New Cane and Rinse contributor Charlotte Cutts embraces the complexities of Steins;Gate. Warning – spoilers ahead!
My estrangement from all things scientific was rather tragic.
What started out as a beautiful romance during my early teens quickly fizzled out as my interest in other topics (e.g. languages) grew. Before long, I was binning my chemistry textbooks, which is the academic version of deleting Facebook pictures of your ex, and throwing myself headfirst into the humanities.
Seven years after I left school, the last thing I was expecting was for a visual novel to rekindle my relationship with all things whizzy-bang-bang, particularly astrophysics and neuroscience.
Steins;Gate is a heavily stylised visual novel developed by 5pb and Nitroplus (creators of the equally violent and wacky Chaos;Head and Robotics;Notes). It combines otaku jokes, a beautiful watercolour-like art style, and a story which I found to be both entertaining and difficult to wrap my head around at the best of times.
You follow mad scientist-in-training Rintaro Okabe around Akihabara, the tech and anime district of Tokyo, as he busies himself inventing useless appliances. Upon probing into a malfunction of the laboratory’s microwave oven with his fellow lab recruits, he discovers that he has accidentally invented a primitive time machine.
Worryingly, he also discovers that SERN (a fictionalised version of CERN) are involved in a plot to use time travel for nefarious ends. As the story progresses, you will question whether the various forms of time travel referred to in the story could make the world a better place, or lead us all to destruction and despair.
The player can influence the plot by choosing between responses to text messages received by Okabe from the other characters. This is often referred to as the ‘phone trigger’ system.
As you would expect, a plot which picks up steam on the discovery of a time-travelling microwave is not exactly wedded to the idea of scientific accuracy. However, the game leans heavily on real-life scientific theories, and the ways in which the game handled these ideas fascinated me to the extent that I wanted to research them after I had finished the game. I’ll proceed to discuss three of these theories below, hopefully in a clear manner – though not using eroge, which is sidekick Daru’s usual request in-game.
You might be well-advised to stay away from this game if fanservice and lewd references get under your skin.
Kerr black holes
Your bog-standard black hole is an area of space that has such a strong gravitational pull that it drags everything nearby inside of it; nothing within a black hole can escape. There are some truly horrifying nightmare scenes in Steins;Gate where Okabe dreams that he is being sucked into one of these bad boys.
So, how is this relevant? Basically, the theory of time travel which Steins;Gate’s plot ascribes to uses a special type of black hole. Kerr black holes have extremely high mass and have ‘angular momentum’ – in other words, they rotate around a point.
Combine two of these rotating black holes and you would have what is called a ring singularity. The rotating movement of these collapsed stars would theoretically make the area within safe to enter, meaning that instead of being mashed into a cube upon entry, you would emerge somewhere else at a different point in time. In other words, you would engage in physical time travel.
This theory is used to explain what is going on with their microwave when it starts to teleport their food and convert it into a jellified mess. Given that they had been experimenting on making the microwave remote-controlled via telephone – this is where the completely barmy science steps in – the fields from both the microwave itself and the mobile combine to recreate the Kerr black hole conditions within the microwave.
Inject in a burst of energy from a CRT TV screen in the hardware shop downstairs, and you have a surprisingly naff time machine. All I can add is that you shouldn’t try this at home unless you want your landlord and/or significant other to kill you.
Steins;Gate at its core deals with the issue of ethical time travel and the consequences of royally messing it up. Thus, you can’t play Steins;Gate without poring over the Grandfather Paradox. The voice of reason in the game, your ‘lab assistant’ Kurisu, even uses this theory as a reason why time travel cannot be a reality, before Okabe shows her the error of her ways.
The Grandfather Paradox is the idea that untenable inconsistencies can develop if people go back in time and change things. It’s closely linked to the Butterfly Effect (the theory, not that 2004 Ashton Kutcher movie).
It is called the Grandfather Paradox because it focusses on the difficulties that would arise if you went back in time and killed your own grandfather, meaning that one of your parents would not be born and, by extension, you would not be born.
There have been arguments since the 1930s as to whether the Grandfather Paradox means that time travel is impossible, or whether the future would simply modify itself around the changes implemented in the past.
The time machines which Okabe creates (one which can send data into the past and one which can send memories into the past) both flirt with the Grandfather Paradox, since they influence the recipient based in the past to act differently than how they otherwise would have acted.
The crew argue over whether this is as problematic, and therefore as unethical, as physically transporting themselves back in time, but in the end Okabe comes to realise that any form of time travel has its dangers. Maybe even mad scientists should not mess with time.
While nobody goes back in time to murder their own grandfather, an email gets sent back in time to change a character’s sex – by persuading the character’s mother to eat more vegetables during her pregnancy. Yes, really.
Even Big Bang Theory-watching dunces like myself will have heard of the multiverse theory before. This is the idea that there are multiple, possibly infinite, universes occurring all at the same time, with infinite possibilities as to what might be happening in those universes.
The multiverse theory is certainly brought up in Steins;Gate and is touted by Okabe as a possible explanation for what is going on when he sends emails/memories back in time. At the climax of the storyline, when all the pieces of the puzzle start falling into place, the multiverse theory is partly borrowed from and partly discarded. What is actually going on in the Steins;Gate story is closer to alternate realities.
In Steins;Gate, there are millions of “worldlines” (so, alternative sets of events, rather than multiple universes occurring simultaneously). These worldlines are split into groups.
Within each group, the world lines diverge from one another, displaying slightly different or wildly different turns of events. At certain points, the world lines in a particular group will converge, resulting in identical (usually major) events taking place in all of these world lines. Time travel involves jumping between these world lines, or even from one group of world lines to another, though this requires more work. The characters illustrate this with the help of multiple pieces of yarn, with each strand containing multiple threads.
How alternative timelines theory is explained in Steins;Gate. Knitting and astrophysics is a rather unexpected combination – perhaps even more so than the combining of visual novels and astrophysics.
If you wish to avoid an event which happens at a point where the worldlines are completely separate, then it is a fairly simple procedure.
To avoid an event which occurs at a convergence point (with these events usually being significant historical events), the time-traveller must jump to a different group of worldlines. Because this is such a drastic measure, it may take several journeys, each of which slowly chip away at the traveller’s sanity and grasp on reality. Time travel in Steins;Gate is certainly dangerous work.
Now that I have hopefully not fried your brain, I’ll give you my overall verdict on Steins;Gate as a science fiction game.
I think it’s pretty top-notch, and goes into great depth without completely overwhelming novices. There is the odd occasion where concepts aren’t explained with exceptional clarity, but the basics are dealt with competently enough. You’re unlikely to get lost or give up.
Steins;Gate as a whole is a little more difficult to recommend. While the art style is wonderful and the story is compelling, you’ll need to be able to look past the slightly perverted approach by which it handles the source material. If you can get past the smut and cringeworthy innuendo, then it’s well worth a go.