The life and times of Hououin Kyouma
Time travel is infinitely more interesting once you leave the trappings of the TARDIS or any one of those familiar (some would say hackneyed) science fiction mainstays behind. Steins;Gate, the visual novel that inspired a 24-episode anime series, film, and several other spinoffs, has woven a masterful tale that explores the trope in a manner not unlike the popular deconstruction of magical girl series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
We’re all familiar with the philosophy that altering even the smallest detail from a past event could alter the future drastically, but how much damage could a text message do? Could it destroy the hopes and dreams of everyone you love? How far could you go to make things right again?
Developer: 5pb., Nitroplus
Publisher: JAST USA
Released: March 31, 2014
Find out by stepping into the shoes of one Rintarou Okabe, self-proclaimed “mad scientist” and college student who prefers to go by the alias Hououin Kyouma. He’s also “Okarin” to his friends, a motley crew of individuals you wouldn’t expect to have befriended such a weirdo with the delusions of grandeur Okabe has. Mayuri, his childhood best friend, is so innocent and oblivious to the world around her you wonder what’s really going on in her head, while Kurisu the genius girl is abrasive, but Okabe’s intellectual equal. Then there’s buffoonish hacker Daru, androgynous Luka, and the rest of the cast with their own sets of quirks.
Rather than simply acting as supporting cast members, each and every one of these characters is fleshed out in a manner that gives them as much life as Okabe, impressing a weight upon your relationship with each and ensuring you feel the gravity of more pressing situations as you progress. When you’re faced with difficult decisions regarding your friends’ lives later on, it becomes startlingly obvious just how much Steins;Gate has forced you to care about them.
This may seem difficult to do, since interaction in-game is much different than that of other visual novels. In fact, you’ll be staring at a cell phone screen most of the time, waiting for your next “D-mail” to arrive. Fittingly, that’s short for “DeLorean mail.” You’ll also be engaged in face-to-face discussion, which could be interrupted by voice calls as well. These events are where you begin traveling down branching paths, hurtling toward one of the multiple endings.
The first half of the game is spent attempting to decipher how time travel actually works, which is admittedly confusing at first, but quite deftly explained via Okabe’s hilarious tirades and at times harrowing inner dialogue. This is a man charged with the sole responsibility of noting differences between several diverging timelines. A mistake could mean watching his friends die again and again, and if you don’t play your cards right, that’s exactly what could happen.
While you’ll have plenty of time to acclimate yourself to the game’s Phone Trigger system, you’ll also be introduced to other methods of time traveling, as well as multiverse theories and parallel universes that twist and turn into deliciously convoluted territory. It can be tempting to skim through page after page of text (it’s a visual novel, so obviously there’s a lot) but you’ll want to pay close attention, lest you gloss over subtle cues that really tie everything together.
Unfortunately, those same subtleties can be obfuscating for those unfamiliar with internet slang like that used on 4chan, the rules of time travel, or even the fact that the Phone Trigger system replaces branching dialogue options. There’s an index to be used as reference if you need help researching specific terms, and there’s a decent bit of expository text, but sometimes you’re left to your own devices.
It can be understandably overwhelming to anyone having chosen Steins;Gate as their first visual novel experience. In addition, the first 30% percent of the game is a bit plodding compared to the high-octane drama that unfolds during later moments, a pacing issue that could frustrate players too impatient to stick around and see how intense things get.
And things will indeed get intense. Steins;Gate is a taxing game, but it’s also quite beautiful, from the talented Japanese voice cast (no English dub, unfortunately) to artist huke’s unorthodox visuals. It’s an exemplary visual novel with a thrilling premise, memorable characters, and a fantastic “true” ending that may very well move you to tears.
If you’ve played Saya no Uta (a personal favorite) one time too many, branch out to Steins;Gate and then devour the anime series. Then immerse yourself in time travel literature, because you’re definitely going to want to.