Mad Science and Love Meets Pop Culture: Steins;Gate

Time travel! That sweet nectar of science fiction that never dries up because it’s paradoxically its own creator, caught in a stable time loop thanks to the Novikov self-consistency principle. It’s because of such beautiful madness that we’ve enjoyed the fruits of such stories as Doctor Who, Back to the Future, and one very quirky but heartfelt anime series called Steins;Gate.

Copyright © 2011 by White Fox

Copyright © 2011 by White Fox

Based on the visual novel by the same name, the anime follows the exploits of a young self-proclaimed “mad scientist” named Okabe Rintarou. Despite several failed inventions, he and his lab team of misfits accidentally produce a working time machine through a bizarre combination of a microwave and text messaging. Okabe’s experiments with sending messages back in time draw the attention of the lovely young scientist Makise Kurisu, as well as the dark masterminds at SERN (or at least their world’s version of the real-life scientific research center CERN). When his experiments draw a heavy price that puts the life of his young friend Mayuri at risk, Okabe is forced to loop back through time repeatedly, trying to save the lives of his friends and undo the damage caused by his obsession with time travel in the first place.

Now, some fans insist that the original Japanese voice acting is superior to the English dub. I think the original VAs are fine, but for me, nothing can compare to the absolute glory of listening to J. Michael Tatum as the wannabe mad scientist Okabe. This is a character who makes sweeping gestures and impassioned speeches at the drop of a hat, who turns drinking Dr. Pepper into a badge of honor, and who pretends to be talking to a shadowy ally on his cell phone while saying random code words like “El Psy Congroo.” When he’s at his best, Okabe can be very entertaining to watch.

But Okabe is a very unusual take on the classic mad scientist persona. While he genuinely does care that much about scientific research at any cost, it’s more than implied that he puts on such elaborate acts and dialogue for the benefit of his friends. It’s heartwarming to see him build paranoid fantasies about “The Organization” and enlist his friends as allies in his make-believe world. For all his wild speeches, Okabe is someone who cares about his friends in his own bizarre way. He’s like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, only much, much more tolerable and relatable.

Balancing out Okabe’s emotional drama and overconfidence is Kurisu (voiced by Trina Nishimura), who gets saddled with the nickname “Christina” and suffers from so many other mad scientist antics. She shares Okabe’s passion for science, but has better social skills and is more grounded in the real world. Any anime fan would immediately recognize her as a typical tsundere love interest, alternating between sincere affection and indignant hostility, but for what it’s worth, Kurisu plays the role well. She torments Okabe because he’s so over the top that he needs someone to bring him back to Earth—as well as help him grow as a person. It’s in scenes with Kurisu that we really get to see the best side of Okabe Rintaro.

The rest of the cast rounds out their dynamics, from cynical and geeky Daru to sweet and naive Mayuri, from shy Ruka to the plucky Amane Suzuha. With the introduction of the D-Mail subplot, we get to learn more about these side characters and their hidden depths, which includes dead or missing parents, gender identity issues, time travel paradoxes, and a few cases of severe depression.

Since there isn’t much to say about the animation apart from how good it is (especially the visuals set to the opening theme “Hacking the Gate”), I’ll just touch on the series as a whole. The science behind their time travel is well thought-out, drawing in alternate worldines and sending information back in time rather than actual human beings. The show even goes out of its way to reference and draw upon the Internet meme of the time traveler John Titor in its discussion. And speaking of memes, you’ll get more pop culture references in every episode than you can shake a lightsaber at while scrolling through 4chan boards. This show has plenty of drama and romance, but it’s also got several tidbits and shout-outs for all the geeks in the audience, too.

Ultimately, Steins;Gate has officially become my eighth favorite anime (right after Samurai Champloo, of course). It has a mad scientist in the lead role, some clever applications of time travel theory, tons of neat little pop culture references, and a colorful cast of likable characters. It’s an enjoyable ride and a real mind-bender of a show.

Well, that about wraps it up for me. And now I must be off, for there are strange men knocking at my door and a steam of mysterious texts buzzing on my phone!

El Psy Congroo!

The English dub of Steins;Gate is available through Funimation.

Bibliography: Steins;Gate (anime). Directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki and Takuya Sato. Produced by Gaku Iwasa. Written by Jukki Hanada. White Fox (studio). Funimation Entertainment (US). Original broadcast: April 6, 2011 – September 14, 2011.

Simulated Sorrows Ahead: Depression Quest

By now, a lot of people have heard about this indie video game known as Depression Quest. Many more people have no doubt heard of it in the context of its developer Zoe Quinn and her role in a social media mayhem involving Reddit users and adultery accusations. This led to further controversy regarding Ms. Quinn’s value as a developer and the unfortunate timing of the game’s release around the recent suicide of beloved comedian Robin Williams.

But I’ve waded through those dark and turbulent waters enough and I’d rather spare my audience any of that nonsense. So, instead, I’d like to give the developer some space and actually talk about the game she made on its own merits.

Copyright © 2013 by Zoe Quinn

Copyright © 2013 by Zoe Quinn

Depression Quest is a free-to-play (or pay-what-you-like) text game. You’re dropped into the role of a 20-something male with a caring girlfriend named Alex, a loose circle of friends, a lackluster 9-to-5 job, and a pair of supportive but unresponsive parents. You make various choices throughout the game, taking new routes, forming new relationships, and taking the occasional risk. However, the nature of the game limits some optimistic options, like shrugging off stress and enjoying yourself or your work. Despite what some characters will tell you, you can’t in fact “get over it” just like that. Even when you think you’re improving, you can still have bad days.

It’s a game that recognizes depression not as a voluntary quality but as a neurochemical breakdown that makes daily life difficult at times. It really captures the sense of how a person might struggle even with things that make them happy, like a lover, a pet cat, socializing with friends, or working on a project of passion. Obviously, this isn’t a lighthearted, play-when-you’re-bored game. It’s educational and informative in a very engaging and simple way.

On a personal level, while I’ve never been suicidal or diagnosed with clinical depression, I have experienced a lot of the downturns showcased in Depression Quest. My issue is more social anxiety with the occasional depressive moment and even then I’ve done better at some parties than our nameless protagonist does. But many scenarios or conversations in this game really hit home for me and I think it’s great when any form of media, let alone a video game, can reach out and catch someone’s attention like that.

Regardless of how you feel about Zoe Quinn or the whole concept of a game about depression, if you’re interested in seeing the world through those eyes, then I recommend giving this title a look, even if you don’t want to play for long or pay anything at all for it.

I’d also like to point out that, if any readers are feeling pretty low and you need someone to talk to, all you have to do is drop me a line.

Depression Quest is available for download through its official website and Steam.

Bibliography: Depression Quest. Developed by Zoe Quinn. Written by Zoe Quinn and Patrick Lindsey. Edited by Patrick Lindsey. Twine (engine). Original release date: February 14, 2013.

Season Finale: The Legend of Korra: Book Three: Change

Last Friday was the season finale for Book Three of The Legend of Korra. By most accounts, this season was a clear improvement after the last season in terms of both action and character development—and I heartily agree.

Copyright © 2014 by Nickelodeon

Copyright © 2014 by Nickelodeon

(So, um, spoilers below…)

In this two-part episode (“Enter the Void” and “Venom of the Red Lotus”), we get to see the culmination of the two major story arcs: the return of airbenders and the Red Lotus threat against Korra’s life. When Korra surrenders herself to the Red Lotus to ensure the safety of the airbenders, she and the rest of Team Avatar end up in a constant match against the four bender extremists. The fight against Zaheer comes as great cost—for both Zaheer and Korra, which the show spelled out very poignantly. The final scene of the season is bittersweet, as Korra has suffered a terrible injury, but her job of keeping balance in the world is given over to the reborn culture of the Air Nomads, led by Tenzin, Bumi, and the newly elevated Jinora.

While the animation in both Last Airbender and Legend of Korra has always been good, I really was blown away (no pun intended) at the beauty of the animation in the fights between Korra and Zaheer. Watching two powerful benders clashing through the skies near the Northern Air Temple was quite a thrill, especially sweeping landscape shots and the fact that two people are straight-up flying as they fight.

That being said, this finale isn’t a nice one for Korra, even when you compare it to the loss of her bending at Amon’s hands in the first season. It’s amazing how often she gets knocked out, chained up, beaten up, and straight-up poisoned. Even in the finale’s close-out, she’s still recovering from her injuries and crying quietly—although it did make for a quiet and heartwarming moment between her and Asami, and their friendship has been one of the best parts of this season. Korra has suffered, but she suffers with purpose and it helps that she has great friends to support her when she needs it the most, whether it’s Team Avatar or Jinora and her fellow airbenders.

While Zaheer’s downfall was expected—and the sudden deaths of his comrades was jarring—I must admit that I didn’t see Bolin’s time to shine coming. The show had pulled a bait and switch, making us think he lacked confidence in his ability to become a metalbender like Korra did, only for him to suddenly pull off lavabending and then use it against Ghazan, the lavabender on the Red Lotus’s side. Of course, there’s a fan theory going round about Bolin and Mako’s mixed parentage of earthbenders and firebenders, so I’m inclined to support this view as it paints Bolin in less of a deus ex machina corner.

Ultimately, this finale was a great cap to a great season. I really felt that there was a sense of growth for both the show and for Korra in particular. She’s proven herself as a capable Avatar, and despite the heavy toll, she did succeed in helping restore the Air Nomads to the world. I can barely wait for Book Four and see what new adventures are in store for her.

The Legend of Korra is available for viewing on Nickelodeon.

Bibliography: The Legend of Korra Book Three: Change. Created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino. Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Ki Hyun Ryu, Colin Heck, and Ian Graham. Written by Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Tim Hedrick, and Joshua Hamilton. Produced by Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos, and Tim Yoon. Ginormous Madman, Studio Mir, Nickelodeon Animation Studio, and Studio Pierrot. Nickelodeon (channel). Original broadcast date: April 14, 2012 to August 22, 2012.


My First Experience with Garry’s Mod

So, thanks to this year’s Steam Summer Sale, I’ve been able to better manage my budget and time for playing video games. Thus far, it’s included such purchases as The Shivah (wherein I play a rabbi trying to solve a murder mystery) and the much-acclaimed Garry’s Mod (wherein I wreak havoc on the physics of an open sandbox world).

It’s quite a pleasant world when you first appear, but really, that’s just an invitation to litter it with junk and blow up as many things as possible (or so depraved gamers like me think). First thing I want to do is get rid of my default old man avatar and try someone nicer. Like Chell from Portal 2, but with blue pants!

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And oh look, you can summon an NPC like Alyx Vance! Except something must have gone wrong when I tried out the face poser controls because oh dear God that’s way too much mass and too many angles for a human face.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And then one thing leads to another and you find that you can experiment with matching things together.

Exhibit A: a folding chair with wheels and a thruster. Goes nowhere, but it looks great! Kind of!

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Exhibit B: a high-backed leather office chair… with wheels and a thruster. Better-looking than the first construct and about as operational (which is to say, not very).

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And then the next thing you know, you’re tapping into user-created and pre-existing mods, and then you’re flying modified airboats across the maps, leaving devastation and brilliant colored vapor trails in your wake.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

I’ve got to say that I have some mixed feelings about these open sandbox games. I mean, I love the fact that I can go anywhere in a game environment instead of the pre-defined course from Game Start to Game Over. But on the other hand, having the whole world to yourself can be a little intimidating. When is it enough? How many hours do you want to spend trying to cobble together fantastic vehicles and buildings out of a million odd pieces when you could just be playing Half-Life 2 or any of the other Valve games that this mod was based on?

While it’d be easy to complain about camera angles and random glitches, I will say that Garry’s Mod ultimately leaves me feeling with an odd sense of satisfaction. I may not have gotten much done while I played it (at least, compared to other players), but I walk away knowing that I played and provoked my little virtual world for a few good hours and not a second more.

Which is a roundabout way of saying why I won’t ever be a Minecraft addict anytime soon. Plus, only in Garry’s Mod can you have endless fun blasting away watermelons with a Gravity Gun.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Garry’s Mod is available for download and purchase on Steam.

Update (8/1/2014): I’m taking a break for the rest of the month to focus on my job, catching up with old friends, and getting through my ever-growing list of shows to watch, games to play, and other forms of media that I’ll ultimately write a review for. See you all in September!

Bibliography: Garry’s Mod. Developed by Facepunch Studios. Published by Valve Corporation. Source (engine). Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux. Original release date: December 24, 2004.

Mourning in Manhattan with Pixelated Putzes: The Shivah

It’s not every day that I get to play a rabbi wandering the streets of Manhattan, trying to solve a murder mystery, but who am I to judge?

Puzzle games are often a treat for me and this one got my attention because it was the product of a game developer called Wadjet Eye Studios. They’ve produced one point-and-click game that I still hold near and dear to my heart, Primordia, where two robots wander the desert and into a major city to track down their stolen power source. It’s fascinating how both of these games share common elements, such as avenging a fallen comrade and trying to make sense of the world through the lens of religion.

The Shivah is the story of Rabbi Russell Stone, whose congregation of Conservative Jews has dwindled because of his bleak and uninspiring sermons. When he learns that a former member of his congregation, Jack Lauder, was murdered and left him several thousand dollars in his will, Rabbi Stone decides to pay a shivah call to Lauder’s widow. From there, the quest is on to find Lauder’s killer and make amends for driving the young couple out of his congregation eight years prior.

Copyright 2006 by Wadjet Eye Games

Copyright © 2006 by Wadjet Eye Games

While there are some similarities between this game and Primordia, such as 2D animation, clues to collect, and dialogue trees with multiple game endings, The Shivah is far more cerebral. Rather than test the player on how many parts they collect and what secrets they unlock with new combinations, you’re required to think more like a rabbi and see which responses get the best results from the people you question. You can be sarcastic, defensive, accusatory, consoling, polite, or straightforward. Most dialogues even include a “Rabbinical” option, which lets you ask probing questions to drive you toward the truth. These can be useful, but they can also infuriate, which can make for a poor course of action depending on which character you talk to.

Abe Goldfarb does a good job of voicing the world-weary Rabbi Stone; he sounds like your typical hardboiled detective, were it not for the occasional bit of Yiddish slang and the yarmulke on his head. Most of his lines are laden with sincere feeling, although I didn’t feel like I got to know this character as well as I did Horatio from Primordia. Rabbi Stone’s journey is less about self-discovery and more about making amends for a decision from the past.

As for the style and ethos of the game, it’s definitely steeped in Jewish lore, with plenty of Jewish humor, a klezmer soundtrack, and even a Talmudic duel at the end. Even the achievements—which are based on the decisions and dialogue options you choose in-game—are all based on common Yiddish phrases. The game brings Judaism to the fore without necessarily becoming a caricature. It’s an attempt to use elements of Jewish and rabbinical culture to tell a mystery story and build a puzzle game.

At the end, I’d say it’s an alright game. You care about Rabbi Stone and the plot, but the dry recreation of Manhattan doesn’t thrill me the way seeing the world of Primordia did and I felt the ending wasn’t as strong. Still, what could be better than a chance to learn a bit of Torah while playing a video game?

The Shivah: Kosher Edition is available for purchase and download through Steam and Wadjet Eye Games.

Bibliography: The Shivah: Kosher Edition. Designed by Dave Gilbert. Developed by Wadjet Eye Games. Adventure Game Studios (engine). Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux iOS, Android. Original release date: September 2006. Kosher Edition release date: November 13, 2013.