Bucketlog February: Steins;Gate

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Posted by Mento (4274 posts) -

Welcome to the Bucketlog! It's going to be 2019's year-long blog series, focusing on games I've been meaning to play since forever. I've put together a list derived from a mix of systems, genres, and vintages because it's starting to look like 2019 might be the first "lean" year for games in a spell (though time will tell whether that pans out to be true) and I figured this would be a fine opportunity to finally tick off a few items I've had on my various backlog lists/spreadsheets for longer than I'd care to admit.

January: No More Heroes 2 (Wii)February: Steins;Gate (PS3)March: Okage: Shadow King (PS2)
April: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies (3DS)May: ?June: ?
July: ?August: ?September: ?
October: ?November: ?December: ?


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  • Game: Nitroplus and 5pb's Steins;Gate.
  • System: PS3 (originally Xbox 360).
  • Original Release: 2009-10-15.
  • Time from Release to Completion: Nine years, four months, eleven days.

I'm not sure what I could've done to prepare myself for Steins;Gate. The well-acclaimed adventure game is considered one of, if not the, finest visual novels presently available in English. It was originally released in its native language back in 2009 but has seen multiple fresh coats of paint since then, most recently with the Steins;Gate Elite edition that integrates FMV scenes from the anime adaptation and was released as long ago as earlier this month. (I've been playing the PS3 version that came out in Europe back in 2015, for the record.) It concerns a group of geeky students and their accidental discovery of time-travel and with it a global conspiracy panning decades into the past and future both, as well as the more challenging barriers that comprise the immutable laws of physics and inexorable march of time and fate. Heavy stuff, but it doesn't start that way.

In fact, Steins;Gate pretty much starts the same way as you might expect any visual novel would. Set in Akihabara - the geek center of Japan - it's steeped in otaku culture, winking references to the tropes and dressings of the anime and manga that surrounds and permeates the lives of these characters as well as the more studious deep dives into physics and other scientific theories and concepts, and a generally lighter tone that works to establish the characters of this game during their more carefree days as they enthusiastically discuss and experiment with this serendipitous new discovery. The protagonist is one Okabe Rintaro: a stringy university student in a battered lab coat with an affectation where he styles himself as the evil genius scientist "Hououin Ryouma". This cloying and grandiose false personality tends to put off those around him and the player alike, making him an obnoxious hero that takes time to warm up to. Other characters, like the gregarious ditz Mayuri or Okabe's overweight otaku friend and "super hacka" henchman Daru, are slightly more appealing due to their unusual character designs and slightly less annoying personality defects. Then there's the no-nonsense (but secret nerd) Kurisu, a genius neuroscience teen prodigy studying in the States who finds herself drawn to Okabe's ragtag group (despite her unimpressed run-ins with its leader) and eventually helps them perfect a device capable of sending email messages, and later consciousnesses, through time.

Germane to the term "visual novel," Steins;Gate is a very wordy game and not one you can expect to breeze through in a day or two. Visual novels have come a long way in terms of market penetration in the past few years, even if it's been an institution in its native country for a much longer time, and I'm still acclimatizing to them myself. There's been a few edge cases in my gaming history like the Ace Attorney, Danganronpa, Hotel Dusk, and Zero Escape franchises - all of which supplement the text-heavy visual novel aspect with traditional adventure game mechanics - and a few Indie visual novels like Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story or Sukeban's VA-11 Hall-A, but I think this was my first full-length experience with the type of adventure game that limits its meaningful interactions to a few path-branching decisions and replaces that interactivity with thousands of lines of acted out dialogue and text.

The way Steins;Gate presents these decisions is actually via the protagonist's cellphone, in an interesting twist on the formula. Not only are cellphones a crucial element of the time-travel machine - the messages sent from it are transported through time, and a phone is also used as the trigger mechanism - but the responses you provide to calls and texts received can cause various small changes to the story and your relationships to the characters that sent them. The player can also decide not to answer or read these messages; after all, as was the case in Oxenfree, silence can be a dialogue choice with a lot of meaning too. Most of the big choices are heavily story-related and are obvious in the moment, usually splitting off into a "false" but not necessarily bad or incomplete ending for the game's characters and the path to the rest of the game's standard route. Despite its mockery of the format the game sorta has its harem anime cake and eats it too here, as these alternative endings invariably involve Okabe - who, towards the end of the game, has matured a lot - ending up with one of the game's many secondary female characters.

Which brings us into the game's sudden lurch as it enters its second half. I'll spoiler block this in case anyone's really serious about witnessing the story for themselves:

This game throws dark. Frequently. It's a tonal whiplash not entirely unlike that of "troll" game Doki Doki Literature Club where the rug is suddenly and sadistically pulled from underneath the player and transforms the adventure into something very different and certainly nowhere near as lighthearted. I was anticipating some grim tidings on the horizon, but the game not only swings for the fences in this regard, it actually earns it too. The groundwork for the sinister "twist" is laid down early, the rules of the now-essential-for-survival time travel device had already been set in stone more or less, and the game becomes more of a thriller as Okabe struggles to make sense of his predicament and put his wits to good use for once in order to figure out a way both he and his friends can survive. There's some gruesome imagery, bleak character moments, and some heartbreaking situations from which no wholly good conclusion can exist. The sweetly innocent Mayuri in particular seems to die so many times for the sake of pushing Okabe's brain cells into gear that I began referring to her as a "fridged magnet". This part of the story feels scrappy, in that the hero is only ever just about holding himself together and bouncing from one barely survivable disaster to the next by the skin of his teeth. Even with the game's overall languid pace (I maxed the speed of all the dialogue and text boxes, and it still takes dozens of hours to read through) it rarely takes a moment to rest once it's past that sobering midway mark, excepting those times there's a lot of scientific exposition to get through or a quiet character moment worth slowing down to absorb.

I've always been skeptical of visual novels as a viable branch of the wider adventure game genre: of all the different genera, the pure visual novel experience seemed to offer the least reason to exist in the format it does, where a story is being told in a relatively linear manner with almost no assistance required from its player. It often seems like such a story could better be told as an anime or a novel (which, due to success of Steins;Gate as a game, it can now also be consumed as either). However, the way the player is - if only marginally - factored into the plot through their phone interactions is enough to be immersed in the story and its characters from the perspective of one who ostensibly has some control over the narrative. The idea that we could ever control a video game story has always been tenuous at best: there's very few games that satisfactorily presents a tale that the player feels they have full agency over, especially when it comes to endings. What's more important than player agency in the spinning of a yarn, therefore, is taking the proper steps to immerse us: if we overcome a challenge, or decide on a plan of action, it feels like we're determining the character's destiny even if the resulting cutscene is always going to be present and identical for anyone who successfully gets that far. Even with the binary-decision heavy DONTNOD and Telltale games, they tend to conclude with one big dilemma with a few minor subplot and side-character differences along the way. I guess my point is that it's not that important if the ending we receive isn't one of our own determined design, more that we feel that we've earned it because of what we did to help it along. A visual novel like Steins;Gate is still ultimately capable of that.

There's more I can say about how well the game handles its various themes and secondary characters that might otherwise raise some flags, the way the game demonstrates via internal dialogue how Okabe forces himself to grow up and take his situation seriously and the impact of this grave personality shift on his oblivious concerned friends, and other moments that might be a little too spoilerish to get into in any detail. Overall though, I think the reason I liked Steins;Gate so much is because I just appreciate a good story in games: one that is told well and gives no hints as to where it might go from one moment to the next. That might be because I've played too many busy open-world games and RPGs so far this year, where all that secondary content often derails the pacing of whatever narrative is being told, but Steins;Gate felt both tense and relaxing in a way that reading fiction normally would, where sometimes the only choice the player is given is a Hobson's one: either keep going or stop. Once I'm satisfied that I've seen every route this game has to offer and can move on, I'll make a mental note to keep an eye out for its sequel.

At any rate, another successful Bucketlog item finally accounted for after many years of dormancy. We've now seen a game from both the Wii and the PS3, and in March I've got another relatively recent pick. After that, we start going even further back through the history of games I've left hanging for far too long.

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#1 Posted by ArbitraryWater (15726 posts) -
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I've evangelized it enough, but man I love the hell out of Steins;Gate. Having come to the VN after seeing the anime, its more languid pacing means you have to deal with insufferable Okabe a lot longer. The flipside is you also get a lot more of his internal monologue and more in-depth explanations for their vaguely plausible scientific justification of time travel.

Its sequel/midquel (time travel is a thing) Steins;Gate 0 is more uneven, but still eventually worth checking out if you feel so inclined. As far as unnecessary follow-ups go, it justifies itself pretty well.

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#2 Posted by llyama (10 posts) -

I think it's a great story although a little slow to get going. Okabe's character growth is worthwhile to see and you need to suffer through him at the start to experience that.

As for endings, some are definitely better than others and I thought the Suzaha one was by far the best. Very impactful and glad they didn't shy away from some... topics.

I'm currently replaying it with Steins;Gate Elite and so far, I think it's the best way to consume it. I found the anime breezed through the story too fast and I'm surprised people can keep track of it. The original VN on the other hand can be a tad slow and takes a while to kick into gear. Elite seems to be going faster while still getting the background across and with a much nicer presentation.

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#3 Edited by Bowl-of-Lentils (1124 posts) -

This was a really good blog post! I think I agree with you that Steins;Gate is one of the best traditional visual novels currently available officially in English (or at the very least it is one of the most accessible to people that are new to the genre). Personally I think 428: Shibuya Scramble might have eclipsed it for me but it has been so long since the last time I played Steins;Gate that it is hard to compare the two.

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#4 Posted by AshuraZro (23 posts) -

I really enjoyed the anime but never found time to take in the visual novel until grabbing Steins;Gate Elite on the Switch this week. Provided one is not attached to the original art style of the other versions, it is a fantastic way to experience the story and I thorough enjoyed it all. Seeing the endings and content glossed over or outright skipped in the anime was a great and satisfying.

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#5 Posted by stordoff (1362 posts) -

Provided one is not attached to the original art style of the other versions, it is a fantastic way to experience the story

It cuts a lot of Okabe's internal monologue, which I think is a negative for the game. You lose a lot of his internal conflict, which makes him seem even more insufferable at the beginning, and some incredibly memorable lines are just cut (like "Our souls fester like semem left to rot in the womb", which has stuck with me since the first time I read it).

@mento said:

However, the way the player is - if only marginally - factored into the plot through their phone interactions is enough to be immersed in the story and its characters from the perspective of one who ostensibly has some control over the narrative.

What it does do is make you make the decision, which is especially meaningful in a game like Steins;Gate where there is no real good decision here. It's very slight, but powerful. I think why Steins;Gate works is you can not do it and it continues on; it says "OK, let's see what that looks like" (granted, at only a few points, but those are the important points). In a meta-sense, you might know it's a fail state or bad end, but the game never treats it that way.

@mento said:

Once I'm satisfied that I've seen every route this game has to offer

Make sure you see the True End, if you haven't already. Unless you are paying attention (it's easy to overlook in 40 hours) or check the trophies, it's not necessarily obvious it exists (structural spoiler: it continues after one of the "character" endings, so it's easy to think you've seen everything), and is IMO one of the best moments in the entire game.

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#6 Posted by AlisterCat (8090 posts) -

I'm always down for steins gate talk..

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#7 Posted by hostyl1 (65 posts) -

Late to this post, it just happened to end up on the front page today. Truth be told, I *hated* Steins;Gate the game. Perhaps that's not the right term, but I certainly didnt *get* the game at all just playing through it. Like you, I could not suffer Okabe; could not put myself in his shoes. Having a 'protagonist' that I was actively rooting against did not make for enjoyable reading. I pretty much only liked Daru and Suzuha (ironically, due to story developments, that becomes not surprising). As well, mechanically, I dont know how anyone could suss out what responses to make to steer toward a particular ending without a guide. I found the whole process obtuse. I ended up with Suzuha's ending and thought I'd be done with the whole thing.

I ranted about this on another gaming site, and the folks there urged me to go through all the routes, which I did. Some of the endings I felt weren't "earned" by the writing (particularly Farris comes to mind), but I began to see why some liked it - though still not for me.

On a lark, I fired up the anime and *that's* where it clicked for me. I guess for me, there was something about Okabe's characterization that didnt come across well in text (I dont know Japanese) but came through in the English VA of the anime. Watched all of them, every episode, side stories, whatever I could find. "Drunk Kurisu" might be one of my favorite characters of all time.

Havent gotten around to S;G-Zero yet, but it's in the backlog.

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#8 Edited by BoboBones (274 posts) -

I’m not into visual novels or anime, (Other then the Persona series) but last month Target was running a buy 2 get 1 deal on most PS4 games, so I grabbed Steins;Gate Elite along with DMC V and Sekiro.

I’m excited to give it a shot.

I am also watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood for the first time.

I didn’t think there was Anime out there for me, but I’m dipping my toes in the water, and it’s been quite enjoyable.