I wanted to chime in here just to reiterate that Stein’s; Gate is fantastic.
Since finishing Until Dawn (and since my copy of Metal Gear HD Collection is STILL not here) Lynette and I have been (re)playing S;G in the evenings all week, attempting to reach the “true” ending and flag this whole thing as over and done with. Although I remember it as being strongly written, I had forgotten just HOW strong it actually is.
Stein’s gate is a weird beast. On the surface it seems very much like your standard Anime seen-it-done-it VN, of the kind which is now habitually served up to my wife on Steam each time she logs in. The obligatory intro where they do the character spread contains the requisite catgirls and weird characters and engrish. Looks identical to the Sakura Swim Team exploitation experience we saw advertised on steam before flipping channels.
The difference is in the details. Stein’s; Gate benefits tremendously by being set in contemporary Japan and being very up front about its contemporary Japan-ness. I appreciate that if there’s going to be otaku elements in my game that you also throw in a legitimate otaku front and center. Stein’s gate is… well, not critical of these elements exactly… this is the wrong word… but it casts a sociological eye over the entire fabric of Japanese culture. Stuff isn’t presented out of context. The online glossary letting you cross reference internet memes, chuunibyo terminology and technical hard science information such as kerr black holes and CERN gives it a really grounded, really well-researched feel that rings true despite its obvious crazy batshit premise.
Stein’s Gate presents both the good and the bad and the weird of Japanese culture in a very matter of fact way. The game straddles the line very neatly between the creator’s desire to show much love for the otaku/gamer roots of the visual novel medium as a whole while also wanting to be a legitimate force of creative storytelling that can be a cultural ambassador and transcend the weaksauce “not-trying-very-hard” aspect endemic to more fanservicey or pandering “dimestore” visual novels.
Stein’s; Gate is concerned with being good anime and good art. Not AAAAARRRT – just strong contemporary science fiction and strong storytelling. Its audience aim feels… broader… or maybe more universal than most VNs (I have not played many so perhaps I am wrong about this). Something closer to what I’d consider a “prime time” show like True Detective or Breaking Bad than something like Farscape or Neptunia which has no problems reveling in the nerd house. Think Adventure Time. Perhaps tellingly,one of my coworkers (who I would not classify as any kind of weeaboo in the slightest) came to me the other day and said that in his opinion the Stein's Gate anime was probably the best anime he's ever watched. In the same way that The Wire is not a cop show despite being ABOUT cops and drug dealers, Stein’s; Gate is not an otaku show despite being about nerds. Something closer to Welcome to the NHK in that respect. The conversation about how the anime adaptation handled the replay-ability and branching paths aspect of S;G was quite interesting. There is every chance I will watch the show when this is all over and done, just to compare.
The characters of Stein's; Gate are both intelligently and hilariously written, which is no mean feat considering that the entire work was initially penned in Japanese and was only naturalized later. Like the guy who is translating Sapkowski for the Witcher novels, the foreign-ness of the text is evident right up front but the text’s meaning and themes shine through universally despite the honorifics and the obvious Japaneseness of everything. It’s much like Persona in this regard, in being a game that doesn’t shy away from its J-origins (the story is arguably impossible to split from Akihabara anyway) but something that uses its sense of place to its advantage, as a central conceit. Imagining Stein’s; Gate without Japan is like Downton Abbey without England. Universal appeal but specific setting.
Comedy is one of the most difficult forms of writing to get right, and Stein’s; Gate excels at it. I am definitely the kind of audience for whom the typical “ha ha, look I just fell awkwardly forward into someone’s tits” style of VN humor is not going to wash, and while SG is not above the odd ecchi moment, it all works in the end thanks to the title’s intelligence. The game manages to keep me consistently laughing out loud with both anime pratfalls and a sharp wit, and is obviously written by very intelligent people. Tonal shifts are particularly well handled - the quality of the craft on display is evident each time our characters pivot between whoop whoop wacky antics to deadly serious in the space of a single scene. It’s an experienced writer who understands that for an audience to feel for these characters in their darkest times, we have to experience them at their most human in the meantimes so we can identify.
Anyway, it’s a piece of work as I said. I’m enjoying playthrough #2, which is not something you can say about every game on the shelf. As a cultural ambassador for the VN genre, Stein’s Gate definitely earns its place on the top 10. I’m curious as to whether the other 8 can bring a similarly legit vibe – time will tell, I guess.