What do one of my favorite games and one of my favorite anime series have in common? They’re both science fiction dramas based around time travel and a cast of quirky characters.
Steins;Gate is a visual novel (later adapted to an anime) about a young mad inventor named Okabe Rintarou and his group of fellow social misfits. After accidentally creating a machine that allows him to send emails to the past and form new timelines, Okabe attracts the attention of fellow scientist Makise Kurisu and the nefarious research organization known as SERN. What follows is a madcap quest to experiment with time travel, only to then shift directions as Okabe tries to undo his work for the sake of saving his friend Mayuri’s life from the constant presence of death that follows her.
Life is Strange is a 5-episode video game about a shy photography student named Max Caulfield and her adventures in the small town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. After discovering that she can rewind time in short segments, Max reunites with her childhood friend Chloe Price as they investigate the disappearance of another student, Rachel Amber, and other mysteries surrounding Blackwell Academy. With each episode, the stakes increase as Max goes toe-to-toe with violent drug dealers, school bullies, the many threats to Chloe’s life, and her vision of a storm that will destroy the town at the end of the week.
Now, as far as time travel stories go, let’s see how these two compare. Bear with me, since this is going to be a rather long review.
1st Category: The Story
Despite a major difference in tone and setting, there’s a lot to connect Steins;Gate and Life is Strange. Both stories have an initial act of violence that kicks off the plot, followed by a quiet interlude as the protagonist experiments with their newfound power over time. These tales also feature a shift at the halfway mark from a lighthearted adventure to a deadly race to thwart the real conspiracy at work, all in an attempt to stop the world from sliding into chaos and save a young woman’s life at the same time.
I love both stories since they show the different consequences of messing with time and aren’t afraid to give every character a little more depth as the series progresses. While I enjoy the depth and color of Arcadia Bay—and seeing Max become a real “Everyday Hero” through all her dialogue options—I feel like Steins;Gate is a little more interesting because we get to see a huge transition in Okabe’s nature, especially since he’s always juggling his mad scientist persona “Hououin Kyoma!” I’m also a big fan of the clever solution that the show (and its visual novel’s True Ending) came up with to solve its original tragedy of Kurisu’s death.
Life is Strange has a good and heartbreaking story, too, but it doesn’t have as much time as Steins;Gate (an unintentional pun, I swear) to explore all its side characters and subplots. I love both endings in the game, but I didn’t feel the same total emotional fulfillment that I got the first time I watched the Steins;Gate finale.
2nd Category: The Cast
If you think about it, there’s a surprising similarity between the casts of both stories. Both Steins;Gate and Life is Strange have:
- A socially awkward hero with a bizarre power (Okabe Rintarou, Max Caulfield)
- A fiery love interest and secret-keeper (Makise Kurisu, Chloe Price)
- A geeky sidekick and tech-savvy ally (Daru, Warren Graham)
- A cute girl that everyone else wants to protect (Mayuri, Kate Marsh)
- A tortured ally of the true antagonist (Moeka, Nathan Prescott)
Overall, I rather prefer the Life is Strange cast only because they’re far more fleshed out than the characters we follow in Steins;Gate. It’s easier for me to feel the pain that connects Max and Chloe’s relationship than the awkward romance between Okabe and Kurisu. Even as painful as it was to see Okabe try to save Mayuri’s life across multiple timelines, I felt a more solid punch to the gut over every time Max tried to save Chloe.
Of course, I have to give credit to the anime for Okabe’s stunning transformation from mad scientist wannabe to actual hero (and for J. Michael Tatum’s killer voice acting).
3rd Category: The Physics
I will say that both Steins;Gate and Life is Strange use different strategies for their concept of time travel. The former relies on information (text messages and eventually brainwaves) sent back to a specific point in time, which alters the course of history thereafter. The latter involves a young woman’s physical exertion on time, rewinding in short segments without moving herself and (mentally) jumping back to a specific moment and environment captured in a photograph.
Steins;Gate is interesting because it tries to use real-world physics to justify some of its science, such as the idea of miniature black holes carrying information across time. This also makes SERN an interesting choice for an antagonist since their labs would feature their world’s version of the Large Hadron Collider.
Life is Strange, on the other hand, doesn’t ever explain how Max got her powers or how time travel works. What we see instead are the reactions caused by her powers, from Max’s constant nosebleeds to a ripple effect across nature, all neatly tucked under the concept of chaos theory (Max tinkering with sensitivity to initial conditions is a key theme of the story).
While I appreciate the symbolism and thematic quality of Max’s powers, I have to go with Okabe and Kurisu’s scientific endeavors. Steins;Gate does a good job of immersing its audience into the fast-paced world of research and experiments that makes their time travel possible—and outlining all the dangers that it brings as well.
4th Category: The Theme
At a glance, both of these stories seem to have a common theme: the dangers of messing around with time for your personal benefit. That’s a notion we’ve seen before, from Doctor Who to Donnie Darko and beyond.
However, look a little deeper and you’ll see some interesting shifts in what their protagonists have to go through. For Steins;Gate, Okabe has to face a journey of self-discovery, putting aside his more cowardly and self-centered self in favor of a hero ready to help others and appreciate their own stories. Meanwhile, Life is Strange is really about the change of a relationship, as Max and Chloe reunite after a 5-year absence and redefine their friendship while facing trouble, attempted murder, and worse things. One story looks at a character’s growth through time travel experiments, and the other looks at two characters’ friendship evolving along an increasingly dangerous road.
In the end, I think Life is Strange has a more in-depth theme. With all the alternate realities that Max jumps across, she’s only focused on Chloe and how she can protect her, even at the expense of others. Learning how to balance her power with her morality in the context of her best friend (who isn’t always a good friend to her) is more daunting than the straightforward adventure of Steins;Gate and its SERN-driven conspiracy.
I love Steins;Gate as a science fiction story with a large and memorable cast, but I’m far more attached to Life is Strange for its focus on the friendship between two girls and how space and time are made to bend around it. I still think Steins;Gate had the better ending, but Life is Strange really made me care about every decision and every relationship.
And if you’ve gotten to the end of this post and still haven’t seen either of them, then congratulations. You have a new show to watch and a new game to play.