Monday, 4 August 2014

Otaku Review - Steins;Gate

Otaku Review: Steins;Gate
Platform: PC
Price: Varies (see the link for available retailers)
Release Date:   Out Now

NOTE: This review is spoiler free or at most reveals minor plot points or notes established at the very least on the website where you can buy Steins;Gate from. The one exception is a paragraph in white further below, which you can highlight if you wish to read it, although it does contain a significant spoiler. You have been warned.

I’m going to let you in on a secret here, or perhaps more an unwritten rule.

Plot holes do not matter if A) the characters are the driving force of a given narrative and B) the plot holes do not significantly undermine the growth or arcs of said characters.

I bring this up because there is no genre of fiction more fragile, more intrinsically susceptible to plot holes, than that of time travel. While writing this review, as something to have on in the background, I was watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There one could bring up a myriad of plot holes from the time travel elements, but as I mentioned before, they matter not one jot in the face of a compelling character driven narrative like in that film.

But what the devil does this have to do with Steins;Gate, you might ask? Well, Steins;Gate arguably fits in the same category as Terminator II (minus the wonderful Arnie moments), in that if one took a long, hard look at it, like a house of cards built on the San Andreas fault it would all fall apart easily. But stories are not houses even though people might live in them, and a shaky foundation is not necessarily to the detriment of the overall product. Especially not when said product is a great comedy, romance, thriller and love letter to nerd culture all rolled into one.

I came to Steins;Gate in perhaps the most roundabout way possible. Back in mid to late 2013 I had begun delving into anime and the Steins;Gate anime was recommended to me. Twenty six episodes later I had finished it, but to this day it still sits comfortably in my personal cream of the crop as far as anime that I have seen goes. I learned that Steins;Gate was actually an adaptation of a visual novel, and decided, given the rule of adaptation decay, that surely the original would be superior, and with a recent US English translation release the time was ripe. For me personally however, it didn't quite work out as I'd hoped, but I'll get to that soon.

Steins;Gate is the story of one Rintaro Okabe, or Hououin Kyouma, or Okarin or Jimmy McTimebender or whatever his name is, a mad scientist of sorts who runs the “Future Gadget Laboratory” with his two friends, Mayuri and Daru. Over time and with a gradually growing cadre of lab members including female protagonist and tsundere extraordinaire Makise Kurisu, Okabe creates a time machine by hooking a cellphone up to his microwave (as you do). With the completion of the “D-Mail” device which allows the lab members to send short messages via cellphone to the past, Okabe and co begin futzing with the space-time continuum and making changes to their personal histories, which, without spoiling, ends in everything going straight to pot. Now trapped down his own version of Alice’s rabbit hole, Okabe must change the future in such a way as to prevent both a tragic personal fate and a much broader one for humanity at large. It is, in my opinion, like some sort of bizarre cross of the Big Bang Theory (with affection rather than spite for its nerdy protagonists), The Butterfly Effect, Donnie Darko and a bit of Terminator II.

I am admittedly unfamiliar with visual novels, only really having experienced the story modes from Arc System Works’ fighting games like BlazBlue: Chronophantasma before coming to Steins;Gate, but if it is anything to judge by, the manner in which it works is that there are certain points where dialogue choices or responses can be chosen that flavour the story but, at least for the first half of the game, have no significant impact on the plot. Where Steins;Gate differs though is that this is conducted entirely through Okabe’s cellphone. Furthermore, this happens during dialogue, so it’s far more organic than traditional dialogue trees where characters simply sit on their hands until you make a choice. Time, ironically, is limited when it comes to responding to phone calls or texts. This is a definite plus for Steins;Gate’s immersion factor, keeping you engaged for the next message or call, and ignoring them outright does have consequences even if just for flavour. The game also features a nice selection of in-game options, achievements and the like, although irksomely the fullscreen function isn't available until you start the game proper which is a bit odd.

The Steins;Gate anime was drawn and animated in a fairly standard manner, nothing out of the ordinary, but as I hope the screenshots so far have made clear the visual novel is drawn and rendered in pastel shades that give it a wonderfully unique look. Every background image and character are a visual joy to behold, and the pastel colouring lends a dreamlike (and later a nightmarish) quality to the events. The OST (click at your own discretion as the related YouTube videos might consist of images that constitute spoilers) is also fantastic, matching the tone of the novel from both its comedic moments to the darker scenes perfectly. Unfortunately the western release doesn’t have an English dub (so we cannot sadly hear J. Michael Tatum engage in jive talk) but the translation is top notch, and preserves or adapts the humour from the Japanese source material excellently. I was particularly fond of the @channel transcripts that gave me a solid chuckle with some of the “It’s funny because it’s just like that in real life” dialogues between the members of that fictional internet hive.

The plot itself is quality entertainment, but it suffers from an issue of pacing. Right up until the midpoint of the story where the shit really hits the fan, things proceed at a moderate speed but nothing of great significance happens beyond a grim moment with Kurisu at the opening of the story. This can be frustrating, especially in hindsight once you do hit that midpoint as the story will then grip you by the throat and never let go. Despite the dark places the story goes, it somehow still manages to blend in genuinely funny comedic moments without ever being tonally dissonant, which in of itself seems like something only a mad scientist could accomplish. As a wannabe writer myself, I know I’d probably never be able to pull off this kind of verbal alchemy where the story literally goes from The Time Warp to Time After Time without feeling jarring. Furthermore, like hundreds and thousands sprinkled on an ice cream scoop, the story is chock full of wonderful pop culture references to both geek culture and of course to time travel stories, even all the way back to H.G. Wells. If you’re familiar with my reviews you probably know I like to make a good joke or reference myself, but any I could do here would be redundant as the story will very likely already have made it itself. After all, what do you reckon the “D” in “D-Mail” stands for? I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention how the story handles scientific facts, and while I doubt it holds up to scientific rigour, the fact that there’s a glossary to explain terms like Superstring Theory in an accessible way reminded me of how such concepts were handled in works like those of Stephen Baxter and Isaac Asimov, so kudos there.

One of Steins;Gate’s most crowning achievements for me personally though, where it doubled down in the anime (and in the visual novel too, I was pleased to discover) and came away on top was this great moment. I mentioned at the start of the review that I would keep spoilers to a minimum, apart from one big plot point I felt worth mentioning to illustrate how mature Steins;Gate can be, and now is the time to discuss it. If you wish to avoid spoilers, don’t highlight the below text and skip on to the next paragraph.

There is a character, a member of the Future Gadget Laboratory later in the plot, named Urushibara Luka. Luka is a man, but is so feminine that everyone assumes he’s a girl. He struggles with his gender identity, and ends up using the D-Mail to alter the past so that he becomes a woman. Now, this ties back to my earlier point about plot holes, as even by the admission of the other characters sending a message back in time to Luka’s mother to alter her diet should have no effect on the gender of her child at all. It’s scientific guff to make the plot go. But what comes of it is character moments and points around Luka that the writers of Steins;Gate should be proud of. Once the timeline alters and Luka becomes a girl, she acts and looks no differently to how she previously did beyond one or two specific moments. The characters treat her no differently beyond Okabe, and only because of his ability to retain the knowledge of the previous worldline where Luka was a boy. This character point is clear: gender is irrelevant to defining a person, and what makes a person worthwhile has nothing to do with their chromosomes whatsoever. This is all shown rather than told, and it completely outclasses what Atlus were trying to do with Naoto in Persona 4. Handled differently, this plot point would’ve have sunk Steins;Gate like the Titanic II (both the film and the boat) but instead it galvanises it, and champions identity as a function of personality and not of gender, an admirable message all around.

Including that nebulous chunk of white that you may or may not have read, I’ve thus far mostly spoke of Steins;Gate in positive terms, but in perhaps the most meta ironic way possible, having watched the anime beforehand I found playing the visual novel not as engaging as watching the show. Sure, like Okabe I might have had access to knowledge I shouldn’t, but in terms of the actual interactivity of the visual novel versus the anime I found being a passive observer more conducive to enjoying it overall. This is simply personal preference, and I would not presume to hold it against the visual novel at all, but I will confess at times I wondered what it would be like if it existed as a Scumm game or perhaps a game made by Telltale of Walking Dead fame, as there was simply not enough interactivity for my tastes. The phone mechanic is neat, and far better than average dialogue trees, but it wasn’t enough for my personal tastes.

The job of the reviewer is to offer an opinion on a product to that product’s target audience, ie to buy or to not. But all reviews are subjective, and my personal dislike of the visual novel format is simply that; a personal one. On paper the anime and the visual novel have advantages and disadvantages over each other; the anime has an extra episode that wraps the story in a nice little bow, while the novel has extra endings depending on your choices. The anime has fluid animation rather than static characters, the visual novel has more content overall and multiple endings. But these are just points on the paper, and not anything you can objectively quantify.

In thinking on it, I’ve realised that I should conclude this review by recommending neither Steins;Gate the anime nor the visual novel, but instead I should recommend Steins;Gate the story. Kobe steak can be cooked to your preference, and there’s nothing wrong with having it pink, well done or anything in between, but note the quality of the raw material in either case. Same with Steins;Gate. How you choose to enjoy it is up to you, but I can definitely recommend that you do it somehow. Terminator 2: Judgment Day which I mentioned before is my favourite film of all time, and it’s a great time travel story to boot. Steins;Gate stands tall with that film and other works of time travel fiction such as Edge of Tomorrow, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, The Time Machine and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and perhaps even exceeds them.

To rewind to the beginning, Steins;Gate might have plot holes, but I gladly accept them for how they grant us a better look at the characters, and that, to me, is how all time travel should be handled. Time moves on in a linear fashion, but only if the characters move with it does it truly matter, as it does here. Simply excellent.

Who Should Buy?
- Anyone who likes character driven narratives, time travel or geek comedy will find plenty to enjoy in Steins;Gate.

Who Should Avoid?
- If you're not a fan of visual novels, despite the more organic phone mechanism Steins;Gate won't change your mind. But if that's the case, buy the anime instead. You won't regret it.

- Shadon1010 once caused a time paradox just to hear Paul Eiding yell at him for five minutes. Totally worth it.


  1. If youre not big on Visual Novels then yeah I agree it is difficult to recomend them as they trully are an aquired taste and a genre that grown on you over time. For anyone into Visual Novels "Sekai Project" is currently conducting a poll gauging the communities interest In "Key's" works. So if you want Clannad, Air, or Kanon to see a western localization please take some time to answer there survey:
    Woops I lost the link as soon as I can find it Ill update this comment!

  2. I definitely can't disagree there. But for those who haven't tried visual novels yet, I would argue Steins;Gate is an excellent starting point. If nothing else, even if visual novels turn out not to be your thing by it's end, the actual meat of the story itself will have been worth the journey.

  3. "I’m going to let you in on a secret here, or perhaps more an unwritten rule."
    Then you wrote the unwritten rule, bastard. :)
    I enjoy the VN type games on Vita (Virtues Last Reward, 999) but i just find it hard to make the jump to PC, when you go into PC territory i find it harder to know if what you are going to be reading is going to be well made or not because the amount of content in Japan that is subpar.

  4. The anime and the visual novel have the same problem in that the story really doesn't get going until around the Episode 6/Chapter 5 mark. But once it does, the momentum is unrelenting and it will have you hooked.

    And yes, I wrote the unwritten rule. I'm basically going to form my own version of Fight Club for literary devices. =p