Fate/Stay Night: Setting Up for a Decade of Quality Success
If you have no idea what the words “Fate Stay Night” mean to you, turn back, pick your favorite streaming site, cancel all your plans for the next day, grab some popcorn and coffee, start watching, and do not come back until you’ve finished every related legally purchasable media outlet of the franchise, or at least the major animated works and the original visual novel (because I’ll be focusing on those). You are missing out on a legendary work.
It’s not uncommon to be a fan of the Fate series. Nearly all segments of the franchise have been met with critical acclaim and massive popularity, both domestically and internationally. Thus far, there are six major media installments and an enormous ensemble of minor works, and with another anime series starting within the next week (along with an animated movie planned for 2015), one can’t help but be in awe at the success a single visual novel has achieved over the past decade. Though Fate/Stay Night isn’t alone in its triumphs, it’s a bit of an outlier compared to other similarly extolled series. Unlike eternally running shounen series, Fate/Stay Night outlets aren’t based on a continuously and presently running medium. The lifetime of the original Fate franchise is limited and has set boundaries. However, Fate/Stay Night doesn’t fit in the mold of other popular series that are met with identically positive reception. Even Clannad, being one of the more prolific series, only has two long seasons of anime on top of the various OVA’s and the original visual novel. The longevity of the two aren’t comparable, even though the two have similar beginnings. What exactly is the secret to Fate‘s success?
For those who adamantly refused to listen to my earlier pleas or need a refresher, here’s a bit of knowledge that should prepare you for the treasures ahead. What I refer to as the Fate franchise started with the visual novel released in 2004, Fate/Stay Night, which garnered critical accolades in a year filled with highly praised games released from companies known for quality work in the genre. The attention for Fate/Stay Night was directed towards the writer’s unique style of delivering narrative along with the game’s relatively simple yet deep branching storylines. For a visual novel, Fate/Stay Night has relatively few branches, but we shall see that this turned out to be a key factor to its success as a media franchise. The original work for Fate/Stay Night was divided into three branches: Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, and Heaven’s Feel, played in that order. Each branch emphasized interactions with one heroine, Saber, Rin Tohsaka, and Sakura Matou respectively. The popularity of the game was so successful that in 2005, publisher Nitroplus (known for Steins;Gate and Chaos;Head) worked with Type-Moon to put out a light novel series christened Fate/Zero, a prequel to the original visual novel storyline. The light novels themselves were considered a commercial success and were praised for keeping great consistency with the initial work. In 2006, the anime covering the Fate arc titled Fate/Stay Night aired. After 5 years of spinoffs and an animated movie that partially covered Unlimited Blade Works, an anime adaptation Fate/Zero was released and garnered massive praise. And now, in 2014, an anime adaptation for Unlimited Blade works is about to air for the Fall 2014 lineup.
For the purposes of length and avoiding repetitious statements, I’ll primarily be focusing on the original visual novel and all past and future anime adaptations of the aforementioned game, along with the Fate/Zero animated work. Now, armed with the necessary knowledge, it’s on to investigating the factors to Fate/Stay Night‘s long-lived success.
The Least Important Things: Eye-and-Ear Candy
Before getting to the really meaningful factors, it’s important to get the givens out of the way. It’s hard to deny that the major installments in the Fate series are graphically and acoustically pleasing. In particular, the visuals seem to get exponentially better with time. Though nothing fancy, the Fate/Stay Night visual novel presents solid art. The characters are drawn in a unique style, and their designs are (luckily) noticeable and distinct. There are inconsistencies in the quality of art; portraits in very few scenes feature the characters with slightly longer or wider faces, yet not grotesquely so, and some main character stock art present slightly different eye sizes, but overall, the visual novel is well drawn. A mere two years later, the Fate/Stay Night anime upped the ante and significantly improved the consistency of the character expressions. It was comforting to see that Studio DEEN retained the style of the visual novel whilst increasing the fidelity. One surprising thing about the anime was the quality of animation. Even in 2014, it’s hard to come across an anime that has such evident effort invested in ensuring that the animation is smooth. Fate/Stay Night was visually impressive because not only was the art consistently high-quality, but also held up in scenes with motion.
Fate/Stay Night was exemplary work, but the best was yet to come. In 2011, Fate/Zero aired and blew everyone away. Ufotable did an absolutely stellar job animating the series. Film-level animation was present in every installment in the 26-episode series, and regardless of one’s preference in anime, it was hard to deny that Fate/Zero looked amazing. And still the original style hung on, looking more refined than ever before. Talking scenes were as fluid as the action scenes, and no motion looked shoddy or stiff. If only for the visual achievements, the latest animated series was an undeniable success.
The soundtracks also play a large role in maintaining traditional Fate quality. With the exception of one or two tracks, the visual novel OST is exceptional. With modern visual novels OST’s containing well over double the tracks of those a decade ago, Fate/Stay Night manages to cover a variety of moods with five main songs. The lack of tracks isn’t a bother, but rather an indication of talent in developing music that considers a wide variety of situations with limited resources. Again, the anime adaptation takes the quality a step up from the steady work of the visual novel. With some remixed tracks and many new ones, the anime soundtrack doesn’t fail to keep the audience immersed in the show. The complete gamut of traditional orchestra music is utilized, and familiar tunes are played with the quality of those found in feature films. Works of comparable quality were composed for Fate/Zero, resulting in a series that’s both pleasing to hear and watch. Even the voices were done with utmost care. The Fate franchise managed to accrue some of the most prolific voice actors and actresses in the industry. Even side characters were given notable actors who have worked on several renown anime, ranging from Amagami SS (2010) to Dragon Ball (1986).
The most noticeable parts of the OST were the openings. Fate/Stay Night‘s opening songs were some of the best that I’ve seen to date. The songs fully capture the emotions and atmosphere of the series accurately. The first (disillusion, Sachi Tainaka) is gloomy and frustrated, an atmosphere that clearly reflects that of Shirou’s in the midst of sudden rapid-fire events that are completely foreign to him, a world full of death and darkness, sentiments captured equally well by both the melody and the lyrics. The second (Kirameku Namida wa Hoshi ni, Tainaka) exhibits similar darkness, but exudes determination to succeed in spite of hardships, again encapsulated by both the music and words. Fate/Zero showcases an equally catchy and appropriate first opening, but the second wasn’t quite as melodically appealing.
The Most Important Thing: Nonlinear Narrative
Now that the relatively minor stuff has been handled, we can take a look at the groundwork, the foundation of the franchise’s success, and it all lies in the hands one man who decided to write one game. The absolutely, indubitably most important factor of Fate’s triumph is Nasu Kinoko’s, the author’s, choice of nonlinear narrative and his specific opinion on how nonlinear narrative ought to be done.
Why start with the most important factor right after the less significant ones? Because the rest of the discussion can’t continue meaningfully without fully fleshing out the impact that Nasu Kinoko’s choice had; the other factors are fully and inextricably intertwined in this single aspect. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without the specific structure of narrative, a completely different work would have been produced, even if the words were the same.
What exactly does nonlinear narrative entail? It’s a form of delivering narrative that requires input from the audience, and one of the only forms of interactive writing. More often than not, works with nonlinear narrative will have branching plots, instances in the story in which a reader can deviate from the “main” story. Choose your own adventure books utilize nonlinear narrative and branches. In visual novels, the “choose your own adventure” part usually comes in the form of interactive dialogue choices and actions. Some decisions make a significant impact on the story revealed to the player, while others merely show a different scene without any meaningful changes to the overarching plot. Japanese visual novels are notorious for taking the decision-making split far too seriously. Take 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. As the name might suggest, there are a possible 999 different storylines, with nearly every decision resulting in the unveiling of new information. To truly understand the entire story, one must play through all 999 storylines. These changes in the story aren’t trivial; each decision ends with an entirely different ending.
Though 999 takes the potential of visual novels just a bit overboard, it emphasizes the reason Fate/Stay Night is particularly long-lived: using nonlinear narrative allows for overall greater complexity and added material without needlessly complicating a single branch or requiring an entirely new setup. Examining each component of the structure with scrutiny is important, but the best place to start is always the beginning.
The Consequences of a Unified Start
For centuries, Fuyuki City has been the battleground for a periodical conflict called the Holy Grail War, a fight between seven magi to obtain the Holy Grail, a magical device that can grant any wish. The magi, however, do not fight amongst each other directly; they instead become Masters by summoning powerful familiars called Servants, legendary figures from previous eras. During the fourth iteration of the war, a man named Emiya Kiritsugu attempted to destroy the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, this resulted in the Holy Grail spilling its contents and burning down a large neighborhood. Kiritsugu, under the pressure of guilt, searched through the town looking for survivors, and stumbles across a young boy. This is where the story of Emiya Shirou, the adopted son of Emiya Kiritsugu, starts.
The two lived together in Fuyuki City peacefully until Kiritsugu suddenly passed away. However, the father-figure left much with his adoptive son. Though informal and incomplete, Kiritsugu passed down the knowledge of the existence of magic and magi. Equally important was his dream of becoming an ally of justice, a dream Kiritsugu mentioned that he himself once had and his son inherited. Time has passed, and Shirou is now a second-year in high school. One day after staying back at school, he spots what seems like two people fighting. Unbeknownst to him, the fifth Holy Grail War had started and the two figures fighting were Servants. One of the servants disengages from the fight and chases after Shirou, ready to kill him as he is a witness to a highly secretive magic war . Shirou runs back into school, but with superhuman agility, the blue figure catches up and stabs Shirou in the chest, leaving him for dead. Shirou is brought back from a near death state with the help of Rin Tohsaka, the school’s idol and top honor student who also happens to be a magus that is participating in the Holy Grail War. Miraculously alive, Shirou rushes back home, only to be ambushed again by the mysterious man in blue. Trapped in his shed with nowhere to run or hide, the amateur magus summons the Servant Saber, who proceeds to ask him, “Are you my master?”.
This is the prologue and the common beginning for all the different routes and endings of Fate/Stay Night. Though it’s nearly a universal feature of visual novels, adhering to this standard was an important decision because unified start provides an inherent narrative advantage that allow other media outlets to more easily gain popularity.
By starting every route with the same start, it provides consistency to each story. A common prologue means restricting the information that can be given during one play; in other words, we won’t be having Kiritsugu die in one route while surviving in a different one. The facts revealed make the boundaries absolutely clear. Certainly, different perspectives unveil new facets of the background, but because a concrete limit was set on the liberties that could be taken within the game, no new information is inconsistent with previous distributed knowledge.
Why is this important at all? Aside from the obvious importance of consistency in developing an immersive universe, it results in a franchise that can succeed with multiple products. Branching plotlines aren’t extensions (prequels and sequels) or spinoffs (alternate universes), and therefore viewers can enjoy a show, manga, or novel without the need to be reintroduced to the characters every time a new media outlet is released while enjoying a completely different story, distinct enough to be called its own series. Those of you who have seen or played through the Unlimited Blade Works route (which should be everyone, right?) know that it’s a completely different story than the main Fate storyline. But instead having to redo the exposition, there is a common ground between the two unique narratives. Anyone who has watched one or the other can have a full grasp of what they’re getting into without the need to set up a new, immersive universe when watching the other series; the work has already been done. Consequently, this lowers the effort viewers have when watching different series. Those who have already watched Fate/Stay Night can enjoy Unlimited Blade Works far more easily because the world and people they are viewing are one and the same.
On the production side of things, this lowers the stress in constructing an introduction conducive to the viewers. Since every series will start the same way, narratively speaking, production studios have a clear precedent on what captivates the audience. They also have the leeway to take some liberties with the prologue. Though the visual novel has a static beginning, other media can easily highlight or underscore certain aspects that are pertinent to their particular route or story. Rin Tohsaka, the main heroine of Unlimited Blade Works, isn’t given too much emphasis in the prologue of the first Fate/Stay Night anime, but by emphasizing her existence in the beginning scenes, the anime adaptation for Unlimited Blade Works can easily change the focus of a preset introduction. These small changes aren’t huge but will significantly impact the tone and atmosphere of a work overall, and all of these come from the fact that any work based on the Fate/Stay Night visual novel shares the common beginning.
Diverging Plots and Converging Details
While all the aforementioned benefits of having a singular starting point for distinct stories are great, its main function is, in the end, to serve as a base point for the entire collection of works. It’s the most important utility because it ties together any of the rhetorical freedom used by the writer in fleshing out the entire franchise. As previously stated, Fate/Stay Night is composed of three different routes, and it is because of this split that the visual novel has spawned such success. The preeminent and most noticeable consequence of that is that narrative development becomes highly intricate and complex.
Each branch of Fate/Stay Night might be unique, but because of a common starting place, Nasu Kinoko takes it upon himself to expand his created universe via all three stories. One cannot fully know the entire happening of the 5th Holy Grail War without playing through all the different routes because the important details are dispersed throughout each individual branch. It’s important to note that this isn’t a universal standard to which all visual novels abide. The separation of details by route is common, but in many games, the details only add a surface layer of significance that doesn’t really add to the story or characters in a meaningful way. The works that do include this quality tend to be the most critically acclaimed and interesting to play. 999 is extreme because every branch reveals something significant about the in-game universe, and only by playing through all routes can players confirm everything they know is true.
Information about the Holy Grail War is distributed in this way. In the first playthrough, the player only finds out what is necessary to complete the game with a decent understanding of the current status of the Holy Grail Wars, that it is a periodic event in which magi compete to earn a wish-granting device, but that the said device cannot perform its claimed function. Unlimited Blade Works reveals a little more about the released history of the Holy Grail and how it functions as the focal point of all aspects of the wars, from Servant-summoning to wish-granting. Heaven’s Feel, the last arc of Fate/Stay Night, unveils the unfortunate truth of the Holy Grail’s true function and origins. The beauty in how Nasu distributes facts is that he only hands them out when natural and relevant. In a more straight-forward and “pure” War depicted in the Fate route, it wouldn’t make sense to reveal the corruption behind the Holy Grail’s facade; not only does Shirou not have the means to discover such facts, but he’s not concerned with them. All that is in his mind is his relationship with Saber and destroying the Holy Grail, regardless of the intent in its summoning or the consequences of winning the War. By contrast, a completely twisted and horrid Heaven’s Feel route is perfect for certain information about the Holy Grail’s dark past to be leaked. The atmosphere is right and Shirou is in close contact with someone who has all the data. Scattering important details about the universe is something that can only be done when using nonlinear narrative, and characteristic and narrative development become more complex and enjoyable to experience when done this way.
Character development also flourishes in the nonlinear narrative environment. Information is spread out in a manner similar to expository details, and the player chances upon them throughout gameplay. Sakura Matou is the most prominent character to whom this is done, though her traits and background are more concentrated than other characters. In the first branch, it’s clear that Sakura has a troubling home life. Protagonist Shirou knows this, but never has the time or the mind space to really delve into details. He spots bruises on her from time to time, and has even gotten into a fight because Sakura’s older brother, Shinji Matou, left his sister with a mark on her face. There is also a suspected relationship between Rin Tohsaka and Sakura that’s revealed in the second branch, though nothing is solidified. It’s not until the last run that anything significant is revealed and all suspicions are confirmed -- and it’s one hell of a reveal. All the player knows before the Heaven’s Feel branch is that Sakura is a kind, quiet girl that studiously helps prepare meals for Shirou everyday, despite some rough home circumstances. Nasu catches everyone off-guard by revealing unfortunate things one after another: domestic abuse, forced adoption, human experimentation, traumatic mental and sexual exposure, rape. As it was with the Holy Grail War, none of the previous details were relevant until that final arc. Sakura’s background isn’t important in the other storylines and is irrelevant.
The examples mentioned thus far have only been discussed in the context of progressive thinking, but retrospectively significant details are plentiful as well. Shinji Matou has always been cowardly and weak, using trickery as his main weapon of survival, but it’s not until the last arc players understand why. Born to a renown line of magi, Shinji was the first generation to display complete inability to perform magic. At first, he’s very enthusiastic about proving everyone wrong and works tirelessly as a child to overcome his innate incompetence. At this point in time, Shinji already had been living with his adoptive sister, Sakura, for a while. He later finds out that his father and grandfather had been training Sakura in secret to inherit the Matou clans magic, and Shinji falls apart, developing his infamous inferiority complex and loses his honest ways. While these details are exposed later in time in a more relevant scenario, they are equally important in justifying his behavior in other branches. His reason in participating in a magical war, his tactics and plans, all are made clear by the structure in which Nasu Kinoko lays out the details. Clearly, nonlinear narrative provides the freedom for author’s to set up a story in which they may separate and clarify attributes at will. Fate/Stay Night has been praised for doing utilizing this aspect of nonlinear narrative exceptionally, and when playing through the novel or watching the anime adaptations, it’s evident that the praise is well-deserved.
Looking through the eyes of a business, this is ideal for perpetual growth. Not only do branching storylines mean more content to publish, but the dispersion of details creates free consumer interest in exploring future products. In the anime, it’s clear made clear that the Matou siblings have a bad relationship, but as the Heaven’s Feel anime adaptation hasn’t been released yet, viewers who haven’t played the original visual novel are unaware of the true reason for the rift created between the two. Leaving the question up in the air creates a demand for an answer, and thus a reason to watch another Fate/Stay Night work is born, potentially increasing viewership and money raked in. This is one reason Fate/Zero was so popular. It tied up the loose ends of any characters whose backgrounds were mentioned but not fully fleshed out. Ilya von Einzbern, another participating master, has a wavery, unclear background at best in Fate/Stay Night. Fate/Zero remedies this by including her birth and early life as the start of the series. This applies to nearly all characters mention but not given attention in the original work. Going back to a previous point, the prequel also justifies many of the accepted facts of the Fate universe. Fate/Zero pays careful attention to the details given in the prologue and ends the series so that all the events match up according to already given information.
Though character and narrative expansion is a large part of rhetorical freedom, the most intellectually satisfying and least business-oriented aspect of nonlinear narrative is the freedom of overarching thematic development.
Thematically, Fate/Stay Night is all over the place when looked at each individual route. Fate is largely void of any significant discussion, as it’s mostly a love story. Unlimited Blade Works explores the themes of self-reflection and self-sacrifice in subtle details, with contemporary Shirou facing off against his future self. Heaven’s Feel tackles a list of its own, completely distinct from the topics of the previous two routes. Whether playing Fate/Stay Night as a visual novel or watching each anime series, it’s easy and extremely clear that each portion of the overall franchise is its own individual work. But because of -- you guessed it -- nonlinear narrative, the entire franchise is thematically cohesive when examining each part as what it actually is: a part of a whole. It’s slightly different than chapters of a book or successive sequels of a movie or show in that the characters are only aware of the information and happenings of the current branch. The Shirou from Fate does not and will not know about the relationship between Shinji and Sakura. All of the cohesive thematic exploration is audience-exclusive, and is thus up to the audience to commit to the discussion.
Nasu sets up Fate/Stay Night as Shirou’s extended epiphany and coming-of-age, with each individual branch and heroine representing certain stages of reaching a revelation. In Fate, Shirou ponders a question as he experiences the war with Saber: “What is important to you? What are your ideals?”. Going through the conflict with Rin allows Shirou to explore and answer the questions he had in Fate: “What is important to me is my dream of being the hero that can save everyone, no matter how hard it may be.” His answer is put to the test when he experiences the horrors hidden behind the facade of the war with Sakura in Heaven’s Feel, and he realizes that his answer he pieced together with Rin doesn’t last long in the real world: “I only want to save those important to me, regardless of any negative consequences done to others in the process.” The exploration of the subject is not what makes Fate/Stay Night unique; the coming-of-age discussion has been done countless times, and if anything, the visual novel’s development of the theme is shallower than other great works. What does set the game apart is the execution. This 3-part extension is rare. The discussion spans three individual series and uses more words than then entire Lord of the Rings series, and it’s a long journey to get to the end. But it’s only possible through the use of nonlinear narrative.
Beyond the Decade
Fate/Stay Night has survived the decade, not bad progress for a visual novel released in 2004 by a then novice company. In its path lay innumerable spinoff games, novels, manga, and anime, a sequel and prequel, three anime series of the “canonical” universe, and two animated feature films. Is there anything left to milk? Though unconfirmed and dubious, an anime adaptation for the Heaven’s Feel route may be released. There are doubts about it because taboo topics are so firmly ingrained as a major characteristic of the story. Previous installments have been allowed because sex scenes are easily replaced with something thematically equivalent; however, the events and details in Heaven’s Feel are gruesome and abundant. Fans will have to wait for any information about future series. A Heaven’s Feel animated movie has been confirmed for release in 2015, so there is still hope for a series. In the mean time, the Unlimited Blade Works storyline is being aired as of this moment. So far, it’s looking great and ufotable has done the prologue very well. The art style is a bit different than that of previous works, but is pleasing in its own right. Expect a great 26 week run with more Fate-quality workmanship every week.
On a last note, I mention that Fate/Stay Night has appreciated quality success. What is quality success? It’s not success riding solely on fame or popularity (Naruto (1997), Detective Conan (1994)). It’s not success simply based on aesthetics (Guilty Crown, (2011)). It’s success because its qualities in all aspects are all done well and done well every time with every major media outlet. The plot is intriguing and insightful. The characters are dynamic and well-developed. The art and sound are beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. There’s even a bit of every genre for a wide audience to enjoy. Romance is done convincingly in every arc. The answer to a mystery seems to always be just around the corner. The action is always great, and the supernatural and slice-of-life are blended impeccably in this modern urban supernatural work.
I might sound like a raving fan, and that might be true up to a certain point. But the success of Fate/Stay Night can’t be denied. No other series shares the traits of triumph that Fate/Stay Night boasts. Regardless of whether you’re watching Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya or playing through the original visual novel, always remember that you’re participating in a decade long work of quality success.
What do you think? Leave a comment.