I can barely imagine how I can hate the Fate universe. It’s about a bunch of mages and ancient heroes – of the real and mythical varieties – with super powers throwing down in a battle royale for the Holy Grail. It’s got all kinds of historical references and confusing lore and it’s appeal practically writes itself, especially to a history buff with a serious interest in magic, fantasy and mythology like me. Funny then that, barring Fate Zero, I can’t stand any Fate show anymore. There will be spoilers.
Maybe I should dial this back a bit before I go in too hard. So a few years ago I see Fate Zero and I’m fucking blown away. I’m like “Bro bro bro, top tier anime right here” and literally the entire anime community agrees. Then I watch the infamous train wreck that was the original Fate Stay Night and I think it’s shit but I still like the concepts contained in the franchise and move on. Then I see UBW, the TV show not the movie, and that’s when some of the underlying negative feelings I have with the Fate universe begin to solidify. It’s when I start getting into long arguments with Fate fans, about details I don’t think make sense. And don’t get me wrong I’m not here to paint these guys in a bad light, the arguments I had with them were among the best I’ve ever had with regards to anime even if most arguments ended with us agreeing to disagree or them agreeing the anime stumbled on a particular point that the visual novel handles like a champ. And I’m totally willing to take their word at face value that the visual novels cover my problems with the various anime adaptations. However the fact that Fate was created as visual novel is the root of every nail in all of the various anime adaptations’ collective coffin.
There are three major issues I have with the underlying construction of the Fate universe and it’s lore that arise from the nature of it being a visual novel, routes, game mechanics and harem style love interests. Now you might be asking yourself, “what’s wrong with having multiple routes?” In the visual novels, absolutely nothing. In literally any other medium – a lot. Multiple routes or experiences which mirror multiple routes, i.e. playing an RPG and doing things in a different order or siding with different factions, etc. work fantastically in video games because you get to play each route. It’s fun and it lets you approach the story a totally different way, it allows you to significantly alter the experience. However this requires a ton of freedom on both the player’s and creators’ parts and film and printed media do not have that freedom. The only non-video game examples I can even think of are choose your own adventure books, which I discovered in middle school and have never seen since because they never caught on, the movie Clue which allowed you to choose multiple endings because it’s a comedy based on a who-dun-it game (good luck making many shows like that) and spin-offs.
But even spin-offs aren’t really a good equivalent to routes. Spin-offs become entirely different shows with familiar characters or show the same story as the original from a different character’s perspective. Routes don’t work like that compared to spin-offs they have either greatly reduced changes to the story or greatly increased changes to the story and overall they function very differently from a spin-off. UBW is not a spinoff of Stay/Night, it most closely resembles a choose your own adventure story but those died in print and never made it to film, because they aren’t workable in that medium. This why when after UBW wraps up and they announce a Heaven’s Feel movie I groan in frustration instead of getting hype, this despite the fact Heaven’s Feel actually looks more up my alley than UBW did.
This next bit is probably going to sound pretentious as fuck but in film you can’t just keep changing the story. So get this, there’s an event called the Fourth Holy Grail War and the combatants are blah blah blah and the winners are X & Y. You can’t tell that story and suddenly go here’s another version where Z & U win. I know art isn’t supposed to have rules and all but frankly you can’t do multiple routes in film. Not if you want it to be immersive, not if you want the audience to suspend their disbelief and get them hooked. It is my humble opinion that routes require an abstraction that can only really manifest in games and it’s an abstraction called – I know I’m playing a fucking game. Here’s an example. Because I never play new games when they are new I recently start up Bloodborne. I love the difficulty, sound, environment and the feel of the combat. But then I hit a wall and because it’s a game, I take a step back and say if I grind for blood echoes (currency/exp) by killing these two infinitely respawning giant pigs I can level up to the point where the boss isn’t hard or I have better gear or whatever. Point is I have to deliberately take a break from trying to immerse myself in the world and story to take a sort of meta-view and exploit the game’s mechanics to my advantage. This is not something I would wish upon anyone trying to enjoy a film because unlike with video games, you aren’t playing your way through a film.
I actually kind of hate that in Bloodborne there are times when I am so stuck I have to break my immersion on purpose and find a solution using my outsider knowledge of game mechanics. It’s frustrating remove myself from the horror and magic of the setting to do some basic tactics and math, putting fun and exploration on hold to do the heavy lifting required to push through the next boss. I do basic tactics and math everyday in real life, I don’t walk in a beautifully horrific city fighting all kinds of twisted monsters everyday. The point of immersion is for me to escape real life and that’s why immersion breaking events suck, even more so when you initiate them yourself.
So in summary, routes aren’t possible in film because they require a level of abstraction that is antithetical to immersive storytelling and to me good films are all about immersive storytelling.
Moving on to game mechanics, one of things which is so crushing to me about Fate lore is that it’s designed as though the Holy Grail war was a video game. For example let’s look at the seven servant classes. The classes clue us into what kind of weapons, fighting styles and certain attributes a hero will have. For example, Saber fights with swords, Caster uses magic and Berserker is not sane. These are broad categories that leave a lot of room for character and power development, as well as, simple descriptions that can be easily fit into existing lore. For instance it’s no surprise that King Arthur would be a Saber servant because Excalibur plays a huge role in the Arthurian legends. This also leaves room for the same hero becoming multiple classes though I admit I have very mixed feelings about that. On the one hand it makes sense in terms of real world lore as many heroes fought with more than one weapon or were known for more than one aspect of their character. On the other it plays into that multiple routes crap I broke down above and makes the character less defined. I suppose it could used for very interesting things if, for example, Lancelot the Saber had to fight Lancelot the Berserker so that we can see what fighting his other self does to Lancelot both in physical and mental terms. But thus far that’s never happened and there are too many other weaknesses to make me watch a Fate where it did happen.
Much more frustrating however are that each servant class have basic traits which apply to everyone in that class regardless of lore. All Sabers get magic resistance for example. Ok but here’s a hypothetical. What happens to sword wielding heroes who, in their own legends, fell victim to magic? Sure in the specific story you can just not include such a character and bypass the issue. But the fact that I can make a believable hypothetical which makes this part of the Fate universe lore not make sense, proves that it’s a weakness in the lore’s construction. Moreover I think it’s fucking stupid. When I watch two Heroes with magical superpowers go head to head, the last thing I’m thinking of are class advantages. To make matters worse they have literal stats like Strength A, Constitution C, etc. I can’t even imagine to how you could make me less interested in a clash between to Servants, viewed without any of this knowledge the fights are generally great but knowing they have fucking stats rather just allowing them to test their ability against each other with no knowledge of their opponent’s relative skill is a buzzkill of epic proportions.
There is nothing, literally NOTHING, less appealing to me than trying to quantify a character’s ability and power level by busting out a stat sheet and using that to help guide or predict the outcome of a fight. And when you do that to such towering figures of history and legend it boils my blood, which then evaporates due to sheer heat as soon as those figures turn out to be great characters in their own right. Which incidentally brings me to third and final problem, the characters.
Up until this point I’ve largely been talking about my gripes with the Fate universe, or Nasuverse, or the flaws that come with adapting a visual novel into anime and still treating it like a goddamn visual novel. The latter point is not restricted to Fate btw, I’m absolutely furious about Steins:Gate Zero and it hasn’t even come out yet. But the characters are arguably the most important point because it what will maybe justify some speculation on my part. That speculation being that Nasu, the creator of the Fate universe is a big part of the problem. I will admit I have not intensely studied Nasu’s work so take my speculation with plenty of salt but as it appears to me Nasu isn’t very good when it comes to people, or in writing terms, characters. Jumping back to the stats thing for a second, to me the fact he would even assign stats to Servants like that at all says to me that he is either trying to bind his lore to the medium, in this case visual novels, or that he is a man who puts a lot more emphasis on systems than people. Broadly speaking men are more interested in systems at a basic psychological level so it wouldn’t be a huge leap of logic to imagine that Nasu is especially interested in systems and thus applies systems where he doesn’t need to, in this case to the Servants. Again this is complete speculation but Nasu seems to be someone who makes hard rules, or perhaps, creates order where he doesn’t need to.
I’m not saying this slight the man. He’s not stupid or bad for creating a system within his own ideas. I am saying that I disagree with him fundamentally on this point. I think placing a system within the Fate universe is a bad move because I want to see the places it could go with a bit more chaos. I think it has all kinds of room for malleability and the potential for very organic stories and clashes which I personally find far more interesting. I think putting in a stat system makes the Fate universe more stale and that wild, chaotic speculation as to how well a given Servant does against any opponent is a universe full of far greater intrigue and possibility. Alternatively if Nasu was seriously hard-wiring the nature of the medium into his lore then fair enough – but if that’s the case there will be an inevitable drop in quality when you put it in a different medium.
This where the characters come in. Me and my best friend have a big problem with the all the gender bending going on in the Fate universe. To me it totally undermines certain characters, like King Arthur, or is just there for fanservice, which fair enough I have no problems with fanservice but it really takes away from the gravitas of these figures if we see their gender-bent tits flopping about. King Arthur is an especially bad example as the main reason she is gender-bent is so she can be one of the main love interests to Shrio, aka the most insufferable Fate character of all time and one of my least favorite anime protagonists of all time.
The biggest gap in quality between the one Fate show I liked Fate Zero and everything else is that the characters are less interesting across the board, one of the main reasons being the teenage romance central to the visual novels plays a major role in the various anime versions. Once again this is a huge mistake to me because there’s nothing I would rather not see in a Holy Grail War than weak, harem-style teenage romances. Their very presence undermines the coolest aspects of the Fate universe and makes the whole experience less serious. This is one of the reasons I think Nasu either struggles to write good characters or tailored his creation so closely to the medium of visual novels, to me there is no logical connection between the romantic elements and the Holy Grail War beyond the fact basically all visual novels are centered around various routes wherein you can romance different love interests. If I were in Nasu’s position and came up with the Fate universe I would never have included boring teenage romances and it probably never would have been a visual novel.
My other justification for this line of thinking, that Nasu either isn’t good at characters or tailored Fate to the visual novel medium, is Fate Zero. Fate Zero was written by Gen Urobuchi of Madoka Magicka fame using Nasu’s pre-existing lore and characters as a template for the prequel to Fate Stay Night. With the change in writers there a ton of immediately apparent changes between Fate Zero and any other Fate work. There is only one teenager and all his enemies are adults. The only gender-bent character is King Arthur and that’s because of preexisting lore. The only romantic elements that exist are used to enhance a few characters and they are not a major focus of the story. Instead the focus is now squarely on the battles and the characters. Waver, the sole teen, is a teen precisely because it puts him such stark contrast with his Servant, the best character in the show Alexander the Great. They make a great pair because Waver is young, not especially confident and has no guiding principles or goals and Alexander is this massive force of personality with larger than life dreams and goals. They have an effect on each other, an effect which transforms Waver’s character because frankly that was the point of pairing them together.
Fate Zero is unusual in that the conclusion is a forgone one, we already know how the Grail War ends. The individual battles are given a lot of attention but overall this is a ‘the journey is more important the destination’ kind of show. That’s why it allocates so much of focus on the characters, their development, their ideals and their desires and how and why they come into conflict. This is perhaps best shown by the famous Banquet of Kings because it spells out in no uncertain terms that all of the Kings have very different ideals and this will inevitably bring them into conflict even if they can have a dialogue for the moment. There is nothing like the Banquet of Kings in any of the other Fate works because frankly none of the characters in any of the other Fate shows are strong enough and fleshed out enough to carry such a scene. And the fact that Fate Zero can speaks to Gen Urobuchi approaching things from a fundamentally different lens than Nasu, and I prefer the Urobutcher’s lens.
There is actually one more problem with Fate and it’s characters and it’s the problem showcased by Fate Grand Order and Fate Apocrypha. There are way the fuck too many characters being thrown at us all at once. I got about halfway through Apocrypha and dropped out because nothing in it seemed to matter. The characters were boring and just seemed to fill space, looking cool and not having any real weight in the broader sense, like this was some Fate shit to tide us over until Heaven’s Feel. Seeing the sheer number of servants, their alternate forms and masters on the wiki makes me think the best way to do Fate is to go full long form shounen on that shit. Because otherwise there’s way too much and we won’t have time bond with any of the characters or enjoy much of a story, and ultimately I think that robs the Servants of their uniqueness and intrigue, much the same way I think the Avenger’s movies suffer from having to cram too many characters into one story and thus have to keep things simple and not explore any individual heroes in greater depth.
I hope you enjoyed this huge rant. I’m not here to slander Nasu or pick a fight with Fate fans, I think the Fate universe is full of great shit but it’s also full of shit that is not to my tastes and the onslaught of upcoming Fate stuff has really just caused me to kind of despise Fate as an IP, especially considering all the hype surrounding Fate at the moment. See you in the next one.