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 )

Steins;Gate – Chapter Nine

Suzuka Amane and Moeka Kiryuu Standoff

Chapter Nine is Moeka Kiryū’s chapter. This is where the game gets really dark.

Spoilers to follow.

When Okabe arrives in this timeline from Luka’s timeline, his objective is to cancel the effects of the D-Mail that Moeka sent to herself, the purpose of which was to convince herself to not buy a new cellphone. Okabe tracks down Moeka’s address and follows it to find a small, shabby apartment building surrounded by police cars. Moeka has apparently committed suicide.

Okabe time leaps to two days before Moeka killed herself. He goes to her apartment to find the door unlocked and Moeka huddled against the wall in a near catatonic state. She refuses to surrender her cell phone, so Okabe physically overwhelms her while abusing her verbally. At one point her shirt falls open, and a bit later he kisses her. Yeah.

The violence is upsetting but understandable, as Okabe has witnessed Moeka shooting Mayuri several times. Her sexualization makes little practical sense, however. Not only is it gross and unnecessary, but Okabe could have restrained her by tying her up; he didn’t need to choke her and then lay on top of her. Or, even if he did, the game didn’t need to drag out this scene for almost an hour.

Anyway, Okabe eventually learns that Moeka’s handler from SERN was “Mister Braun,” the man who owns the television store on the first floor of the building Okabe is renting to house his Future Gadget Lab. Moeka had been driven to despair because her handler had stopped communicating with her. She was extremely lonely and isolated, and he was the only friend and support system she had. When Okabe and Moeka confront the man, he tells them that SERN “erases” anyone who successfully retrieves the computer model Moeka had been searching for, implying that he was ignoring her in order to protect her. He then commits suicide rather than be hunted and killed by SERN agents.

The fun isn’t over yet. Mister Braun’s daughter Nae witnesses his suicide, and it affects her so deeply that she joins SERN and becomes the person who kills and tortures Okabe in the timeline that Suzuha had gone back in time to change.

At the end of the chapter, Okabe is confronted with the deepest tragedy of the game: If he cancels his final D-Mail to save Mayuri, then the timeline will revert to its original state at the very beginning of the game in which Kurisu is murdered. What the game doesn’t make explicit is that the original timeline will be very difficult to navigate, since Kurisu will not go on to invent the technology that allows Okabe to make time leaps. If Kurisu dies, then there will be no way to save Mayuri if she dies as well.

The theme that’s emerging isn’t so much that SERN is evil, as the player knew that already. Instead, what the player is being led to realize is that time travel itself creates nothing but pain. By traveling back in time, Okabe is only hurting himself and other people. He has, by this point in the game, abandoned his silly chuunibyou persona of “Houin Kyouma,” as there is very little room for self-gratifying fantasy in the actual trauma and chaos he is experiencing.

Speaking of chuunibyou, I found a really cool essay on how Okabe deliberately uses his constructed delusions to smooth over awkward social situations and help his friends deal with their own emotional pain:

http://sekijitsu.com/2013/09/18/steins-gate-and-chuunibyou-delusions-fears-and-other-ambitions/

There are tons of spoilers in this essay, but I think it’s brilliant and 100% correct in its reading of chuunibyou as a social coping mechanism rather than an actual psychological illness.

( Header image from El Psy Congroo on Tumblr )

Steins;Gate – Chapters Seven and Eight

Mayushii by Arios

This post contains major spoilers.

I now know a little more about how endings work in Steins;Gate. Beginning with Chapter 6, the player has the option to end the game with that chapter or to continue. The objective of the game is to save Mayuri from dying. In order to do so, however, Okabe must undo the changes to the timeline he has made so far. All but the first of these changes were made by one of the women in his life, and so the process of undoing each change necessitates an extended period of interaction with that particular character. If Okabe chooses to preserve this woman’s happiness over Mayuri’s life, it’s game over. Okabe gets a temporarily happy ending with the secondary character, but Mayuri will die, and the fate of the world itself will still be uncertain.

As far as I understand it, this is the main plot of the game…

Okabe and Daru go to the Radio Kaikan (an iconic building right outside the Denkigai exit of the JR Akihabara station) to attend a lecture on time travel by Kurisu Makise. After the lecture, Okabe witnesses Kurisu’s death. He receives a text message, and suddenly he is standing alone on Chūōdōri (a busy thoroughfare running through Akihabara). The next thing he knows, Kurisu is alive, and what looks like a giant satellite has crashed into the top floor of Radio Kaikan. Meanwhile, the 2channel message board (@channel in the game) is buzzing with activity surrounding the posts of a user called John Titor, who claims to have traveled back in time to 2010 from 2036. Titor says that the future has become a dystopia controlled by a European research organization called SERN, and that s/he has come to Akihabara to locate a certain rare computer that can crack SERN’s proprietary programming language.

Back at the Future Gadget Lab, a walk-up apartment that Okabe has rented above a vintage television store, Okabe and Daru are experiencing a strange complication with their newest invention, a cell phone controlled microwave. If a certain set of conditions are met, the microwave will transport the food inside back to its original location, albeit in a jellified state. Okabe thinks they have created some sort of teleporter, but it turns out that they have instead stumbled upon a genuine time machine. After Okabe drags Kurisu to the lab, she hypothesizes that, although they cannot send physical objects to the past (as they become jellified), they should be able to send text messages, which they call “D-Mail.” Kurisu’s theory turns out to be correct; but, for some reason, Okabe is the only one who can remember the past before the D-Mail was sent and the present was thereby changed.

He decides to experiment with D-Mail, and he ends up changing the past for a part-timer working in the downstairs store named Suzuha, a maid café catgirl named Faris, a transgender shrine priest/ess named Luka, and a shy journalist named Moeka. Moeka turns out to be an assassin sent by SERN, which wants to exercise sole control over time travel technology. In her attempt to capture Okabe, Kurisu, and Daru, Moeka shoots and kills Okabe’s childhood friend Mayuri. The player’s goal is therefore to manipulate the past in order to change the future to one in which Mayuri lives and SERN does not take over the world.

This is accomplished by means of what is essentially a softcore dating sim.

Chapter 6 is the Suzuha chapter. It turns out that Suzuha is the person who was posting on 2channel as John Titor. She really did come from the future, and the device that crashed into Radio Kaikan is her time machine. Earlier in the game, Okabe had prevented Suzuka from going even farther into the past by sending her a D-Mail, and a rainstorm that happened after she was supposed to have left damaged the device. Daru can fix it, but imperfectly. If Okabe cancels out the D-Mail he sent, Suzuha will continue on to 1975 as she had initially planned. If he doesn’t, the damage to the machine will cause it to malfunction, stranding Suzuha in the past with no memories of her former life or her objective. It’s therefore in everyone’s best interests for the timeline Okabe changed by sending his initial D-Mail to be returned to its former course; but, if he does, then Suzuha will lose the memories of her four days of fun and friendship with the members of the Future Gadget Lab, as well as her memory of meeting the person who will become her father.

In the Suzuha ending, Okabe refuses to sacrifice these memories, and he creates a time loop in which everyone will be perfectly happy during the two days before Mayuri is killed by SERN agents, a moment that Okabe will never allow to arrive.

Likewise, in the Faris and Luka endings, Okabe refuses to sacrifice the memories he creates with the two girls and accepts Mayuri’s death and SERN’s eventual takeover. Faris, who had used a D-Mail to prevent the murder of her father, lives happily with her family, and Okabe gets to sleep with her. Luka, who had used a D-Mail to change her physical sex from male to female (don’t ask), lives her life as her preferred gender, and Okabe gets to sleep with her.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the Chapter 9 ending. Does Okabe end up sleeping with Moeka? Depending on how many “true ending” flags the player has triggered, I assume Okabe sleeps with Mayuri (which is the default) or Kurisu (which takes a bit of special effort) at the end of the game in Chapter 10. If all six of the “true ending” flags are triggered… does he sleep with Daru??

In any case, the male gaze elements of the game make a lot more sense now that I understand it’s supposed to be a dating sim. Earlier, Okabe had groped Kurisu and Luka, walked in on Kurisu and Mayuri in the shower, and been aggressively flirted with by Faris and Moeka. I had been reading scenes like this as bonus fanservice in a story that was essentially about friendship, but it turns out the game is preparing the player to feel sexual attraction toward the characters Okabe has the option of courting. I suppose “visual novels” are created for an intended audience of male otaku (with “otome games” being the BL fangirl equivalent), so I suppose this is in keeping with the genre.

Still, I’m kind of grossed out. In the second half of the game, Okabe becomes increasingly deranged as he witnesses more and more terrible things, and it doesn’t sit well with me that he enters into romantic relationships with the women in his life out of a sense of misplaced guilt. The ending for Chapter 8 felt especially weird and dubiously consensual. Perhaps this weirdness is supposed to hurt and confuse a heterosexual male player as much as it hurt me, but then why would there have been so much fan service in the first half of the game?

( Header image by Arios on Pixiv )

Steins;Gate – Chapters Five and Six

Still Chuunibyou in 2036

I compulsively played about four hours of this game last night. Chapter Five is composed of about 4/10 sci-fi exposition, 5/10 cute people being friends, and 1/10 story upheavals. I was not emotionally prepared for what happened at the end of the chapter, and the shock propelled me all the way through Chapter Six.

At the end of Chapter Six, I got the game’s first possible ending, the Suzuha Amane ending. If triggering one of the endings counts as “beating the game,” then I guess it took me a little less than fourteen hours to beat the game. It almost goes without saying that this is not a “good” ending. It wasn’t explicitly “bad,” but it was still strange and upsetting.

Steins;Gate is incredibly well written. I usually hate stories about time travel, but this one is really good. The idea that multiple parallel or alternate timelines will come together at certain points is called “convergence.” This is not determination, as the point of convergence can be manipulated by various factors, creating “divergence” in the mathematical “attractor field” that ties related timelines together. The math (which really isn’t that different from high school level Calculus wave functions) behind this makes a lot of sense.

What bothers me most about time travel stories is the way they tend to dwell on paradoxes, which mathematically do not exist. Steins;Gate is the first time travel story I’ve encountered that makes a compelling argument concerning how convergence works and how it might be experienced.

Spoiler alert: The experience is accompanied by tears.

Speaking of spoilers, I’m going to be posting them in subsequent entries.

A small spoiler I’ll go ahead and include in this post is that I didn’t write about the character Moeka Kiryū in the previous entry because she annoyed the crap out of me. It turns out that this was intentional; the game wants the player to dislike her. Interestingly, when written in Western order, the name “Moeka Kiryū” can be read as a pun on “is she moé, or will she kill you?”

In any case, it is not a spoiler to say that the plotting and character development in this game is beyond amazing. I’m not entirely sold on visual novels as a genre, but Steins;Gate is brilliant.

( Header image by juozaspo on Tumblr )

Steins;Gate – Chapter Four

Steins;Gate Characters

The writing in this game is so good! I’m a huge fan of all of the characters. They are all my husbands and wives and children.

Rintaro Okabe, the POV character, is so wonderfully emotionally intelligent despite being so deliberately crazypants. He happily suffers from what the game calls “chuunibyou,” an internet slang term from 2channel subculture message boards around the time the game originally came out. Chuunibyou, or “eighth grade sickness,” refers to the sort of delusions of grandeur that can result from watching and reading too much heroic fantasy and science fiction.

(I definitely had chuunibyou all the way through high school, but I’m going to keep my power fantasies to myself. You’re welcome.)

Okabe’s particular chuunibyou delusion is that he’s a mad scientist named Houin Kyouma who is being hunted by an Illuminati-style worldwide conspiracy that he calls “the Organization.” He’s actually eighteen and a freshman in college, and he’s renting a small suite above an electronics store in Akihabara. He calls this “the Future Gadget Lab,” and so far he’s managed to come up with a bunch of junk that does nothing. He shares the space with his two “lab members,” both of whom are actually talented.

Itaru Hashida, or “Daru” (a nickname that references the word darui, meaning “slow, dull, stupid”), is a “super hacker” who genuinely is a super hacker. He’s also an adorable sweetheart who plays ecchi games, and the running gag associated with him is that, whenever one of the female characters says something that could be taken the wrong way, he asks her to repeat it. For example, when Mayuri says, “your banana is soft and squishy” in the first chapter, he gets really excited. Thankfully, he is otherwise respectful of the female characters, so this doesn’t come off as creepy. In terms of actual demonstrated achievements, he’s probably the most intelligent character in the game, and he also delivers a fair amount of exposition both on technology and on 2channel (called @channel in the game) culture.

Mayuri Shiina is the other lab member present from the beginning of the game. She’s a 17-year-old cosplay designer and seamstress whom Okabe has apparently known since the two of them were children. She’s also a kind-hearted person who currently seems to be functioning as the moral center of the game. Since she’s a major airhead, she acts as an entry-point character who forces Okabe and Daru to clarify their objectives and speak in plain language. Off-camera, she’s apparently a bit of a fujoshi, and she lives in Ikebukuro, which is every fangirl’s dream. I think that creating a timeline in which she doesn’t die becomes the player’s main objective, and I also think that her ending is the game’s default ending if the player makes all the obvious choices.

Kurisu Makise, the red-haired girl taking front and center on the game’s box art, is my absolute favorite, as I think she is intended to be. While Daru does a lot of the technical grunt work, Kurise gets to explain all of the cool science fiction concepts relating to time travel. Her voice actress nails this exposition, which is very cleanly written (and translated). In addition to being a 17-year-old genius who has already completed an undergraduate degree at an American university, Kurisu is apparently also a secret lurker on 2channel. She and Okabe initially rub each other the wrong way, but this is probably just so that their attraction to each other has a starting point from which to grow and develop. Although neither of them will admit it, they can’t leave each other alone, and Kurisu becomes the fourth lab member in Chapter Two. She’s not solely defined by her interactions with Okabe but also forms strong friendships with Daru and Mayuri.

“Kurisu” is a weird given name in Japanese, and Okabe calls her “Christina.” Like the English name, “Kurisu” immediately conjures allusions to “Christ” (“Kurisuto” in Japanese). I sincerely hope she’s not going to sacrifice herself and die horribly, but I wouldn’t make any bets against it.

Three other female characters get a nice bit of screentime in this chapter, but that’s all a bit spoilery, and so I won’t discuss it until later.

I know Steins;Gate intentionally contains moé game elements intended to appeal to the male gaze (which I’ll also discuss later), but for the nice thing about moé games is that they pass the Bechdel Test – especially in the original utility of the test, which was meant for lesbians (and other queer ladies) who want to ship female characters with each other. Steins;Gate is filled with female characters who talk to each other about all manner of things. They also shower together, dress and undress each other, and invite each other out on cute little dates. As one does.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, all of the characters in this game are my wives and husbands and children. Playing this game feels like spending time with real friends, and I anticipate being very upset when bad things start happening, as they inevitably will.

( Header image from the Steins;Gate wiki character list page )

Steins;Gate – Chapter Three

Steins;Gate Film Poster

Things have started to happen! The story is getting exciting! The big “Jellyman” reveal at the end of this chapter was super dramatic.

I’m about seven hours into the game. I checked a few forums to figure out how long it takes to finish, and people seem to be averaging between 35 and 40 hours to get the good ending.

I remember having read somewhere that there are multiple endings, but I didn’t know much else about the game going into it. There’s an anime adaptation, but the quality of the first two episodes was so poor that I’m not interested in watching the whole thing. In order to prevent myself from spoiling the story, I didn’t search for any information about the game. However, after consulting a walkthrough linked from various forums…

http://www.usgamer.net/articles/steinsgate-complete-walkthrough-get-all-the-endings-and-achievements

…I’m starting to think that perhaps I should have.

Let me explain how the branching choices in this game work.

Most of the action, which occurs in the form of illustrated dialog, takes place on the main screen. Text appears in a box at the bottom, and character illustrations appear against a background above the text box. Every once in a while, a flash of text at the top of the screen will inform the player that a new term (which has just appeared in the dialog) has been added to the “Tips” (glossary) section of the game menu, which can be pulled onto the left side of the screen with the square button.

The triangle button calls up the main character’s cell phone, which the player can use to read and respond to text messages. The player is notified of a text message by a ringtone, but it is entirely possible to ignore all of the messages that the game’s script doesn’t forcibly require the player to engage with. The player is usually given two or three choices regarding how to respond (although not all messages can be responded to), and these choices are indicated by underlined blue words or expressions in the message. Selecting one word or expression over another triggers a variable response.

Since these responses don’t seem to affect the story playing out on the main screen at all, I assumed that they were merely flavor text. This is not the case. Apparently, the player receives points (or “flags”) for the various characters in the game that determine which character’s ending the player will see.

In any case, these choices are in no way binary or attributed with any moral value, so I can’t imagine how anyone would figure out what specific choice or set of choices triggers a specific ending. I suppose someone somewhere was intensely devoted to obsessive replays and note taking, bless their heart. I’m only going to play this game once, so I guess I’ll see what ending I’ll get.

If Steins;Gate is 35 hours long, and I’m playing an hour a day, it will take me four more weeks to finish the game.

( Header image from skyholic on Tumblr )

Steins;Gate – Chapters One and Two

Steins;Gate

My laptop does not run games of more than 16 bits, so I had to wait until Steins;Gate came out for PS3. Unfortunately, reading the text on my television gives me a headache, so I’m going to have to take the game one hour at a time. This is a visual novel, and there is a lot of text.

Both Chapter One and Chapter Two take about two hours to complete. These are the notes I have so far…

I am a megafan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and have been for years, but it turns out I can also get behind being on the receiving end of an anime voice actress delivering lectures on theoretical physics. Is the “tsundere lecture” an actual kink? Like, am I the only one who is overcome with feels when a girl says “I will explain the superstring theory of time travel to you, but you’re probably too dumb to understand, you stupid baka”? The anime girl in question, Kurisu Makise, is a wonderful character, and I love her.

There’s a recurring joke centered around a male character who presents as female (Ruka Urushibara) that borders on transphobic but actually comes off as amusing considering that the character is treated with an enormous amount of respect by both the game’s protagonist and the game itself. It’s never stated how the character identifies (the English text uses the pronoun “he,” while the Japanese voice acting doesn’t use any pronouns at all), but it’s clear that he has feelings for the male protagonist and is embarrassed about cosplaying as a female character. It might be best to refer to him as “genderqueer,” but regardless, none of the characters really care about or refer to his gender and sexuality outside of their gently teasing jokes, which seem to have more to do with certain aspects of otaku internet culture than they do to do with the actual character.

So far I’ve been reading this game more like a novel than playing it like a game, but in the next few posts I’m going to try to tackle how the “visual novel” gameplay elements function, especially as they affect the story (or stories) being told.

( Header image from the Gamespot forums )