The argument can be made that a visual novel is not really a video game, at least not in the conventional sense. After all, when playing a game, most of us expect, well, gameplay. Or, in the case of a verbose adventure game, you at least expect the appearance that your decisions affect the experience. Steins;Gate follows the format of a conventional visual novel, but inserts just enough actions to make it feel like a video game. While you spend most of the experience in the back seat, Steins;Gate’s interesting story and charming characters combine with just enough interactive elements to create a rewarding experience.
The main protagonist is Rintaro, a slightly delusional yet extremely likeable wannabe scientist. Not just any scientist, but a mad scientist. His obsession with the illusion of power, of affecting the history of mankind as a key player in the evolution of the world – on the surface these might seem like just another video game character’s illusions of grandeur, but the personality quirks and mannerisms of his search for truth give credence to the overall plan.
It’s easy to care about Rintaro. Yes, he’s rude, curt, quick to anger, and a purveyor of useless inventions. But something about the way he carries himself when relating to other characters just works. This is especially evident through the first half of the game with his interactions with Mayuri, his slow-witted laboratory member (or “lab mem” as Rintaro calls his helpers, in one of many attempts to up the coolness factor of their work). Maybe it’s just a result of her clueless reactions, but it feels like a well-orchestrated comedy. Despite being overstated at every turn, their exchanges still feel real and ooze charm.
Take an example in the picture on the right. Rintaro had just scolded another character for not knowing what an object was, and then proceeded to describe it with a sloppy mess of words.
The supporting cast also brings in characters that feel real, if a little exaggerated. After first meeting a seemingly one-dimensional character in Mayuri, the game fleshes out her personality through some humorous exchanges. Her insistence on calling Rintaro “Okarin” (which is in fact his real name), her little “Tuturu” sounds when she arrives or leaves, and her innocent reactions to innuendos all mesh together to form a surprisingly likable character.
Itaru is Rintaro’s right-hand man, and is a bonafied computer hacker. Not, as Rintaro jokingly insults him by using the terminology of “computer hacka,” (which is basically a wannabe computer hacker), but actually the real deal. He may be a whiz at hacking, but he is a failure at socializing, shown through his method of turning regular statements into a perverted suggestion at every opportunity. These tendencies work in line with his character, and he provides a great counterpoint to Rintaro’s lack of scientific expertise.
A helpful interactive element is the ability to look through a glossary of Japanese terms that foreign audiences otherwise might not understand. That is how we’re informed to the difference of the “hacka” term, and it’s a helpful feature throughout the campaign. It adds some authenticity to the experience to leave terms as they were instead of trying to find an English equivalent, and the localization effort is commendable.
Steins;Gate regularly makes fun of its own characters, and no one is immune from light jabs. Once, Itaru says that Rintaro should be an actor, which was a hilarious assertion in the context of what was happening.. Rintaro occasionally fakes conversations on his phone in order to display importance, and though it might sound stupid, it almost always evokes a chuckle.
At it’s core, Steins;Gate is about time travel. It’s about seeing things around us that others do not. Much of the plot revolves around a historical character who asserted that he traveled back in time from the year 2036 in a modified time machine in order to fix upcoming problems. Less dramatic then your typical Terminator plotline, Steins;Gate takes a more serious approach to the issue, positing hypothetical theorems on how time travel might actually be possible. To the lay person, the scientific explanations seem feasible and thus more interesting then we have come to expect from this sort of plot line.
Going much further into the storyline would be spoiling the main reason for playing the game, but suffice to say that it is an interesting and enjoyable experience. Explanations never get overly technical, and the strong personalities of various characters makes for a fun ride. Occasionally the story hits a snag here and there, but it’s never more than a hitch on an otherwise smooth ride. If you enjoy the visual novel experience, then do yourself a favor and pick up Steins;Gate.