In my first article about Steins;Gate I talked about how its protagonist, Okabe Rintaro, embodied the toxic, sociopathic social outcast and how the game’s unsympathetic depiction of him – and his ultimate exploitation and emotional (verging on physical) abuse of the woman in his life presented him as a monster of sorts, someone with the latent potential to do real harm and who is blind to how and why. His failings – human ones masked by his lack of social graces – are set against his very real power to influence others’ lives; the time-travel conceit central to the story is a fitting science-fictional one because it lets him be the master manipulator he always wanted to be. He can change lives with a suggestion, fulfilling his fantasies of being in control.
Note: This article discusses the endings of Steins;Gate in detail.
What makes this particularly interesting is how it pans out over the game’s first two endings; Rintaro is briefly given ultimate power to change history and immediately uses it to “fix” everything, letting people – he believes – change their lives. This is his fantasy, the sociopathic ability to control everyone’s lives with his own time machine. Lukako has gender insecurities – that can be fixed by trying to influence his mother’s diet during pregnancy. Faris misses her dead father – that can be changed by getting him to cancel his business trip where he would die in a plane crash. This, in turn, collapses on him entirely. Attracted by his interfering with history, a real conspiracy – in the form of a rival group of time-travel researchers at the scientific institute SERN – set out to capture him and his friends for their knowledge, in the process killing his friend Mayuri. This, in its own way, is the other culmination of his deluded fantasies; there is a real Organisation out to kill him, the conspiracy theories he has fabricated are true. This is the chance for him to test his sociopathy, to accept all sacrifices that must be made, to ruthlessly abandon all he holds dear as he likes to boast he would. That he cannot – that he immediately is prepared to make every sacrifice to save their lives – is a suddenly humanising moment, and it is driven into the reader and character through Rintaro’s horrible, unending punishment by fate. He watches Mayuri die again and again, as the story’s time-travel logic shows that certain events cannot be evaded.
Rintaro is unsympathetic, a bully. He still does not deserve the punishment he gets, because his “superpower” – to be aware of changes to the timeline and remember everything that happened every time he time-travels means he remembers – and yet cannot tell anyone – every one of those deaths he witnesses and has caused. His sociopathy has been tested, his courage under fire tested, and even though he does not necessarily deserve a happy ending free from consequence the unremitting trauma he is put through becomes horrific quickly. The story – fate – punishes him even beyond this. The only way he can escape the loop of watching his best friend die is by escaping that timeline – undoing every change to history he has made. This begins by undoing Faris’ trying to save her father, then by undoing Lukako’s sex-change, and ultimately by returning to the scene of Makise’s murder. It is, essentially, karmic; he has tried for ultimately selfish, uncaring, reasons to “fix” his friends without ever considering the potential consequences. He has maintained that he is using them, rarely listened to what they want and focused entirely on his own glory – and now he is reminded again and again that he should care about them, should listen and should respect others. He is shown up as the archetypal cowardly big-talker, professing toughness and coldness and masking insecurity. Even the revelations about his relationship with Mayuri show this – he cannot accept, until he sees her die, that he helped her out of altruism and has to dress it up in self-interest.
Rintaro has always been pathetic, but it is seeing him humbled and then destroyed with trauma that makes him sympathetic. A divine force, almost, is giving him the intervention one gets the impression Makise was days from giving him. As a result the game’s first ending – in which he manages to change history so much he never invents the time machine but never even gains what few friends he had – is perfectly poignant. He gets “everything” – a loving girlfriend in Faris, a stable life where his friends (who he still remembers as friends even though they don’t know who he is) live – but at the same time it is both undeserved (because it is gained by him not having the conviction in his own coldness to undo the changes he made to Faris’ life) and unsatisfying. He has become a completely different person in the eyes of the people he once knew, not really having reconciled or been held accountable for what he has done. His second “ending,” in which he does find the courage to undo what he has done – and take responsibility for the fact that someone has to die, and he cannot prevent Makise’s death (which he does not cause) even if he can prevent Mayuri’s (which he does cause), is if anything even more unbearable. He must come to terms with Lukako’s homosexuality, Faris’ father’s death, and all his own failings. What his friends tried to fix under his guidance were problems he never really understood, and he must learn who they are as people to really fix his mistakes. At the start of Steins;Gate Rintaro has surrounded himself with people he sees as employees, and by the end it is clear he never – until he needed to – respected them as humans.
The end result is a story that is harrowing to read, that crushes the reader with the sheer thought of what Rintaro has put himself into. As, in time, he learns that he is not in fact alone in remembering possible worlds, and that his constant time-travelling is subjecting Mayuri to nightmares of her constant dying, leading to her almost fatalistically accepting her death and worried that his increasing trauma-related distance is resentment of her, he is shown to be powerless and pathetic. He is someone who built up a false identity based on a conversion of social isolation into toxic sociopathy, and this is suddenly, at first, but then repeatedly destroyed. He changes – Steins;Gate is proved to be a story about his changing from awful bully to more empathetic, human figure – but it is through an almost unbearable to read process. He has always talked about how he dreams of ruining lives, but in order to save one he must actually follow through on this threat. Yet it is a character development that hardly feels redemptive, as almost it should be. The universe accepts his apology, but never lets him off because he is left with his memories of all the deaths he witnessed to remind him of why it was necessary.