How To Build a Series: Steins;Gate

Steins;Gate is one of those things I saw a long time ago but never really had a chance to take a close look at until just recently. It’s got a lot going for it, so long as you’re willing to overlook the fact that Okabe is a complete jackass.

Steins;Gate has a second problem, and that is that it’s based on a game. People who have played the game say they aren’t as surprised or confused by the plot as people who haven’t. But as a game it has to be recognizable to the people who have played the game. They’re a major target audience after all.

Okay, step one: compensate for Okabe by surrounding him with likable characters. Isn’t Mayuri a sweetheart? I like Daru a lot: he’s heavyset but not the butt of jokes, and in fact he’s a freakin’ genius, too. Kurisu is cute as a bug’s ear and more than holds her own in a show full of geniuses. And Luka is one of the best-treated transsexuals in the history of anime, sweet and tragic simultaneously. So: Check. Okabe’s a jackass but you like the people around him, and they like him, for the most part.

Step two: get a plot sufficiently tricksy for the gamers.

This is where I really loved Steins;Gate. It actually has TWO metaplots, intertwined because Okabe is protagonist of both.

We saw that Carole and Tuesday had three meta-plots, with each of the three main characters (Carole, Tuesday, and Angela) having their own. But to give one character two plots to drive is pretty damned clever.

Not so damned clever is that they are the same plot each time. You know that in terms of meta-plot Steins;Gate is a comedy, right?

This is where that word “comedy” doesn’t get the job done. But “comedy,” in the theatrical sense, doesn’t mean funny. It means happy ending.

Tragedy: Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. Sad ending, right?
Comedy: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Happy ending, right?

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Man, does that sound familiar? And now you can see why I said it happens twice, because it does, once with Mayuri and once with Kurisu.

Structurally Steins;Gate is divided into three basic parts. In the first, the gang tries to figure out how to do the time travel thang. In the second they discover the dmail and use it to make changes in the world. In the third, Okabe has to undo the havok the gang creates in act two because they end up in a world where Mayuri dies. And he can’t let Mayuri die.


Okabe (left) and Mayuri

What makes that interesting is that in the third part Okabe has to find a solution that saves not just Mayuri but also Kurisu. This is doubly hard because Kurisu is wiling to sacrifice herself for Mayuri, so there is no simple solution.

That’s the plot. How do they make that plot work?

They make it work by screwing with Okabe’s motivations.

Okabe REALLY wants to save Mayuri. He loves her and she loves him.

Okabe REALLY wants to save Kurisu. He loves her and she loves him.

Okay, no points for figuring out the two loves are different. Okabe and Mayuri are like brother and sister, familial love, the kind of love the Greeks called Storge. But Okabe and Kurisu are romantically linked, lovers in the romantic sense, the sort of love the Greeks called Eros. But the two separate sorts of affection create powerful tensions in Okabe, and since he’s the protagonist, it creates dramatic tension in the series.

Because it’s based on a game Okabe tries to follow the logic of games in his search for a solution: he tries something, it fails, he tries something else. Remember, it’s based on a game and that’s how the game works: you go back to the save point and try something else after you fail.

What keeps the third section from being just a hunt for the solution that allows Okabe to save both women is the emotional tensions that are part of that hunt.

So Okabe REALLY wants to save both Mayuri and Kurisu, but to do that, he and a lot of other people have to pay the price in pain. There’s Suzuha, for instance, who, it turns out, is Daru’s daughter with a mother who remains nameless but we all know it’s Mayuri. Suzuha comes back from the future several times, threatening her own future, to help.

Then there’s Luka, who is a secondary character I like a lot. Luka is transsexual (I may have mentioned that), a woman born into a man’s body. She’s treated better than most anime transsexuals in that she’s actually quite feminine and beautiful, unlike the transsexuals in 1) Tokyo Godfathers 2) Carole and Tuesday and 3) Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, all of whom are tall, have angular, unattractive faces, and low, masculine voices. They are stereotypes, and not nice ones; Luka is treated honestly, except for Okabe thinking, “He’s a dude,” whenever he sees her. It’s not nice to misgender people.

In the second section of the story they send a dmail for Luka that results in a new universe where Luka is born a woman. There she is happy, except that she’s in love with Okabe.

Did any one else notice the resemblance between Okabe and Gendo Ikari? Major jackasses, and yet all the women love them?

In the third section of the story, where Okabe has to undo the damage he has done to the world in order to save Mayuri, he needs to get information from Luka (her mom’s pager number, to be exact). She gives it to him in return for a date with him…and he’s a dreadful, unpleasant person to go out with. But at the end, tragically, she gives him the information…and has to go back to being an unhappy woman trapped in a man’s body.

Those are the sorts of emotional tension that that work to disguise the simplicity of the plot, but at the same time reveal the power of it. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. The farther down into the dumps the boy, and the people around him, go(es) when he loses the girl, the greater the joy when he gets her.

That’s what they did with Okabe. They kicked him when he was down TWICE, once with Mayuri, once with Kurisu. And they made him run out of energy, emotional strength, when he was half done. He’s saved Mayuri and can’t see a way to finish the job. He hits bottom with the finish line in sight, even after Suzuha shows him the way out. Cute, sweet little Mayuri has to literally smack him upside the head to get him jump started again.

It’s a powerful moment and it works dramatically, makes him strong enough to find the solution and pay the cost saving Kurisu will take.

The show wanders around some in the first two sections, but the third is the whipsaw of emotions that pays for all. It’s brilliantly written, and it works perfectly.

That’s how you build it. Good luck repeating it.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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