The tragic internal consistency of Steins;Gate

The first time I watched the anime Steins;Gate, I was unsure why so many people were raving about it. The first six episodes or so I mostly spent wondering why I should care about these characters, most of whom were incredibly off-putting (particularly the protagonist). Then the time travel aspects finally kicked in a bit, which grabbed my interest enough to keep me watching in hopes that the brilliance people were talking about would show up. And then about twelve episodes in the show kicked it up into high gear and I was on the edge of my seat right up until the last couple episodes.

However, those last few episodes really soured the show for me, because there seemed to be so many plot holes and inconsistencies. Additionally, I made the unfortunate choice to watch the additional OVA episode (basically an epilogue), and its horrific English voice acting, inappropriate tone (compared to the rest of the series), and the fact that its sole redeeming scene was basically ripped off from one of the best scenes in the season itself badly tainted my memories of Steins;Gate.

Despite that, recently the series was on sale, so I bought it (at a dollar an episode, watching it once was basically going to be worth the money) and boy did it ever improve on the second time around. The first six episodes weren’t bad at all, because I knew what we were working for and could savor some of the little details that I missed the first time around. The final twelve episodes were just as incredible as I remembered, and the emotional pay-off at the end hit even harder because I felt a much greater connection to the characters.

Not only that, but I did some thinking about the final events of the series and realized that far from being inconsistent, within their rather wonky time travel setup everything checked out perfectly. In point of fact, although the ending is incredibly hopeful, there appears to be a hidden tragedy years after the series completes, simply because of how closely they stuck to their time travel rules.

If you’ve seen Steins;Gate, feel free to keep reading; I’m going to pick apart the way that time travel is structured in the show, along with the final few events, to show both why it is internally consistent and why a tragedy lurks within Okabe Rintaro’s otherwise happy ending.

If you haven’t seen Steins;Gate, then begone! Go watch it and come back later. Seriously, I’m going to majorly spoil the series for you otherwise.

Spoilers to follow! Time travel in Steins;Gate

One of the weirdest aspects of Steins;Gate is its time travel, because while it masquerades as multiple world theory, it is effectively dealing with linear time. This is part of what threw me in my initial viewing; Steins;Gate’s “world lines” seemed to me to be multiple worlds, which makes the way the series ends in particular seem to be little more than hand-waving on the parts of the writers.

Classic time travel stories typically involve linear time. When traveling in linear time, time paradoxes are possible since there is only a single timeline. Anything that a time traveler does in the past either has to percolate up and effect the present, or has to be revealed to have already happened. From a story-telling perspective, the benefit of linear time is that the stakes are very high: if the protagonist goes back in time and kills their parents, they will cease to exist, for instance. The downside is that it is very easy to write yourself into a corner.

Recent time travel stories typically involve some form of multiple worlds. When dealing with multiple worlds, you actually have the opposite problem from linear time: going back in time doesn’t affect your personal past because the act of doing so causes you to enter an alternate world/dimension/timeline/etc. The story-telling benefit of this is that you can play around with past actions with virtually no consequences and without having to worry about time paradoxes because every action simply spawns a new world. The major downside is that if the characters give it any thought at all they will realize that they have no motivation to try and change the past (outside of potentially seeking a better world just for themselves) because each world exists on its own; if the protagonist has a tragic outcome, changing the past actually won’t matter because that tragic outcome will still exist.

Steins;Gate has a weird merger of these two approaches to time travel. Basically, changing anything major in the past results in a new world line, but the show very explicitly notes that the characters are “moving” to a new world line (and then “forget” everything that happened in the other timeline). That is, they are effectively participating in linear time, but the course of that linear time can be restructured after the fact. This works because Okabe Rintaro is given the ability to maintain an accurate memory of his personal linear progress through time regardless of how his consciousness moves around in time.

Wait, aren’t we short one Okabe Rintaro?

The biggest thing that bugged me for the final few episodes of Steins;Gate was that when Okabe physically goes back in time, there are only ever two versions of him running around (past Okabe, and time traveling Okabe). “Isn’t that a plot hole?” I asked myself. “He went back twice, so there should be three of him!”

However, what I didn’t realize initially is that when he goes back in time that second time, the world line has shifted behind the scenes.

Here’s the thing: for almost the entire show, we only see what happens for the Okabe who causes the world line to shift. He sends a D-mail to the past, and then his perspective gets wonky and next thing we know the world has changed around him. However, just prior to that second physical trip into the past, he receives a video file from his future self and from his perspective the world line remains stable. This is because it is his future self who experiences the world line changing; he’s the one who sent the video D-mail.

What happens is this:

Okabe Rintaro physically travels back in time and kills Makise Kurisu. When he comes back he is so stricken with grief and hopelessness that he refuses to go back in time again. However, over the course of the next fifteen years, he helps develop an actual, physical time machine. He additionally improves on the capabilities of his original D-mail to allow him to send video. And, in a desperate bid to change his life, he sends a video back, pleading with his past self to try and save Makise Kurisu a second time.

However, we the viewers don’t get to see all that, because we’re following the Okabe Rintaro who receives that D-mail video. The video spurs him to action that he did not originally take, which changes the world line. As a result, when he goes back in time the second time, there are only two Okabe Rintaros because the first trip occurred on a separate world line. His actions successfully save Makise Kurisu’s life, and the final credits end with the two of them reuniting coupled with hints that they will be able to rebuild their relationship.

Happily ever after…?

And now we come to the hidden tragedy within Steins;Gate. At the end of the series, the Okabe Rintaro we the viewers know and love has exactly 15 years to enjoy whatever sort of life he can form with Makise Kurisu, because at the end of that time his consciousness is going to disappear as if it had never been when the version of him that sent the D-mail video jumps world lines.

Do they end up marrying; maybe having kids? Hope he enjoys their childhood/early adolescence, because 15 years after the anime ends he’s going to forget their names and be introduced to them basically as a stranger.

The first time I saw it, I liked Steins;Gate but was disappointed that the writers discarded Makise Kurisu’s very emotional death in favor of a happily-ever-after that felt grafted on and played fast and loose with the time travel rules they themselves had come up with.

Having watched it again, though, I love Steins;Gate. Despite my initial impression, it’s one of the most internally-consistent time travel stories I’ve ever seen, and it somehow manages to not only deliver a happy ending, but also simultaneously delivers an ending that stays true to the theme of loss and sacrifice going hand in hand with trying to change the past.

Which is not to say that I don’t find the setup for time travel pretty ridiculous (the whole series relies on some serious suspension of disbelief, and there are admittedly some plot holes like the static-only video that’s sent to his past self transforming into an actual video), but since internal consistency is often what makes or breaks time travel stories I’m not going to complain too much.

5 responses to “The tragic internal consistency of Steins;Gate”

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  1. TIby says:

    Hi there. I liked your post and almost agree with all of it. Except the tragedy that you’re mentioning doesn’t really make sense (for me). This part:
    “[…] his consciousness is going to disappear as if it had never been when the version of him that sent the D-mail video jumps world lines.”
    Why would this happen after 15 years?

    • Ian Beck says:

      Up until the video D-mail, we always see the movie through the eyes of the consciousness that *sends* the D-mail. At the moment he sends a D-mail he jumps world lines and effectively overwrites the consciousness that inhabited that world line up to that point. We know this happens because based on the things the other characters say they always notice his behavior becoming odd the moment he jumps world lines.

      However, with the video D-mail our protagonist consciousness is the *recipient*. That means that he will continue to act in ways that make sense having received the D-mail, until the point in the future when his other consciousness sends it (at which point the future consciousness will jump world lines and overwrite our protagonist consciousness).

      Apparently they’re making a new Steins;Gate series that actually follows the story of the consciousness that lives with 15 years of guilt over killing Makise Kurisu; it will be interesting to see if they resolve things the way I describe here (i.e., that consciousness becomes the one that lives out the end of Okabe Rintaro’s life) or if they’ll introduce new rules to their world that avoid the tragic element of losing our initial protagonist to the void.

      • Redbluegreenman says:

        Your theory is definitely a compelling possibility. However, there could be an alternate theory that doesn’t result in Okabe’s personality being overwritten. It depends on which act you view as “causing” the timeline to shift.

        In all of the D-mails they send, it’s the D-mail itself that changes the timeline, and Okabe’s current personality remains intact as they transfer timelines. When the D-Mail doesn’t change the timeline (by a noticeable amount), his Reading Steiner doesn’t activate. The Video D-Mail doesn’t directly change much in the timeline (that is, if the 2010 Okabe didn’t do his time travel, then the future Okabe would still be in the same situation). The Video D-Mail instructs Okabe to time-travel himself and change the world line. From that perspective, it is the act of physically traveling with Amane Suzuha that changes the timeline and activates Okabe’s Reading Steiner.

        I’ll have to think about this more, and re-examine the evidence from the show to come to a conclusion.

        • Ian Beck says:

          That’s an interesting point; the physical time travel might indeed interact with his abilities in a unique way. It’ll be interesting to see how the upcoming anime that focuses on Okabe’s timeline that occurs when he gives up after killing Makise handles things.

  2. Extreme245 says:

    WONDERFUL WORK! Just wonderful
    Still, it kinda saddened me to see the hero we loved to be taken over by the same hero we love……
    Although both of them are the same, the memories of the 15 years with Makise will be lost… forever :(

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