Changing the past has always been an appealing thought. After playing Steins;Gate, however, I think I’ll leave time travel alone. You just never know when you’re affecting the fate of the world.
Okabe Rintarō is a self-proclaimed mad scientist, prone to maniacal laughter and loudly announcing his plans. Attempting to make Future Gadgets in the Future Gadget Laboratory, (the room above a TV repair shop in Akihabara) most of his creations have little practical use. The Phone Wave (name subject to change), meanwhile, accidentally has the function of sending messages back in time. What then begins as a group of friends conducting experiments, leads to a lot of trouble, as people take note when you mess with their future.
Okabe is joined by a flavourful cast of characters, always ready to call him out on his stupidity. I couldn’t help but get drawn in by the undeniable friendship between everyone, to the point where I got attached to character types that would normally frustrate me (namely ditzy childhood friend Mayuri). Enhancing the sentiment is the Japanese vocal cast, who really brought everyone to life. Mamoru Miyano, in particular did a fantastic job with Okabe, displaying the fun of his alter-ego, while providing necessary depth to the darker scenes.
Surprisingly, much of the humour comes from pop culture references. Characters will quote from anime, chug bottles of Dr. P, and visit Starbecks. There’s also slightly more subtle references like the in-game message-board @channel. It’s a nod to 2channel, and sites like 4chan, cleverly reproducing the way that people address each other online.
When they’re not using quotes, or making jabs at Okabe, characters are tackling the science of time travel. A big chunk of Steins;Gate is dedicated to these discussions, and it’s clear that a lot of research has gone into it. Naturally, bits and pieces are changed for the good of fiction, but the game is grounded in real theories and concepts – such as Colliders, elementary particles, and the like. As someone who never had a head for science, it’s a testament to the writing that I followed along so easily.
Unfortunately, all the science and references can get in the way of the story, making the pacing drag. For example, detailed conversations will go on for over half-an-hour, with only a single accompanying picture. In addition, many of the characters ramble, Okabe being particularly prone to his inner monologues. Everything is always given a handful of good humour, (such as using anime girls to describe how a theory works), but I often just wished they would get to the point.
Breaking up the dialogue are choices that offer different interactions with characters, and alternative endings. Steins;Gate uses an interesting Phone Trigger system where Okabe’s phone will go off when he receives a new text, or phone call. I could then choose whether or not to accept these, and if I wanted to reply – by choosing a highlighted word in a text that would elicit a response. Certain points in the story also include sending D-mails to the past. Choosing whether to allow these to be sent or not is what sparks the most obvious changes in the plotline.
Text conversations are what you’d expect; discussing the current music scene, or popular TV series. It’s therefore difficult to grasp the idea that the future might be changing based off Okabe’s absurd reactions. How do you choose between saying that a singer is working for ‘The Organization,’ or that her music is a sign for him to ‘make a move’, when neither retort particularly means anything?
Most choices in Steins;Gate did make sense in hindsight. The more I played and experienced, the clearer it was to understand how to reach some paths, and avoid others. What I liked about this was it meant I ended up sympathizing with Okabe’s journey. I had to use trial and error to discover the true ending, going back in time to try again, for every failure. So I have to admit that the Phone Trigger system is clever, even if it does add a layer of frustration.
My first playthrough took around 20 hours, and though enjoyable, I was only fully invested for the last 5. I had no clue how my choices got me that result, and the idea of going back in from the start was pretty unappealing. That evening, I collected my thoughts and realized that, despite the qualms, it had sneakily hooked me in. All those hours conversing with the characters meant I now had a bond with them. Hell, I even kept quoting lines at my partner. I needed to know what was going to happen to the characters I now thought of as my own friends.
Steins;Gate isn’t littered with action scenes, and the choice system is pretty confusing, but there’s so much heart in its atmosphere, story, and characters. It was worth sitting through the lengthy conversations for the emotional experience, which had me laughing out loud, as well as shedding a few tears. It’s certainly a journey that isn’t going to be forgotten.
This review is based off a PC copy of the game, which we were provided with.
Steins;Gate features heavy scientific themes combined with a confusing choice system in a slow-paced story. Any problems are easily ignored when you really get into it though, with the relatable characters, voice acting and storytelling promising an unforgettable, emotional experience.