How Predictable Should Player Choice Be In A Game? Playing Steins;Gate

I played Steins;Gate slowly. Over a month or so during my lunch breaks. It was awesome. Even though I already knew how it was all going to pan out, there’d been so much time since watching the anime and playing the game that most of it came off as fresh. Even the things I was expecting were fun to experience a second time. It felt like opening a well loved book again.

And finally, about a week ago, I saw the end credits.

It came a lot faster than I’d been expecting.

Steins;Gate, as it turns out, is a lot more complex than I gave it credit for, and as much as I’ve reach the end, I’ve only really scratched the surface. I only got one of the possible endings, and from what I remember of the anime, I’m pretty sure I got the least time-travely of all possible routes. I checked online (finishing the game on my own at least once removed any FAQ-checking guilt) and it turns out that if I really want to play it all the way through and see all the possible endings, I’ll have to sink about another twenty hours into this thing. And that’s if I sit with the guide open next to me.

So really, after all this time, I think I’ve only seen a good fifty percent of the actual game. I’m not all that upset about it, but I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever see the other fifty, either.

Steins;Gate is a lot of things. It’s the story of Rintaro Okabe, a university student who revels in a thick paste of made up conspiracy theories, dark powers, shadowy figures, and sinister plots. He and his friends build a device that appears to let them send information to the past. As they struggle to understand what it is they’ve built, they start to uncover the involvement of SERN (analogous to the real life CERN), who as it turns out have an agenda with far greater reach than just the Large Hadron Collider. As the story pans out, the conspiracies become deeper and deeper, the time line becomes more and more tangled, and Rintaro’s delusions become more and more real.

It’s phenomenal. Has a fantastic story, and memorable characters. The writing is decidedly above par, and there’s an excellent translation, especially considering how full of 2chan slang the orignal is.

That said, one things Steins;Gate is certainly not is straight forward.

And that’s doesn’t just apply to the plot, it also holds for how the game itself is played.

Now, I get that for a visual novel, that might seem like a suspect statement, but bear with me. Putting aside kinetic novels, where your only interaction is literally clicking to the next page of text, in route based visual novels,normally (as far as I’m aware), the distinctions between paths are pretty clear. When those branching points appear, they’re clearly delineated. Even if the ultimate outcome isn’t immediately known, at the very least you understand you’re getting a branching point. Not so in Steins;Gate.

In Steins;Gate all player choices are made through the protagonist’s cell phone. Periodically throughout the game you’ll receive mail, or a call, and it’s how you respond (or don’t) to these messages that shapes the story. It works well, and helps reinforce the idea that your phone isn’t just a flippant addition to the game but a central part of the story line.

But now here’s the important thing: There’s never any way of predicting the effect of your choices, or even if the choices you make will impact the game at all. The differences between branches are a choice between some vague thing and some other vague thing. There are no clear cut directions you can take. Sometimes all choices seem bad. Other times your choices don’t actually make a difference at all and seem to be there as flavour text. It’s like each choice you make is essentially random. The game may as well ask you to pick a number between one and three and continue on without any further feedback.

Given that one of the main narrative concepts in the game is the idea of small changes spiralling out unpredictably towards entirely unexpected results, this isn’t actually as bad as it sounds. The whole point is that you don’t know what will happen. All you can do (as a time traveller, I suppose the implication is supposed to be) is to try and see what happens. From a narrative perspective it works.

From a ludological perspective, though?

How obvious should you make it when the player is going to do something in a game that could potentially change the end-state of the game?

Unsolvable State

The first Space Quest game has this scene at Ulence Flats, where a guy tries to buy your hovercraft. If you turn him down, he actually makes two offers, but you can take him up on either one. If you say yes to the first one, you get a few buckazoids, but if you say no he comes back later and offers to throw in a jetpack. Later on in the game, you get into a situation where if you don’t have that jetpack, you’re screwed.

This sequence is pretty infamous by now. And unarguably, it’s just bad design. There’s no real hint that you should turn down the buyer the first time, or that by doing so he’ll be back with a jetpack. If you do take up the first offer, then there’s no way to get out of that situation later on. There’s no connection between what happens at either point in the game. Essentially you’re forced to learn how to solve that puzzle by failing. Even then, at least from memory, there’s no obvious way to trace the problem back to the hovercraft sale sequence in any case.

The only way you can fix that problem, and I think this is key here, is to leave the narrative confines of the game. You need to perform an extra-ludological action, digging into the game’s system menu to fix the problem. And this is assuming you have a save point that would let you do that.

Steins;Gate doesn’t really have what I’d call an unsolvable state; You can just keep playing the game through and you’ll hit one of the endings irrespective of what choices you make. But it does lock off certain parts of the narrative based on your decisions in such a way that there is no way to fix them unless you use a save point. Though they’re not quite entirely analogous, in the same way making the wrong choice in Space Quest will make it impossible to finish the game, making the wrong choices in Steins;Gate will keep the true end inaccessible.

If it’s bad design in Space Quest, is it bad design in Steins;Gate?

Where does the game begin?

My thinking on this is it depends on where you want to actually draw the ludological boundaries aroundSteins;Gate.

If your intention is to play through Steins;Gate like a kinetic novel — that is, you race from start to finish and see where the story goes, then yes, it’s bad design. The game doesn’t offer enough clues to help you understand what will happen if you choose one branch point over the other.

If the ‘game’ in Steins;Gate is the act of moving forward through the dialogue and making the choices, then you can’t get around the design being pretty bad. But this may also be placing too narrow a focus on what the game is out to achieve.

Consider that, given the nature of the story, even if you were receiving clues, the story is so fractured and unpredictable that it’s fair to say interpreting those clues might be as difficult as proceeding without them.

Steins;Gate is a good game because of the story it tells, and that story is by nature chaotic. You can’t understand how it all works until you have access to all the necessary information, and that isn’t a state you’ll arrive at until you’ve played it through at a least once. If you were receiving hints about what you should do, it’d be a little like Cole Sear turning to the camera at the start of the The Sixth Sense, and saying “by the way, just so you know, you get a lot more out of this movie if you know this dude here is dead.” It’s true, when you know Bruce Willis is dead you can get a lot more out of the film, but you’re not supposed to know that until you watch the film through the first time. If you knew it before you watched the first time, it’d ruin everything.

Similarly, there’s a lot to Steins;Gate that won’t make sense unless you play it more than once. Even putting aside that it’s just expected that visual novels with multiple routes are supposed to be played through multiple times, the fact that each ending requires you to make different choices as you go implies that the game is actively encouraging you to keep playing through after you’ve seen the ending.

There is more to the game in Steins;Gate just moving forward. And there’s also more to Steins;Gate than locking in to a given path and pursuing it. This isn’t a dating sim, where you hone in on the girl whose end you want to see and then make sure you say enough nice things to her.

Steins;Gate is about measuring the results of your actions, no matter how small they appear. It’s about experimenting with the time line and seeing how that changes Rintaro’s story. Importantly, the “game” inSteins;Gate is also about leaving the narrative space entirely, and using your save points. “Going back in time” inSteins;Gate isn’t restricted to just those instances where it happens in the story. It’s also a part of the extra-ludological framework of the game. The save-load system itself is a part of your experience.

If you really want to play Steins;Gate, then you can’t just see it as a piece of media to be consumed. You need to think of the game as a puzzle box. If you want to get to all the endings, you can’t just experience each of your actions, you need to be able to compare the results.

What are the rules?

Space Quest and Steins;Gate are too far removed to be used as a fair comparison. In Space Quest, the story follows a single line. Solving puzzles is really nothing more than a means of advancing the narrative over short, momentary roadblocks. On the other hand, the story in Steins;Gate moves on irrespective of what your choices are. There is always forward movement. All you can do is flip the switches and see if that changes the direction at all.

Maybe the better question than “how does it work” is “does it work well”.

After I played the game the first time and realised just how much there was left to experience, I opened a walkthrough. If what I’ve said above is true, that means that I’ve essentially failed the game.

A valid reading of Steins;Gate is that the game isn’t contained in just experiencing the story, it’s about building up the map of which decisions will lead to which end.

And that’s great and all, I mean as a ludological concept that’s fantastic, but there is one more question this raises:

“Is it actually fun?”

Steins;Gate is great. I really do love it… But I’ve already put a lot of hours into it. Given the complexity of what it can potentially provide in those branches, given the amount of back-tracking, of playing through the game over and over to see how one small change will be reflected down the road, it really does feel like if I play this game “properly” it’ll all start to get a little too graph-papery for me.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been good at games that require keeping maps.

There is a specific slice of the world for whom these tasks are enjoyable, but not really me. For me, all this represents a hurdle getting in the way of experiencing what I still believe to be the most important part of that game: It’s story.

I mean, sure, I’ll admit, maybe I’m just not used to this kind of gameplay, but when I look at it from a purely theoretical perspective, it’s hard not to feel that as good as Steins;Gate is, they’ve taken this concept a little too far. To the point somewhere beyond being clever, it feels like it’s just unnecessarily obtuse and vague.

I’m reminded of a Vita game that came out a few years ago called Time Travellers. Like Steins;Gate, it’s mostly a visual novel (though a lot more animated), and like Steins;Gate there’s also a heavy time travel element. But in that game, jumping back and forth in time is actualised through a tree that appears in the UI. You can see the branch points, and even though filling them out is still technically extra-ludological, it also seems like an approach that is far less likely to make you feel alienated from the game itself.

Or at least that’s my hunch — I never really played more than the demo, so I might be entirely off course here. But either way, you can’t help but wonder, I feel, if that kind of a system would have been beneficial or detrimental toSteins;Gate as a whole?

As it stands, I wish I could honestly say I’ll play through Steins;Gate and see all the endings, but in truth I’ll probably never load the game again. I might watch the endings on YouTube, or something, or more probably I’ll just watch the anime one more time, but play the game over? Couldn’t really tell you. At the very least I know that I wouldn’t play it through without a walkthrough next to me, and even then I don’t think I could do that without shaking the feeling I was doing it “wrong”.

Because at the point where playing a game starts to feel less like play and more like office work, you need to wonder if there’s really still a point to it. With each play through of Steins;Gate, you’ll pay less and less attention to the story, just focusing on those tiny differences, which will become less and less contextual as you view them outside of the larger narrative. Even though hiding the narrative branching in this way is a clever idea, by making people play through the game so many times, Steins;Gate is also effectively reducing the impact of its own story.

Unlike the first play through, which is filled with all the tension and drama the story has to offer, by the time you’ve seen the true end, you might not actually care all that much about it, outside of it being another branch on your map. Even though multiple playthroughs may allow you to see more of the story, it is not entirely clear if it will actually make your experience any better.

And really, if playing this game the “right” way means I need to play it until the story itself stops holding any sort of dramatic impact, then it’s been a great ride, but this is where I get off.