By: Matthew Striplen
The visual novel: a popular medium in Japan, but one that may leave western audiences perplexed. For the uninitiated, a visual novel is essentially a radio program accompanied by still images, music and voice acting. Little to no player interaction is required. Steins;Gate‘s original format is the visual novel, but westerners may be familiar with the 2011 anime adaption.
Steins;Gate is told from the perspective of Rintaro Okabe, a self-proclaimed mad scientist, bent on plunging the world into chaos. However, his character possesses a greater flair for the dramatic, rather than science. He and his fellow Lab members, Daru, a walking otaku stereotype, and Mayurii Shina, an airheaded but sweet girl, embark on a sometimes epic, often silly adventure to unlock the secret of time travel.
As with most visual novels, Steins;Gate has only a few key points that require user input. These moments, however, can completely alter the outcome of the story, so choose wisely. Rintaro will receive emails and phone calls from a variety of characters over the course of the story, and it is up to the player to decide whether or not to respond to them.
Accessing the “true” ending requires a specific combination of responses and ignores, so finding it can be tricky. Considering the story may take up to 40 hours to finish, finding every ending can turn into a monumental task. Figuring out which calls and emails produce the desired effect is also tricky because of the sheer volume of correspondence.
Easily the most intriguing parts of the story deal with the various theories of time travel, all of which stem from real life. The characters provide in-depth explanations of several of the most widely accepted theories, including a few more obscure ones.
The real world tie-ins don’t end there, either. A prominent character, John Titor, is also the subject of an urban legend. Titor plays a similar role in Steins;Gate as he does in the legend, so time travel enthusiasts may recognize him from internet forums circa 2000. Numerous actual products make appearances as well, some of which border on product placement, such as Rintaro’s love for “Dr. P” soda or the “IBN” computer company.
One of the more unusual themes in Steins;Gate is the juxtaposition of deadly serious, mature content, with utterly silly humor. Both moods jar the player out of the current situation, which, depending on your perspective, may or may not be a good thing.
The silliness tends to distract from the more philosophical conversations, as the humor often leads to lengthy tangents, resulting in characters forgetting their original intent. This also hampers the pacing, since the extended humor scenes end up feeling like filler. Maybe the humor is geared toward a Japanese audience, but only a handful of jokes hit the mark for me.
Steins;Gate features tons of unusual vocabulary, ranging from obscure scientific terms to Japanese words. To help with this, the developers included a “Tips” section in the menu to find definitions for tougher words and phrases. If you didn’t pay much attention in science class or are unfamiliar with Japanese culture, this list will come in handy.
Although Steins;Gate only makes use of still images, the art style is quite striking. Each character possesses tremendous detail, especially the artist’s unique method of drawing eyes. Additionally, every character cycles through a handful of different poses to help convey their mood, thus preventing the images from getting stale.
The Japanese voice actors consistently perform well, but unfortunately that is the only language available. Each actor speaks with plenty of nuance and emotion, and Rintaro’s mad scientist laugh only gets funnier with time.
If you haven’t experienced a visual novel before, Steins;Gate is a great place to start. The complex scientific and philosophical questions raised over the course of the story merit a tremendous amount of thought. Unfortunately, the slow pacing caused by comedic distractions prove less effective. That being said, if you’re curious about time travel, or are already a visual novel enthusiast, Steins;Gate is a must buy.