Alright, I’ll confess: I wasn’t able to get a meaningful distance into Heaven’s Feel. I got through all of the pre-route scenes that involved Sakura, and I had a nice long chat with Kotomine at the church, and then I got nearly murdered by Ilya, and then Rin finished me off with an interminable conversation about magical energy. All of that took several hours of clicking through, but it didn’t really accomplish anything narrative-wise – I’m still basically in the introduction phase of the route, and there’s no indication that that’s going to end any time soon.
But that’s pretty much the price of entry with visual novels, as I’ve covered before. Pacing is an utterly foreign concept, every individual piece of narrative or emotional information is repeated half a dozen times, and exposition is its own reward. Reading this segment of Fate often felt like reading a very circuitous and awkwardly translated instruction manual for a new refrigerator.
But that, once again, is all known information. A protagonist like Shirou can’t simply say “I’m horny” – he has to wander around that fact in countless extended phrasings. The details of magical combat must be painstakingly discussed long before they ever become dramatically relevant. Even cooking breakfast must be given significant screen time, as the choice between spending ten minutes working out or cooking another side dish for your imminent guests is apparently critical to the dramatic goals of your larger narrative.
But in the end, none of that can be helped. Every scene will-
Okay, I think I’ve made that particular point.
In spite of being basically unreadable as a dramatic text (beyond its absurd unbrevity, this translation also doesn’t really seem to be the work of a native speaker), it actually was pretty interesting taking another stab at Fate. While the work’s fundamental craft is lousy, its ambition is obviously very great – and even beyond the text itself, my experience with Fate’s larger universe made returning to the third act of the original text a fairly unique adventure.
Sakura had most of the best material through these scenes. Fate is extremely generous in its laying on of Shirou’s perspective, so pretty much all of her lines are buttressed by stuff like “she’s become so beautiful” or “I don’t really understand what she’s talking about.” Shirou is a dullard, but Sakura’s tenuous position is clear between the lines – she’s struggling with a variety of painful obligations, she sees time with Shirou as a vacation away from her own life, but she can’t really talk to him honestly about anything important. The text does a perfectly reasonable job of presenting her as someone with complex problems that our actual viewpoint character is completely unequipped to handle.
Sakura’s perspective also reflected the structural intrigue of Fate, which is almost certainly its greatest strength. On a personal level, my very lopsided experience with Fate meant that bit moments like Sakura’s ambiguous reaction to Shirou mentioning Rin’s house carried a weight I’m not even sure it was supposed to. With the visual novel never receiving a proper translation or release, the anime adaptations stuck in a weird, fragmented release pattern, and Fate/Zero standing as the most acclaimed secondary adaptation, the awkwardness of engaging with Fate has become a legitimate part of the universe’s meta-story. Though Fate megafans will complain about people engaging with it in the “wrong order,” at this point, the route you take to Fate feels almost like one more of the story’s branching paths. It was satisfying to think back on the context that informed my engagement with Shirou and Sakura’s various unexplained feelings, even if that context wasn’t necessarily “supposed” to be there. It was great to see the way Kotomine framed the events of the prior grail war, given I’d already watched everything he was embellishing play out first-hand. I’m not really one for extended universes, but moments like that help me see the appeal.
And beyond the unintentional meta-storytelling, Fate’s concrete structure is also just a very impressive dramatic trick. I like the idea that after two arcs where Sakura was largely a bit character, the finale unfolds into this unexpected horror show with her at the center. That’s not the kind of trick you can pull in a traditional narrative; Sakura wasn’t just slowrolled in a conventional sense, she was actually irrelevant until the story where her presence dictates everything. And having the last arc be the most horror-influenced one plays into horror’s natural relationship with surprise. I’m sure if I weren’t so unimpressed with the story’s craft fundamentals, it would build to some peaks that really take advantage of the player’s existing assumptions.
Other scenes made use of Fate’s branching structure in different ways, like the simple but effective dramatic irony of Shirou and Rin discussing events with none of the context of the first two routes. Seeing Rin hypothesize that Shirou survived an attack because Saber was feeding energy into him was a nice trick – her theory is wrong, but it was still an intelligent guess based on the information she had at hand. And placing Sakura’s route at the end again worked in a genre sense for this trick; dramatic irony is a favorite tool of horror writers the world over, as exemplified through the cliche “don’t go through that door!”
And finally, the fact that making basically any sensible decision was immediately punished by gruesome death was a nice little character joke. It’s very difficult to design a visual novel where your choices are actually meaningful, because the more your choices have long-term consequences, the more the writers and artists have to multiply their workload. Fate solves this problem in a simple but fairly reasonable way – this is Shirou’s story, not the player’s story, and so if you don’t make the same stupid, headstrong decisions he would, you get your ass murdered. It’s simultaneously a graceful way to emphasize Shirou’s character voice and the fact that Shirou is basically on the verge of being killed at all times here.
So that was my experience with Heaven’s Feel. I can’t say I really “enjoyed” it, but it was certainly an interesting time – given a better translation and an absolutely ruthless editor, I’d definitely be interested in checking the full text out. The unique tools of the visual novel medium are fascinating to me, so I’ll probably just keep touching that stove until I find another one that works.
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