I have a strange relationship with visual novels. Not that I’ve played a lot, but I have played enough to understand what I look for in said visual novels. And for me, it’s usually a hit or miss situation.I had a friend who introduced me to Kara No Shoujo and swore by it, telling me unabashedly how great it was and how the story and it characters moved him; shook him to his very foundation and left a gaping maw in his heart once he’d finished it. Naturally, I was very excited after hearing that heartfelt speech (which was in the form of a Facebook message) and quickly downloaded it and started playing.
After several hours, I came out confused, fresh out of getting a ‘bad ending’. And I found myself upset, but not because the game was bad.
It was pretty good in fact, but once I reached one of the bad endings I found myself disinterested in reloading a save and continuing on my merry way. Once this happens, I already know that I’m probably never going to play this Visual Novel again. Ever. And I was right, because hours after that, I googled Kara No Shoujo’s endings and binge watched them all, or read he summary of each character’s wiki page to find out what happened.
The conclusion? I was upset because this visual novel didn’t move me like I wanted it too.
That’s the thing with VN’s, setting your expectations too high can be dangerous. You go in, pulse racing and mouth chapped – expecting to get a beautifully crafted story that brings tears to your eyes and creates fond memories for you to relate to anyone who ever mentions that they want to play a Visual novel – and instead come back feeling unsatisfied.
Can’t imagine it? Here, let me put this into perspective.
Imagine that you found a pretty, expensive looking rock in the middle of the street. You pick it up, marveling at its gorgeous exterior and quickly shuffle off to some jewelry shop to get it inspected. On the way there, you show it to everyone who passes, and their ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ only fuel your single minded determination. You barge into the store and demand for it to be inspected. Your head fills with visions of yourself basking under the cool shade of a palm tree in the Maldives, surrounded by everything you wanted but couldn’t get.
‘It must be worth millions!’ You think.
…and you leave the store several hours later, with the knowledge that what you picked up was but in fact, a pretty but worthless stone.
Wouldn’t you feel upset? I know I would.
This brings me to the game Steins;Gate. It’s 2016 and at this point you can pretty much find praises of this VN on literally every website that reviews such games. I decided that this game was worth a shot, so I bought a new copy of it off Ebay. My expectations were hovering somewhere above ‘reasonably interested’ and ‘cynically cautious’.
I understand that not everyone will like the same thing, so a 10/10 for someone might be a miserable 6/10 for me. You can usually see examples of this on VN store pages on steam, where the number of people who enjoyed it seem to rival the number of people who didn’t.
So with trepidation, I launched the game on my vita and felt my fingers hovering over the ‘Start’ button of the main screen.
Playing steins gate was like stumbling out of the swamp for the first time, and breathing in the fresh, unpolluted air.
The story starts out slow and builds itself up slowly, meticulously, as if the slightest thread would cause it to unravel upon itself. It spends time introducing the characters, a cast which I loved very, very much. As the hours trickled by, they became not just characters.
It was like they stepped out of the screen, plucking themselves out of this flat, and one dimensional glass and stretched a greeting hand towards me.
I felt like I was there in the Future gadget laboratory, lounging lazily somewhere as I listened to Okabe’s nonsensical rants. I cringed when Okabe and Kurisu argued, and laughed at Mayuri’s adorable Tutturu! and snorted at Daru’s ridiculous comments which toed the line between stupid and hilarious.
I rested underneath the shade of a tree and watched as Lukako practiced his sword, I exchanged mails with Moeka – how tiring yet fun it was, and visited the Mayqueen Nyan Nyan café to cheer Faris on as she beat the ever living crap out of Otakus by winning games they were supposed to be masters at. I was there with Suzuha, watching as the conflicting emotions in her chest tore out a little piece of her heart at every turn, her hope pounded into ash again and again, yet built up once more like it was the trick of a slight of hand.
Every single one of them, was as real as they could ever be, the sounds of their happiness and despair ringing loudly in my ears even after the vita was turned off, and set aside to be charged so that I could reenter that world once more.
This is not the first Visual novel I’ve played, but it certainly is the first to make me feel so deeply. The story, its characters, they engage you in a way that keeps you coming back for more, and throw some pretty mean curveballs that can shatter your heart. And then they tape those pieces back together, and shatter them again, the spray of shrapnel even further this time.
The Art is like whip cream on top of a sundae, simple and yet, adds to the overall beauty of the final product. The backgrounds are crisp and memorable, and so are the character designs. Small details such as the colour of each character’s eyes, the subtle way the edges of their mouth curve up or down or their eyebrows furrow or straighten – they all add up and helped make Steins;Gate the greatest experience I’ve ever had.
The music is impeccable as well, with OSTs like ‘Solitude’ and ‘Believe’ really pulling at your heart strings. They do not take away from the experience, but adds to it like adding a spice in an already delicious dish, bringing out more of its exquisite flavour.
You want my advice? Get this game. Even if you don’t love it as much as I do, or enjoy it as much as I do, it’s one of those games which will leave an impression no matter what. The only thing worse than not enjoying this game, is not playing it.