Fate/stay night: Introduction and History

To say that Type-Moon’s Fate/stay night is an influential work in Japanese popular media is something of an understatement.

Since its first appearance as an adults-only visual novel in 2004, the series has gone on to spawn a visual novel sequel and all-ages remake, numerous spin-off games for a variety of different console and handheld platforms, several anime series, manga volumes, light novels, movies and, most recently, a successful free-to-play mobile game.

The original game is regarded as one of the best visual novels of all time, and indeed was a bestseller in its year of release in Japan. And yet, for some reason, we’ve never seen an official localisation in the West, even from long-standing powerhouses of visual novel publishing such as JAST USA, MangaGamer or Sekai Project.

Thankfully, all is not lost, thanks to the continuing efforts of various fan translation groups, who have not only translated the original 2004 visual novel, but also the 2012 release of the Réalta Nua remake, including the ability to re-integrate the adult content from the original.

So what is Fate/stay night? At its heart, writer Kinoko Nasu and artist Takashi Takeuchi describe it as a tale of “boy meets girl”, but of course it’s considerably more complex and involved than that.

“The main theme is ‘conquering oneself,'” explained Nasu in conversation with Dengeki Online back in 2006 (translation by ComiPress) “There are three story lines in Fate; each has a different theme. The first one is ‘oneself as an ideal.’ The second one is ‘struggling with oneself as an ideal.’ The third one is ‘the friction with real and ideal.’

“The game describes the growth of the main character Emiya Shirou,” Nasu continued. “The first storyline shows his slanted mind, the next storyline shows his resolve, and the last storyline gives another resolution for him as a human. All three storylines are essentially equal, but they have different forms.”

Like many visual novels, Fate/stay night as a complete, multi-route whole is a story about a protagonist who has reached an important, defining “turning point” in his life, and how the various influences on him determine what sort of person he ends up becoming, what sort of life he ends up having and what he comes to learn from his experiences. Across the game’s three distinct routes Fate, Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel, we eventually get a full understanding not only of protagonist Shirou, but also of other important characters in his life.

The twist in this instance is that although the action unfolds in modern-day (well, 2004) Japan, the game blends its conventional-seeming slice-of-life scenarios with some highly imaginative, extremely well-realised fantasy based loosely on historical figures and popular myths and legends, particularly that of the Holy Grail.

Fate was originally a story I wrote when I was in college,” explained Nasu to Dengeki Online, referring specifically to the first of the three “routes” in the game, which focuses on the character who has very much become the “face of Fate”, Saber. “In it the gender of Saber and Shirou were opposite to now, but the essential theme had not been changed. It’s a story about legendary heroes and ‘a boy meets a girl.'”

“I created it because I just liked it,” added Takeuchi, “and I wanted to make something like Tsukihime, but more sophisticated. I changed the characters’ gender in order to have them fit in with the gamers today.”

Tsukihime

The Tsukihime which Takeuchi alluded to is an earlier adult visual novel that Nasu and Takeuchi worked on together. Originally released at the Winter Comiket in 2000, this work — which, like Fate/stay night, blends elements of everyday slice-of-life with fantastic, supernatural elements — went on to become popular enough to spawn its own spinoffs in other media such as anime and manga, and was successful enough to inspire Nasu and Takeuchi to transition their doujin circle Type-Moon from a low-key independent outfit into a full-on commercial venture.

As Takeuchi noted, Fate underwent a few changes from the original story that Nasu wrote in college, most notably the switching of the protagonist from female to male, and the switching of Saber from male to female. Since bishoujo games — where the player-protagonist is a male character and interacts with a number of different attractive and appealing heroines — have typically been the most successful visual novels that go on to transmedia success, the pair felt that it would probably make the most sense to do things that way around — though Nasu’s original vision eventually saw partial realisation as Fate/prototype, a 12-minute OVA that got released alongside the final volume of the Carnival Phantasm spinoff series. This was subsequently developed into its own series of prequel light novels, albeit by Hikaru Sakurai rather than Nasu.

Nasu’s influences include a variety of well-respected names in Japanese popular media, including Trigun creator Yasuhiro Nightow and respected horror and mystery writers such as Soji Shimada and Natsuhiko Kyogoku. Indeed, many of these influences can be keenly felt throughout Fate/stay night, which is rather uncompromising in nature throughout, often confronting its characters with harsh adversity and horrific situations from which it is difficult to recover. In the early hours of Fate, protagonist Shirou finds himself all but killed rather violently three times in just one night; were it not for the timely intervention of major heroines Saber and Rin Tohsaka, his story would almost certainly be over before it really began.

So what of that story? We’ll explore each route in more detail in due course, but at its highest level it concerns the hidden existence of magi in modern society, and the matter of the “Holy Grail War”, a supernatural incident which occurs every so often. The War challenges seven “Masters” and their “Servants” to battle one another in order to obtain the legendary artifact — or something that might be the legendary artifact, anyway — and have their wish granted.

One interesting aspect of Fate/stay night’s supernatural elements is the way it conjectures how something as abstract as traditional role-playing game mechanics might plausibly manifest themselves in the “real” world. Each of the seven Servants who are summoned by the Masters have a distinct class — besides Saber, there is also Archer, Lancer, Caster, Assassin, Berserker and Rider — as well as a unique skill in the form of their “Noble Phantasm”, a powerful, often physics-defying technique that relates to their legendary weapon and identity.

The concept of the Servants’ “true identity” is key to Fate’s overall lore. A Servant is the embodiment of a “Heroic Spirit”, an existence created by the enduring renown (or infamy) of one who accomplished great things in their lifetime. What’s interesting about them is that a Heroic Spirit doesn’t necessarily reflect a real person, just someone with enduring fame — whether they’re just a legend or an actual historical figure is irrelevant, so long as people believe in them in one way or another.

For example, the first Servant we encounter in Fate is Lancer, who reveals his identity when he uses his Noble Phantasm and reveals his weapon to be the legendary spear Gae Bolg. Since the Noble Phantasm is inextricably tied to the Heroic Spirit, there is only one existence who could possibly wield this weapon: Cu Chulainn, from the Ulster cycle of Irish mythology.

Like other visual novels that deal with complex concepts and terminology — Steins;Gate is another good example that went on to become similarly influential — Fate/stay night is full of supporting material to help you understand the background and history of the characters involved.

Unusually, rather than being presented externally from the main narrative, as with Steins;Gate’s excellent “Tips” feature, this information is explicitly provided to the protagonist as part of the narrative; he’s presented with a book that, he’s told, will populate itself with information about the various Servants involved in the Holy Grail War as he learns their true identities. In-game, once Shirou has received the book, you, the player, gain access to the “Status” menu, where you can review information on any Servants you’ve encountered, including a potted history of their life and accomplishments, their strengths and weaknesses in various areas, their abilities and skills and even a breakdown of how their Noble Phantasm works.

Since Fate/stay night is a pure visual novel with no interactive gameplay content besides a number of choices to make throughout the narrative — many of which lead to a delightful array of bad endings — this information is entirely background colour. It has no relevance to how the game actually “plays”, but it both provides additional context to the things you see unfold as part of the narrative as well as forming the basis for the mechanical implementation of many of these characters in later, more interactive takes on the series such as mobile game Fate/Grand Order and the Dynasty Warriors-like Fate/Extella.

In fact, Fate/stay night’s structure as a whole encourages you, the player, to distance yourself a little from the action and look at things from a somewhat more “meta” perspective. This is subtly reflected by the fact that, unusually, protagonist Shirou is voiced — normally in games like this, the narrator character remains unvoiced to allow the player to project themselves into the leading role, but here he’s a fully realised character in his own right; we are not Shirou, we just happen to be following along with what he’s doing and listening to what he’s thinking as well as observing his actions.

This “meta” concept continues further with the aforementioned bad endings, each of which is accompanied by a feature that the game calls “Tiger Dojo”. Each time Shirou meets an unpleasant and often genuinely horrifying end in the game, you’re given a warning that the subsequent post-ending sequence might “destroy your image of the characters” and given the opportunity to skip it. Assuming you accept, you’ll find yourself thrown into a short skit where heavily stylised versions of secondary characters Taiga and Illya (with occasional guest appearances from other cast members) address you, the player, directly and encourage you to think about what you just did and why the choice you made was the incorrect one as well as providing you with some amusing comic banter.

You get a “stamp” for each Tiger Dojo skit you see, with an additional scene on offer for seeing all of them, thereby actively encouraging you to seek out the many and varied ways in which the narrative can come to a premature end, much like in Corpse Party. It’s up to you how you handle this, whether you follow a walkthrough in an attempt to see these as they come up in the course of the story, or if you just let things unfold naturally, making sure to save at each decision point to allow you to come back later, or to correct any “mistakes” you make along the way! However you choose to seek them out — or even if you choose to seek them out at all — they’re actually a nice nod to players who may be less familiar with how visual novels typically work, since they actually explicitly explain why the choice you made led to the conclusion it did as well as providing incentive to explore different choices.

Ultimately Fate/stay night’s influential nature can be attributed to a combination of all these factors. It’s a remarkably complete-feeling package, providing you with not only a substantial story to enjoy, but also a swathe of additional information that allows you to explore the world and characters further and in greater depth. The nice thing about the latter aspect is that it’s completely optional rather than being forced on the player through excessive exposition and explicit explanations; the narrative as a whole certainly doesn’t suffer if you choose not to engage with it, but the option is there to read into things a little more deeply if you want to.

And with a narrative, world and cast as thoroughly fascinating and compelling as what is on offer in Fate/stay night, you’ll almost certainly find yourself wanting to know more as you immerse yourself in the delightfully rich prose and strong characterisation.

Fate/stay night is a classic of the medium with good reason. Like all good classics, it takes time, commitment and effort to enjoy it to its fullest — particularly if you want to explore the full extended Fate universe that has sprung up since the original visual novel — but for those who enjoy interactive narratives in their many and varied forms, it’s an essential read… and absolutely criminal that we’re yet to see an official Western release of it.


More about Fate/stay night

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4 thoughts on “Fate/stay night: Introduction and History”

  1. Interesting read, considering I know next to nothing about the Fate franchise, other than maybe being able to identify a couple of the characters just because of how much and where they pop up outside it.

    I’ll likely read your future articles on it this month, mainly because I’m a little curious from an outsider perspective. I’m not personally interested in getting into the Fate franchise, but I’m at least a little curious on what it’s all about.

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    1. I was in pretty much the same situation before I started, aside from playing a bit of Fate/GO. But yeah. Those characters — particularly Saber and her numerous variations — have well and truly become a part of popular culture.

      I think it’s interesting how the perception of some characters has changes, too. Take someone like Illya; lots of people found her irresistible in the spinoff series Prisma Illya, but in the original VN she’s actually a rather sinister, frightening character, particularly in the earlier stages!

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      1. My perception of Illya actually changed during the VN itself. I really disliked her in Fate (with her odd and inconsistent switching between cute little girl, she was pretty weird, like some kind of inhuman creature instead of an actual person), UBW convinced me that she’s not a heartless monster (ironic as it is) and in Heaven’s Feel… she flat-out became my favorite character.

        Prisma Illya… well, Illya is pretty interesting precisely because she’s so different. While it might be that there was no much thought how it relates to F/SN Illya (as Prisma Illya was more of a parody at the beginning), it can easily be seen as a “what-if” that shows how she could turn out with a more normal live and upbringing and that she is the way she is in F/SN due to how she was “prepared” for the Holy Grail War.

        It’d be interesting (and funny), if the two Illyas meet in some crossover work (if that hasn’t already happened in an untranslated manga, there are few like that).

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      2. I actually haven’t watched Prisma Illya or indeed any other Fate spinoffs as yet, because it was always my intention to read the VN before getting involved with any of the rest of it. Once I’m done reading, though, I’ll be very interested to compare the other stuff to what goes on here… and you have me intrigued about Illya now!

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