The Bad Year: Fate

Yesterday I spoke mostly positively about the future of iM@S, a series very dear to my heart, in light of developments in the franchise in 2017. Today I’m going to speak frankly of the probable bleak future of another franchise I hold dear in light of developments in 2017 – Fate.

Make no mistake, 2017 has been a year of immense growth for Fate. Right now, the franchise and fanbase are bigger than ever. Fate/Grand Order continues to add content and keep people on the grind, and it recently got an English translation – widening it’s reach beyond Japan and to the rest of the world. Fate/Extella brought the Fate universe into the Warriors/Musou series, and a Fate/Grand Order arcade game is on the way. Furthermore, we’ve had some Grand Order anime OVAs alongside a full length anime adaptation of the Fate/Apocrypha light novels, a Prisma Illya and Heaven’s Feel movie, with more anime on the way in 2018.

But these developments have been largely bad for the franchise, in my eyes. 2017 has been a very disheartening year for me as a fan – despite there being more content than ever. I’d like to go into a couple of reasons why, looking at Grand Order and Apocrypha especially as the worse perpetrators.


Lore? What lore?

I’m aware that this makes me sound like a huge elitist, but this is for a reason. The appeal of TYPE-MOON’s works is closely linked, for me, to it’s usage of magical realism – the way it situates it’s unrealistic elements in a well-developed web of lore and history.

A lot of the newer entries into the series seem to have lost sense of this appeal. This is mostly because many of them occur separate from the canon of Fate/stay night, thus meaning that many of them aren’t governed by the same rules. Grand Order and Apocrypha occur in different worlds and different settings, and therefore are governed by different rules. I understand and appreciate that. But what I can’t stand is the continuing trivialisation of the lore.

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Grand Order is by far the worst perpetrator of this. It twists history and disregards even the rules of our world, let alone Fate/stay night’s world, in doing such things as turning famous historical figures such as Attila the Hun into cute anime girls on a regular basis. Obviously, F/SN also did this – Arthur Pendragon turned out to actually be a cute blond girl, after all – but the scale on which Grand Order does this is bordering on the absurd. Sure, there are guy characters being added to game (eg. Merlin, Ozymandias), but it seems that when the writers of Grand Order have no ideas as to how to make a character interesting, they resort to genderbending them. For a franchise so closely based on history and historical events, doing so weakens the overall value and it’s unique traits, turning it into just another otaku jerk-fest.

Its story doesn’t have much else to offer either. Around the time of the 1 year anniversary, the Camelot event was the first event that showed me in a long time that Grand Order could both pay tribute to the lore as well as expand on it, introducing us to Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and some of Saber’s backstory. But it quickly became apparent that that was to be an anomaly. Many of the proceeding events were absurd to say the least, the worst events of all being the beach events where servant classes were twisted in order to make crude jokes, such as Saber being Archer simply because she wielded a water pistol.

Of course, I understand that these events aren’t to be taken that seriously, but it’s hard not to be annoyed when they take place in a framework which continues to allow such flimsy story events to take place. Grand Order’s story is weak to say the least, preferring to keep it light on actual world-building and more focused on wacky story moments which continue to sell the characters as fetishized objects for the otaku crowd (but more on that later). The “singularities” are given as a reason as to why we are able to take part in many Holy Grail Wars, but beyond simply providing a framework in which they can sustain a mobage, the developers clearly aren’t interested in story at the slightest. Considering they carry the TYPE-MOON name, a developer who’s entire bread and butter is lore-heavy, story-driven narratives, this is a downgrade to say the least.

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Apocrypha continued this trend of trivialisation once it started airing in summer of 2017, but in a much more insidious way. The justification as to why 14 servants can take part in the war this time instead of 7 is neatly resolved by having it take place in an alternative universe, but still leaves much to be resolved. In addition, the series makes light of it’s own flimsy rules and lore by constantly making story developments that seemingly contradict themselves – such as the existence of Ruler, Emiya Kiritsugu and Seig.

To anyone who’s read the original visual novel, it might seem strange that I’m blasting Apocrypha for breaking it’s own rules, since the main canon did also. The existence of Gilgamesh and Kirei in F/SN, and then Avenger in Fate/Hollow ataraxia seem, at first glance, not that much different to Ruler, Emiya and Seig. But the key difference is that these rule breaks are both interesting and contextualised in the narrative. The emergence of Gilgamesh and Avenger as exceptions to the rules adds variety to the otherwise structured main canon, and are used in a way that build real tension in the story. Apocrypha’s rule breaks on the other hand, come off as clumsy and short-sighted. Moreover, the main canon has always both justified these rule breaks by providing a rich history and reason for their implementation – but Apocrypha simply leaves these glaring contradictions hanging in the air with either no explanation at all or a very lacklustre one.

In this sense, both Fate/Grand Order and Fate/Apocrypha have trivialised one of the key strengths of F/SN – lore. In Grand Order’s case, it has simply subjected to it’s own whimsies, making a mockery out of the hard work of Nasu and team in the process. Apocrypha is less insidious in that many of it’s trivialisations are simply as a result of it’s poor writing and overall direction. Even so, both series have been equally guilty and insidious in trivialising another key aspect of F/SN and the main canon – the characters.


Commodification of an ideal

It seems like only yesterday when I finished up reading the end of Unlimited Blade Works, which blew me away with it’s brilliant characterisation of Emiya, to only then go and experience the same thing brilliantly adapted by Ufotable in the second season of Unlimited Blade Works in 2015. Only now do I realise how lucky I was.

Even if you’re not a lore nerd like me, virtually every Fate fan can appreciate Nasu’s brilliant character work. It’s another key strength of the original series that drew fans to the franchise as a whole and fuelled their enthusiasm. How frustrating it must be then, to see his brilliant work reduced further and further to a shadow of it’s former self, until it reaches the state of a mere commodity to be flogged to horny otakus.

Let’s start with Fate/Apocrypha. In terms of horniness in 2017, Apocrypha has probably generated the most out of all other anime this year, and it’s all due to one insufferable individual – Astolfo.

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I hate this character. Not only does he have absolutely no depth, no character motivation, and seemingly no redeeming qualities, his happy-go-lucky, carefree characterisation makes any episode of Fate/Apocrypha hard to get through. When they were drafting the script, I’m sure the writers realised this too. So, what did they do? Give him a character arc? Change the dynamics of his character? Hire a new voice actor? Nope, they made him a “trap”.

My problem is not with the existence of this otoko-no-ko character (I refuse to use the word trap for many reasons), but the reason why they made him so. It was not to explore the dynamics of gender, self-image and sexuality. Any of those would be interesting – and there are good anime that do such things – but, instead, the reason they chose to make him a trap was to objectify him. By giving him a female appearance but maintain the penis, they were able to sell thousands of merchandise, make artists draw thousands of “pictures”, generate hundreds of tweets… thereby increasing the buzz and drawing attention to a show that really deserved none of it.

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Compare this to Fate/stay night’s brilliant layered character work, and it’s not hard to see why I’m annoyed. The shallow conception of a character such as Astolfo doesn’t even hold a candle to the meaningful, multi-layered and long-lasting brilliance of a character such as Archer. And it’s not just Astolfo. Compare someone like Jeanne d’Arc, who has literally the same character design as Saber but just with a long ponytail, to someone like Arturia Pendragon, who’s character arc explores the nature of kingship, fate and responsibility. Compare Jack the Ripper, who’s just Jack the Ripper but a girl, to someone like Fake Assassin. Or Hassan. Someone like Vlad Tempes to Gilgamesh. There’s just no competition. The only way something like Apocrypha can compete is to reduce these characters to commodities, by making them traps, by giving them cool fight scenes, cool catchphrases, cool superpowers.

Grand Order is no exception to this trend. In fact, it may be the worst perpetrator of all. The entire game is built around “waifu-baiting” – trying to get players to spend as much money as possible in order to try and get a cute girl on the gacha. Games that I like, such as Starlight Stage, do this also, but behind a game such as that is real characterisation and depth beyond image. In Grand Order, there is almost none. Why should you try and roll for Shuten Douji? Because she’s half naked. Why should you try and roll for Merlin? Because he looks cool. Why should you roll for Souji Okita? Because she has the same character design as Saber. Grand Order in this sense, is predicated on the commodification of characters which it achieves by reducing them to the bare minimum, stripping them of any superfluous elements such as character development or depth.

It’s not like Grand Order couldn’t have avoided this either. I understand that in order to finance a mobage, you need players to spend money for a roll on the gacha. But such a need doesn’t have to be fulfilled at the expense of character development or depth. Grand Order spends almost no time at all in trying to meaningfully explore any of it’s own, original characters nor the characters it took from existing properties. In the first place, during missions, dialogue is sparse and strictly story related, with some odd moments of character interaction. This is done in order to prevent players from becoming disillusioned with the image of a character – if you found out that Jeanne d’Arc was a flawed, broken human being, would you still spend $100 on her in the gacha? Probably not.

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Another key way in which Grand Order shoots itself in the foot is in the very construction of it’s overall plot and the structure within which the game can take place in. The singularities must be self-contained since they are resolved at the end of them, so no larger story threads can be pulled out from them, sustained and developed over the course of the game. Plus, the game never specifies it’s own rules and lore as clearly as F/SN ever did, thus not giving itself many tools with which it can develop the story and characters in interesting ways. In this sense, Grand Order was doomed from the start to rely on commodification and half-hearted characterisation.

Even so, we can’t absolve it of all blame. It has constantly been framed as the new main source of Fate content, even more than the Heaven’s Feel movies, and certainly more than Apocrypha. Therefore, the transgressions it commits have a large effect on the mindset of the fanbase together with Apocrypha. Now, the fanbase is hooked on these shallow husks of characters, enchanted by their commodification; instead of hooked on good character writing and development.


Bad decisions

Both of the previous developments in the Fate franchise have been largely enabled by some plain old bad decision-making on TYPE-MOON ’s part, among others.

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One of the biggest mistakes they made was to let A-1 Pictures produce the Apocrypha anime series. The studio has a reputation for putting out lacklustre shows steeped in production and scheduling problems – you only have to look at the Cinderella Girls anime to see that. Yet, I can see the reason why they chose to do this – not doubt A-1 Pictures was the studio most able to carry out production cheaply, because of their reliance on freelancers. Even so, at the very least, TYPE-MOON should have took a good, hard look at director Yoshiyuki Asai and considered otherwise.

Mr Asai is woefully inexperienced – not only to direct a series for 2 cours, but mainly in handling a property as loved and as influential as Fate. His only previous work on a show as a director was 2015’s Charlotte – a show that was bad to say the least. Surely someone thought about getting on someone more experienced? They definitely should have, since many of the problems of Charlotte also show up in Apocrypha due to Asai’s inexperience – uninspired visual presentation, confusing narrative, bland characterisation and poor pacing.

Because of these errors in the production of Apocrypha, the previous two transgressions were bound to be committed. The lore was trivialised due to poor writing, conflicting information and a lack of awareness as to how to communicate that information effectively in a visual medium. Knowing that their story and series would not be up to the standard F/SN set, the director and studio fell back on commodification, hoping that by objectifying characters such as Jeanne d’Arc and Astolfo, they could make back their money through merchandising. The worst part is, that they probably will.

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In coming to Grand Order, I do have to be fair and admit that it has made many good decisions from a business standpoint – by trivialising the lore, it was able to bring in a new wave of players from beyond F/SN’s fanbase; by objectifying the characters, it was able to push players to spend money on the gacha. Yet by doing this, the effect it has on the fanbase and it’s mindset is multiplied tenfold, since Grand Order has become the new focus for the franchise. Therefore, I can’t view these decisions as positive.

Moreover, Grand Order’s initial conception as a mobage has limited the series from the very beginning. Instead of just considering story as the original F/SN visual novel did, now the developers have to consider gameplay, effectively reducing the amount of time they have to build a compelling narrative and establish compelling characters. However, in addition, by predicating Grand Order as a mobage instead of say, a light novel or anime, the developers now how to deal with the whimsies and sensibilities of the mobage crowd. In order to compete in the market with such games as Granblue Fantasy, they have to continuously work to improve the gameplay and sustain the fan’s interest. This further reduces the amount of time available to develop the story and characters. Plus, as a game, newcomers to Grand Order expect a game above everything else – not a story, or compelling character drama, or exploration of what it means to be a hero.

Thus, even if Grand Order wanted to correct it’s course (as it should), it couldn’t do so. It is locked in by it’s very conception – therefore predicating the probable continuation of the highlighted trends, to the detriment of the overall series. From the beginning, it was a very bad decision.


Last stand of an elitist

I don’t expect you to agree with any of the points I’ve just made, and I doubt many will. My opinion expressed here definitely goes against the grain of the majority of the fanbase, but I wanted to put it out there all the same.

Fate is very important to me. A big part of my life about two years ago was dominated by Fate and TYPE-MOON in general, as I read F/SN and F/HA; watched Ufotable’s Unlimited Blade Works and Studio DEEN’s botched Fate/stay night; played Melty Blood; watched all 8-ish Kara no Kyoukai movies; and dedicated a large amount of my time participating in discussion and appreciation over at Beast’s Lair.

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So, as I followed Fate in 2017, I saw in the franchise’s development several worrying aspects. It was beginning to trivialise it’s lore, one of the main things I loved the franchise for, through Fate/Apocrypha and especially Fate/Grand Order. Instead of paying reverence to and recognising this key strength of the original, it simply discarded it and trampled upon it as it continued to develop in an offensive manner.

Characters also began to get trampled on too. Gone were the days of moments such as Emiya vs. Emiya. Apocrypha consistently fudged it’s character moments. Knowing that many fans would be turned off by the writing, they chose to strip characters such as Astolfo of any superfluous elements. They created characters purely to sell merchandise and generate buzz. Grand Order’s gameplay became more and more reliant on waifu-bating, both in order to fund itself as well as to make up for it’s own lacklustre story. Fate characters were increasingly becoming objects to be slobbered over by horny male otakus.

Both of these developments were engendered by a series of bad decisions on TYPE-MOON’s part. They entrusted Apocrypha to A-1 Pictures, a studio with a legacy of botched adaptations. Despite director Asai having almost no experience, they were happy to trust the rest of the production committee and not raise a fuss. As a result, the writing suffered and lead the committee to choose to rely on objectification and simplification. Similarly, complications arising from the very conception of Grand Order as a mobile game were beginning to rear their head. In order to satisfy the mobage crowd, the developers had to develop the gameplay in reducing the amount of time available for story. The format of a mobage in the first place didn’t allow the story to be put in the forefront. Therefore, Grand Order had to resort to objectification and trivialisation also.

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What’s in store next year for the Fate franchise? More of the same, if I’m being honest. I can’t see Grand Order changing paths, since TYPE-MOON have invested so much time in promoting and developing it. If the game continues on the same path, the trends of trivialisation and objectification will continue also.

Yet, I hope that TYPE-MOON take a good, hard look at the bad decision they’ve made this year and learn from them. Going forward, they should 2017 as an example of how not to develop the franchise, and make steps to prevent the two aforementioned trends to continue. It looks like they are doing that somewhat – entrusting Shaft with next year’s adaption of Fate/Extra seems to showcase that.

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But, ultimately, why should they change? Fate is doing great. In Japan, you can’t escape it. It’s definitely one of the biggest franchises right now. On social media, I constantly see Fate fanart and new people getting into the franchise every day. In the west, it’s gaining more and more of a foothold thanks to the English translations of Fate/Extella and, of course, Fate/Grand Order. Therefore, I’m not hopeful. Let this be the last stand of an elitist, allow me this moment of spite. Godspeed.


 

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