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What would you say if you had the opportunity to send a message to someone from the past? And what effect might that have on the present? That's the core question at the heart of Steins;Gate, an influential and popular work of interactive fiction from Japanese developers 5pb. and Nitroplus.

Unfolding from the perspective of participant narrator Rintarou Okabe, Steins;Gate tells a complex, nuanced, and multifaceted tale that successfully blends the mundanity of normal, everyday life in Japan with a highly creative take on that staple of speculative fiction: time travel.

Okabe is an inventor; at least, he likes to think he is. Or, rather, he believes he is the "insane mad scientist Hououin Kyouma," and takes great delight in bellowing this overdramatically at anyone who will listen. His friends and acquaintances, however, tend to regard him more as a chuunibyou: a delusional individual who believes he has special powers and is somehow set apart from the rest of the world. They tolerate his peculiar behaviour and apparent paranoia, however, and stand by him: while he may not quite be the "insane mad scientist" he likes to make himself out to be, it's apparent that he has at least a certain degree of talent with inventing, even if his creations don't quite end up doing what he originally intended them to do.

The invention which kicks off the events of Steins;Gate is the PhoneWave: a device which, as the rather literal (and, as Okabe is fond of pointing out, "subject to change") name implies, allows busy people to phone their microwave in advance and get it to cook things for them. It would perhaps be a good idea were it not for the necessity of actually being in the same room as the device to put the food in it, thereby negating the convenience of being able to operate it with a cellphone, but its culinary abilities (or lack thereof) are not the most interesting thing about the PhoneWave. Rather, it's the unintended side-effect Okabe and his "Future Gadget Lab" team uncovers that begins a rather unusual series of events.

It transpires that the PhoneWave makes it possible to send email messages to the past—a phenomenon which Okabe and his friends come to describe as "DMails." Through some experimentation, Okabe discovers firsthand that the butterfly effect is very much a real thing: even the most mundane-seeming DMail can have a profound effect on what is to come at the time it is received. And those effects are not always predictable: as Okabe attempts to prevent the death of brilliant young scientist Kurisu Makise by making use of DMails even without fully understanding them, he finds himself following "worldlines" that are more and more divergent from what he knows as his original existence. He discovers something else strange, too: he's the only one who retains memories of these other worldlines; the incarnations of his friends that he encounters each time one of these changes happens believe that things have always been the way they are on their particular worldline.

It's a mind-bending narrative for sure, but it throws up some interesting philosophical questions, and is all the more powerful for being a somewhat more plausible take on temporal manipulation than more outlandish works of speculative fiction dealing with similar subject matter. Okabe makes for an excellent protagonist with a considerable degree of growth throughout the story: at the outset, it's not at all clear whether or not he is genuinely insane, or whether he's just living in his own fantasy world as a means of escaping his real-life existence; as things get further and further away from his "home" existence, however, he becomes a sympathetic figure, drawing the reader in as he gets further and further out of his depth but continues to try and do the right thing.

Okabe's not the only interesting character, however. Leading lady Kurisu cuts an intimidating figure with her good looks and sharp wit, but she's humanised through occasional displays of weakness—particularly when it comes to her inadvertently revealing her own personal interests that she'd rather keep private. Meanwhile, Okabe's long-suffering best friend and talented computer programmer Daru eschews the bishounen pretty-boy type usually seen in Japanese visual novels and anime, and is instead presented as an overweight, bespectacled young man with scruffy hair. Rather than being a figure of ridicule, however, as such characters are sometimes represented, Daru is thoughtfully and sensitively handled by the narrative as an important character in the overall plot—and the real brains behind Okabe's operation.

Where Steins;Gate particularly shines, however, is in its setting. The entire narrative unfolds in Tokyo's Akihabara district, a region renowned for its variety of anime, games, and computer parts shops, and the area undergoes a number of changes throughout the story due to the shifting worldlines. The narration and dialogue are appropriately awash in cultural references to anime, games, and Internet culture, but manages to rescue itself from being impenetrable and exclusive to those less familiar with these things through the use of an extensive interactive glossary system, with terms being added as they're first mentioned by characters.

In this way, Steins;Gate manages to maintain a consistently authentic tone throughout without locking prospective readers out for not having done their homework before they start. In fact, the glossary is such an interesting read that the localized English version of the game as a whole actually acts as a good primer for Japanese popular culture; it covers everything from relatively commonplace cultural terminology to memes and emoticons found on popular Japanese message boards such as 2channel.

Another noteworthy aspect of this is that the narrative itself makes use of real-life myths, conspiracy theories, and urban legends, presenting possible explanations for them that are plausible within the context of the game's more speculative aspects. Take the legend of John Titor, for example, which concerns a series of online bulletin board posts that appeared in the early years of the twenty-first century where the author claimed to be a time traveller from 2036: one of the plot threads throughout Steins;Gate explores this very legend and attempts to give a possible explanation for it. Elsewhere, it speculates on the plausibility of conspiracy theories surrounding the true purpose of the Large Hadron Collider and the CERN organization in Europe. And many of these threads are intertwined, weaving around one another to create a complex but coherent picture of what is really going on.

The narrative also acknowledges and addresses a number of modern-day social issues surrounding Japanese popular culture—and popular culture in general—and does so without judgement, allowing the reader to make up their own mind about how they feel. Otaku culture—the passionate fandom for aspects of Japanese popular culture such as anime, games, and visual novels—is celebrated as vibrant, exciting and fun to be a part of, particularly in its spiritual home of Akihabara, but the shadier side of this part of society is also reflected in the game through its acknowledgement of the existence of less salubrious individuals such as low-angle photographers and serial harassers. Meanwhile, the narrative thread surrounding the character Luka explores questions of gender dysphoria, how you might be treated differently according to your physical appearance and your gender, and how it's sometimes difficult to feel completely comfortable in your own skin.

Steins;Gate is an ambitious and, at times, audacious piece of interactive fiction, then, and the multi-path visual novel format proves to be an excellent and entirely appropriate means of telling its story. Mechanically, the format is in keeping with the core concept of divergent worldlines; from a narrative perspective, meanwhile, it presents the reader with ample opportunities to explore the story's events from a variety of different angles, shining the spotlight on each of the main characters in turn. They all have an interesting story to tell, and Okabe provides a fascinating pair of eyes through which to observe these events unfolding, even if his somewhat idiosyncratic nature is initially jarring to ride along with.

It's a complex and lengthy story—particularly if you want to see all the different narrative paths and endings—but it's a journey through time and across worldlines that is well worth taking. Its influential position in Japanese popular culture is well-deserved; now, thanks to the 2014 localization of the Windows PC version and the 2015 port to PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita platforms, English speakers around the world can explore this strange and wonderful tale of temporal meddling for themselves. Just don't expect to look at your microwave in quite the same way ever again.

Pete Davison is a lifelong gamer, occasional teacher, struggling musician, and passionate enthusiast of Japanese media, and popular culture. His past work has appeared on sites including GamePro, USgamer, and IGN. He lives and works in Southampton, UK.

Pete Davison is a lifelong gamer, occasional teacher, struggling musician, and passionate enthusiast of Japanese media, and popular culture. His past work has appeared on sites including GamePro, USgamer, and IGN. He lives and works in Southampton, UK.
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27 Jul 2020

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