Embracing the Absurd in Steins;Gate

On the surface, Steins;Gate seems like a simple thrilling, twisty time travel story about trying to escape fate. And on one level, it is: the 2009 visual novel, adapted into an anime series in 2011 and then readapted into a game using visuals from the anime as the just-released Steins;Gate Elite, follows a group of teenagers in Tokyo’s Akihabara district as they accidentally discover a way to send messages to the past, becoming immersed in a maze of conspiracies and tragic deaths in the process. But if you look at how much time Steins;Gate and its quasi-sequel Steins;Gate 0 spend exploring the demented alternate personality of the series’ protagonist Okabe Rintaro, the series appears to really be about workshopping your OC.

The Mad Scientist

Okabe — an 18-year-old university student who never seems to go to class — is, basically, the worst. At the beginning of the series, he spends his time wearing a labcoat for no discernible reason, melting bananas in his technologically monstrous microwave, and barking about his mad scientist persona: Hououin Kyouma. No one knows who Kyouma is supposed to be or why Okabe calls himself that, but he insists on using the name nonetheless. Okabe frequently describes Kyouma (himself) as “the seeker of chaos, destroyer of this world’s ruling structure,” a phrase that usually refers to Okabe’s delusions about an Organization controlling the world from the shadows.

For the most part, Kyouma and the Organization exist in Okabe’s mind, as part of the elaborate fantasy that surrounds the Future Gadget Lab. The Future Gadget Lab is, in turn, a name that refers to both a grimy apartment Okabe uses as a base of operations and the friend group surrounding Kyouma’s “work.”

As Kyouma, Okabe is not pleasant to be around — he yells at and insults all of his friends, refuses to call them by their real names, peppers his speech with random English phrases, and takes fake phone calls from an unseen, nonexistent handler in order to track the progress of the equally nonexistent shadowy Organization. He ignores the objections and opinions of the other members of the lab including Mayuri, a childhood friend of Okabe’s, Daru, a perverted hacker and fellow college student, and Kurisu, a genuine scientific genius whom Okabe insists on calling Christina and treats as his assistant.

Kyouma is paranoid, gives every mission a ridiculous, over-the-top name drawn from Nordic mythology, and punctuates his sentences with the nonsense phrase “El Psy Congroo.” He has zero social awareness, bordering on outright misogyny. He’s basically Okabe’s internet avatar made flesh. And like many an online persona, it initially appears that the character exists solely for Okabe to make himself feel important, borne out by Kyouma’s habit of mugging and doing absurd “cool” poses that feel like something he saw in a movie.

This on its own would be an annoying, if understandable impulse — the desire to feel important is a huge part of the reason anyone fantasizes about being a hero, or positions themselves as the center of their own narrative. Feeling connected to that importance is part of why we engage with stories in the first place. But as Steins;Gate progresses, we start to learn more about why Kyouma exists and what he does for Okabe and the other members of the lab.

Changing the Future

The bulk of the action in Steins;Gate comes from an impossible situation, which is also where the spoilers really start to kick in: Midway through the series, Mayuri is killed in a raid by SERN (based on the real research center CERN, which in Steins;Gate really is a conspiracy), and Okabe is forced to use a prototype device that sends his consciousness back in time try and save her, which he does again and again to no avail. Eventually, he becomes faced with a different choice: if he saves Mayuri, Kurisu will die instead. No matter what timeline he moves through, one of two people he cares about will die. It’s an unbearable burden, which is why Steins;Gate 0 — the quasi-sequel set in a timeline where Okabe gives up on saving both of them and allows Kurisu to die — is so depressing.

In this timeline, Okabe has given up Kyouma entirely: He wears a normal black shirt (without the lab coat), takes somewhat better care of himself, and actually goes to class. As Mayuri puts it, he’s a “full-fledged normal.” In many ways, his behavior is much better — he’s a bit more attentive, calls everyone by their real names, and mostly shows up to social obligations. He even listens to people. But he’s dead inside, and is living in a state of total disassociation, something that’s evident in the way his head is permanently bowed and his eyes are hollow, set deeper and deeper into his skull.

Of course, Okabe eventually finds his way back to his Kyouma persona, and triumphs over the structure of time itself — Steins;Gate is occasionally bleak, but it’s ultimately too optimistic to end any other way. Getting to that utopian timeline (codenamed “Steins Gate”), though, requires Okabe to reclaim the character of Kyouma, which is necessary precisely because of the sharp edges of the affectation: Okabe, a largely ordinary 18-year-old, is utterly incapable of going up against a vast scientific conspiracy, let alone the laws of the universe. Kyouma, on the other hand, doesn’t see this as a real challenge: he’s insane.


Groundhog Days

Throughout Steins;Gate and Steins;Gate 0, Okabe is faced with what is almost literally Nietzsche’s problem of eternal return, in which one is asked to consider living and reliving their same life endlessly by a demon. The thought experiment is not, as some people will tell you, how Nietzsche actually thinks the world works. Instead, it’s a way to consider your life, your values, and whether you have what it takes to overcome the challenges presented to you even when they seem to constitute life itself. It’s all in the reaction. Though Okabe’s initial response to eternal return is to give up and consign himself to being a fundamentally passive plaything of fate, Kyouma’s response to years of devastating loops — and, eventually, years of painful, repetitive time leaps — is almost identical to that of Nietzsche’s ubermensch: laughter.

It’s that dizzying, discomforting sense of play, of letting yourself commit to a seemingly irrational set of principles, that makes Okabe so endearing — and ultimately, perhaps, inspiring. Eventually, we learn that the origin of the Kyouma character came not from Okabe’s Reddit account or online fantasies, but from a graveside conversation with Mayuri after her grandfather’s death. He invents the persona to take Mayuri “hostage” and prevent her from “leaving” in what is strongly implied to be a bout of suicidal ideation — and though he is often quite rude to the people around him, the unfettered enthusiasm of Kyouma allows Okabe to both strengthen his connections to others and take them more seriously.

The most triumphant, ecstatic moment of either series isn’t when Okabe figures out the way to Steins Gate, or when he thwarts the scientific Illuminati of SERN, or even when he averts World War III with a gashapon toy. It’s when, after months of depression and a grueling series of time leaps that includes a thrilling escape from a post-apocalyptic military force, Okabe commits to the impossible and becomes Kyouma once more.

We don’t see the moment of transition itself — Okabe is largely out of frame when it happens. Instead, we see shocked, confused, and overjoyed members of the lab, followed by a closeup of Okabe’s smirking mouth as he prepares to play the part once more, donning the lab coat that becomes his “sacred, silvery armor.” He’s still ridiculous, but he’s ridiculous with a purpose, which is maybe all we can ask for from our heroes. As Okabe himself admits on multiple occasions, Kyouma is nonsense. But the character exists to make life interesting — which is to say, worth living.