There’s always a expectation that characters involved in time loop stories have to change fundamentally. Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day slowly learned that being spiteful and cynical wasn’t going to get him to tomorrow. Homura in Madoka became more battle-hardened and distant to the rest of the world as her perseverance determined the fate of the world. Those are two completely contrasting ways at looking at it however; one being a Hollywood sanitized story of one man’s quest to see tomorrow with the other being a story about death and the end of the world. Though Okabe Rintarou’s journey in Steins;Gate has much more in common with the latter, I’ve actually been rather impressed with the use of a longer format to create a more subtle change in his character.
The change begins with Mayuri’s initial death in the story. Before hand, Okabe came off as a character low in confidence, never seemed serious about anything, hid behind his alter ego of Hououin Kyouma to hide his insecurities, but at the same time he seemed full of hope and cared about everyone around him. As Okabe makes his way back to the main timeline, he changes a lot, yet stays largely true to himself.
His initial attempts to save Mayuri seemed to just be more out of desperation than anything. As his morale and hope decline, he finally reveals what will happen to Kurisu, who humorously encourages him and thus began the journey backward. Through each journey, he still has enough hope that he has gone back far enough to stop anyone Mayuri from dying. To this point in the story that hasn’t been the case, unfortunately.
His Kyouma alter-ego pretty much vanishes, as the emotional toll of his situation leads him to confess to Kurisu that is was all made up. As shown in episode 21, he seemed to need to summon that character just to carry on a conversation with Mayuri, but now he had to put up an act to even try to sound like his normal self. His conversations with Kurisu, which had bordered on mean and taking advantage of her emotional dishonesty are becoming ever more deadly serious. That he reveals his impossible choice to her shows that he cares about her and shows her his own insecurities without hiding behind his alter-ego.
His actions in undoing Moeka’s message also showed a great internal conflict. He was stuck with the memory of her shooting Mayuri still fresh in his mind, he is still tempted to time leap back immediately after knowing she commits suicide. The internal conflict between Moeka the killer and the Moeka who had not actually done anything continues to exist in his head throughout. Even as she dies, it still seemed apparent that he couldn’t resolve this conflict. Though the desire is there on the viewer’s part to want to see him forgive her, that he can’t do so makes him seem that much more human.
There’s still some way to go in this story, and I’d imagine the visual novel source provides a much richer detail to the way his character is fleshed out. However, that still doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m impressed with the growing up process Okabe has had to go through to get to a world where everyone else can live on. Yet, the entire time, he seems to be struggling with the consequences of his actions that only he has experienced and others who hear him explain it believe him because he has earned that trust. Can this type of character development only occur with a longer amount of time?