I was tempted to use a Slowpoke as my initial image, but given how late I am to this party it wouldn’t fit – not even a Slowking would fit. Slow-God-Emperor-of-a-Million-Worlds, perhaps? Anyway, Sir Lancelot, the Wife of Bath and Anne Hyde have combined in a dastardly conspiracy to take away any free time I might have had to produce something thought-out, so I offer you this succession of impressions, followed by some musings about violence, instead. (Just in case there’re any readers out there who don’t already know that Servant Archer is Soylent Green, I think I’ve avoided giving away any significant spoilers.)
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.
I wonder if this is noticeable in the original Japanese. I know nothing about the writing of Japanese, beyond some dimly remembered suggestions that light novels have very short paragraphs for easy comprehension. I would be interested to know if this is something similar. Presumably visual novels are written to be comprehended by people who aren’t necessarily voracious readers, though I recall Moogy saying something about Nasu using rare or archaic characters.
I wonder what a visual novel with sustained, rather than occasional, narration in the third person would be like? I’ve never read one, though I’ve not read many visual novels at all. The first person is being put to fairly good use here, but I find the tendency of the narrators (especially Rin in the Prologue) to speak as if aware that they’re addressing the reader rather wearing. It might be necessary for the rather intricate explanations of magic and geography, but the prevalence in fiction of magic which is too detailed and too comprehensible is itself something of a bugbear of mine, so I don’t consider that an excuse.
‘Let’s you, me and her fornicate.’
The sex is a clumsy business, and – sad to say – that’s not because the writing’s embodying Shirou’s own clumsiness, it’s because it’s clumsy writing itself. I’m tempted to mercilessly mock a selection of particularly choice periphrases, but I’ll restrict myself to singling out the moment (doubtless it suffered in translation) when one character’s ‘hand goes down even further and reaches the place tightly closed off’. Oooh yes. Touch me in my place-tightly-closed-off, like I’m a room having my nadgery nooks dusted by a particularly conscientious cleaner.
This is a common fault, though. How often do you read a sex scene that’s even half-decent? Many authors would do well to take the Chrétien de Troyes approach, and
let it remain a secret for ever, since it should not be written of: the most delightful and choicest pleasure is that which is hinted at, but never told.
Mind you, I suppose Chrétien never had to write in Fate/stay night‘s genre. I’d make some kind of witty remark about a hypothetical visual novel which reconfigures various famous medieval romances to jam h-scenes in (not very hard with Le Chevalier de la Charrette), but since the form has already covered curling and submarine warfare there’s a good chance it’s already been done. Speculating about its existence might make it exist, so let’s not go there – it is a silly place.
‘I saw the dream of a king.’
Speaking of Chrétien, it’s convenient that I’m studying a few Arthurian texts at the moment. Does Fate/stay night fit into the tradition? At first sight, no – this is, after all, a story set in something like modern-day Japan which is more about a everday young dolt man named Shirou than it is about Arthur. (You’ll note I’m carefully not saying quite how Arthur is present in F/sn.) But I am a literature undergraduate, and if there’s one thing we specialise in it’s shoehorning incompatible feet into impossible shoes.
In part, this Arthur harks back to the pseudo-historical ‘chronicle tradition’ of a martial, national leader who fights on foot, and the game even manages to subordinate the story of Arthur’s dubious death to its own purposes. The fact that this involves several diagrams is eloquent testimony to the problem of fictional magic that’s too detailed.
The Grail is kicking around too, though, and interestingly it’s the more secular Grail of Chétien’s account, an object of mystery and (restorative) power which is not necessarily connected to the Crucifixion story. Indeed, it probably isn’t the Grail, so that ‘Grail’ begins to assume its metaphorical meaning (as in ‘a perpetual motion machine is the Holy Grail for many cranks with too much time on their hands’). This is actually a pretty good example of F/sn‘s concern about imitation: if you exactly copy A Certain Magical Sword, is it as good as the original? What if the original itself turns out to be a copy of something better?
There’s also an interest here in the potential conflict between heroism and heroic power on the one hand, and emotional life on the other, a conflict that runs through the catastrophic last two books of the Morte and therefore wound up infecting most subsequent Arthurian literature in English. (Malory is a bit of a bottleneck in the English tradition: writers of Arthuriana tend to look back to him, but not further.)
Finally, the legend of Arthur is a good example of one of this game’s key ideas, that of the story with the staying power and adaptability to survive, and even absorb other stories (so, for example, Tristan winds up being part of the Arthurian tradition). Another, much longer-lived example of this sort of story is ‘the siege and the assault [. . .] at Troy’.
Anyhow, in Fate/stay night‘s setting All Heroic Legend Is (apparently) True, though the characters’ statements on the exact mechanics seem somewhat contradictory: relatively early on it’s suggested that the popularity of a hero’s legend directly affects his or her power (in quite a local way: an Irish hero in Japan is less powerful than he would be in Ireland), but then it turns out that a certain particularly old hero essentially has an ‘I Win’ button just for being the oldest. Or something. Since I haven’t really read that much of the game yet I’d better not come up with any Big Theories.
Hyper Midnight Action CLICKTHROUGH
The action is surprisingly engaging. Perhaps I ought not to be surprised. I think the surprise is because I went into this thinking ‘with only static images and text to work with, how can action in a visual novel match the excitement of a good animated fight?’ This was, of course, stupid, as I’ve gotten sweaty reading purely textual descriptions of (for example) snakelike Pyrrhus battering down the doors of Priam’s palace with a double-headed axe, or the Continental Op accidentally-on-purpose cleaning up Poisonville.
So I found the fighting exciting. There’s a real sense of immediacy. My best initial explanation for this is the extremely limited flow of information.
Let’s invent a gamut for action to run. It’ll be a shaky system of categorisation, but it’ll serve. At one end, we have action-porn in which, while we don’t see everything, we see everything we could reasonably want to see. This is where most of the confrontations in Gundam SEED and Ong-Bak sit. The porn metaphor comes with a miasma of disapproval: this is too easy, we want to say. Well, perhaps. Incidentally, somewhere beyond this is the money shot in which we don’t just get all the information we want, but we actually know it beforehand because it’s a stock attack. This still works for me, but that’s probably a topic for another time.
At the other end of our proto-gamut – leaving aside the sort of thing Aeschylus would do, as I’m not sure how to approach entirely reported violence – is terrifying incoherence. A fanboy match-up – Balsa vs. Kusanagi, perhaps, or Artegall vs. Guyon, or something – seen only through a keyhole. This is Flag‘s approach, and it’s also what Fate/stay night achieves, accidentally or not.
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. At the moment, oddly, I think this is the aspect of the game I’m most impressed with. Perhaps this is a case of ‘the most delightful and choicest pleasure’ done right?