Fate/Prototype: What Fate/Stay Night Could Have Beenby Kim Morrissy,
Now that the Fate series has become a true monster of a franchise, I often find myself thinking about Type-Moon's humble origins as self-published visual novel creators. That in itself is no mean feat, but it gets even wilder when you consider that the story of Fate/stay night is based on the draft of a novel that Kinoko Nasu wrote when he was in middle school. Which he never actually finished writing at the time, like most wannabe authors in middle school. Nasu is an inspiration to every single one of us who wrote self-indulgent fantasy novels in crusty notepads between classes.
Unlike most authors, who are cowards that hide away their early, embarrassing drafts, Nasu has actually made his early ideas public. In 2011, Type-Moon released a 12-minute OVA called Fate/Prototype as a bonus with the final Carnival Phantasm DVD volume. This OVA cobbled together a bunch of ideas from the unfinished novel draft and presented them as a kind of highlights reel, teasing an alternate story for Fate/stay night.
The simplest way to describe Fate/Prototype is that it's Fate/stay night except the protagonist is a girl and King Arthur is a dude. There's more to it than that, of course, but those are the most obvious differences. Although Fate/Prototype has never been turned into a complete narrative, Type-Moon has released art books, anthologies, and spinoffs over the years fleshing out the characters and concepts further from that bare bones OVA. Most Fate fans probably know Fate/Prototype best from Fate/Grand Order, where its depiction of King Arthur from a parallel world has been fully assimilated into that game's lore.
At this point, Fate/Prototype is considered an alternate universe to the world of Fate/stay night, in a similar way to the other Fate spinoffs like Fate/Apocrypha and Fate/Extra. It doesn't hold any particular privilege for being "the original," but its incomplete, fragmented nature still pulls the imagination. I can't help but continue to wonder about what Fate/stay night could have been, even as this franchise evolves in ways far beyond the scale of the original work.
Fate/Prototype... A Reverse Harem?
In the first scene of the Fate/Prototype OAV, Arthur and Gilgamesh face off inside a Tokyo subway. Gilgamesh looks a bit different from his design in Fate/stay night, but his personality is similar enough that you can comfortably identify him as the shitlord that he is. Instead of being attracted to the female Saber like he is in Fate/stay night, he's infatuated with Ayaka, the Master of Arthur and the protagonist of Fate/Prototype. In a scene that was unfortunately cut from the OVA but still exists in storyboards and written notes form, Gilgamesh channels the energy of a pushy love interest in a shojo manga and demands Ayaka to be his "woman."
For her part, Ayaka's character is defined by her self-esteem issues. She feels inferior to her late sister Manaka, who was a superior Magus, and she feels out of her depth in the Holy Grail War. In the Fate/Prototype Animation Material book, character designer Takashi Takeuchi describes Ayaka as "a standard heroine character who tries to downplay herself, but is actually beautiful. Kind of like a protagonist from a Hakusensha shojo manga."
Besides Arthur and Gilgamesh, Fate/Prototype has other pretty boys, who may or may not have a thing for Ayaka. Rider (true name Perseus) is a mysterious transfer student who latches onto Ayaka, and Lancer (true name Cú Chulainn) sports a rugged hot anime dad look in contrast to his Fate/stay night design. The presence of so many hot guys around a female protagonist was something the artists of the Fate/Prototype Tribute Phantasm comic anthology poked fun at, with one comic focusing on Ayaka struggling to pick which guy to be with.
Of course, as Nasu points out in his interview published in Tribute Phantasm, his original draft of Fate/Prototype reflects the time it was written, and in those days attractive men would not have been described as "pretty boys" (ikemen). Rider in particular would have looked more masculine. In that sense, the OVA is not a true reflection of the appeal of Fate/Prototype, because the character designs are nothing more than an approximation of what Nasu imagined, and they are filtered through Takeuchi's art style in 2011. But I think it does go to show that the early Fate was written without attempting to appeal to male otaku, or really any audience besides Nasu himself.
Fate/stay night went through many changes before it attained its finished form, but key among them was Saber's identity as a female King Arthur. Fate/stay night was Type-Moon's first commercial work, and in order to appeal to a male target audience, the protagonist's gender was changed to male. In that case, Takeuchi suggested at the time, Arthur should be a woman instead. Nasu jokes in Tribute Phantasm that Takeuchi had rather transparent motives in mind - if he was going to draw a character over and over, he wanted it to be a cute girl rather than a boy. And thus, Saber was born.
In the modern Fate franchise (and honestly, many anime and games in general), genderbending famous male historical figures is dime a dozen. But when Fate/stay night first came out, a female Arthur was a genuinely refreshing take on the classic legend. Looking back, changing Arthur's gender was the single best decision Type-Moon could have made. The Prototype Arthur embodied knightly virtue and fought for Ayaka's sake. Even though there's definite appeal in a character like that, it doesn't do anything new with the King Arthur legend.
But the female Arthur... she may be a proud knight, but over time she learns to get more in touch with her feminine side and expresses herself in ways that you'd never think to associate with the King of Britain. King Arthur is a protector... and also, the protected. That's moe.
What if Saber was a hot dude, though?
I've got to be honest. I don't actually like the female Saber that much. To me, she's easily the least interesting of the three main heroines of Fate/stay night. I got into the series well after the initial novelty of a genderbent King Arthur wore off, but also I just never felt the chemistry between her and Shirou. In a discussion with Gen Urobuchi, Nasu admitted that in order to get players to accept that King Arthur is a woman and a love interest, he made Shirou say a load of sexist things like "girls shouldn't fight." It's too heavy-handed and doesn't feel congruous with either characters' depictions in the other routes. So that's probably why I still think about the proto Arthur and what might have been.
Although the Fate/Prototype OAV doesn't go into much detail about any of the characters, the animation material and character notes paint a certain picture of Arthur. He's described as a "feel good hero," but he also occasionally says some nihilistic things. The notes compare his attitude to Fate/stay night's Archer, and it makes a lot of sense when you look into his backstory.
In the world of Fate/Prototype, there was a previous Grail War in the year 1991 (Fate/Prototype itself is set in 1999). Arthur was summoned as the Servant of Ayaka's older sister Manaka, who was madly in love with him. Manaka was willing to go to any lengths to achieve Arthur's former wish of saving Britain, even sacrificing countless lives including Ayaka's. When Arthur realized what was going on, he literally stabbed Manaka in the back in order to rescue Ayaka.
This scene is one of the best moments planned for the Fate/Prototype OAV, and the storyboards perfectly capture the emotional impact. It's such a pity that this scene was cut from the OVA itself, because it's the moment when Arthur became a decisively more interesting character for me than his female counterpart. Although the female Saber also struggled to reconcile her wish to save the past with her present concerns in Fate/stay night, the decisions she made were never so stark, not even in Fate/Zero where she had a contract with a less benign Master. The dark side of Saber split off into a separate character, Saber Alter, and as far as her role goes in Fate/Grand Order nowadays, she's just a big joke.
Looking back on Fate/Prototype really drives home how much a gender change and target audience shift can alter a narrative's direction. In both its early and current carnation, Fate/stay night can be boiled down to "a story about a boy who meets a girl and does everything he can to save her." It's that classic heroic romance tale with a near universal appeal. The female Saber, however, couldn't have done what the proto Saber did because it's Shirou's role to liberate her from the chains of her past. Had the Prototype Arthur been the hero of Fate/stay night, I think that it would have been impossible to fit the story into the "bishōjo game" template.
A Fragment of Fate/Prototype
Now that Fate has become so huge, however, it's possible to bring back those old elements for a new audience, and that audience is Fate's growing female fanbase. Nowadays, Arthur is one of the more popular male servants in Fate/Grand Order, to the extent that when the game organized a real-life hotel collaboration aimed at female players, one of the room's themes was dedicated to him and Merlin.
The Fate/Prototype: Sōgin no Fragments (Fate/Prototype: Fragments of Blue and Silver) novels written by Hikaru Sakurai also flesh out Arthur's character further and introduce even more handsome men to play a big role in the narrative. The novels are a prequel to the plot of Fate/Prototype and feature the likes of Ozymandius, Henry Jekyll & Hyde, Paracelsus von Hohenheim, and Arash. From reading Sōgin no Fragments, I got the impression that the tone and feeling of the story had shifted away from Nasu's original draft and more towards a new image that can be more easily accepted by Fate audiences today.
And perhaps that's for the best. In his commentary on the fifth and final Sōgin no Fragments novel, Nasu described his feelings towards Fate/Prototype as follows:
When I was much, much younger and less experienced author than I am now, I blithely conceived a tale about a girl who bears the world on her shoulders, and a boy who saves her. It was a time that any wannabe author would go through, and the story fell through the crevasses in my memory without reaching a conclusion. Through a twist of fate, the old Fate became a short animation called Fate/Prototype. I can still remember wondering if this fragment of a tale would be received at all ... This box that had fallen to the depths of my memory has opened anew thanks to the work of a talented author.
Nasu's words strongly infer that he has no interest as an author in finishing that original Fate story. Yet even if he has no intention of revisiting his old work, he's comfortable allowing others to refine it. That's how both Fate/Prototype and Sōgin no Fragments came into being. In the case of Fate/Prototype, Takeuchi says in Tribute Phantasm that he wanted to bring the old Arthur back to life as a kind of apology for changing his gender all those years ago, while Hikaru Sakurai said in an interview around Sōgin no Fragments volume 2's release that watching the OVA inspired her to write about its characters, and she made use of her connections with fellow writers Yuichiro Higashide and Ryou Morise to contact Type-Moon to make the pitch for the novels.
At this point, the world and characters of Fate/Prototype may be more Sakurai's than Nasu's. Or perhaps it may be more accurate to say that it's the characters Sakurai wrote that have become the face of Fate/Prototype. Fate/Grand Order features every Servant from Sōgin no Fragments, but the only Fate/Prototype characters it features are Arthur and Cú Chulainn, and they're depicted with illustrations by Nakahara, the same artist who worked on Sōgin no Fragments. In 2018, one of Arthur's bond lines was changed to remove an obvious reference to his feelings for Ayaka. I would suspect that this change was made to reflect that this Arthur's characterization is based on Sōgin no Fragments rather than Fate/Prototype. The Fragments Arthur doesn't exhibit any of the "Archer-like" wryness that he has in Prototype, and is very much the ideal princely knight.
It's kind of a pity that the original Fate/Prototype characters don't get much love because some of them were really interesting, like Rider, whose Master was a dying boy who used up all his Command Spells to give Rider a physical form. Rider's Master had a wish to bring peace to the world, and Rider was so moved by his selflessness that he ironically decides to bring pain to the world that hurt him. Then there's Misaya Reiroukan, Lancer's Master who would form the basis of Rin Tohsaka's character. Like Rin, her father also died in the previous Grail War, but the expectations he foisted upon his daughter are even harsher than anything Tokiomi did. Misaya has a curse that will kill her unless she wins the war, and because of her mountain of trust issues, she's become a rather sadistic person who wears thigh-high boots and commands an army of blood hounds. She's also really hot.
To this day, Fate/Prototype remains an elusive fragment of a story not told, of a story that will probably never be told. Even as it forms the springboard of entirely new stories, I still think about the old Fate. I would have liked to read that story about the girl who struggled to overcome her self-loathing and the boy who threw away his wish upon the Holy Grail in order to save her. It probably wouldn't have launched a massive hit franchise, but it could have been a story just for me. One day, I think I'd like to tell Kinoko Nasu that his fragment of a dream reached someone from the other side of the world, somewhere.
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