There's something slightly reassuring about posting on a message board that nobody thinks to visit anymore. Like digging a hole, whispering your secrets to the barely exposed earth within, and then furiously filling up the hole again. Only a couple eyelashes separate the postings here from being nothing more than a dream. The words written here are almost invariably more for the writer's benefit then they are for anybody else.
so i played the visual novel steins;gate. i don't know what that semi-colon means or is there for.
what is immediately apparent in
playingreading steins;gate is how utterly repellent the main character, and your narrator, is. if there is one thing that can unquestionably be learned from steins;gate, it's the word chuunibyou, roughly 8th-grade syndrome(more literally middle school second year syndrome), where the sufferer exhibits immature, childlike delusions. our hero, hououin kyouma(also known as okarin[also known as okabe rintaro]), has this, and the story's writers used it as license to have him go around treating the entirety of the cast seemingly very badly. he is impossibly smug, and feels the need to bookend virtually every other line of dialogue with this affected "maniacal laughter" that i frankly found so off-putting that i began actively skipping the voice actor's voiced lines if i suspected that i would have to endure that laugh again.
notably, steins;gate is a science fiction game quite literally lifted from the collected works of john titor, so much so that you could quite fairly label the game a comprehensive example of john titor fanfiction. it's become abundantly clear in recent years that the real-life titor phenomena was, as most people probably guessed, an elaborate but generally well-meaning hoax, so it's within one's rights to consider the game an act of plagiarism to some extent. i, personally, do not, but this is a conclusion someone could come to and probably justify somewhat elaborately. regardless, the science fiction of the game is otherwise rather reality-based and literate, sometimes impressively so, though a complaint some have expressed is that the game slightly devolves into technobabble, which is probably fair, but can probably be dismissed as a feature rather than a bug due to the types of characters this game features: scientists namely, both actual and wannabe. the biggest and fairest complaint, however, is that the science of the game is very conveniently warped and re-structured to aid the story. it's a time travel story, but the game takes some bizarre liberties with the concept of time-space paradoxes, and then scientifically cops out by not keeping the game's presentation of memory in-line with how the science of the rest of the story works. it can, then, be slightly perplexing trying to follow what is scientifically accurate about the work and what was manipulated and skewed to service the story, but then, the game isn't exactly intended to be a work of pure education, so i don't know how much you can hold this against them.
the glue that holds the rest of the
gamestory together is this seemingly typical slice-of-life fare that really never manages to be especially interesting. the characters themselves have relatively dull, apparently unchallenged lives, with the chief point of persistent conflict being their ability(or inability) to tolerate the hououin kyouma persona. you have your best friend, the ditzy but sincere and well-meaning cosplay fanatic, the repulsive otaku who feels the need to repeatedly verbalize his obsessive eroge activities and his reprehensible fetishes, the bizarre catgirl who works at the local maid cafe and unaccountably inserts -nya into every sentence, and has seemingly more latent psychological damage than even the main character, and i could probably keep rattling off a who's who of not intrinsically interesting character tropes that the game provides but does not seriously endeavor to make interesting during these slice of life sections. i found myself thankful in the early going when i could escape all of that and the characters returned to their cheap, childish, makeshift laboratory above the equally inconsequential crt repair shop. at least there they'd throw some science at you, which was a nice change of pace, even if it wasn't adding up to a noteworthy equation. they claim that this game is one of the biggest tear-jerkers in the history of games. i knew this up front, and i remember smirking to myself, wondering how anybody could cry over these people.
i was twenty hours into this fucking story without even knowing why i was even continuing. it's almost embarrassing that i even stuck with it as long as i did, as i didn't find much to like about the characters, and the main concept, while something i would call innately interesting, wasn't going anywhere and was overloaded with apparently inconsequential bits of fluff that wasn't making for a particularly valuable experience. they were building something, and i just didn't care what.
you reach a point where you realize that the structure of the entire game is just this gigantic, flimsy house of cards, kept together by sheer innocence and will alone, with only the forces of inertia keeping it together. But just when I had convinced myself that there was nothing to this game, they pulled the bottom load-bearing card, and the story collapsed upon itself.
This is, of course, the trick of the story. They lull you into this long, deep, comfortable, familiar sleep, only to violently wake you, dazed and bloodied, the world filled with terror, those important to you dead. There's some minimal gameplay in this game, I guess. You have a phone, and people call or email you, or you can call them. It gives you some added flavor text and, much later on, can determine some story paths or one of the multiple endings of the game. You play with this innocently for hours, texting whatever the fuck bullshit you wanted to anybody. It doesn't matter, you'll pretty naturally think to yourself, it's just a fucking phone. You pretty freely tap the R2 key to see that phone come spinning out of your pocket during the first half of the game. I found myself pausing a lot longer before pushing that button during the second half of the game. I didn't want any more of my friends to die.
There is a pretty distinct tonal shift halfway through the game, and it almost exclusively involves the characters that you've been learning about and getting to know. Be it my own subjectivity, or something I personally needed when I played the game, the characters in this game really did it for me, though it was done covertly at first. Yes, they aren't individually, on the surface, very interesting. There's something rather dull and familiar about almost all of them, but within each of them remains this critical depth that the story very carefully keeps from you until you need to know it. Definitely rather boring, but from that boredom and complacency, for me at least, came something rather stunningly real and identifiable. You see these characters in their daily lives, their silly fixations and habits, and the game goes to impressive lengths to depict them as actual people, not dynamic superhumans. They're kinda boring, but they aren't unlikable. They're all pretty carefully crafted as fundamentally decent people, with resoundingly positive traits mixed in with all the mundanity. Context, here, is everything, particularly when each of these people get their turn to have their entire lives torn completely to shreds. You see what each of them has to lose, the pain they've all been keeping hidden, and the story is designed to systematically exploit absolutely every single one of them at their most vulnerable spot. That first half of the story that didn't seem to be amounting to very much, seems to amount to an awful lot when it's time for that character's card to fall. It's all a setup, and I found myself pretty profoundly moved by the plight of these characters more times than I could even begin to remember. They claim that this game is one of the biggest tear-jerkers in the history of games. While everyone's perspective is different, and others may not be able to get into the experience of this game as much as I did, my perspective can otherwise validate this claim. I had genuinely lost the ability to cry due to advancing age and an otherwise misanthropic view of the world, but this game has actually helped me restore that ability. Again, that's a perspective unique to me and the point in time when I played this game, but this experience and these words are unique to me, so you'll just have to fucking deal with it.
What is probably most stunningly impressive about this game is the overall structure of it all and the way they utilize familiar science fiction to get the absolute most out of the drama and conflict present within the story. The story is one gigantic butterfly effect, where you encounter this constant stream of seemingly random things happen that turn out to be monumentally important later in the story. As some lame chuunibyou with an unconvincing and probably repellent writer persona myself, I find it slightly staggering how they were able to keep track of all the bits and pieces in the story, and manage to tie together virtually everything in the end. There's some minor plot holes and unconvincing pseudo-science that they had to fall back on, but it's hard to hold this against the writers given that the intent behind such decisions were to show more about the characters themselves, and to further intensify the magnitude of their conflicts. If you're in it just for the science, however, it'll probably tickle you regardless. I know who Roy Kerr is now, and hearing the man's name now terrifies the fucking shit out of me, even if he's just some genius New Zealander that's good at science, not some dude inadvertently destroying the universe. Regardless, the structure of the whole thing is so perfect that I almost need to actively note that there was probably some luck involved on the part of the writers, who kinda stumbled onto this completely brilliant idea for a story, and had the dedication and sensitivity to get the absolute most out of it. I played the sequel to this game, Steins;Gate 0, and while it's also a legitimately impressive game in its own right, and is admirable for how it fearlessly takes the first game's most overtly terrifying nightmare ending as its canonic basis, and does pretty profoundly deepen the experience and texture of the first game, it does completely lack the structural sharpness of the first Steins;Gate story. As does everything else I've ever played.
I guess my problem with Okabe Rintaro in the first few hours of the game is that I didn't want to identify with him very much. He, and his chuunibyou alter ego Hououin Kyouma, are pathetically vain and insecure, rude, doesn't quite often enough consider the feelings of others, and has an unpleasant texture to him. I'd like to think that I'm not like that, we probably all do. You're subject entirely to his point of view throughout the course of the game, so if at no point at all you are able to connect or identify with the character in the slightest, the game will fall pretty tragically flat. And the first major portion of the game, for me, it did. My impression of Okarin ranged somewhere roughly between repulsion and embarrassment, identifying with him just enough to stuck with the game and experience it with him, but being consistently disappointed whenever this Kyouma persona would come to life and shout something stupid and irrelevant. The game, a visual novel with limited interaction, somehow, incredibly, has a difficulty curve. And that difficulty curve is Hououin Kyouma. Hour ten in the game, fucking hated him. He'd stand up on a table and scream !HOUOUIN KYOUMA! and I wished Kurisu would hit him with a heavy book or something to shut him up. Hour fifty, when Okarin can't even begin to muster even a fraction of the flourish he once could, as the proclamation of the name hououin kyouma comes dribbling, weakly, out of his mouth, without conviction and seemingly lowercase, you realize that the stupid juvenile defense mechanisms we use to defend ourselves against the cruelty of the world is the only thing that keeps us tethered to a world that wants nothing more than to cast us aside, or to bend us to its own cold, passionless image. It's one of the instances of magic in the game, I'd argue. We're all that stupid, frightened kid, praying to the forces of the universe, and whatever indifferent god that lords over it all, that it not take our friends away. Strip away all the guises and all the bullshit, and little else will remain. I ultimately felt guilty for ever skipping over that stupid maniacal laughter of his. Okarin needs this. We all do.
I don't pretend anymore to be some great universal barometer for the quality of videogames, and my preferences almost invariably trend towards how much the story or subsequent experience as a whole affects me. Gameplay is nice but inessential, and I don't need the experience to be profoundly reactive, or for me to have some sort of heightened sense of active agency within the work. With that (hopefully) clear, Steins;Gate is the greatest videogame I have ever played, and possibly will ever play. There's a lot more to my experience with this game than I've chronicled here, but in some outside chance a lonely, lost traveler from another worldline stumbles upon these words, I have avoided talking in great depth about any of the specific elements and why I believe they worked. Could if anybody wanted, I guess, but it's dangerous to know too much about the future. Just know that this is a really impressively structured and told story, easily the best I've ever encountered in a game. That semi-colon is the only thing in the entire game that remained unexplained. I still don't know what it means. And i don't need to know.