Finding the Time to Play
STEINS;GATE is a sci-fi, visual novel following several Japanese students after they accidentally create humanity’s first time machine…well, sort of. Lead by wanna-be mad scientist Okabe Rinato, the group discovers how to send phone emails to the past using a modified microwave. By sending emails to their past selves, they will make different decisions that will effect the ‘present’. As their experiments continue, they find themselves in the middle of a scientific conspiracy concerning SERN and investigating the claims of a supposed time traveler John Titor, who talks of a dystopian future and a third world war.
Since its release back in 2009, STEINS’GATE has become a must-play in the visual novel genre for its powerful and emotional story and has been converted to a manga, an anime, a feature film and has had several spin-off games. It’s a giant in its own genre and with a solid reputation and fan base with high scores and reviews online. But it’s a beast of a visual novel with around 30-50+ hours of reading time, and since it’s a VN, its typical to question the game’s level of interactivity. So is STEINS;GATE worth playing?
Regarding the plot, STEINS;GATE is a well thought out and thoroughly researched time travel story. I’m definitely no scientist, but the level of depth regarding the legitimate theories and physics behind traveling through time is really interesting. The game follows the idea of causality and takes you through several possible models of time travel. The game takes its research so seriously that there is literally a theoretical physics lecture near the beginning of the game (never have thought that a VN would walk me through the basics of quantum mechanics, but here we are).
The game focuses upon the idea of cause and effect with the butterfly effect being referenced a number of times throughout the plot with small changes having massive consequences. The player gets to initiate these changes in the story through different mobile phone interactions with characters. This “phone trigger” works by ignoring or answering character calls and messages. If you decide for Rinato to ignore a text, it can drastically alter the direction of the story. Choosing different options gets you different story endings with there being only one ‘true ending’. Although this is a great way to get players involved in the story, the only real pot changing decisions happen after 10+ hours of game play. It’s expected that a VN would have very little player interaction, but for someone who doesn’t read many VNs (me specifically), it took me a long time to really ‘get into’ STEINS;GATE because of this.
The characters in STEINS;GATE are pretty much your typical Japanese anime archetypes complete with café cat-girl, grumpy stundere, and a glasses wearing, super otaku. Even though the game fully acknowledges this and pokes fun at itself, otaku, and internet culture, I couldn’t get past the archetypes and found it difficult to find any emotional depth or attachment to them. However, when the story started getting intense with some major twists and turns, I started to empathize – such as with the interaction, the story only really started to get going after around 10+ hours of the game, making the pacing awkwardly irregular. In the beginning, conversations can go on and on and can take ages getting to the point. Then suddenly halfway through the game, loads of events start happening, and it feels like a totally different game.
Overall, STEINS;GATE’s time travel theme and deep story should be the ultimate combo for a solid VN, but I feel like the game was let down by its characters and its slow starting pace. However, it does have a lot positive points for its detailed theories and research, intense sci-fi story line. Its nod to real-world entities like CERN, the IBM5100 ,and mysterious John Titor give dimension to the story, plus all the technical talk makes you feel the developers passion for the topic of time travel. Also, the speckled art style, voice actors, and music are all pretty solid, which wraps up everything nicely.
It’s a long game, but if you get through its slow start then its detailed research coupled with a roller coaster of a story line will grip you. If you have watched the anime, then I highly recommend playing the game because it does have way more depth. But due to its slow start and 10+ hour hump, if you’re not used to 30-50 hours of reading time, then maybe the price of £26.99 is a tad steep.