Fate/Stay Night is the title of a 2004 visual novel developed by Type-Moon. In the years since it has released, it has spawned a plethora of adaptations, spin-offs, and expansions. In this essay, I will discuss the aspects of the franchise that appeal to me. It should be noted that the aspects I will cover are those that exist regardless of the entry or medium therein; therefore, things such as animation or writing (on a technical level) will not be considered. In discussing these points, I will stress that they are inherently subjective points and therefore will not necessarily apply to anyone but myself. Furthermore, as an explanation of my personal opinion, it is not my intent to posit an argument as to why others should agree with my point of view; rather, this essay serves solely to illuminate one possible way of seeing the franchise.
This essay was prompted by a statement made in a recent video series, Why I Dropped Every Anime I Dropped, by American Youtuber Digibro (Collins 2017 a) on his vlogging channel. In the second part of the series, Digibro notes that he ‘dropped’ various incarnations of the Fate/Stay Night franchise—that is, knowingly ceasing consumption mid-way through—and doesn’t understand why people care about it. Specifically, he cites overly frequent exposition, bad character designs (in ufotable’s 2014-2015 adaptation), and bad animation (in Studio Deen’s 2006 adaptation) as factors that make the respective series ‘boring and stupid’.
He also notes that the source visual novel is ‘long as shit’—it is often estimated as being 60 hours in duration—which necessitated cutting out a lot of material in the anime adaptations. However, the fact that the visual novel is so long in the first place negatively impacts his desire to partake in that either. It’s unclear whether his opinion of the popular prequel title Fate/Zero (ufotable 2011-2012) is similarly negative but the lack of any mention suggests there is, at the very least, no strong opinion either way.
In response to those statements, a portion of commenters on the video defended the series. Digibro in turn responded in the third video that he knows his ‘spicy’ opinions and frank attitude do tend to incite a reactionary defence from dissenters—none of which have ever satisfactorily explained to him why the series is good. He then suggests that someone should make a video doing such. Maybe I will do a video later, but for now here are the words-on-a-screen reasons for why I like Fate/Stay Night.
2. Rin Tohsaka is Fucking Hot
Need I say more? Well, if you insist. Rin is appealing on every conceivable level. She is most often portrayed as being smart—an honours student at her school—which is tied directly to her upbringing as a child of magus academics. It is usually Rin that acts as the teacher and tactician in the titles in which she appears, and it is through her that Shirou, and thus the viewer, learn about its mechanisms and magic in general. She’s not just brains, however: she maintains her athletic body type with martial arts instruction from her guardian, Kotomine. Her skills allow her to stay physically active and establish herself as a self-sufficient character in lieu of the all-too-common damsel in distress. She fights for her own sake in battles of magic, fists, and principles. It is pleasing to see a character embodying how brains and brawn need not be mutually exclusive.
Her personality can be broadly classified as a tsundere archetype—that is, she is cold on the outside but secretly loving on the inside. That much is already is a tick in my box, but on a deeper level we see the internal conflict between her duty to be pragmatic, utilitarian and isolationist as a magus, and her nature to be compassionate, sentimental and communal as a human being. The way this conflict is presented and developed across the three routes of the visual novel most strongly displays her character depth and highlights just how thin the neutral territory between lawful good and lawful evil can be.
Most obviously seen, though, is her character design. The contrast of her black hair and pale skin with blue eyes makes for a striking appearance, intensified by the further contrast of her outfits’ recurring bold red and black colour schemes. Of particular note is the combination of her skirt and thigh-highs, a phenomenon known in Japan as ‘zettai ryouiki’—or ‘the absolute territory’—in which a small amount of bare skin is visible between the knee and hips, creating an almost-but-not-quite eye catch not dissimilar to the concept of ‘sideboob’. As a man of the legs, hips and asses persuasion, I wholeheartedly approve. Her standard twin-tail isn’t a favourite hairstyle of mine, but I appreciate it here. It pales in comparison to her hair down or ponytail looks, though. Oh man. Bless you, Takeshi Takeuchi.
Of course, Digibro is already well aware of this much, having included Rin at number 3 in his impromptu list of ‘top 10 hottest girls drawn and animated in the last 10 years’ (Collins 2017 b). It is worth noting that he conceded in his criticisms of Fate/Stay Night that the bevy of cute girls may be a contributing factor to people’s attraction to it. No doubt this is the case, as the vast array of character designs and archetypes across the various franchises-within-the-franchise mean that everyone will surely find at least one that appeals to them.
The various artists involved in the franchise present character designs that can be cool or cute, intimidating or sexy, stylish or historically accurate, or some combination of the above. Saber’s blue and silver battle garb is embellish with golden filigree that matches her hair, a design both attractive and evocative of the knights of old. Berserker’s lack thereof serve to emphasise the sheer stature of the man among gods and communicates in an instant the power and madness lurking within. Gilgamesh’s golden armour shows us his vast wealth and ego at a glance. The ‘visual’ aspect of ‘visual novel’ cannot be understated, and Fate proffers no short supply of visually appealing characters, with Rin Tohsaka at its peak.
3. RPGs are Fucking Great
Early in the visual novel, the reader gains access to a ‘status’ screen of sorts which acts as a reference for all the Servant characters, including their identities, abilities and parameters. Rin states that in-universe that it is more of a mental model than a visible screen, and it takes on a different form for each person. For Shirou, it inexplicably resembles the status screens of the playable characters in an RPG, such as Final Fantasy or Dark Souls. While Shirou is hardly the type to play video games, this makes perfect sense when you consider that Shirou is the reader’s avatar, in a manner of speaking, and the person reading would almost certainly be the type to play RPGs.
When I first gained access to this screen, I was blown away. Not only was this a compendium of information about the Servants—which is interesting enough in its own right—but it resembled the RPGs I loved playing ever since childhood. All of a sudden each character was quantified in a way that made perfect sense to my mind. And the fact that not all of the information in there was available from the start made it a game-within-the-game to complete every entry, hooking into the completionist manner with which I tend to approach my beloved RPGs. Discovering a new ability or other factoid about a character was like literary crack for me.
The mere existence of these pseudo-character sheets turned the literal death game that is the subject of the franchise into a figurative game where I could weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of each participant and make predictions or presuppositions about the outcome of an encounter. In the case of the visual novel, this could be used to inform the choices I made in my quest to live through the 5th Holy Grail War. At times I was correct, and at times I wasn’t—stats aren’t the be all and end all of a fight. Sometimes it was less a matter of power and more a matter of matchups, not unlike Pokémon. A powerful opponent could be tackled if you had the right super-effective move, so to speak; few RPGs are wholly deterministic after all.
And just as the outcome of the battles can change, so too can the character sheets. Like the stories and characters of most RPGs experience twists and turns and surprises, the status screens also undergo change over time. As a plot twist is revealed in-text—say, who the Master of a powerful enemy Servant is—the corresponding field in the status screen is updated. But that’s a matter of due course. Each route only contains a portion of the whole picture. The Fate route divulges much about Berserker but little about Caster. The Unlimited Blade Works route fills in most of the missing details, but also changes some for previously-defined characters. The Heaven’s Feel route erases some characters entirely, documenting the revelations as a D&D Game Master would. You can bet your ass I spent a great deal of time poring over the status screen’s codex, wondering what mysteries would be etched into its pages next.
Interestingly enough, these values snuck their way into other media entries as well. The Fate/Zero novels by Gen Urobuchi (2007-2011) contained similar character sheets within their pages, as do other printed works; several of the animated adaptations make offhand references to the ‘rank’ or effects of a particular Servant’s abilities; and, naturally, the video game entries make use of RPG stats in a completely functional manner, bringing the idea of the status screens full circle.
4. History and Mythology are Fucking Fascinating
One of the most interesting aspects of the franchise is the lore behind the Servants’ pasts. Under normal circumstances, this would not be worth noting in such depth since we expect most media to provide context for their characters; but since the Servants are all embodiments of historical or mythological figures, it takes a whole new angle to the idea. The core conceit of the series is a battle between humanity’s greatest heroes, after all. Simultaneously you can be treated to the backstory, motivations and abilities of Saber as well as King Arthur; Rider, but also Medusa—albeit with a varying amount of creative license. Sometimes this results in an intriguing new take on an existing mythos: it makes a lot of sense for Guinevere to have an affair with Lancelot if her husband was secretly a woman. This isn’t always the case, but at worst it’s an invitation to explore the actual stories of civilisations long past.
The variety of cultures on offer is a treat. In just the original visual novel, there are characters drawn from Arthurian legend, Japanese samurai tales, the Irish Ulster Cycle, three Greek mythological figures, and even the oldest story known to man: the Epic of Gilgamesh. Counting expanded materials, the list includes Native Americans, Romans, and Indians; historical figures, Biblical figures and straight-up fictional characters; as well as some more liberally-interpreted modern ‘heroes’ such as Nicola Tesla or Sir Francis Drake. The continuum of characters runs the gamut from well-known to obscure —in the Western world, at least—so it’s quite likely that there is at least one source that inspires curiosity for every reader or watcher, to say nothing of the aforementioned character designs.
And from curiosity does one draw interest. I had only previously heard of the name Cú Chulainn in Final Fantasy XII, an instance wholly unrelated to the true owner of that epithet. Once the cat was out of the bag for Ireland’s ‘Child of Light’, I tore voraciously through webpages and encyclopaedias and whatever other material I could get my hands on. I found related characters had appeared in other works I’d read or watched. And I found a damned cool mythology that had never been given a chance to shine alongside the typical Greek-Egyptian-Norse triumvirate that most immediately springs from the public consciousness these days. Even among those three, however, lay lesser known tidbits. Teased with the title ‘Princess of Colchis’, I soon found myself learning about Medea, a witch encountered by Jason during his travels aboard the Argo. The quest for the Golden Fleece is by no means obscure, but hardly stands up in comparison to the gods of Mount Olympus—or the demigod Heracles, at least.
Even more interesting than mythological heroes, however, were the ones that find their roots in truth. Alexander the Great is among the most powerful leaders to have ever lived, and his Fate counterpart is similarly statured. On the other hand, the depiction of Gilles de Rais—a general during the campaign of Jeanne d’Arc—is drawn from his later years, plagued by doubt in God and doggedly sinning that he might finally incur His wrath. Much of the atrocities at play by his Fate iteration stem from actual events, showing that truth really can be stranger than fiction. As dramatised, fictionalised, and embellished as Fate’s interpretations of these figures are, they contain within them a kernel of relative truth that compels the reader to find out more.
Beyond just giving information about the people themselves or even their personalities, however, is how their stories are used. These infinite stories and myths also inform how each Servant functions as a character, in the RPG sense. Meeting the gaze of Medusa was enough to turn men to stone and, when slain, the Pegasus sprung from her severed neck; Rider’s eyes possess a potent petrification curse and her Noble Phantasm saddles her up on Bellerophon’s mighty steed. Heracles suffered 12 labours to earn the demigod status that made him near-invulnerable; Berserker’s mighty body resists all but the strongest attacks and must be killed 12 times before he truly dies. Cú Chulainn, despite the many misfortunes that befell him, was a lethal warrior who died on his feet, the enemy forces terrified of approaching his corpse; Lancer possesses a Battle Continuation skill so powerful he can fight even after his heart has stopped, but of course it’s no match for his E-rank luck.
5. I Fucking Love ‘What-If’ Stories
As a writer, ‘what if?’ is a question I am constantly asking myself, to which the answer is a story. To use some of the stories on my blog as an example, you might ask the questions ‘what if God offered you a second chance?’ or ‘what if you knew exactly when you were going to die?’ or ‘what if the Holy Grail War was fought with heroes pulled from other anime and manga titles?’. It is a versatile question that can be used to pinpoint a beginning, middle, or end; a theme, motif, or concept; a character, setting, or plot device. And don’t pretend like you’ve never wondered if something in real life had gone differently. People are wired to imagine other possibilities, and the Fate franchise makes full use of that trait.
The original instance of this is found in the visual novel, which, like many of its brethren in the medium, offers the player choices as to how events will proceed. These choices exist on three levels, so to speak: minor, which are largely cosmetic and do not stray far from the main branch; moderate, which stray from the main branch but ultimately return to it; and major, which can be so impactful as to change the branch itself (Lebowitz and Klug 2011, pp. 185-187). Each choice can be framed as a ‘what if?’ on the respective scale of its impact. ‘What if Shirou praises Saber instead of Rin’ might not have all that much significance, but ‘what if Shirou successfully negotiates an alliance’ may just save the player from a game over.
In this case, there are three major branches decided early in the story. If we assume the first ‘route’, as they’re called, to be the default state, achieved simply by asking ‘what if Shirou participated in the 5th Holy Grail War?’, then we can arrive at the second route by asking ‘what if Shirou stopped Saber from attacking Archer?’, and we can arrive at the third by asking ‘what if Shirou gave Sakura a motive to participate in the Holy Grail War of her own volition?’. In each case, the journeys undertaken by each question are as drastically different as their destination answer.
This isn’t limited to just the game mechanics of the visual novel, however. The wide variety of spin-off titles and expansions can similarly be framed as a collaborator asking or being asked an interesting enough ‘what if?’ and being given permission to answer it. The Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya manga (Hiroyama 2007-ongoing) and anime (Silver Link 2013-ongoing) ask the question ‘what if there was a Fate-themed magical girl series?’ by way of the setting ‘what if Kiritsugu Emiya prevented the 4th and 5th Holy Grail Wars before they happened?’. Light novel series and upcoming anime adaptation Fate/Apocrypha (Higashide 2012-2014, A1 Pictures 2017) asks the questions ‘what if the Holy Grail mechanism was stolen during World War 2, and seven European Masters on the same side summoned all seven Servants?’. The extent of possibilities explored in the franchise, as expansive as that is, is nevertheless dwarfed by the extent of possibilities we as fans can imagine.
6. Fate’s Lore is Fucking Detailed
You might have gathered by now that there is a lot of Fate material. You’re right. And consequently there’s a lot of lore behind each part. Even the central conceit of the main entries is built from the ground up to be a veritable font of history, given the 5 cycles of an event that takes place (mostly) every 60 years. When you consider that the visual novel consists of nearly a million English words and depicts only the 5th of the Holy Grail Wars (three times over, even), it’s no stretch to imagine the scale of the lore as a whole.
The mechanisms of the Holy Grail War itself are told in numerous entries in numerous ways, each fleshing out more and more of how it can work and be used. Fate/Zero tells us what took place in the 4th Holy Grail War, which ties directly into several key events of the visual novel and its adaptations. Both make references to the 3rd Holy Grail War, a catastrophically misfortunate iteration which is explored using the Fate/Stay Night cast as stand-ins in Fate/Hollow Ataraxia (Type-Moon 2005). The 1st and 2nd are not so thoroughly explored in terms of what actually transpired, but the inciting events and the ramifications of them are told in no unclear terms.
Lineages of several families are explicitly charted back as much as three generations, and implicitly as far as a thousand years. The society and culture that informed the creation of the Holy Grail War system is documented in great depth. The mechanics of mage craft in the Fate universe is not only well-explored in its own titles, but is internally consistent with Type-Moon’s other, non-Fate works as well, such as Kara no Kyoukai and Tsukihime. In fact, several references and call backs between various parts of various franchises under the Type-Moon stable, without even mentioning the explicit crossover titles.
Then the various spin-offs take that existing lore and use it as the basis to craft something new. Prisma Illya’s magical girls are not dissimilar from more traditional magical girl media, but by framing its parent title’s lore through that lens it creates a deeper, more nuanced outfit of information to consume. Things that are well-trodden are transformed, things that are suggested are made explicit, and things that are subversive are expanded upon and developed in their own right, sometimes becoming an ascended part of the main ‘canon’ proper.
Just as Tolkien meticulously documented every tree branch of his Middle Earth in text, appendices, and various tie-ins, so too do Kinoko Nasu and his collaborators document Fate in meticulous detail. It is these details that make the variations in each route of the visual novel so impactful; it is these details that make each plot twist feel so well-earned; and it is these details that give each of the franchise’s hundred-plus characters so much depth. Game of Thrones may be similarly extensive in its scope and details, but even it must concede that it can hold but one angle of expression, and if that angle does not appeal to a given person then it has no other means of roping them in.
Fate can be a battle shounen, a gritty seinen, a decidedly un-child friendly magical girl series or futuristic sci-fi piece. It can be a manga, an anime, a novel, a video game, or a 60-hour long visual novel. And it is because of the amount of world-building defined, expanded upon and evolved that such a diverse array of interpretations are able to exist will continue to be created well into the future. There will always be some new corner of history, be in-universe or out-, into which someone can etch their own additions without fear of reproach.
7. RIN TOHSAKA IS FUCKING HOT
It bears repeating.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of reasons. I could talk at length about the spectacle that is ufotable’s anime productions, or the way that the narrative progression of the visual novel’s three routes can develop plots and characters linearly despite existing in parallel. It is simply that these reasons are those that are true outside of the title in question or its medium. The character designs are strong, epitomised by best girl Rin Tohsaka. My preferred video game genre—RPGs—are evoked in both game and story mechanics. Characters and settings are drawn from and informed by the fascinating stories of real-life historical, mythological or cultural figures. Divergent narratives and various alternate continuities and interpretations play into my curiosity and imagination. The great depth of the lore satisfies my interest for every conceivable aspect of the story world. And, once again, Rin Tohsaka is fucking hot.
By no means is this meant to persuade Digibro or any other reader to like the Fate franchise. I am not interested in pleading, preaching, or converting. This essay seeks only to explain my position and possibly some of the positions of others. If that explanation causes a change in opinion, then that is a welcome bonus. If not, then hopefully it has at least garnered some degree of understanding. I need not everyone to agree with me; disagreement invites discourse, and some of my most insightful discussions have been with people whose views differ from my own. I welcome the opportunity to hear the opinions of others, and examine how they may or may not align with mine. Even if we don’t agree, we might just learn something about each other.
Collins C. (2017 a). Why I dropped every anime I dropped, video series, YouTube.
Collins C. (2017 b). Some hard thinking after ten years of anime blogging, YouTube.
Lebowitz, J. and Klug, C. (2011). Interactive storytelling for video games. Burlington, MA: Focal Press.
Type-Moon (2000). Tsukihime – Full Version, Type-Moon, viewed 4 November 2015 <http://www.typemoon.org/works/moon.html>.
Type-Moon (2004). Fate/Stay Night , PC, Type-Moon, Japan.
Type-Moon (2005). Fate/Hollow Ataraxia , PC, Type-Moon, Japan.
Fate/Stay Night (2006). [Animated series] Japan: Dir. Yuuji Yamaguchi, Anim. Studio Deen, released Aus: Madman Entertainment.
Fate/Zero (2011-2012). [Animated series] Japan: Dir. Ei Aoki, Anim. ufotable, released Aus: Madman Entertainment.
Fate/Stay Night [Unlimited Blade Works] (2014-2015). [Animated series] Japan: Dir. Takahiro Miura, Anim. ufotable, released Aus: Hanabee.
Hiroyama H (2007-ongoing). Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya, manga series, Japan: Comp Ace.
Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya (2013-ongoing). [Animated series] Japan: Dir. Shin Ohnuma, Anim. Silver Link, released Aus: Hanabee.
Higashide Y (2012-2014). Fate/Apocrypha, book series, Japan.
Fate/Apocrypha (2017). [Animated series] Japan: Dir. Yoshiyuki Asai Anim. A1 Pictures, release pending.
Urobuchi G (2006-2011). Fate/Zero, book series, Japan: Sekaisha.