I mentioned about a week ago that fans tend to think of visual novels as collections of short stories rather than full products. Again, whether this is a good or bad way to engage with this particular medium is not for me to decide, but this mentality does bring its share of problems; putting at risk the overall quality of a possible anime adaptation is one of them.
This dawned on me as I watched the last few episodes of ufotable’s Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works. To put things in perspective, Fate/Stay Night is a visual novel with 3 routes titled Fate, Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel respectively. Back in 2006, Studio DEEN adapted it into a 2-cours show, mostly focusing on the Fate route but mixing it with chunks of the other two. While they were trying to satisfy fans of the franchise by doing things this way, the plan backfired, and with reason: each route is very different from one another, and you’d need some crazy planning skills in order to make everything fit into 24 episodes. The end result left a lot to be desired: there was just too much information to take in, too many plot points, too many characters that died as underdeveloped husks of themselves; events just didn’t happen in a way that’d let us know or care more about these people. It was frankly quite a mess.
As somewhat of a Fate fan, when ufotable announced their plans to adapt Unlimited Blade Works I was excited, but also a bit worried. They were obviously trying to make it feel like a sequel to Fate/Zero, which in itself was a prequel to the original visual novel. This point was made clear by prior marketing, making people assume they wouldn’t need to know anything about the Fate route in order to fully enjoy this one. And they were mostly right: you can still have fun with the show without any prior knowledge; it’s not even necessary to watch Fate/Zero to understand what’s going on. But “fun” is the most you can get out of it, as it is a pretty flawed show, especially in terms of plot. To list some of these flaws: trying to make us feel for characters we hadn’t spent enough time getting to know, relegating Saber’s dilemma (a big part of her character in Fate/Zero) to the sidelines and suddenly killing one of the main antagonists of the story for no good reason, among others. “Well those wouldn’t be problems if you had at least played the Fate route”, some people liked to argue, while others rightfully answered: “the show should stand on its own! I shouldn’t need to read 20 hours of battle scenes in order to feel more invested!”
See, that’s where the problem lies. Unlimited Fate Works is Fate/Stay Night’s 2nd route. Now, it is normal for visual novels to have several routes, but in this case, you NEED to clear the Fate route in order to access Unlimited Blade Works, and you NEED to clear UBW in order to access Heaven’s Feel. And that just puts a new twist over this problem, doesn’t it? They are in that order for a reason: you’re walking into Unlimited Blade Works with your opinion on certain characters already formed, with information already conveyed, hours and hours of that stuff, and taking everything away hoping that no one will miss these details sounds like a foolish thing to do. In fact, after UBW you still have a whole third of the game to clear, a third that works solely because you’ve already experienced that world twice! It’s like ordering a full-course and getting one dish by mistake: yeah, it might be a pretty well-cooked dish, but you’ll never appreciate it as you’re supposed to without the entrée before it and the dessert afterwards.
So this is what happens when the entirety of the fanbase starts talking as if you had made 3 games with very similar storylines: people begin to ignore the fact that it’s not supposed to be that way. Adapting only one route was obviously a bad idea as, while it may make long-time fans happy, those just getting into the franchise will walk away utterly disappointed. But then what about Studio DEEN’s alternative? Well, you could do that, and while you may succeed with your new fanbase if you do it alright, chances are old fans might feel like this is an offensive towards their precious interactive story, that it should be left as it is, that taking liberties with an adaptation is absolutely not the way to go (it’s a very common problem when dealing with fans of this industry: they are just too overprotective of their “original material” to see the good of an adaptation).
But then what else can you do? No matter your method of choice, someone will still tell you that you screwed up. You could try to adapt it all in one go, but that’d be too expensive for the current anime industry without dropping the production values to the floor, and you’d need just too many episodes to accomplish this feat. Ufotable is trying to remedy this by adapting Heaven’s Feel into 3 films, and while it may turn out to be good, it’s still being marketed as a stand-alone entry in the franchise, and not as the culmination of a larger plot. I see a lot of people walking into the theater and regretting their decision after 40 minutes have passed.
“Visual novels are difficult to adapt” might have been a better title for this post, but that sounds like a topic I should save for a future column. But that’s what it all boils down to: visual novels are just too damn difficult to adapt. So when the next mega-hit adaptation of Clannad Part 4 is announced, remember to keep your expectations as low as possible.