“Fate:” Owen, IKnight, and Haruki Murakami

I’ve had my say on Fate/stay night, the visual novel that has, evidently, rendered me too jaded to enjoy VNs with a certain abundance of moe proclivities. But what of the sphere? Allow me to examine the reactions (and the general thoughts on visual novels) of bloggers more popular than I am, one F/sn route at a time.

With regards to its title, “Fate”, I found it to be apt in the way in which it worked to illustrate, by means of the larger picture, how going against it can sometimes be overrated. For want of better citations, I’ve noticed that this is where the East has traditionally broken off from the West when it comes to fiction–to the former, fate is not something to be resisted, merely something to be endured. Yes, you can row, row, and fight the power, but at the end of the day you’re going to be a hobo cracking open coconuts for a kid on the sidewalk, no exceptions. [Owen, “Fate/stay night, Fate Route”]

Even if my point of view is decidedly western, I’ve seen that trend as well. Allow me to whip out The Wind-up Bird Chronicle:

“… The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness.” [Vintage/Jay Rubin translation p. 51]

As much as I like it, it can be a difficult novel to deal with, as it lacks the immediacy of conflict that I’m used to. For hundreds of pages, we simply watch the narrator come to terms with the idea of doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done in accordance with the “flow” of things. He undertakes a kind of quest, but his real victory is learning to take things as they come without, say, losing it and beating a dude with a baseball bat. It’s not about overcoming odds, or forging one’s own destiny; it’s about living with such things, which play out as they do just because.

Perhaps the core of this difference between east and west lies in my side of the dividing line’s conception of fate as a simple thing, or as a single thing.

For the record, Fate/stay night as a title is nothing more than the offspring of a brain fart and bastardised English, for the only thing I can think of that explains it coherently is this. Unlike Tsukihime (月姫, Moon Princess) or Kara no Kyoukai (空の境界, Boundary of Emptiness) which make for straightforward translations, F/sn as a title is written in English, as is the route from which it presumably lends its namesake.

Maybe it’s Nasu’s frustration at Japanese having a ridiculous number of alternatives for the word itself, each of them subtly differentiated by means of context–there’s the ubiquitous 運命 (unmei), the more formal 定め (sadame), the Known To Be Translated Erroneously As ‘Fate’ Due To The Limitations Of English 必然 (hitsuzen)–and that’s just the more common terms that I’m listing down here. Don’t take my word for it though, look it up in WWWJDIC to see what I mean.

Compare this to English, where fate becomes less of a question of “Which one are you talking about?” and more of a concept that anyone with a decent vocabulary can easily grasp. The general understanding behind it is that of something so steeped in unavoidable inevitability that nothing can change it, an irreversible force of nature that only superhuman feats or deeds can overcome. [Owen, “Developer’s Diaries: Fate/Meta Narrative”]

See here. Of course, none of these means exactly “fate” as we understand it in English; these words mean what they mean, and I wouldn’t claim to have a good feel for any of them unless I’d lived in Japan for a while. With that in mind, to which “kind” of fate should we say the title refers? The English kind? One of the synonymous (or partly so) Japanese concepts? I’m sure we could discuss the “Fate” route using several of these terms; perhaps we should view the title as a synthesis of all varieties of fate that might come to mind.

Even in English, where synonyms for and variations upon the idea of fate are somewhat more limited, it’s a rather abstract concept, the sort of thing a good postmodernist might deny has any real meaning at all. Of course, having no “real” meaning allows it to encompass any honest interpretation. That’s the essence of deconstruction, after all, that everything-and-nothing simultaneity. We might conclude that フエイト/feito, an English word written in a Japanese way, a kind of canal between one linguistic pool and another, represents just such a recognition of the nature of fate: it’s whatever we say it is, whether it be God or nature or bullshit.

…‘fate’ as a metanarrative allows us to examine the concept of free will within a universe whose boundaries have been so clearly delineated but with such blurry precision at the same time. What is free will, anyway? Is it the freedom to have a choice? Or is it the freedom to react to the consequences of your choice, assuming that you can’t pick your choices? What if it’s an entirely different thing altogether? [Owen, “Developer’s Diaries: Fate/Meta Narrative”]

This is what I’m saying, basically. “Deconstruction” as a term is used pretty loosely now, but F/sn does what I’d call “complete” deconstruction with the idea of fate; it doesn’t rob it of its meaning, it calls its meaning into question by presenting numerous possible meanings, any of which could be true given the right circumstances and perspective. I’m not referring to dictionary-definition meaning, of course, which is easy enough to figure out (once we settle on which “fate” in which language to look up, anyway); I’m talking about the peripheral concerns, the qualifiers and caveats. Who or what imposes fate? Can it be overcome? Is it, as Murakami’s character suggests, a necessity, a river to be navigated but not dammed?

Like the game itself, I’ll leave it for you to decide. I need to talk about structure before this post gets out of hand.

I’ve noticed this before with other visual novels, but here – possibly because the text is ‘in front’ of the images rather than segregated from them – it’s more prominent: the sentence is king. At any given moment there’s never enough text on the screen to build up a really meaty paragraph, which means there’s little opportunity for the constructive, building-block hypotaxis I expect from modern prose. I wonder if it’s fair to call this prose at all – but whatever we’re going to name it, this form of writing relies on the well-tempered sentence. [Emphasis mine] [IKnight, “Fate/stay notes”]

Now there’s an interesting question. I certainly think a visual novel is more written fiction than video game, assuming the rudimentary choices it offers its players/readers aren’t enough to render the experience very game-like in terms of interactivity and setting. It may be more akin to a light novel than to film, as its images are largely static. It’s a hybrid of all those things, really. I’d be inclined to say that we can’t deal with it as we deal with traditional, printed prose fiction, as we’d be overlooking too many of its qualities, but that prose fiction is certainly a part of the experience — granting that the presentation of said prose is somewhat unique. The one-line-at-a-time presentation must impact the way we read somehow.

With only sounds, a limited array of visual effects and dramatic-yet-positionless sweeps of coloured light to rely on, I find myself gripped. The frustrated desire to know what’s going on, and what particularly gruesome kind of wound Shirou will sustain this time, drives me through the text. [IKnight, “Fate/stay notes”]

I’d say the game’s handing us narrative a few sentences at a time adds to that sense of lack of information. When in the middle of a novel, we know there’s more to come; we can see it, skip ahead, guess at outcomes based on the length of description remaining and the presentation of words on the page. Fate/stay night doesn’t offer that minor luxury. We’re essentially plowing ahead blind, and, if my experience is any indication, our sense of suspense is heightened considerably for it.

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  1. The concept of ‘fate’ fascinated me in this one…I wondered while I was working my way through it if that was some sort of deliberately ironic statement. That is to say, a story that has predetermined roles and situations as a core theme is in a format that allows frequent decisions that determine the ending. The fact that it’s a visual novel is giving the reader/player the opportunity to challenge the the status quo and send things in a direction of their choosing, breaking the cycle in the process.

    Saber’s predicament actually reminds me a little of the Circle of Sin concept in Haibane Renmei actually…between listening to that OST for the first time in ages and this post reminding me of F/S N again, I feel like writing about the thing again myself. Dammit!

    • Pontifus

       /  22 August 2009

      That is to say, a story that has predetermined roles and situations as a core theme is in a format that allows frequent decisions that determine the ending. The fact that it’s a visual novel is giving the reader/player the opportunity to challenge the the status quo and send things in a direction of their choosing, breaking the cycle in the process.

      If I remember correctly, though, the Fate route has only one “good” end; most of the rest involve Shirou dying in various creatively gruesome ways. HF and UBW, by comparison, have two endings, one slightly nicer than the other, but someone playing through Fate is locked into the same ultimate outcome every time. It’s almost as though it seems like irony at first, and then irony is ironically subverted. I’ve been seeing examples of irony devouring itself like that all over the place lately, for some reason.

      The Haibane Renmei comparison is interesting, but I doubt I remember enough specifics about Haibane Renmei to get a good feel for it. You should write about it, though, and refresh my memory.


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