Hacking into the gate
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Ceylon Today Features
Visual novels are a great way to spend free time during winter holidays. They don't take a lot of storage space, they don't need powerful machines to run, and they are relatively cheap. Also, some of them have the best stories put into a digital medium and can easily be worthy of episodic series and even movies. However, the grass is not all green.
Steins;Gate is such a title. It is an award winning visual novel that was adapted into an animated series, a spinoff movie, novels and even a comic. When it was first released in 2009 in Japan, the game was well received and won the game of excellence award. When the English version was released, it received much praise; with USGamer giving five out of five stars and GameFan praised the plot as "outstanding", "well written" and "the best storyline in a game released this year". It also was the seventh, highest rated PC game of 2014. A huge accomplishment for a game where players can only answer phone calls and read text messages.
Steins;Gate is a visual novel, and as every visual novel, players read text dialogue and narration while getting the odd choice to make choices that continue the story. In this sense, visual novels are more like a choose-your-own-adventure with voice acting, music and visuals. Therefore, it isn't what can be considered compelling gameplay. Instead, visual novels give complete focus to perfecting its story.
In that sense this is a story that comes close to perfection. This is impressive because of the subject material that Steins;Gate covers: Time travel. Making a time travel story is relatively easy and has been a common topic among science fiction writers. Some have even become iconic franchises such as Back To The Future, Doctor Who, Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure are great examples.
As of lately, video games have also taken interest in the concept with games such as Life is Strange becoming widely popular. However, a game that focuses on the consequences of time travel and its real-time effects have rarely been brought out.
In fact, there is a good reason to that; making such a story is tough and is extremely complicated. Effort made trying to make the narrative cohesive can damage the effort taken to work on the characters, dialogue and other points that should be given attention.
However, Steins;Gate manages to strike a balance with a cohesive narrative, great characters, punchy dialogue and plenty of variety. Each character is full of individual quirks that are over the top, but still remain grounded in the story.
The protagonist is Okabe Rintarou; a youth who is delusional enough to act as a mad scientist on the run from a mysterious organization. However, the reason he maintains the fantasy is to provide emotional support to his friend who lost a dear family member and had a hard time coping with the fact. He founds his own laboratory but in fact only tinkers with electronics with his campus friend. However, it is evident that both hold prowess in technology and electrical engineering to some extent.
The story begins when he discovers a dead body, and sends a text message to his friend, telling of his find, only to discover the next day that the person he found dead is now alive. He finds out that his friend had his phone attached to a modified microwave oven at the time of receiving, which happened to move his message received date about a week before. Okabe comes to the conclusion that his message was transmitted to the past and begins to experiment with this new discovery.
However, his celebration of discovering Time manipulation is short lived when the experimentation sets the causality of the world to unravel, causing a dystopian future or triggering World War III and making the protagonist's choices directly causing the assassination or capture of his friends and himself. Okabe then has to somehow correct his influences and return to his original reality, even if it costs the happiness of his friends.
However, the story has its hiccups. While being compelling, it isn't what many can consider entertaining. If the demo release doesn't pique your interest, it probably won't be enough to grab the attention hard enough that players can ignore how long it takes for the story to accelerate, even if it picks up speed as fast as the new Tesla Roadster.
The game mechanics can also be confusing. Unlike traditional visual novels, the choices are made based on the replies players choose for received text messages. Also, at times, players have to manually activate the time manipulation machine, which sometimes is hard to realize, causing critical changes to the narrative.
Steins;Gate isn't easy to complete, or achieve the true ending. This can cause frustration by having to travel back in time by loading a saved point and continuing again; which is actually a good point here. It easily makes the protagonist's frustration in having to time travel over and over again to figure out how to save his friends be felt by the player.
This is a great story and has a huge amount of content to be experienced. However, if the effort is too much, one can always turn toward the anime adaptation, which follows the true ending and is also considered a masterpiece.
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