Life is not a video game where we can reload from a previous save for a chance to retry an event. That is the harsh reality of it, once a decision is made we must live with the consequences. However, fiction allows thinkers to explore the possible implications of allowing people to bend time at their will, looping the same period of time over and over until they succeed or figure out how to end it. In a reality where time is non-continuous and a person has seemingly infinite chances at trying something, what happens and what are the consequences. Can people really change the true fate of the universe, and how does knowing this fate influence the psychological state of the person in the loop? Today I will be exploring four series, ranging from anime series to light novels, that attempt to explore time loops and changing fate.
Time travel and time loops in anime cannot be discussed without acknowledging the modern classic of Steins;Gate. During a certain arc of the series, Okabe Rintarou is faced with the truth of knowing that his childhood friend Mayuri will die. However, he has the power to go back in time in an attempt to save the life of his dear friend. But of course if it was that easy there would be no emotional weight to the situation, because now he must avoid the repercussions of the Butterfly Effect and challenge fate. To address the Butterfly Effect first, this is defined as “the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere.” Simply that each choice made will have effects elsewhere because all choices are connected. Similar to the wings of a butterfly, flapping them will no directly have any noticeable changes to the world, but that wing might indirectly result in a storm elsewhere. So in Steins;Gate, Okabe begins to realize that regardless of what choice he makes or how he tries to prevent the death of his friend, it will end the same way unless he does something drastic. This means jumping to a new world line by diverging from the current one by more than 1%, essentially moving to a new timeline so different from the current that Mayuri will no die.
Ignorance is bliss, right? When stuck in a time loop the character in question must deal with the burden of knowing the truth, and sometimes the truth of fate can be worse than not knowing. It’s can be expressed with the question; “Would you rather know the day you die or how you die.” Either being equally destructive because they will result in paranoia. The person choosing to know the day they die will live with a deadline on their life knowing when time is up, and the person choosing to know how they die will live in constant fear of whatever they will eventually be killed by. Ignorance is possibly the worst best option in this case, the truth of knowing your demise will lessen the amount of hope for your future, and in a time loop, the ultimate fate which cannot be changed may have results worse than death.
Time loops can be infinite, and the emotional strain is beyond comprehension. The first volume of the light novel series The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria explores how people might react if they were aware of a never ending time loop. Protagonist Hoshino Kazuki gets trapped in the Rejecting Classroom, and him alone is aware of the loop until he meets Maria Otonashi. During this time we get to see the intense mental deterioration of Kazuki as he experiences the same day for tens of thousands of days. We often complain about the mundane everyday life and how boring it can be, but imagine the same day for hundreds of years? The loop will take a psychological toll on the people aware of it existing, and once you notice the loop you can’t convince yourself it isn’t the case because those moments of deja vu will overtake you.
Of course there aren’t any real scientific findings proving the psychological strain of time loops out there, but that allows writers to explore the extent at which this may affect the characters in their stories. Let’s look at the series Re:Zero, infamous for subjecting the main character Subaru to countless time loops of suffering, but it wasn’t always like that. From the beginning everything seems great, a new lease on life, a completely fresh start in a new world with the inability to die? Sounds like the best escape from the past a person like Subaru could hope for. But of course that was too good to be true. Tappei Nagatsuki decided to explore the psychological strain one might experience when stuck in a situation where they might have to die countless times just to proceed. Realistically speaking, nobody can confirm the pain of death so we can only speculate, but it obviously doesn’t feel good. Such is the case with Subaru in which sometimes he himself has to die, and other times he must witness the death of his closest friends countless times which takes a toll on him throughout the series. Dying yourself will cause mental pain, but witnessing the death of your closest friends over and over will cause emotional scarring. Similar to Okabe in Steins;Gate, there is no way seeing your friend die gets easier since they mean just as much to you on the first loop as on the hundredth, sometimes they mean more then. Hence the suffering.
Finally I want to talk about the time loop in Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, particularly concerning the character of Homura Akemi. With Subaru’s time loops we see a deteriorating mental state, and while not exactly to the same extent with Homura we definitely do see a change of character. Okabe in Steins;Gate felt this as well, the sense of urgency. Knowing you messed up and you need to try again and again, as many times at it takes.
The urgency of knowing you must change fate, you have the opportunity and not achieving this results in that sense of urgency I mentioned. The loop can end, the powers can fade or your will will collapse from countless failures. This isn’t a game anymore, this is a matter of saving the universe for Homura, so failure is not an option. During the episode where the loop is finally revealed, we get to see the drastic shift of persona’s Homura undertakes in order to succeed. Going from a naive and weak-willed girl to a standoffish and aloof just for the sake of success. She wants to prevent Madoka from making the contract at any means even if means alienating herself from the girl she was trying to protect in the first case, this is to what extremes she goes. Whether or not fate can change or the repercussions of that matter are second for her, idealistic but shows how much she cares for her friend.
“The universe has a beginning, but no end. – Infinity. Stars, too, have their own beginnings, but their own power results in their destruction. – Finite. It is those who possess wisdom who are the greatest fools. History has shown us this. You could say that this is the final warning from God to those who resist.” Okabe Rintarou (Steins;Gate)
Sometimes it is better of to not know because fate is a cruel thing. It is a brilliant force that brings us happiness, but cruel when it brings despair. For those that believe in it, the power of it can drive them mad and if they have the chance to convince themselves that fate can be changed. Meddling with time should not be undertaken by those with the faint of heart, consequences are real and putting your sanity on the line to help others is the ultimate sacrifice. In the end I deeply enjoy these psychological explorations of how time can affect people who go against fate. The ability to redo a moment in their life to make things turn out the best for them seems like a blessing, but there will be consequences for changing the past. It’s a pointless warning I’m giving here, not to meddle with time that is, but I guess it might serve as a warning to the future of humanity if time travel becomes possible. Wisdom is a scary thing, but living in the darkness is often worse. Choose your poison.