Apoptosis: programmed cell death. Not all cell death is bad though. We believe fingers and toes form due to cells apoptosing during the embryo stage. So when Okabe realizes that his actions, i.e. reverting the D-Mails, will “program” a timeline where Kurisu dies, why is this necessarily a bad thing? After all, doesn’t SERN take over the world in the alpha timeline? Isn’t one death worth the fate of the entire world?
Well, we’re not all utilitarians. And maybe the world will turn out poorly whether Mayuri or Kurisu dies. Most importantly, however, how do we even know Mayuri died in the original timeline? Okabe never did verify her death; he just ran. Maybe she was heavily injured, but not quite dead. Sure, there’s blood, but did it belong to her? Plus, there is still something else rather puzzling about this particular scene. Who let out that anguished scream? Why did it sound so much like Okabe?
The video game narrative
When Braun shoots Moeka, the ringing of a bell drowns every other sound out. Scenes of Nae waking up are then interspersed with Braun’s final monologue. For Okabe, how real is death? After all, every single time someone dies (usually Mayuri), he “wakes up” at a different, earlier point in time. While the rest of us wake up “forward” after a nightmare, Okabe moves backward in time. Death is just the end of a dream for Okabe, but not exactly; I’ll get to what I mean in a second.
“Steins;Gate” is structured much like a dream. Scenes start and end abruptly, we usually don’t get to see how the characters get from point A to point B — they’re usually already there. The current episode simply takes this idea and expands upon it. While Okabe tails the IBN 5100 package as it makes its way from one mysterious person to the next, he repeatedly time leaps whenever screw ups occur. The result is something that gives the audience the illusion of one cohesive scene where Okabe finally tracks down “FB,” but in reality, Okabe is simply going from one life to the next, each life starting in media res.
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.
As we near the conclusion, Okabe will soon have to choose between Mayuri and Kurisu. All along, we’ve thought that the “right” timeline is the one where Mayuri doesn’t die. But now that Okabe realizes Kurisu will die if the D-Mails are undone, what’s necessarily the “right” timeline now? Much like in Chuang Chou’s story, which timeline will remain a “dream” and which will become “reality?” Or is only difference being we simply choose to “believe” one over the other?
When I say that the narrative is dream-like, however, I am not invoking an “It’s all a dream” interpretation. Far from it. His world is certainly not “real” as we understand the concept. After all, what is concrete in a world that one can change on a whim? Even so, this isn’t all a dream because Okabe can exert his will upon the world around him. “Steins;Gate” is based on a visual novel though, is it not?
Think about it — Okabe doesn’t accept the world for what it is (the alpha timeline); he’s given an alternative (the beta timeline), but he doesn’t like it either. As soon as something goes wrong, he instantly “reloads.” The narrative thus adopts the perspective of a gamer. We save our progress before every major plot branch, and as soon as we encounter an undesirable event, we reload an older save file. Each scene always occur in media res much like how our saves plop us in the middle of a level and thus a story in progress. Of course, it would be far too tacky for the anime to come right out say “This is a video game metaphor!” Making the narrative feel dreamlike, however, solves this problem.
The construction site
It’s good to see the “Steins;Gate” world re-enforce the story’s themes. Okabe’s reality is constantly in flux; he’s always making tiny changes to his timeline, removing this and adding that. Unfortunately, none of his actions thus far have created the desired effect, i.e. Mayuri’s survival. Similarly, you can topple one building and construct another in its place, but will this change the city? How many buildings do we have to replace before the city’s identity shifts completely? When does a pile of sand become a mountain?
This is currently Okabe’s game. Even if he changes the timeline enough, i.e. Kurisu dies instead of Mayuri, is this really a significant symbolic change? Someone close to him — someone he loves — will still die. Even if you have a mountain of sand, it’s still just sand.