Spoiler Warning for Steins;Gate.
Now that Steins;Gate 0 (finally) has a release date for the anime, now’s as good a time as any to look back on the original. Steins;Gate is undoubtedly one of the most highly regarded anime in the community. It’s remained one of the top anime on both MAL and ANN, outpacing even massive hits like Attack on Titan and classics like Cowboy Bebop. I could go over everything that makes it so great, but that would take far too long to cover, so I’d like to highlight one aspect that isn’t discussed as much: its structure.
Steins;Gate has gotten a fair amount of criticism for its admittedly lopsided structure; the first half is almost entirely character introductions and setup with no immediate payoff, while the second half is where the plot actually kicks into gear and the questions from the first half finally get answered. A lot of people, even fans, have criticized the first half for being slow while also loving the second half for its faster pace and superior drama. It makes sense at first glance; most stories have small payoffs along the way and mix setup for future events and plotlines into the earlier plotlines, while Steins;Gate frontloads all the setup and doesn’t have any payoff until the second half. For all that Steins;Gate’s structure seems strange, it’s actually a perfect example of dramatic storytelling in its most basic form.
Any kind of drama requires two basic elements: getting the audience invested, and using that investment to draw them into a story. Stories that don’t do enough to get their audience invested come off as hollow and manipulative, while stories that don’t do enough with the audience’s investment end up unsatisfying and frustrating. Both elements are needed to create any kind of drama (this doesn’t apply to other genres like slice of life or comedy).
Pretty much all effective drama has to do these two things, but its rare for any story to have as clear of a distinction between the two as Steins;Gate. The first half moves pretty slowly, but sets up crucial plot and character information. The basic rules and limits of time travel need to be well established, since it’s so central to the plot and character motivations. Without giving it some kind of grounding, the details about divergence, World Lines, and Attractor Fields that are introduced later would come off as sudden and random. By giving the audience time to get used to each concept as it’s introduced, each new concept seems like an expansion of an earlier rule, as opposed to the show making up new rules as it goes along. The same thing is important for understanding the cast.
The first half spends a lot of time just on the characters bantering and goofing off, and only develops the plotlines around SERN and the IBN-5100 gradually. Whether it’s Okabe and Kurisu arguing about Okabe’s antics, or Mayuri keeping the other lab members grounded when they go off on wild theories, the Steins;Gate devotes a lot of time to getting the audience invested. By just spending time with these characters as they banter and hang out, we start to connect with them and almost see them as friends. When Mayuri dies for the first time in episode 12, it comes as a complete shock because the anime gave us so much time to get used to the way things were. Such a sudden burst of violence after so many episodes of everyone goofing around with the Phonewave is viscerally shocking, and leaves us just as shaken and confused as the characters. By letting the audience get used to how things are, we feel exactly the same way as the characters do when this happens. We get used to everything the same way they do, which is why the first half is so important.
If Mayuri’s death had happened in episode 3 instead of episode 12, it would be a surprise, but it wouldn’t have the emotional weight it does after so many episodes of getting to know her. It would be just some character dying right after we met her, and wouldn’t have much to it beyond shock value. By meticulously getting us invested in every character before the plot kicks in, the plot itself has so much more weight to it. Frontloading all of the setup and introductions simultaneously gets the audience invested in the cast, and allows the second half to focus entirely on payoff.
Once Okabe starts his desperate time-leaping to save Mayuri, the show becomes an emotional rollercoaster. As Okabe constantly tries and fails to save her, it starts to leave us just as emotionally drained as him. When Okabe drops his chuunibyou behavior, the fun times we had with his earlier antics leave us wishing for things to go back to normal just like he does. By the end, we feel the same numbness as Okabe. When Kurisu calls him on it, he admits that all the time leaping left him thinking of saving Mayuri as more of a puzzle to be solved than a desperate struggle to save his friend. By structuring the story so we get invested in her, and experience her countless deaths the same way Okabe does, Steins;Gate. When he hits his lowest points like failing to save Kurisu the first time he goes back, we’re hit nearly as hard as Okabe is. When Okabe gets the video message from his future self, we feel the same burst of excitement and hope as him. If Steins;Gate had spaced out the introductions and exposition more instead of frontloading everything before the plot kicked in, the second half wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful as it was. Even if you kept the basic plot and character details the same, they wouldn’t have had their full impact if the story hadn’t been so meticulously structured. Steins;Gate is an amazing show, but it only reaches its full potential because of how well structured the story is.