The Illusion of Menuing in Heaven’s Feel

Well here we are again, back in Heaven’s Feel. During my previous excursion into Fate’s third route, I got basically no distance into the story itself, because, well, visual novels. I powered through a long expository conversation with Kotomine and a long expository conversation with Rin, and that was about as far as I got. Given that, I spent most of my article running through all the interesting meta-textual concepts and narrative conceits of Fate, leaving very little room for present Nick to do anything but comment on the current text as experienced. Poor form, past Nick. Poor form.

Fortunately, while this next segment was certainly also heavy on exposition, this was also exposition that really stabbed through to the heart of Fate’s immediate appeal. After spending more time being horny towards Rin and horny towards Saber, the next major sequence of this arc involved Shirou and Saber talking in the family dojo, discussing the mechanical nature of the grail war. And as it turns out, these particular mechanical details underlined some of the major elements that make this property so dang enduring.

The base nature of the grail war is an incredibly potent conceit. “Powerful (and hot) heroes from throughout history are pitted against each other by relatable young masters” is just a brilliantly appealing concept, one whose fundamental flexibility makes it easy to understand why so many alternate grail wars have been expanded on, and why a property like Fate/Go has such strong appeal. People like distinctive heroes with larger-than-life stories, and deep fandom folks like characters buoyed by so many real-life details (which also plays into the appeal of stuff like Kancolle). Fate’s elevator pitch is about as strong as any elevator pitch can be.

On top of that, the way the grail war actually plays out, and how sequences like this one treat it in a narrative sense, actively rewards the reader for their investment. Saber and Shirou’s conversation marches methodically through the tactical interplay of the various servants, using Saber’s fairly simple strengths as a jumping-off point to discuss the diverse strengths of classes like the Archer and Assassin. “Mitigating your tactical weaknesses on an uneven battlefield starring clear powerhouses in a variety of different combat categories” is both an easy hook and a clear avenue for audience investment. Fate essentially compresses and turns into a narrative the essence of conversations like “who would win in a fight, Goku or Superman.” It is the text that young, nerdy thrillseekers extract out of other narratives turned into a new overarching text.

This almost videogame-style tactics interplay appeal extends to all the other fundamental mechanics of the grail war. The Noble Phantasm is a device designed to both facilitate hooks and add another level to the story’s min-max tactical appeal, while also offering a dramatically elevated nod to those fans who love these characters for their actual historical context. The facts that servants have to say their phantasm’s name to unlock their power is another smart trick, making all of Fate’s most tense battles come down to a kind of gambling exchange. The push and pull of using your power versus maintaining your trump cards is an inherent thrill, a thrill made greater by the fact that Shirou ostensibly doesn’t have any powers himself. Granted, picking the right conversational option will always save Shirou in spite of his powerlessness – but on an immediate dramatic level, fans can obviously enjoy Shirou’s fight against the odds without thinking about the narrative’s strings.

The fact that Fate basically takes the mechanical structures of a very appealing videogame and attaches them to its character-driven melodrama is further emphasized through menus like the Weapon and Status screens. There, the “player” can see what weapons they’ve witnessed the various servants use, how much they’ve learned about the servants themselves, and even those servants various stats. It’s basically all the same material you’d see in a battle royale videogame, except applied to a media object where your only options are to occasionally chose the “die” or “don’t die” options.

That flippant description probably understates how much I actually appreciate the artifice of this choice. It doesn’t really matter that the stats in these screens will never ultimately impact how any battle plays out – the fact that these stats were written at all offers a very clear appeal for many types of fans. Fate essentially takes all the systems you’d expect in an exciting game prone to emergent gameplay, and then just sticks them as window dressing in a story with almost no gameplay components at all. That’s not meaningless – that’s kind of brilliant. The reader gets all the fun of comparing the various monsters and attempting to draw conclusions about heroes from incomplete data, without any of the frustration of grinding, missing some random piece of vital puzzle-solving information, or losing over and over. Fate thus feels almost like a particularly well-crafted Let’s Play, a compromise between the fun of gamelike worldbuilding, narrative conceits, and power systems and the plotting and emotional heft of a committed, layered narrative.

When it plays out in action, this marriage of fabricated stats and inevitable narrative feels like a magic trick the audience can’t help but believe in. The fact that we can’t actually act on the stats we see doesn’t mean they don’t feel impactful – seeing Berserker’s all-A stats is a clear enough sign to stay far away, while seeing others’ mismatched strengths and weaknesses implies the audience can deduce effective strategies and then hopefully watch Shirou act on those strategies. Not only is an enemy servant employing their phantasm presumably thrilling in a narrative sense, it also ticks that gamer “your logbook has gained 1% completion” urge, filling in missing pieces and offering fodder for future strategies. The slight, consistent, inherent “participation” of having to click through text and screens only amplifies this effect, further tying the player to the actions of the narrative. While some visual novels work to downplay their gamelike elements and create a greater sense of dramatic transparency, Fate revels in its artifice, embracing the unique appeal of what acting like a game can do.

I’ve mentioned before that Fate is very much a worldbuilder’s franchise, where the base mechanics of the universe and the setup of its conflict are perhaps its most central and successful appeal. In the past, I’ve referred to that before going on to talk about its major issues as a dramatic narrative, character piece, or thematic treatise – issues that I obviously still have with the story. But here in these conversations, it is undeniably clear that Fate is really, really good at nailing that specific worldbuilding appeal, and at envisioning a story that exists halfway between a young adult fantasy novel and a satisfying stats-focused RPG on the most fundamental, genre-of-media level. The story’s completely inconsequential stats screens aren’t a failing of the work, they are a key and smartly implemented component of its overarching appeal. I’d be perfectly fine to see more stories “lie” to their audience in this way, if it promotes such a strong and engaging audience effect. People like games, puzzles, and stats, and people who are naturally inclined to appreciate a story like Fate are probably even more into those systems than the average person. When it comes to these systems of intertwining worldbuilding and narrative, Fate is phenomenal at giving the people what they want.

Anyway, that’s pretty much the biggest takeaway I got from my second excursion into Heaven’s Feel. While the story still doesn’t really grab me, and the writing quality remains pretty suspect, I’m very impressed by how well it actually capitalizes on its gamelike elements, and exists in the inherently appealing space halfway between sturdy RPG and straightforward fantasy. Visual novels are inherently fascinating that way – stranded between a variety of mediums, they can embody the strengths of very disparate sources, or multiple mediums at the same time. One day I’ll find another one for me.

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3 thoughts on “The Illusion of Menuing in Heaven’s Feel

  1. Oh my goodness. I never thought I’d see genuine praise for F/SN from you, much less an entire thousand-word article of it. We’ll turn you into a fanboy yet.

    Oddly enough, I found F/SN’s video game conceits a little off-putting when I played it. You’re right about how they exploit a gamer’s completionist urges; I definitely checked the stat and weapon sections obsessively whenever new characters and moves showed up. But it was also so blatant that it felt silly. Of course, the fact that I was much more engaged with the narrative on its own terms than you have been probably makes the difference there. I didn’t want to be distracted from finding out how Shirou and Friends would fare in their next fight, nor from believing that the stakes were plausible and real. But if you already think that stuff is ridiculous, I suppose the gamified mechanics can work to capture interest by other means.

    On the subject of visual novels that might actually appeal to you, you should probably go ahead and try Doki Doki Literature Club if you haven’t already. It’s no Katawa Shoujo but it’s blessedly short and is conscious enough of its medium tropes to play with them without getting completely mired.

  2. “One day I’ll find another one for me.”

    Well, I’d like to second the recommendation for Doki Doki Literature Club, then. It’s free on Steam (or from the official website, ddlc.moe), and it’s not that long – probably around 6-8 hours if you want to see everything. It’s pretty slow at the beginning, depending on your reading speed the first act takes 1.5-3 hours after which it gets really exciting (not that the first act is bad – the topic they have is pretty interesting, especially for people who are into literatures). I really like it because it screws with the expectation of a visual novel and a game, as well as for having such a genuinely oppressive atmosphere once you got past the first act. I also really like the characters – they have a pretty bare-bones characterization but they still managed to resonate with so many people, I think that’s something interesting to analyze too. I don’t want to spoil the game, but the game does get pretty dark and disturbing at times – there are some creepypasta elements and unavoidable character death involved in this game, for one.

    DDLC isn’t perfect, I have said as much in the game’s subreddit, but it’s still an all-around well-crafted experience. I’ve watched the game before playing it but even knowing the twists, it was still a strong experience that affected me. I think that it’s a sign of good execution when you know everything about the story yet you can still enjoy watching it unfold.

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