The visual novel Stein’s;Gate, recently released in English translation, is an interesting and in-depth piece of science-fiction, with a believable and interesting take on a time-travel plot. Exploring the idea of being able to send messages to the past to try and convince people to act differently, it both avoids the usual cliches of time paradoxes by limiting the function of its time machine to very recent history and a very small scale, but also creates new questions that it seeks to answer; how can one be sure if a message had its intended effect? Yet aside from this, the real appeal of Stein’s;Gate is its central characters and how they, as people, are key to the plot unfolding as it does. It begins endearing, and rapidly turns dark without these characters particularly changing their behaviour and it is this exposure of the unpleasantness hiding within the protagonist that is more compelling than the conspiracies and science-fiction inventions he is involved with.
Note: This article contains discussion of the plot of Stein’s;Gate as well as discussion of scenes of emotional and physical abuse within the story.
The protagonist is Okabe Rintaro, a student who seems to spend as much of his time as he can living above an old TV shop with a growing cadre of “friends.” He is first introduced by the game as someone who apparently is a secret agent performing undercover operations – but this is quickly shown to be a game he plays entirely within his head, with his imagined persona Hououin Kyouma. For some time this silly insistence that people play along with his fantasies is somewhat endearing; he is a student messing about to have fun, hiring a flat to build pointless mashups of home appliances he gives grandiose names. His friends are in on the joke, if sometimes less willing to play along. It is childish, but hard to judge per se. But in retrospect, once one has played more of the game and seen how Rintaro’s defining feature is his resistance to change – to the point where he is the only person who can remember that history has changed after the fact – it seems from the start less savoury. He has not just not grown up, he actively seeks to annoy and alienate people by refusing to ever be serious – and one wonders, as the story progresses, how willingly his friends have previously gone along with his odd lifestyle.
The story might be outlandish, and Rintaro might be an extreme example of nerdish fantasising, but there is a strange realism to how he uses and, undeniably, abuses his friends. His whole lifestyle is based around the emulation of pulp literature; he is the secret agent, the supervillain, the grand hero and the controlling leader, adding non-existant gravitas to everything he does to make it seem meaningful because his life and friendships are not, otherwise, particularly so. Seeing his choice of friends – for someone who feigns such confidence and arrogance – makes this clear. Mayuri is a friend he has known since he was very young, someone who in her depiction fits all the beats of the typical romance anime childhood friend. She was there when he was sick, she remembers all his idiosyncrasies of childhood.
The problem is she is initially depicted as adorably naïve, and this rapidly ends up feeling like she’s being exploited. She has latched onto Rintaro, and he has latched onto her, rather than there being an organic, two-way friendship. He sees her as someone he can grandstand to who will happily admit she is too stupid to understand his genius but will happily be in awe of it, and almost encourages her to cultivate this useful stupidity. This is made clear by as the plot progresses and moves more firmly into scientific territory she is sidelined, becoming a human voice who nevertheless has no place in Rintaro’s world and so just tends to sit about. It is almost possible to read Mayuri as someone who is mildly developmentally disabled based on implications in how Rintaro describes her actions; when moe archetypes are presented within a pseudo-realistic setting, they suggest vulnerability in ways that are unromantic and more simply concerning – and Rintaro’s utter lack of interest in a duty of care is suddenly much less endearing. Even if Stein’s;Gate is not specifically writing Mayuri as disabled, it is presenting her as someone in need of care who is not receiving it from people she trusts, and who is being exploited by people who should be caring for her. The moe fetish idolises naivete to the point of incapability, aptly embodied by Mayuri, and it is being highlighted starkly here. Rintaro, however, does not specifically objectify Mayuri in a sexual fashion (as his male friend Daru does, in a way), but instead generally undervalues her as a person; her stupidity is useful because it is a largely unquestioning friendship.
His other close friend is Daru, an archetypal, tropishly depicted computer nerd who is fat, sex-hungry and equally happy to if not emotionally abuse Mayuri in the way Rintaro can be read to, happily mock her by having her say sexual things she does not fully understand. The whole way in which the two leading men of Stein’s;Gate discuss and talk to women is hugely toxic; Rintaro belittles them with condescending nicknames he considers compliments, while Daru simply is lecherous. Between them, they create a hostile space for women into which, nevertheless, women are encouraged to enter; chief among them Makise Kurisu, a capable, independent scientist who in herself is a strong and interesting character. Makise is belittled by Rintaro as his “assistant” despite her being more intelligent, more scientifically-minded and generally more suited to taking a leading role in the plot than him. He constantly uses her for her knowledge and methodological thought, while at the same time alienating her with his utter lack of respect. In the fiction in which Rintaro lives, he has a beautiful and willing assistant; in truth he has someone who can barely stand him but nevertheless attempts a continued form of intervention, trying to make him less broken as a person. What he perceives as tsundere standoffishness becomes clear to the reader to be contempt masked by a desire to help someone – and a scientist’s desire to learn more about an unexplained phenomenon, in this case time travel.
Put cynically, it becomes increasingly clear throughout that the “sensible” people who Rintaro chooses to misread are trying to protect him, and others, from his toxic personality. He has the power, in essence, to change peoples’ lives; he is exactly the sort of personality that would try to abuse it. A plotline involving the sexually-confused queer man Lukako (and Rintaro’s horrifying, almost abusive attempts to “help” him) is proof enough of this, while the so far vague ramifications of his time-travel experiment with another woman, Moeka, also suggest he is way out of his depth. Yet again his insistence of living in a delusional, fictional sci-fi world blinds him to the fact he is destroying real lives; he takes pride in being “empowered” to understand precisely what he has set out to change in peoples’ lives and sees piecing together their destroyed pasts as a game. The very real fear he feels in private, introspective moments when his arrogant mask slips feels insincere because of this; what he is doing may be a front to hide his insecurities, but he lives that false facade so aggressively it is almost impossible to sympathise with the man inside – his real insecurities feel as false as his confidence.
Stein’s;Gate may be outlandish and science-fictional but in Okabe Rintaro it accurately depicts the toxic, abusive attitudes of internet culture; the man convinced of his inherent superiority, who sees women as pawns by defining them as fetish objects. Mayuri is moe and exploitable. Makise is tsundere and will react, eventually, to continually being bullied by loving him. He may be unscientific, arrogant and take pride in his facade of sociopathy – but beneath that facade, behind the techno-babble and affected paranoia, is a very real sociopathy. Stein’s;Gate is a story about the sociopathic, privileged geek given the ultimate power fantasy – the ability to “fix” people – and how this is inevitably going to be abused. Not everyone who watches it will have been as unpleasant a bully as Rintaro – yet his attitudes, his transformation of isolation into a desire to control anyone who will even talk to him, feel like the unpleasant endpoint of the fantasies of anyone who has been an outsider. He mistakes social contact for acceptance of his failings and uses that as a barrier to changing himself. In a way, he can be compared to Tomoko from Watamote (No Matter How You Look At It It’s You Guys Fault I’m Not Popular); she is an outsider, socially inept and introverted whose efforts to fit in make her feel more of an outsider and end up awkward. Yet she is resolutely more sympathetic than Rintaro; rather than turning her isolation into a safety-net to excuse sociopathy and abuse, she retreats further into shyness and becomes her own worst enemy to improvement – which makes the viewer want to see her “improve” socially because she is potentially a good person and deserves better. The viewer wants to see Rintaro improve before, one fears, he goes beyond unwanted contact and emotional manipulation to more severe physical abuse, possibly even sexual abuse. That he sees nothing as off-limits to him – touching women inappropriately, trying to “fix” a queer man’s gender insecurities – makes him incredibly unsympathetic and, at the same time, makes Stein’s;Gate into an unsettling science-fiction horror story. It is a story about whether someone with the potential to be monstrous can be saved, or whether the conveniences of super-science will simply enable them.