There are few things more interesting than time travel stories done right. They have an immediacy that endures, and become embedded in the popular consciousness – Skynet and 88mph, I Got You Babe and ‘Damn you all to hell!’ and all that. By necessity, however, they don’t delve too deeply into how the time travel itself works. Our most cherished stories in the genre are more concerned with the consequences, not the causes, and so it is that everything from murderous cyborgs to Victorian gentlemen and obscure local weather reporters leap through time in ways that aren’t explained in too much detail. In this regard, they are less science fiction and more science fantasy.
Steins;Gate, a visual novel game first released back in 2009 on Xbox 360 and now ported to PlayStation Vita, is a notable departure. It too is very much concerned with the repercussions of time travel, but it is equally invested in how it works, to a degree that is sometimes pedagogic, at other times rather wonderful, and always exhaustingly detailed. It spends an uncommonly long time – almost the entire first half of the game – setting up its science and its characters. The game’s protagonist, an otaku college student named Rintarou Okabe, accidentally finds that he and his even nerdier best friend Daru have invented a time machine – a phone hooked up to a microwave, so naturally named ‘Phone Microwave’ – that can send text messages to the past. Though befuddled by the discovery and the seemingly coincident phenomena that accompany it, the endearingly delusional Okabe takes it all in his stride. As the self-appointed ‘mad scientist’ and leader of the Future Gadgets Laboratory, he tries to make sense of an invention that has the potential to change the world and yet is confined to a run-down apartment with no air conditioning in Tokyo’s Akihabara district. Along with the Lab’s founding member Daru and childhood friend Mayuri Shiina (sweetly voiced by Kana Hanazawa) Okabe enlists teen genius and published scientist Kurisu Makise as his ‘assistant’, much to the latter’s exasperation. Kurisu brings some legitimate brains to the Lab’s research on time travel, and she and Okabe engage in painstakingly detailed arguments about the theories and explanations for ‘Phone Microwave’. Every available time travel theory is trotted out, and there are times when their dialogues come across as little more than a reading of the relevant Wikipedia page. But the sheer level of minutiae sort of numbs the player into accepting time travel as a compellingly real proposition rather than merely a fantasy plot device.
It wouldn’t be a Japanese visual novel without some really out-there characters, so in addition to the teen genius Kurisu we also get a cross-dressing shrine maiden Ruka, a maid cafe waitress / card battle champion / billionaire heiress named ‘Feiris Nyannyan’, the anti-social Moeka who can only communicate through text messages, and the good-natured Suzuha who sports skin-tight Adidas track suit and harbours a mysterious and inexplicable dislike of Kurisu. Each and every one of these characters receive considerable spotlight in the opening half, as they become the Lab Members one way or another and test out the Phone Microwave for Okabe’s research.
As a visual novel game, Steins;Gate’s gameplay is strictly limited to pushing the conversations along. Save for an extremely opaque system of choosing how to reply to emails that eventually bear on which of the multiple endings you see, there’s little to no player agency. As such, the game lives or dies by the strength of the narrative and the characters, and it must be said that for the first several chapters it’s something of a slog. The story paces itself carefully and deliberately, relying heavily on the mannerisms and quirks of the characters. Steins;Gate in the early stages chooses to sacrifice ready excitement for character building, and here it’s to the game’s credit that the reams of dialogue are nuanced and bring out fully rounded individuals. Despite coming from classic Japanese anime templates – chuunibyou, obese pervert computer geek, tsundere, cat ear-wearing succubus, and so on – the personalities are distinct and individualised, brought to life by outstanding voice acting across the board.
And so Okabe and co. talk and talk some more about the time machine and their lives in Akihabara, with the story apparently not going anywhere, until midway through the game when Kurisu manages to perform a major upgrade to the Phone Microwave. It’s at this point that Steins;Gate decides to cash in on all the meticulous world building with a stunningly exciting and macabre second half. As the implications of the Lab’s discoveries are laid bare and poor Okabe’s life is turned upside down, the game turns into a gripping, unputdownable tale of desperate survival and heartbreaking choices. You realise that all the incidental things that went before and the interminable dialogues you had to press through were there for a reason, and the way they impact how the story unfolds down the stretch is a real mental and emotional pleasure to experience. What was previously a gentle stroll is now an urgent race to the finish, and the tone follows, going from indulgent satire to dystopian thriller as the game visits some very dark places indeed.
Depending on how the player answers certain emails he receives throughout the game, six different endings can be reached. Four of these are not particularly special, amounting to little more than variations on dating sim wish fulfilment. Of the remaining two, the so-called True Ending is very good, being a logical, crowd-pleasing conclusion of Steins;Gate’s narrative arc. However, it’s the gut-wrenching Suzuha ending which truly transforms the game into something special. It turns the conventions of time travel fiction against themselves in the most ruthless way imaginable, with some chilling moments that will linger long in the memory, before loosening its bone white grip and delivering an immensely moving final shot. The Suzuha ending has the cold power, cruel pathos and dramatic impetus which elevate Steins;Gate to stand alongside La Jatee and The Terminator, and is really truer to the imaginative achievements of the game than the True Ending. It shouldn’t be missed.