Bucketlog February: Steins;Gate

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: Banjo-Tooie (N64)June: Mother 3 (GBA)
July: Beyond Oasis (MD)August: Two Worlds II (X360)September: Kaeru no tame ni Kane wa Naru (GB)
October: Arc the Lad (PS1)November: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)December: Tokyo Mirage Sessions: ♯FE (Wii U)

February

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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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