Have you ever accidentally turned your microwave into a time machine? If not, you’re probably living a quieter life than the cast of Steins;Gate, a visual novel set in Tokyo back in 2010. It follows the story of Okabe Rintaro, a university student whose day-to-day life consists of little more than making pointless inventions, dubbed Future Gadgets, and obsessing over the idea that he is under constant threat from what he calls The Organization. That all changes, of course, when he stumbles across a means of time travel.
Joining Okabe throughout the game’s lengthy story are his fellow Future Gadgets Laboratory members. What begins as an accidental experimentation with time travel soon grows to encompass a worldwide conspiracy. On a more personal level, the story deals with issues like PTSD, emotional trauma, love and gender identity. It can be surprisingly brutal at times, and Okabe’s manipulation of the timelines to help his friends and colleagues often result in some of the most moving scenes I’ve experienced in a game.
As absurd as its story can be, Steins;Gate Elite plays out in a fairly typical visual novel fashion, with a few slight changes from its original version. You can no longer pull out Okabe’s phone and interact with it at will; you’ll only see it when you receive one of the many text messages you’ll get from the supporting cast. How you respond to these conversations, and if you choose to respond at all, is Steins;Gate’s means of letting you influence the story.
Like most visual novels, you’ll have to play your cards right if you want to see the true ending. There are several ending routes tied to particular characters, many of which are attached to very obvious yes-or-no choices, but it’s your text message interactions that play the most important part overall. My only major complaint about the story is that it’s very jargon-heavy. It’s still perfectly coherent, but be ready for plenty of physics-related terminology and lengthy explanations of concepts in the field.
Although Steins;Gate boasts an incredibly compelling story, it’s the cast the truly shines. Okabe, initially introduced as a loudmouth buffoon, becomes gradually more endearing as you learn more about his motivations. Likewise, his right-hand man and Super Hacker ally Daru might seem like your typical otaku pervert character, but he ends up being a surprisingly deep and well-developed character as the plot progresses. There’s something frustratingly compelling about watching Okabe’s relationship with his friends developed, occasionally helped or hindered by his time travel exploits. How do you form lasting relationships, after all, when time travel erases everyone’s memories but yours?
From Okabe’s fellow lab members to the game’s miscellaneous cast, everyone affects the story in surprising ways. Even the game’s antagonists, when they’re finally revealed, are difficult to hate; more than anything, they’re all people with their own struggles before they’re anything close to resembling good or evil. I was surprised to find that almost every character in the game, no matter how inconsequential they might appear at first, has an important role to play. Even its final hours, the story continued to surprise me, mostly because the characters themselves were so nuanced and complex.
Unlike the original version of the game, which uses static backgrounds and character portraits to tell its tale, the upgraded Steins;Gate Elite does away with the traditional style entirely. Instead, footage from the game’s anime adaptation has been used to give the story a more cinematic feel. Every scene and conversation now plays out as a sort of visual novel/anime hybrid. It isn’t perfect – you’ll see a lot of reused animations and images by the end of the game – but it certainly does lend a certain level of immersion to the experience.
On the other hand, there’s something about the original game’s visual novel style that made the game so engrossing. Sure, the static images didn’t do a whole lot for exposition on their own, but that’s the nature of the genre. The appeal is in the story itself – the rest is just flavour. While seeing everything animated does help immerse you in the story, it can also be a little jarring. These aren’t the most high-quality animations you’ll ever see – that’s not to say they’re ugly, mind you – and it can especially spoil the mood in a crucial scene when you see characters off to one side with crudely drawn faces or strangely unnatural movements.
Like the changes to how you use Okabe’s phone to interact with the game, certain other minor elements have been adjusted. Certain scenes with Mayuri and Kurisu, two of the game’s most prominent characters, have been moved from the main story route and into each character’s respective ending path. One particular person, perhaps the closest to a forgettable character the game has, has been removed from the game entirely, likely because they didn’t appear in the anime and so there’s consequently no footage of them to use.
In every way that counts, Steins;Gate Elite is Steins;Gate all over again, just with a different look. For visual novel purists, the original version may well be more appealing, but it’s certainly true that Elite’s animated cutscenes do help bring the characters to life. Whichever version you prefer the sound of, you can’t go wrong with Steins;Gate. From its riveting, conspiracy-filled story and lovable characters to its beautiful designs and moving soundtrack, this is more than just the pinnacle of the genre: Steins;Gate is easily one of the most compelling narrative experiences in a video game.