Ashes and Embers in Heaven’s Feel

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.

Fate/stay night

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.

Fate/stay night

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.

Fate/stay night

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.

Fate/stay night

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.

Fate/stay night

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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12 thoughts on “Ashes and Embers in Heaven’s Feel

  1. If you’re actually interested in trying to find a visual novel that works for you, I’d happily recommend Umineko. I’m another person who has very little interest in visual novels overall, not just because their writing style is exhausting but just because there’s not much compelling to me about moving flat images across a screen. It feels like I’m watching an anime with just the most boring visual direction imaginable. But in spite of this, I thoroughly enjoyed all of When They Cry, and while in retrospect I would probably advise skipping Higurashi (not because it isn’t good, but because I don’t think the payoff is worth the absurd time commitment) I would definitely say give Umineko a whirl. It’s still got a slow start without a doubt, but it’s doesn’t repeat itself very much at all if I remember, and as it comes into itself it may in fact become one of the greatest mystery stories ever told.

    Or you could just read the manga, which I personally preferred because I’m much more of a manga guy. whatever floats ye boat.

    • Umineko is certainly worth a read because of how unique and clever it is, I’ve legitimately never read anything like it. Plus since it’s available on Steam now I’ve been having a lot of fun having friends read it and enjoying their reactions toward the story.

      If I ever actually get rich I’ll be sure to throw some money towards asking him to cover it.

    • I will second this as well. If I could recommend any single visual novel to anyone, it would be Umineko. If I could recommend any story to anyone, it would be Umineko. Although I would not call myself an expert in the world of literature, I will say that I do have experience. A man can read Crane, Chekhov, Chandler and Zola, but a man should also read Umineko. It is the pinnacle of storytelling for visual novels, a masterpiece in it’s own right. As the man above me said, it very well may be, in all seriousness, the greatest mystery story ever told. This is coming from a man that has devoured the mystery genre. Of course, the prose is not comparable to the likes of Joyce or Proust, but the story is truly something to behold. The only “problem” is the fact that it is a story that requires a good amount of free time, and I’m sure that you’re a man that has fairly little of it.

  2. Good article. I haven’t read the VN, but I’ve enjoyed every Fate adaptation I’ve seen and I’m looking forward to the Heaven’s Feel movies next year. Do you think you’ll go see them? It seems like a movie format would be able to cut a lot of the padding you talked about here.

    If you like visual novels, I’d recommend Steins;Gate. It’s slower paced than the anime, but it’s able to flesh out the secondary characters much better, especially Ferris and Ruka. It’s also interesting to hear Okabe’s inner thoughts throughout the whole thing.

    • Yeah, I’ll probably watch the Heaven’s Feel movies – as you say, I’m guessing those will mitigate a lot of the problems of the original.

  3. It’s quite interesting to see someone else’s perspective on the VN more than half a decade after having really touched it myself and being sort of drawin into the fandom.
    In retrospective I guess it’s quite clear the only proper way to be introduced to the franchise is as a somewhat edgy teenager who clearly didn’t have as good taste as he once thought he did.
    That way nostalgia can help you overcome all the cringe and pacing issues, whenever you look back at it.

  4. Even a “good” VN like 999,has the same issue. It explains simple things you already know in excruciating detail. Am not sure why that’s a huge thing for VN’s

    • I believe that it is more so just a thing that is prevalent in Japanese literature, rather than something specific to the visual novel genre. It has been the case for a good amount of time, and it’s also one of the reasons why Murakami is disliked by many Japanese critics; his stories are extremely ambiguous and he offers very little explanation. Of course, it’s not the sole reason that he isn’t well received by critics, but it is does contribute quite a bit.

  5. Gonna half-second the Umineko recommendation.

    Half, simply because I still would very much recommend checking out Higurashi first. Since it helps lay out a lot of the fundamentals for Umineko that may not be apparent otherwise, does reward people who have gone through Ryukishi’s previous works (including in some rather twisted ways at that), and is just very solid imo. Certainly and understandably flawed, given that it was Ryukishi’s first released work, but still…

    Though also, if you do these (or any of 07th Expansion’s other works), I demand you not to call them visual novels. They’re explicitly labeled as sound novels, and the design of them reflects that. Placing far more emphasis on the sound direction over the visual direction to set the tone, atmosphere, etc. Sorry if this is rather petty to complain about, but it’s just an endless source of frustration for me when people label them as visual novels, when they’re clearly not designed with a visual emphasis.

    • Oh btw, if you do start on Higurashi and/or Umineko, you don’t have to worry about branches in the narrative. Just read through the main narrative, and read the TIPS as they become unlocked between chapter points. Branches don’t really exist in 07th Expansion’s works.*

      *Exception to Higurashi Kizuna. But that’s a DS port made to be more like an actual visual novel, that you will probably never even get the chance to read. Unless some company ever manages to license Higurashi Sui (PS3/Vita port combining all Kizuna+Matsuri arcs) after another company in Japan buys up Alchemist or whatever. (they declared bankruptcy recently, so their Higurashi/Umineko console/handheld ports are basically stuck in limbo now)

      • (also, I guess there’s one exception for branches in the main PC games, but the core part of its narrative is still resolved the same way, regardless of what branch you take)

    • The common term I usually hear people use for works like Higurashi is “kinetic novel.” Officially, that’s a brand name owned by VisualArts where they publish VNs that have no player interaction, no choices or branches, and only one ending (Planetarian and Polyphonica were both published under the Kinetic Novel brand, for instance), but fans have co-opted it as the generic name for any visual novels of that type, including 07th Expansion’s, although “sound novel” works just as well. Whatever you call them, I can’t really think of them as “games,” since there’s no way to win or lose them, they’re just novels presented in a multimedia format.

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