the cast ranging between sad to absolutely hilarious.
At its usual pace, the games dialogue is what you’d expect as friendly banter between mates, much more than an extreme on either side of the emotional spectrum. However, this doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t have those. For example, one of the saddest moments in my playthrough was when a major character is murdered by SERN agents, and regardless of Okabes actions, they just can not be saved. Converse to that, there are times of embarassment, like when Okabe busts in on some girls in the shower, or downright disgust, like in a scene of pure insanity.
Playing through Steins;Gate, I came to view each of the cast as people, not just characters written in a story. I think that a work of fiction is particularly well written, and in this case, translated, when you can empathise with characters as though they’re living people. Part of this is probably that I could relate to the characters early on due to my own inner otaku, but I think that over time playing through the story, you wont be able to help committing to them on an emotional level to some degree.
As Steins;Gate is a visual novel, the game has to be carried strongly by its storytelling, audio and visuals, because it doesn’t have gameplay as a crux. We’ve previously talked about the storytelling, and how amazing it is, we’ll talk about the games rather interesting visual style.
It’s pretty standard with Japanese Visual Novels to have the game have this kind of modern anime look and feel to it. However, what sets Steins;Gate apart from the usual is that the characters are coloured rather strikingly. If your only point of reference on the characters for the VN is through the anime series adaptation, then you will need to prepare to have your previous conceptions completely blown out of the water here.
Each character in Steins; Gate is coloured in a way that makes them look as though they could have been a rare playing card with a nice holofoil look to them. Somehow, the art team behind Steins;Gate has taken something as simple as colouring on their characters and made it seem more valuable and artistic to the viewer. It also fits in nicely with the whole geek/otaku culture, with the striking similarity to playing cards automatically giving that added sense of value to the art.
However, the colouring isn’t the only point of interest in each of the characters of the game. It seems that each character is modeled after some kind of archetype that would make sense in Japan, but also seems to make a little sense in the west as well. For example, Daru, the Supa Hacka, is your stereotypical overweight and perverted otaku trope put into character. Meanwhile, Okabe, the character you rarely see, is definitely your tall-thin geek archetype that seems to love being within their own world. Similar logic can be applied to all the characters of the story, but it’s definitely more easy to identify with a character when they’re visually as you’d expect them to be.
In regards to the audio, Steins;Gate has an incredibly engaging soundtrack that hits the right tunes for the right moments. Generally speaking, there are a few tunes that are played during moments of mystery, a few tunes for fun, a few tunes for danger and the like. I found that these tunes created the perfect mood for each scene, which is something that I don’t even see in anime anymore.
Steins;Gate is also fully voiced, with exception of the games narration. Each characters script is fully worded by the games voice over cast and synchronised to the characters’ facial movements through some kind of technology. In particular, I quite liked Kurisu’s voice actress as she seemed to have hammered down on Kurisu’s closet Otaku personality really well. However, Okabe really does sound like an 18 year old geek with chuunibyou delusions, so he works really well too. The rest of the cast are pretty good, but those are my personal standouts.
Overall, Steins;Gate is literally the best experience I’ve had with a Visual Novel, ever. And I experienced it on a Playstation 3, which is weird as I traditionally play my Visual Novels on a PC. Everything just came together so intricately, and so amazingly, that I was just sucked straight into the story and couldn’t get enough of it. The games visuals are tops, the storyline is amazing and the voice work is an added bonus at this point. As a game that tickled my inner otaku, and probably evolved it several times over, this is the VN that you have to play. Even if you don’t play any other.
Steins;Gate is developed by Nitroplus+ and 5bp. It is released here in Australia and the UK by PQube Games, and there will be a US release in the near future. This review is based on the digital Playstation 3 release of the game, as supplied by PQube for the purposes of review. It is retailing at around $60 on the Playstation Network. It is also available on the Playstation Vita now.