Steins;Gate – Chapter Ten

SanKuri by Shietsu

It took me 18 hours and 30 minutes to play through the end of Chapter Ten.

I went into this game not knowing anything about how to trigger the “true ending” flags, so the ending I got was the default ending, which is tragic in an almost mechanical way. One might argue that the point of all the friendship building at the beginning of the game was to heighten the emotional impact of this ending, but the tragedy still seems artificial.

I’d like to go back and experience the story with its true ending, but eighteen and a half hours is a lot of time to spend replaying a visual novel from the beginning. Also, I’m getting ready to buy a PS4, and I want to go ahead and return my PS3 to its box in my closet.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy my time with Steins;Gate. Its plot is engaging, of course, but really it’s a friendship simulator. I’d say the playtime divided about 40/60 between plot-related exposition and not really doing anything at all.

I spent at least an hour playing Steins;Gate every evening before I left on a business trip this past weekend. My first night in the hotel was the first night in more than a week that I hadn’t played the game, and I felt legitimately lonely. I know this makes me sound like a basement-dwelling neckbeard, but the game goes out of its way to replicate the experience of hanging out with friends, and it’s remarkably successful.

I think it also goes out of its way to replicate the experience of being an otaku, as well as the experience of walking through Akihabara. One might argue that Okabe, as a college student with no practical goals in life, moves through the neighborhood like a flâneur, but I don’t think this is really the case. A flâneur, as defined by Walter Benjamin, doesn’t work or consume and thus functions in the liminal spaces outside of capitalism. Okabe may not be a card-carrying capitalist, but Steins;Gate itself is all about consumption and collection – collecting otaku-themed glossary entries, collecting background scenes depicting Akihabara, collecting narrative branches, and collecting romantic scenes with cute female characters.

In a monograph translated as Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, cultural theorist Hiroki Azuma argues that otaku are defined by their consumption, and that they pathologically replace real-world consumption with the consumption of fantasy. Steins;Gate, in which Akihabara is transformed into a fantasy space and then broken down into a database of glossary terms and collectible background images, would seem to support this definition.

And yet I don’t think that’s the whole story. Even though the metadiegetic features of the game seem to embrace the consumption of fantasy, the actual story and gameplay emphasize a genuine sense of friendship and community. The default ending of the game is considered a bad ending because it erases the friendships Okabe has created and replaces the sense of belonging to a broader community of otaku with a solipsistic focus on a single romantic relationship. Therefore, I’d say that what Steins;Gate is really about is inviting to player to join the community of otaku centered around Akihabara; or, if the player already is one of these otaku, to solidify his (or her) sense of being a part of something larger.

Personally, I spent a lot of time in Akihabara during the spring and summer of 2008 (when the game was written), as well as in the summer of 2010 (when the game is set), so it gave me a series case of the warm fuzzy nostalgia feels. I also think it’s cool that this particular moment in Japanese fandom history can boast such a lovingly crafted memorial. This is probably possible because it’s tied so strongly to an actual physical location that exists in the real world. When you think of otaku in the mid-2000s, you think of Akihabara.

What would be the equivalent for English-language fandom, I wonder…?

Probably something like Svetlana Chmakova’s 2007 OEL manga Dramacon, or perhaps Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 YA novel Fangirl.

Both of these American stories have female narrators, which is interesting. I think the opposite of “fan” is not necessarily “mundane” or “Muggle” or “ria-kei” (“reality type,” meaning someone who doesn’t care for genre fiction and lives wholly in consensus reality), but rather “professional.” In the discourse surrounding otaku in the 2000s, male fans were defined by their refusal to become professional animators, artists, or game developers; they wore their “dame ningen” (“uselessness”) badges proudly. In America, passionate fans have a tendency to become professionals, especially if they’re male. It used to be very rare to see female directors, artists, and developers; the women fooling around and doing amazing work on Livejournal were considered somewhat pathetic.

All of has changed during the past five years, on both sides of the Pacific (thank goodness). In this sense Steins;Gate the game functions almost like a time machine, allowing the player to travel back into history of Japanese otaku fandom.

( Header image by Shietsu on Pixiv )

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