Translating Borders: International Metagames in Fate/Stay Night

This is a paper I wrote for class. If my professor finds it, please don’t mark me down for plagiarism, it is mine. Otherwise, please read it as a school paper and not an ordinary blog post.

Fate/Stay Night, a Japanese visual novel developed by Type-Moon, was never intended to be played in the West. Released in 2004, it belongs to a genre which has never thrived in the Atlantic world, and at the time of release, official localizations of visual novels were virtually nonexistent. It’s since spawned one of the most successful media franchises of the last two decades, with dozens of entries and a mobile game released in the United States which has made over 3 billion dollars, all in a climate where visual novel translations have become increasingly common with the rise of digital distribution (Fogel 1). Yet, it still has not seen an official release, and it’s become increasingly unlikely that it ever will. Given its length of around 1 million words, and the illegality of unauthorized translation, the prospect of its being translated in spite of the obstacles seems absurd (Jagged85 1). Still, the fact is that it’s been playable in English since 2008. To make this possible, a metagame was formed, as those interested in playing the game as well as those devoted enough to spend their own hours for the benefit of others worked together as part of the translation team known as Mirror Moon, and participated in the group’s associated forums, all to deliver an English version of Fate/Stay Night. Gathering helpers from around the world, the translation effort showcases the international character of many metagames, uniting disparate nationalities and increasing accessibility to many games. Similarly, it demonstrates the lengths to which people will modify games in order to participate in them. This is the story of Fate/Stay Night’s translation, across languages, borders, and code.

Fate/Stay Night is a visual novel, a genre which emerged from early adventure games such as Zork, wherein the primary mode of interaction is through reading text as sound and visuals appear on the screen. Visual novels can include a number of gameplay systems, with many incorporating mechanics from other genres such as tactical battles, puzzles, and occasionally even racing, but at their core, the only trait which would be considered classically ludic is the ability to choose the direction of the story at various points, and some visual novels lack even that, focusing solely on narrative.

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An example of an average page in Fate/Stay Night

    While visual novels are relatively unpopular overseas, they once made up a sizable industry in Japan, where Fate/Stay Night was an instant hit, primarily due to the success of its predecessor, Tsukihime, which translates to ‘Moon Princess’ in English. Developed by a small group known as Type-Moon, it was released in 2000 at Winter Comiket, the largest fan convention in Japan. Featuring five ‘routes’ each represented by a different female lead, it tells a story of vampires and magic, where each ‘route’, or narrative path opened up after certain choices are made, grows increasingly dark. Known as a ‘doujin’ or hobbyist work, Tsukihime was effectively what we’d call an indie game had it been released during the mid-2000s in North America or Western Europe. In spite of this, it was popular enough to receive a television anime adaptation in 2003, and its massive success provided Type-Moon with the capital to become a full-fledged company in their own right.

And thus, they were able to release Fate/Stay Night in 2004. Continuing the dark fantasy theme of Tsukihime and set in the same universe, the game tells a tale in which mages known as ‘Masters’ summon historical heroes, such as King Arthur, to fight for them as their ‘Servants’ in the ‘Holy Grail War’, whose winner is said to be granted anything they could desire. By making decisions for main character Emiya Shirou, the player moves through the three sequential routes, with the possibility of branching off into 40 ‘bad ends’ by making choices that cost Shirou his life. To access each route, once again represented by the primary heroines, a careful balance has to be maintained by making choices that please each potential love interest.

In the use of these mechanics, Fate/Stay Night shows itself as an intensely hypermediate game. Hypermediacy here borrows from Bolter and Grusin, describing a tendency in which multiple forms of media coalesce, alerting the observer to the artificiality of the object. A window on your computer, one which, by default, does not take up the whole screen, the game’s multiplanarity always signals a degree of instability, an acknowledgement of its own fiction. If hypermedia objects, by and large, “had to wait for the invention of the cathode ray tube and the transistor,” then the visual novel genre’s total lack of pre-video precedent is explained (Bolter, Grusin 31). Cultural critic Hiroki Azuma similarly sees this hypermediacy as one of the defining traits of visual novels, a result of their postmodern nature, saying that, “once the otaku are captivated by a work, they will endlessly consume related products and derivative works through database consumption” (105). In this sense, the hypermediacy and, to Azuma, hyperflat nature of these games is not secondary, but in fact a primary feature, one which arose with the coming of postmodernity and its characteristic disinterest in anything that might be called ‘depth’. Because visual novels come with built in ‘databases’ in the form of multiple routes, offering related products within the work by never stabilizing along one clearly “true” path, they have an easy time finding success in a hypermedia environment.

While the game’s story itself is certainly a primary draw, the ability to win the hand of each heroine is a clear motivator for the player, and the initial release contains sex scenes with each of them. The player’s desire to make it through each route, win each girl, and perhaps even see all of the bad endings, is indicative of that hypermediate way of seeing, where no one aspect can take definitive primacy over another. The popularity of this approach, and the story as a whole, made the game massively popular on launch, seeing a side-sequel the next year and an anime adaptation the year after that. It’s with that adaptation that most Westerners were introduced to the game, and the fact that they were unable to play it.

While major, and what they’re best known for now, Fate/Stay Night was not Mirror Moon’s first project. After Tsukihime’s anime adaptation, a group of serious otaku, or Japanese pop culture fans, got together to translate the game itself, releasing a playable version by 2007. While primarily composed of Western fans, one of the team’s central members, TakaJun, was a Japanese high school student at the time of the localization patch’s development and took over primary translation duties, a rare circumstance given that the norm is for translators to convert into their native language, rather than from it (Tay 1). Nonetheless, the translation, while imperfect, was met with great acclaim by the time it was released, and attention quickly turned towards Fate/Stay Night, on which work had slowed down as Tsukihime approached release.

While the staff list between the two works was similar, it would be wrong to focus solely on Mirror Moon when telling the story of this metagame. Certainly, they performed most of the labor necessary for the game’s release, conducting a job which would cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars if done officially, all for free. Nevertheless, this approach, which almost treats the group as a collection of auteurs, ignores the amount of work put in by the community as a whole. Suggestions on features, tips on how to fix awkward lines, and figuring out how to solve bugs were all tasks taken up in the forums, by those who are not listed on the translation’s official credits list (TakaJun 1). In doing this, the players of this metagame created their own rules: rules that not only dictated the flows of labor which led to the translation’s release, but rules around what was acceptable in that release, stylistically and mechanically.

For instance, due to widespread distaste for the sex scenes in the Western community, Mirror Moon implemented a feature, one they also added to Tsukihime, allowing them to be bypassed entirely (Enerccio 1). Type-Moon themselves eventually removed them from later releases, and yet the actions of the Mirror Moon community prefigured that decision by years. Certain players created guides, rationalizing the mechanics so that those only interested in the story would feel confident in their ability to see it all, while others explained how to get each bad ending, subverting the developers’ likely belief that those would be avoided where possible (diomedesxx 1).

This, ultimately, demonstrates many aspects of what metagames can be. Richard Garfield defines a metagame as “how a game interfaces outside of itself,” an admittedly broad definition which could, on some level, apply as far as initial game development (16). Yet, while metagame is often used for the forms of play which surround the game proper, under this sense of the word, translation activities surely must fit. After all, the game was not able to be interfaced with by many without the metagame opening up the space for it, and indeed, the work of the English translation began a chain of metagames, as those speaking other languages continued the process until many more were able to play. If visual novels can be accepted as games, than the translation of Fate/Stay Night has much to teach us about the international character of, perhaps, all metagames.

Through all of this, the metagame played by the Mirror Moon community allowed for the Fate franchise to gain broader traction that it otherwise would’ve in the anime fandom—its original adaptation is generally not well-regarded—and it now stands, both in Japan and overseas, as one of the most popular in the entire industry. Through their effort in translating and modifying the game, they made an entire franchise comprehensible to the corporate levers which control localization; it’s ironic that, given that base, an official translation still has not been developed.

Participating in Fate/Stay Night’s translation metagame at this stage entails translating the game oneself, and that’s exactly what I did. Simply speaking, this process could be broken into three stages. In the first, I downloaded the game and installed it. To make use of the tools commonly recommended for this process, an earlier edition of the game works the best, yet there are issues with this approach that have to be addressed. First, the game’s not capable of being installed without your Windows “locale” set to Japanese, though this is a common problem for 2000s-era visual novels. Second, upon installing the initial version of the game, an error will occur for many users wherein the application never properly starts. To solve this, a patch obtained from Type-Moon’s website is necessary, but little documentation exists on this in English; some manner of Japanese skill is vital to installing the game here, as the version initially translated by Mirror Moon, unlike any version you might be translating, comes with this Type-Moon patch built into the translation patch as a whole(Type-Moon 1).

The second stage involves unpacking the script files in order to obtain direct access to the game’s text. Two tools are necessary for this process. The first of these is GARbro—whose name is a reference to GAR, a meme started by the Fate/Stay Night community—which allows users to browse a game’s files and decrypt them. While the script files can be accessed without this process, they contain no usable text, only a garbled mess of encryption. Following this decryption process, the scripts are readable, but they’re marked up with a large amount of formatting text, none of which is conducive to the translation itself. Here, another tool created by the visual novel community, KAG Editor, is useful. This application, built specifically for Fate/Stay Night, can mark down and mark up a text file from the game, removing the formatting characters while translation work is being done, only to add them back once the job has been completed. Once this has been used on whatever scripts you wish to translate, there’s little remaining in the way.

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An example of KAG Editor

While the previous steps require some knowledge of Japanese to get the game installed and unpacked, it changes from useful to vital to the translation work. In my metagame, I translated only a minor chunk of the game, about nine pages of text, and all were relatively short pages, constituting the first scene of the prologue, before it changes narrators. In this process, I had a great deal of freedom, yet with that came a price: unlike the metagame played by Mirror Moon, I lacked an entire community to check my work. As a result, the translations themselves are no doubt lacking in places. Nonetheless, this translation certainly constituted a form of play. Working out exactly how to phrase certain lines became a kind of game, where similarity to the Mirror Moon script, personal proclivities, and feelings as both a writer and fan of the product overlapped; I had to ask myself whether ‘金砂のような髪が、月の光に濡れていた’ should be phrased as “And her golden hair, stained by moonlight” or as “And her golden hair, shining in the moonlight.” While certainly difficult—translation work cannot be said to be easy—it’s a rewarding experience, and it’s not hard to extend the joy found in it to those who worked on the initial translation effort.

While the translation work I did could theoretically be conducted in an entirely legal way, or at least in a manner which skirts the law rather than breaking it, this is not how things played out in practice, and indeed, it’s doubtful that those who worked on the initial translation effort remained within legal bounds either. In the West during the mid-2000s, acquiring games like these involved either paying copious amounts to have it sent by mail, or, more realistically, piracy. It’s more than possible that the only purchase involved in most Western players’ experience of the metagame was made by the person who initially uploaded the game on pirate sites. What makes this notable is that, unlike corporate-run social media environments, where “anyone who launched a social networking project of any kind was introducing his or her own currency”, no money exchanges hands here whatsoever, and certainly not with corporate actors (Castronovo 6). Fan translation is generally not compensated, as attempts at monetization risk alerting IP holders to the already illegal activities.

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An example of my translation.

Monetary compensation for the work I completed would be an absurd ask in the first place, given the small amount I translated, but it is a form of labor, and the disappearance of the economic from the space has meaningful ramifications. The capitalist logic of labor needing to be compensated is torn apart by the participation of hundreds, if not thousands, in this same metagame I’ve interjected myself into. While the “makers” of social systems often see virtual currencies as “entirely natural, even necessary”, the work of translation puts a lie to that attempt at naturalizing an absolutely constructed situation (Ibid 8). In perhaps more glib terms, the metagame which surrounds the translation of Fate/Stay Night, while far from revolutionary, pushes against the ideas of capitalist realism, wherein we imagine that “capitalism is [not only] the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Fisher 2). Evidently, cooperative labor can be achieved without the push of the market and the need to receive a wage. This applies not only to the translation itself, but also to the work in making it possible through the developing and archiving of programs built to process it (Baka-Tsuki 1). At the same time, it can’t be denied that both my work and the broader work of the community surrounding the game have furthered the interests of Type-Moon and other agents of capital who profit from the IP, spreading brand recognition and encouraging greater participation in those parts of the franchise that have been released in the West. Similarly, the work of the community offers no escape from capitalism, as those who developed the translation, myself included, ultimately must return to endeavors which result in monetary compensation.

Additionally, the process of engaging directly in the metagame furthered the ideas of Bolter, Grusin, and Azuma. In accessing the game’s files directly, an already hypermediate experience became all the more detached from any sort of coherency. The usually hidden structure was revealed in unpacking and altering the text, demonstrating what most players already know on some level: that the choices they’re making all happen within a specifically-constructed environment, where the status of the art as a program can never slip away. Azuma’s form of database consumption could easily be furthered here, as those interested in consuming iterations on the same archetypes have the ability to, with only a minor amount of technical knowledge, alter the game itself, in order to play through the same experience in changed form. Indeed, that’s what I did, as my translation conveys the same general meanings as the existing one, while still containing different nuances. An endlessly recursive loop could be built out of retranslating Fate/Stay Night.

In the grand scale, my project is still lacking. My translation is short, unedited, and hasn’t been shared broadly with the community. For a longer work, a clear direction would be to extend the work I’ve done, such as translating the entire prologue, alongside expanding the amount of participants, approaching Mirror Moon’s work in bringing an entire community and staff into the metagame. What I’ve currently done, in unpacking the files and preparing an initial segment, is ultimately minor enough that it’s difficult to even call it a start, and yet it is a precursor to a more sustained effort. In spite of Fate/Stay Night’s popularity, the current translation remains divisive, with many sections said to be outright mistranslated, and a serious effort to change that might improve, or at least alter, the experience of many players. While Mirror Moon no longer exists, translation work for various Type-Moon properties continues, and engagement with that community is another essential step in developing this project further. Nevertheless, the research done here is productive. The work of Mirror Moon and those who surrounded it at its peak has been pivotal to the development of Fate/Stay Night’s community in the West, and without building myself up too greatly, I believe that I’ve perhaps shined a light on the need to reevaluate it through a new lens.

Bibliography

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

“Board F/Sn Typo/Grammar Mistake Report [v3.2].” Mirror Moon Forums, http://forums.mirrormoon.org/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=2459.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Arthur Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000.

Castronova, Edward. Wildcat Currency: How the Virtual Money Revolution Is Transforming the Economy. Yale University Press, 2014.

Fate/Stay Night, Type-Moon, 2004.

“Fate/Stay Night – Walkthrough.” GameFAQs, https://gamefaqs.gamespot.com/pc/921327-fate-stay-night/faqs/53220.

“Fate/Stay Night.” Baka-Tsuki, https://www.baka-tsuki.org/project/index.php?title=Fate/stay_night.

Fate/Stay Night ero removing patch.” Mirror Moon Forums, http://forums.mirrormoon.org/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=1488.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2010.

Fogel, Stefanie. “Mobile MMO ‘Fate/Grand Order’ Reaches $3 Billion in Player Spending (Analyst).” Variety, 14 Mar. 2019, https://variety.com/2019/gaming/news/fate-grand-order-3-billion-player-spending-1203163752/.

Garfield, Richard. “Metagames.” Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Essays on Roleplaying, edited by Jim Dietz, Jolly Roger Games, 2000.

Tay. “TakaJun.” Fuwanovel, https://fuwanovel.net/2010/09/takajun/.

“Top 25 Longest Game Scripts.” Giant Bomb, https://www.giantbomb.com/profile/jagged85/lists/top-25-longest-game-scripts/89583/.

“TYPE-MOON F.A.Q.” TYPE-MOON, http://www.typemoon.com/faq/#fate18.

Footnotes:

1 – This is arguable in regards to other East Asian countries, but a marked downward trend in the popularity of visual novels has been observed even in Japan. Nonetheless, popular genres, including many gacha-based mobile games and RPGs, make use of various tools deriving from visual novels.

2 – The heternormative assumptions of many visual novels are well-documented, and often go unquestioned in works on the genre such as Azuma’s. Further research would benefit from a questioning of these assumptions, especially as the presence of specifically queer visual novels increases. Later entries in the Fate franchise have offered a choice of gendered protagonist, and usually allow romance with female and sometimes male characters regardless of gender, among other potential vectors of queerness.

3 – Further focus on the Fate/Stay Night community as a whole would be a welcome addition to the overall metagames surrounding the text.

 

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