Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
This past weekend, while I was busy watching what was an underwhelming start to the year's NCAA basketball tournament, a few friends talked me into attempting what's called a Nuzlocke run of Pokemon Emerald. For the uninitiated, a Nuzlocke is a run of a Pokemon game in which you treat any knockout as a death -- that is to say, if a pokemon drops to zero health, it's treated as permanently dead, and you have to release it or permanently store it, not using it for the rest of the game. There are a few other rules (and a nearly limitless number of variant rulesets), but the permadeath constraint is key to the game's appeal.
Nuzlocke runs are by nature time- and grinding-intensive, so I've avoided them in the past, but one particular comment intrigued me: specifically, that Nuzlocke runs give Pokemon a sense of stakes, something the series generally lacks outside of the unusual case that is Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. Given my complaints last week about Pokemon's stagnation and its dated gameplay, I thought committing to a Nuzlocke might give me a renewed appreciation for the series.
Long story short, it did not.
I'm glad to have completed most of a Nuzlocke, if only for the experience -- I stopped just before the game's ending sequence, as there's a significant jump in enemy level at the end of the game and I didn't feel like grinding for the final boss -- but it's not something I see myself doing again. It did, however, get me thinking about the concept of permadeath as a narrative and gameplay tool. It's a fairly rare thing and it always seems to be polarizing when it does appear, so I thought I'd delve into the ways in which it does and doesn't work.
It's impossible to talk about permadeath, of course, without addressing Fire Emblem. FE is an old tactical RPG series that used to be known for its large casts and its permadeath mechanics. If a party member dies in battle in Fire Emblem, the character is permanently dead, and the story dialogue changes to reflect this. Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates allowed players to turn this mechanic off, a decision which was met with mixed feelings. Longtime players felt that the very option of disabling this series stable undermined the purity of the games, while newer players felt the more forgiving "casual" mode made the games considerably more accessible to a broader audience -- especially important given the games' renewed focus on character appeal over raw strategic gameplay.
The thing about permadeath in Fire Emblem is in most practical cases it doesn't work as advertised. Typically, players respond to character deaths not by proceeding through the game without the dead characters, but rather by reloading their saves and replaying the fights until they can be cleared without any deaths. In one sense, this serves to heighten the games' difficulty, as the effective win condition changes from "defeat the enemy" to "defeat the enemy without losing any allies." This makes the permadeath concept somewhat misleading. It doesn't raise the stakes of individual decisions so much as it slows progress through the game, and it also means bad luck can be much more of a factor in Fire Emblem than in looser tactical RPGs (such as Final Fantasy Tactics).
What makes Nuzlocke runs of Pokemon games interesting is the commitment it forces on the part of the players. As Nuzlocke rulesets are self-imposed rather than mechanical, it feels against the spirit of the run to reload after an unfortunate fight. Fire Emblem's system-imposed permadeath has the counterintuitive effect of leading players to work around the imposed stakes rather than embracing them. An "honest" run of Fire Emblem would require never reloading from a prior save -- but this isn't realistic, and players could easily get stuck or discouraged after losing a few key units. The older games are balanced around permadeath in the sense that it's possible to win fights with no unit deaths, but they're not balanced around permadeath in the sense that later fights are balanced around you having a full team of powerful units. The games' narratives adjust for loss of character life, but gameplay-wise they do not.
It's a clunky system, ultimately, and the decision in Awakening and Fates to allow players to disable permadeath feels to me like an acknowledgement that the mechanic doesn't work well -- or, at least, that it doesn't work the way it was initially intended to. It adds difficulty (and potentially frustration), but it does not create a sense of stakes.
It's also worth noting that Pokemon games are not balanced around Nuzlocke runs, which means the Nuzlockes essentially boil down to "grind forever" and then "steamroll boss fights and hope you don't get unlucky." It's a reverse of Fire Emblem, essentially -- it definitely creates a sense of stakes, but it lacks any coherent difficulty curve, unless you consider the patience required a form of strategic challenge.
This is not to say that permadeath is an inherently flawed mechanic. It can work well, but it requires two factors to be present: first, it must be presented such that the player voluntarily opts-in to the system and cannot easily "reset" to avoid character deaths, and second, the game must be balanced around the presence of the mechanic.
Before I get to the main example I want to use for this, I'd like to address a strange DS game called Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. For reference, I haven't played the game, but the way it handles permadeath is interesting enough that it occasionally gets brought up in discussions of the topic regardless. The game is a tactical RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, and in-battle character deaths do not result in permanent death. However, the player can choose to temporarily strengthen party members during a battle in exchange for having them die permanently afterward. Permadeath in this case is not a penalty for strategic failure but rather a trade-off associated with a powerful strategic tool. It is entirely in the hands of the player and not subject to luck (a common frustration with Fire Emblem and with Nuzlocke runs), and it opens up interesting mechanical trades. You can, for example, choose to strengthen an underperforming party member for the duration of a particularly difficult boss fight, with the knowledge that after the character dies you can replace them with someone more powerful. It's a clever take on permadeath, though it's also not really what people usually mean when they talk about the mechanic.
The best usage of a permadeath-like system I've seen in an RPG comes in Atlus's Devil Survivor games. These games are structured somewhat like Fire Emblem, but they approach permadeath on two separate-but-related fronts.
The first and most important of these is narrative. Permanent character deaths happen not because of gameplay failures but rather as a result of narrative decisions the player makes over long periods of time. This creates the sense of stakes permadeath seeks to create, but it does so narratively instead of mechanically, and the drawn-out nature of these sequences of decisions makes them difficult to reset and fix. In Devil Survivor 2, for example, there is a character who is presented with a harrowing personal trial near the game's end. If the player has taken the time to speak with her and help her throughout the course of the game, she finds the mental and emotional strength to succeed and survive. If the player has ignored her, she lacks the mental fortitude she needs, and she fails and dies. The plot and dialogue change to accommodate character deaths, as in Fire Emblem, but the deaths are the result of accumulated player choices rather than freak dice rolls, which adds a significant weight to any failures.
Additionally, the games contain a sort of mechanically-monitored equivalent to Pokemon's Nuzlocke runs. The Devil Survivor games each have a wide array of endings, and players are encouraged to replay the game five-or-so times to complete them all. Depending on how well the player does, the player is allowed to carry various tools over to the next run, making future playthroughs easier. If the player manages to go through the entire game without any in-battle character deaths, the player is rewarded with a considerable bonus in future runs.
This means there is an incentive to play as if the game had permadeath, even though there are no direct consequences to losing characters. It allows and encourages players to add the additional level of strategic difficult Fire Emblem's permadeath system creates, but it doesn't punish players who choose not to do so, and its status as a strictly mechanical option (as opposed to Fire Emblem's ludonarrative hybrid) keeps the inevitable resets to avoid deaths from undermining the weight of the games' stories. Cool, no?
Most importantly, Devil Survivor also rewards playing through without grinding, and as such the games are balanced around no-deaths, no-grinding runs. They're crazy hard games, as RPGs go, but they rely on true strategic difficulty rather than sheer numbers (as in Fire Emblem) or luck and patience (as in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne). Devil Survivor is the pinnacle of RPG difficulty that is legitimately challenging but also entirely fair. You have access to the exact same tools as your enemies do, and you play by the exact same rules, so the games become 20% preparation and 80% strategy. It's super fun, and the bulk of the game is spent in the actual meat of the fights rather than in the time-sink that is grinding.
I'm generally an advocate for making gameplay forgiving and keeping stakes to storytelling. By "forgiving" I don't mean easy, either -- I mean forgiving in the sense that games shouldn't heavily penalize failure. Look to Super Meat Boy as an example of this -- it's a difficult platformer, but there's no penalty for failure. Players are encouraged to try again as many times as needed, which keeps the difficulty from feeling frustrating or unfair. Severe penalties for death are more likely to breed frustration than to create a legitimate sense of challenge, and except in the most well-balanced of games permadeath generally falls into that mix.
It's entirely possible to make character death feel meaningful and fights feel dangerous without actually punishing the player for failure, too. I have a love-hate relationship with Dark Souls, but it's excellent at this. For all its difficulty it's a highly forgiving game, but even though death tends to only set players back a minute or two close calls and dangerous fights inevitably lead to the burst of adrenaline you might feel in a game where a death can mean hours of lost progress. The game accomplishes this not through practical stakes so much as through aesthetic ones -- its foes are visually imposing, and its stellar sound design creates psychological tension without artificial mechanical difficulty. If death in Dark Souls meant more significant losses that its small experience penalty -- if, for example, you lost all of your equipment when you died -- this would make failure more frustrating, but it wouldn't meaningfully raise the sense of stakes. Strange as it seems, gameplay stakes are best created through narrative means rather than through mechanical methods.
Ultimately, permadeath is somewhat of a dangerous game, especially when it isn't predicated on player buy-in. It can be done well, but it usually isn't. It makes games more difficult, but difficulty is better achieved through careful balance and strong enemy design than through mechanical quirks like permadeath. Like any other mechanic, it has its place, but it shouldn't be used thoughtlessly.
Nintendo recently announced the next main-series Pokemon game, and once again I find myself entirely unexcited. There was a time not all that many years ago when a new Pokemon title was cause for intense speculation and excitement, but my reaction to the announcement of the eighth generation of the games was one of general dismissal.
Part of this, of course, is age -- I'm sure there's a group of (mostly very young) people who are thrilled at the prospect of another Pokemon game -- but the more significant issue is that Pokemon has grown exceptionally stagnant. The new games will add a few more Pokemon to collect and will produce a new set of areas to explore, but if the past several generations of games are anything to go by, the overall formula will be almost entirely unchanged. You will play as a new Pokemon trainer setting out alone on an adventure, you'll battle with a rival a few times, you'll run up against a flat antagonist and his nameless lackeys, you'll complete a set of formulaic challenges, and then you'll face off against the champions of the new region. There will be a a forest or two, and an ice area, and a desert, and a few caves, and maybe a volcano. There may be a flashy new mechanic that shakes up the competitive scene a little but doesn't impact ordinary players much. And if you've played the earlier games it will feel like the exact same thing with a slightly different coat of paint.
There's something to be said for sticking with a formula that works. The brand power of Pokemon is such that so long as its developers don't seriously mess up, the games will continue to sell well (and even strange design choices like those of Let's Go are unlikely to do much damage to the brand). Pokemon is a true cash cow, and all Nintendo and Game Freak need to do to profit from it is to milk it. There's nothing inherently wrong with that.
My problem is the Pokemon games have become so formulaic as to be boring. It first hit me while playing through Pokemon Black 2 -- the sense that I'd done this all before, and that there was nothing new to experience. I haven't been able to finish a main series Pokemon game since, and not for lack of trying. For every person who leaves the series out of boredom there are likely two entering for the first time, so, again, there's not much motivation to change things up, but as someone who actually cares about game design it's rather painful to watch. The most recent games, especially, feel lacking in identity. If asked what fundamental things separate the sixth and seventh generations of Pokemon from the earlier ones, I'd struggle to come up with anything meaningful, and I'd probably have to settle for something like "X and Y have a pretty big world map" and "Sun and Moon replaced gyms with a nearly-identical functional equivalent." These are superficial differences and not enough to make the games feel like anything more than an obligatory continuation of the franchise.
Nintendo has shown some willingness to experiment in recent years. Look at the hugely successful The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for an example of this. The Zelda games also tend to be formulaic (though not so much so as Pokemon), and Breath of the Wild completely broke with tradition, mostly to good effect. If Pokemon wants to recapture the attention of those who have lost interest, it needs to exhibit a similar level of creativity.
Thing is, it wouldn't even be that hard, and Pokemon has actually done it before. Look at 2003's Pokemon Colosseum for an example of this. Colosseum was released during Pokemon's third generation, as a semi-spin-off for consoles. It plays just like the main Pokemon games, but (on top of being 3D, which was unusual at the time) its aesthetics and structure are completely different from the main games. And it's awesome.
Colosseum is a rare example of an established series trying to make a "darker and edgier" game and managing to pull it off in a way that both works well and keeps the general feel of its source series. Instead of the typical "youngster on a journey" setup, Colosseum casts the player as an ex-criminal whose had a change of heart and wants to set things right. The game opens with the protagonist setting off a bomb in the criminal organization's base, stealing their secret weapon (a device that allows trainers to steal Pokemon), and riding off through the desert on a motorcycle, eventually stopping at a small bar on the outskirts of the nearest town.
You know right from the get-go that this isn't your ordinary Pokemon game.
To complete the image, your Pokemon start out at about level 20 (rather than the usual 5), which establishes that the protagonist is somewhat experienced. The first main story beat involves foiling a kidnapping. The antagonists are suspect researchers and corrupt politicians and two-faced stars and a ridiculously tall dancer with a fabulous afro. They're memorable, and it actually makes sense for the protagonist to be the one taking them down. Colosseum doesn't get bogged down in the details of its storytelling -- it's still gameplay-focused, as Pokemon always is -- but it has a sense of personality and style that's exceptionally rare for the franchise and nearly nonexistent in recent years.
Additionally, the game breaks the typical Pokemon structure, removing gyms altogether (except for one that's present for world-building reasons) and replacing them with longform dungeons capped with boss fights. Many of the areas are connected in surprising and interesting ways, and each one has a clear purpose and identity. You go to each location with a specific and unique goal, which makes the dungeons themselves far more interesting than the traveling-for-the-sake-of-traveling locales of the traditional Pokemon games. Colosseum is also notable for defaulting to double battles instead of single battles -- which is to say, you and your opponent each have two Pokemon out at once instead of one. This exponentially increases your strategic options in a given turn and allows both players and enemies to use interesting strategies not possible in typical playthroughs of the main games.
All of this is hugely unusual for Pokemon, but it's actually not unusual for gaming in general. All Colosseum really did was take several cues from more standard JRPGs and apply a Pokemon flavor to them. It wouldn't be hard for Pokemon to do this again, and the change in structure would also likely necessitate a redefining and clarification of Pokemon's identity. Do I expect Game Freak to actually do this? Absolutely not. Would it make the series as a whole better? For sure. It feels to me like Pokemon has exhausted its toolbox of new and interesting ideas. It exists in a vacuum chamber of its own creation, trapped by its own uniqueness. It needs to not be afraid of drawing on other games for influence and ideas. Pokemon was not at all the first series to use the monster-catching-and-raising concept -- the Megami Tensei franchise predates it by more than a decade, and it's possible there are even older examples (though I don't know of any offhand) -- and Pokemon's original developers almost certainly looked to outside influences for early ideas.
If Pokemon is to once more become a legitimately great series -- not just a set of scheduled, obligatory, formulaic, incremental releases -- it needs to allow its overall identity to weaken and to take in outside ideas. Somewhat paradoxically, this would allow the individual games in the franchise to establish stronger identities, developing unique personalities that aren't stifled by the Pokemon formula.
There's a risk, of course, that experimentation could go wrong and produce a failure, but I'd rather Game Freak take risks and occasionally mess one up than play everything safe and settle for repetitive mediocrity.
A few weeks back, the North American version of Fate/Grand Order added a new story chapter: Shinjuku. Shinjuku is the first of a series of "interlude" chapters spanning the time period between the end of the game's first story arc and the beginning of its second (which is currently underway in Japan). Shinjuku is generally regarded as the point at which FGO really steps up its narration -- the point where it goes from being a quirky mobile game modeled after a strong group of existing works to being, in essence, a serial visual novel. Shinjuku is, however, structured as a mystery, so although it's noticeably better than what comes before in terms of dialogue, it's not quite as readily-apparent how well-crafted it is as a whole. To that end, I'd like to focus on a discovery a friend of mine made yesterday.
It has to do with Isaac Asimov.
Shinjuku Spoilers from Here On
For this to make sense, I need to start with a very brief synopsis of Shinjuku's story. FGO is something of a time-travel narrative, and each chapter in part 1 and part 1.5 (the aforementioned interlude section) is, loosely speaking, built around the concept of going back to a pivotal moment in human history to make sure nothing falls apart. This story chapter opens with an alert that something strange is happening in Shinjuku -- in Tokyo -- in 1999, which seems strange because there should, in theory, be nothing particularly important happening at that moment.
The protagonist travels to Shinjuku and finds the city in a state of disarray. There are two versions of James Moriarty -- Sherlock Holmes's notorious archenemy -- running around. One is good, and sides with the protagonist to help fix things, and one is evil, supposedly working on a plot to physically destroy the earth (something we're told shouldn't be possible). After a significant bit of detective work and a cameo appearance from the Great Detective himself, we learn that in the context of Shinjuku, Moriarty is associated with a German opera called Der Freischutz, in which the devil gives the central character a gun that never misses. The first six bullets always hit their targets, while the seventh always hits someone dear to the shooter. We also learn that evil Moriarty plans to use this to fire an asteroid into the core of the earth to destroy it, and that this "Shinjuku" is a fictional place disconnected from the real world -- in other words, than nothing that happens in this chapter really matters to the world at large and the protagonist could just leave if she wanted to. She decides to stop evil Moriarty regardless, and things proceed apace.
In the chapter's climax, it is revealed that the "evil Moriarty" was in fact someone else in disguise, while "good Moriarty" was the true Moriarty. "Good Moriarty" is identified as the true culprit, and because Shinjuku is "fictional," it is bound by the rules of detective fiction, so his identification is synonymous with his defeat and he loses his ability to use the devil's gun. The meteor is stopped and all is well. This is a highly abridged summary, of course, but the important points for this post are there.
That's no Doyle!
Supernatural/sci-fi concepts aside, Shinjuku is ostensibly based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works. The chapter ultimately revolves around a showdown between Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, and it obeys all the typical rules of detective fiction. Fairly straightforward.
The thing is, though, Moriarty only appears briefly in Doyle's works. The image we now have of Moriarty as the Napoleon of Crime, the ultimate evil in the Sherlock Holmes universe, comes more from later adaptations than from the original works. A chapter that was truly an homage to Doyle would probably not include Moriarty at all, much less place him in a more prominent role than the Great Detective. So how do you explain that? Do you just assume Shinjuku's author wasn't really all that familiar with Sherlock's source material?
Turns out there's a concrete answer to this, and it's surprisingly clever. To get to it, though, a little background is needed. Each historical/literary/mythological hero who appears in Fate has what's called a Noble Phantasm, which is something like a special ability that's emblematic of their greatest moment or their most iconic item or something to that effect. King Arthur has Excalibur, for example, while Sherlock's is "Elementary, My Dear." These Noble Phantasm's usually have two names -- one written in Japanese, and one in the language of the character's origin. Moriarty's English-language Noble Phantasm name is "The Dynamics of an Asteroid."
This is an obscure reference to Doyle's works. It's mentioned at one point that Moriarty is a professor of mathematics by trade, and that he published a book on math that was so complex and so far beyond its time that no one else could understand it. The book is called "The Dynamics of an Asteroid." There's no indication beyond this of what the book contained, so it seems, in the context of FGO, to be a neat little nod to the original Sherlock Holmes works that was probably selected for use here mostly because its name sounds cool.
...But, again, there's another reason for this. The Noble Phantasm's Japanese name translates to "The Ultimate Crime." This happens to be the title of a different story -- not by Doyle, but by Isaac Asimov. The story centers around a group of men discussing "The Dynamics of an Asteroid" and trying to come up with a plausible theory as to what it might be about. The conclusion they come to is that it centered on a particular asteroid that long ago exploded into many smaller pieces that became what we now think of as the asteroid belt. They speculate that this fascinated Moriarty because he was intrigued by the idea of potentially doing the same to Earth.
Which, of course, is exactly his goal in FGO's Shinjuku chapter.
When Sherlock Holmes is a Red Herring
The end result of this is that Shinjuku leads us to believe its based on one of Doyle's stories, when in fact it is modeled after Isaac Asimov's. With the Asimov context, the science fiction elements present throughout Shinjuku also seem much more fitting -- Asimov is, after all, mostly known for being a sci-fi author. The true "mystery" of Shinjuku has nothing to do with the culprit or the crime, but rather with the story itself. There's a reference early in Shinjuku to "The Final Problem," the Doyle story in which Moriarty and Sherlock fight each other to the death, but Shinjuku is not "The Final Problem" -- it's "The Ultimate Crime."
This flip is hinted at even by Shinjuku's character concepts. Each of Shinjuku's unique characters is a hybrid of two literary sources. Moriarty is tied to Der Freischutz. Sherlock disguises himself as the Count of Monte Cristo. The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow rides atop Lobo the King of Currumpaw. Yan Qing, from Water Margin, is also a doppelgänger. In the same way, the story itself is simultaneously Doyle and Asimov. Neat, huh?
This flip becomes a trend throughout all four of FGO's interlude chapters. There's one later, for example, that's set in Salem, during the witch trials. It's ostensibly based on Arthur Miller's The Crucible, but it's eventually revealed to be based off of Lovecraft's works. Shinjuku's "trick" in this regard is subtle, but it sets up for the later chapters perfectly, and it firmly establishes the two main themes for the entirety of part 1.5. The main, surface-level concept is "classic literature," while the secondary, underlying idea is "mystery."
Once you have this context, though, other things that seem odd in Shinjuku start to make more sense and -- in some cases -- become quite clever. Yan Qing, for example, is strangely out of place amidst the other characters who hail from mostly modern, mostly Western works, but his very presence is a play on Knox's Laws for detective fiction. Knox's fifth, the most-commonly-ignored of the ten, says literally that a "Chinaman" cannot be the culprit. Nowadays this is usually broadened to mean "the culprit must not be an out-group member" or is disregarded entirely. Due to Yan Qing's doppelgänger status, the reader might suspect the "good" Moriarty of being Yan in disguise. Knox's fifth is what tells us this can't be true, as Yan is quite literally a Chinaman, but given that the wording of the law is almost never taken literally, Shinjuku subverts it just by playing it straight. Shinjuku isn't an homage to detective fiction so much as it is a subversion of detective fiction. It plays upon the expectations of readers who are familiar with the genre and its tropes in order to accomplish clever or surprising effects.
The Ultimate Crime
Even beyond this, though, there's an extra bit of intriguing potential meaning that comes from Shinjuku's allusions to Asimov. While "The Ultimate Crime" is ostensibly about a group of people reasoning their way to a plausible reading of the purpose behind "The Dynamics of an Asteroid," that's not really what the story means. The true purpose of Asimov's story comes out in the back-and-forth between its characters, and specifically the ways in which they mock and praise fan culture and literary criticism.
There are multiple references in the story to The Baker Street Irregulars, a Sherlock Holmes fan club that writes analytical papers about Doyle's works, trying to make arguments about different points, resolve plot holes, et cetera. Asimov acknowledges in his story that Doyle's works were likely written in a slapdash manner, with only the loosest care for consistency and little thought to depth or hidden meaning. He mocks his own search for an argument very much unintended by the author even as he makes a compelling case, simultaneously glorifying our tendency to look for deeper meaning in works of fiction and laughing at the silliness of the endeavor. This is the "reason" for the story, beyond the conclusions about Moriarty.
It's interesting, then, that a story featuring Sherlock and Moriarty, which clearly holds detective fiction in very high regard, would be based on this story, which holds what almost reads as ambivalence towards Doyle's work. This idea, though, appears at times within Shinjuku as well, such as in the in-universe reveal that Shinjuku itself is fictional and nothing that happens in this chapter matters in the grand scheme of things. The game tells us outright that none of this matters and yet we still care and want to see how it resolves.
It reads to me -- and this is very much a matter of interpretation, but -- as if Shinjuku's author means this chapter as a defense of detective fiction, and a defense of Doyle, and a defense of looking deeper into a work of fiction than its creater may have intended. It accomplishes this on two fronts. For one, Shinjuku is layered as heck. If you look deeper into it you will find things you missed. It actively encourages and rewards that thought process, thereby reinforcing the idea that it's a good thing to do. Second -- and perhaps more importantly -- it says that meaning is not intrinsic to a work but rather is created by its reader. Shinjuku (the place) is not meaningful because of its connection to the world, but rather because the protagonist cares about it. In Shinjuku's climactic moment, a horde of less-memorable fictional detectives from the past century or so arrives to collectively strike down Moriarty with their truth. While their individual stories may have little grander meaning, the collective significance of all of it, and of the way other authors have interpreted them -- they're summoned to Shinjuku by Hans Christian Andersen and William Shakespeare, after all -- does have meaning.
That last bit is especially important. We don't know for sure which of FGO's five writers wrote Shinjuku -- the question of which author wrote which part of 1.5 plays into the overall theme of mystery -- but compelling speculation holds it's Ban Madoi, an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes and other such detectives. Shinjuku reads very much like the other segments of the game he's been confirmed to have written, and it also contains certain "calling cards" typical of Ban, like its use of Knox's Laws.
Ban's writing always feels to me as if it contains a deep respect and admiration for Nasu Kinoko (the author around whom FGO is built -- I've written about him multiple times before). Ban tends to emulate, in particular, the way Nasu likes to utilitize whatever medium he's writing in to create "tricks" that aren't possible in other media. Doing things like, for example, switching narrative perspective in unusual ways that aren't possible in film.
In the context of Fate, Hans is something of Nasu's authorial persona. Nasu himself is heavily influenced by detective fiction -- although his stories aren't mysteries, he often uses mystery techniques in his writing, and his first novel, Kara no Kyoukai, centers around a detective-type character and brushes up against several distinct murder cases, always just out of frame but influential regardless. In the same way, detective fiction is always just out of frame in Nasu's works, but regardless of the genre he's writing in you can feel the mystery influence. Nasu writes about more abstract themes and concepts than mysteries typically tackle, but he gets at his themes using tactics developed by mystery writers, misleading readers with perspective shifts and ambiguous phrasing and time jumps that only appear on a second, closer read. It's really good stuff.
So then you look again at Shinjuku's climax, which has Hans -- Nasu's self-insert -- standing alongside William Shakespeare and channeling the entire history of detective fiction to get at a world-altering truth.
It's, uh, just a little bit on-the-nose.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
In this context, Shinjuku's climactic image reminds me of a certain line from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
"I extract significance from melodrama, a significance which it does not in fact contain; but occasionally, from out of this matter, there escapes a thin beam of light that, seen at the right angle, can crack the shell of mortality."
This is Shinjuku's point. Shinjuku says it's meaningless, and the works Shinjuku is drawing from are themselves meaningless, but occasionally, at the right angle, some part of them gets at a deeper truth. Shinjuku isn't trying to argue mysteries are inherently deep or meaningful, but it does argue that a good reader can extract meaning from anything, and even if the author didn't necessarily mean for it to be there, that learning can have value. It can, for example, fuel an author like Nasu to challenge the historically sharp divide between high lit and popular lit that existed in Japan until the 90's-ish.
As a reminder, this is all from a mobile game, and from a mobile game that historically did not have very good writing. It would be very difficult to write something this detailed about FGO's pre-Shinjuku chapters. This is where Shinjuku excels -- not only is it tightly-written, but it has a purpose beyond just telling a story that's an excuse to keep players playing. This attitude, which only gets better from here, is the reason FGO is as successful as it is. (It was the most talked-about game on Twitter last year, surpassing even Fortnite).
If there's a lesson to be learned from this, I think, it's that strong storytelling -- strong art -- can pop up in pretty much any context or medium. I'm glad I stuck with FGO past its rocky beginning, and I'm glad its writers decided to take the time to make FGO's writing legitimately good. It's always intriguing to see excellent narrative work appear in surprising contexts.
For my Honors Thesis this semester I'm translating a chunk of Nasu Kinoko's novel Kara no Kyoukai. Kara no Kyoukai -- hereafter abbreviated KnK -- is a strange (and very long) novel that divides its narration across a wide range of perspectives. I'm translating the second section of the novel, Satsujin Kousatsu, which is split evenly between the novel's two protagonists: Ryougi Shiki, the daughter of an eccentric-but-wealthy family, and Kokutou Mikiya, an aggressively normal guy who happens to see the world with a detective's eye. Shifting perspective is not itself a particularly unusual literary technique, and within Satsujin Kousatsu the perspective shifts are especially controlled -- the shifts are infrequent, with extended sections of the story told from the perspective of each character.
That said, the section's structural simplicity (relative to the rest of the novel) is itself misleading. A close read reveals inconsistencies within seemingly stable narrative passages in ways that serve to characterize the two narrators. As Shiki and Mikiya directly contrast each other, Shiki's narration contains inconsistencies in narrative place, while Mikiya's contain (less obvious) inconsistencies in narrative time.
I'll Be Back Sometime Last Night
Despite being the more subtle of the two, Mikiya's narrative inconsistencies are easier to parse, as they operate more in the realm of the literal. The first 20 pages or so of Satsujin Kousatsu are told from Shiki's perspective, and her unreliability is readily apparent (even if the exact mechanics involved are less clear). When the narrative switches to Mikiya's view, things seem to stabilize. Mikiya is presented as a logical, rational, level-headed individual, and it shows in his narration. Things follow clearly from one step to the next and his thoughts are presented more honestly to the reader than are Shiki's. Mikiya has little reason to hide his thinking and he has a firm grasp on who he is as a person. His narration is, in a word, straightforward.
For the most part.
Mikiya's narration is presented such that the events appear to follow in chronological order. If one scene follows another it is fairly safe to assume that the second scene takes place after the first. This is, of course, standard in writing in general, but Mikiya's narration contains frequent time cues to assure the reader that, yes, things are happening chronologically.
Except sometimes they aren't.
There's a sequence towards the end of Mikiya's narration that begins with a specific date: the first Sunday in February of 1996. This happens to be February 4th. Mikiya has a conversation with his cousin, a detective working on a serial homicide case, and the discussion leaves him resolved to take action to help Shiki through her personal issues. In the following scene, it's evening, and Mikiya is on his way to visit Shiki's home. Through the course of events, Mikiya stumbles upon of murder scene. He's taken in for questioning and eventually released. The sequence ends with the police report, which also includes a specific date: Saturday, February 3rd, 1996.
In other words, somewhere in the course of this seemingly continuous sequence of events, the narration jumps back in time 24 hours. These details are so incidental that most readers are likely to gloss over them -- I certainly did when reading through initially. Mikiya's narration does this elsewhere in KnK as well, though, presenting events as continuous and chronological when in fact they are disordered or have large time gaps scattered throughout. The sense of place in Mikiya's narration is entirely solid. The sense of time is discretely confused.
There are a number of possible reasons for this, the first being that while KnK is not a mystery, it is heavily influenced by detective fiction (and Edogawa Ranpo's works in particular), so the confused timeline adds a "mystery" for a detail-oriented reader to solve. The deliberate choices involved in what is portrayed and when lead the reader to jump to mistaken conclusions. If the events in Mikiya's narration are realigned, certain scenes take on new meaning and hint at eventual answers to the novel's questions. It's a nifty structural trick, if nothing else.
More importantly, though, I think the temporal confusion characterizes Mikiya himself, though I don't have one solid answer as to why that I can point to and say "this is definitely the purpose here." A friend of mine has suggested it relates to the ways Mikiya himself rationalizes the strange events that happen around him. This interpretation holds that Mikiya is so steeped in normalcy he truly cannot fully comprehend the things that happen around him, so he remembers things out of order, reorganized such that his behavior and the behavior of others makes more sense. His narration is consistently portrayed as reflective -- as Mikiya looking back on things he remembers -- so the disjointed temporal order is reminiscent of someone trying to process impossibly confusing sequences of events in hindsight. When relaying a story from the past, we often share things in the order they seem relevant rather than in the exact sequence in which they happened, and Mikiya's narration is structured in much the same way, albeit with a self-confidence that inhibits the reader from questioning Mikiya's memory. Mikiya is presented as a reliable narrator in contrast to Shiki's unreliable narration, but Mikiya is in fact every bit as unreliable as Shiki is, albeit in different ways.
Shiki, then, is a more complex case, and delving into her narration requires a bit of background info.
First off, Japanese prose is much looser with grammatical tense than English is. Generally when you read a novel or a short story in English, it's in either present tense or past tense. If a writer mixes the two, saying something like, "I will go to the store today. It was cold out when I got back," this seems amateurish, wrong. Japanese has no such compunctions -- or at least not so directly -- to the point where Japanese prose will regularly mix grammatical past and present tenses in the service of creating meaning. It's a normal thing, and it's not inherently significant when an author does this.
Japanese prose is, however, relatively consistent when it comes to what's called psychic distance, which essentially refers to where it feels like the narrator is located. For example, read the following sentences: First, "It was below freezing outside, and fresh snow was still accumulating atop the 3 inches that had already fallen." Second, "He stepped outside into the furious blizzard and trembled with displeasure at the thought of braving the storm." Third. "I hear the crunch of the snow beneath my feet as ice seeps through the gaps in my clothes and burns my skin."
These three sentences feel progressively "closer" to the mind of the central character. The first is very distant, indicating a sort of omniscient narrator providing a factual recounting of events. The second is in-between, giving us insight into the thoughts and feelings of the central character without putting us directly into his mind. The third is told through the character's eyes, giving us access to his senses and telling the story in the moment. Psychic distance exists on a spectrum, but it's almost always ideal to maintain a consistent level of distance in writing -- as with tenses in English, mixing up psychic distance can feel amateurish.
I ran up against this while trying to establish which tense to write in while translating Shiki's narration. Usually in Japanese translation the translator picks a tense and sticks with it, judging by the apparent "position" of the narrator. Is the narrator looking back on past events? Then stick with past tense in English, even where it's grammatically present in Japanese. Is the narrator observing things in the moment? Use the reverse. My struggle with Shiki's narration was that it shifts back and forth between the two. Sometimes she's experiencing things as they're happening, exhibiting surprise and shock, and sometimes there are semantic cues that indicate she's telling her story from a distance -- lines like, "Later I'd look back at this and think..."
The translation is still a work-in-progress and maybe I'll settle on one perspective, but it seems to me for now that the only way to faithfully render this into English is to meet Nasu where he stands and accept that KnK needs tense shifts in places. Where Mikiya is unstable with regards to time, Shiki is unstable with regards to place, and specifically psychic distance. She isn't sure whether she's in the moment or not, and one of the most striking scenes in Satsujin Kousatsu starts off thoroughly in the moment and gradually transitions until it's very clearly reflective by the end. This is something that the flexibility of Japanese prose enables in a way that English struggles with, and it may partially explain why, as the aforementioned friend of mine has observed, translated Nasu almost always feels like a patchwork attempt to plug the gaps where English simply can't retain the meaning created by the original text.
The "meaning" component is key here. If Shiki's narration shifted its narrative perspective just because it could, there would be no issue with picking a perspective in English and sticking to it. Fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it -- Nasu does this for a reason. Shiki struggles to define who she is, what she wants, what she thinks, and where she stands, and the shifting sense of psychic distance reflects this. There tends to be less psychic distance when Shiki is comfortable, and as unsettling things happen she distances herself more and more. Shiki's inconsistent psychic positioning reveals her inherent weaknesses and struggles in the same way Mikiya's lack of consistent chronology reveals his. In both cases, Nasu is revealing character through structure -- a tactic that is brilliant for its sheer strangeness.
Developing character through description, dialogue, and action is typical, and there are plenty of subtle and creative ways to accomplish this. Creating meaning on a metatextual level is also not rare. Combining these things, though -- developing character through unusual usage of structural elements -- is not normal, and the best example I can think of of another work that does this is actually William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the fairies have a different, more playful rhythmic meter than the rest of the cast does. To eliminate Nasu's bizarre structural tactics -- to try to "unravel" his writing in translation -- would be tantamount to removing the meter from Midsummer. Sure, it might make it more accessible to a modern English-language reader, but you'd be losing so much artistry and meaning in the process.
It can be hard to fully appreciate Nasu's writing, especially in translation, but the detail and craftsmanship that goes into his works -- and especially Kara no Kyoukai -- is nothing short of stunning. There's a reason he's as popular as he is in Japan. Sure, he has benefited from strong animated adaptations of his works, and sure, those adaptations have him more accessible, but he would not be where he is today if his writing wasn't really dang good to start with. Nasu is notoriously difficult to read in Japanese, and he's even harder to translate effectively -- and I love his writing all the more for it. He's an author who truly challenges his readers, on multiple levels. It's super fun.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition