Fate/Grand Order and Franchise Faces

Fate/Grand Order is available on Android and iOS. Fate/Stay Night and Fate/Zero are available on Crunchyroll, Netflix, and Hulu.

Media franchises are bound to shift and change over time. Most get made in the first place to sell to audiences, so to some degree they have to adapt to whatever the current market demands. Look no further than Final Fantasy to see how drastically the director and vision of a series can change between installments, let alone over the course of three decades. And as much as they appease new audiences, they have the potential to leave fans of the earlier iterations out to dry.

I have to acknowledge here that I’ve absolutely been on the far end of a ton of franchise re-brandings that I love despite them being way off-base from their origins. Batman and Godzilla can and do vary wildly every time they’re imagined by a new writer, I’ve only ever played through the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games of the 3D era (certain fans swear by the earlier 2D entries), and one of my favorite outings in the Gundam series is utterly divorced from the original’s military space opera.

Sometimes, this sneaks in more gradually though a series of slow deviations. Each new entry re-focuses toward one audience or another, trying to maintain its grasp on its known fans while reaching outward toward new ones. No individual change may be massively off-putting, but build them up over a long enough period and your target audience can drift way across the four-quadrant demographic chart.

And out of this, you get things like Fate/Grand Order.

Which, to be clear, is a perfectly sound mobile game. There are plenty of unique characters in the “gatcha”-style random draws, the visual-novel-like story passages are great for those wanting a pocket-sized take on a grand adventure, and the gameplay itself is both a step above most of its peers visually and just involved enough to engage players properly through a phone-screen-sized interface.

It’s also more than a bit silly in concept.

One of the things that drew me  into Fate/Zero (and, to a lesser extent, Fate/Stay Night) was its commitment to a “hard” urban fantasy – that is, one with established rules and limitations that dictate what the characters are and are not allowed to do. So while its “mages summon legendary heroes for a combat tournament” pitch sounds very much in line with a hot-blooded action show, the actual tone remains much more down-to-earth. Injuries have lasting consequences and are slow to mend. Magic requires very particular conditions (sometimes involving a stockpile of mana saved over the course of weeks or months) in order to be cast. And the world of mages that we see is very much flavored and hung-up by its early-twentieth-century classism and concerns of lineage. It has the kind of attention with detail that you’d expect from a book rather than an anime or game (and, to be fair, the series did originate in prose form as a visual novel).

Fate/Grand Order bothers with relatively little of that, instead opting for a soft sci-fi setting that devolves into a time travel plot within the very first chapter. The ground rules established in previous entries around summoning spirits and maintaining anonymity are being bent before they’re even established in this context. Even the costuming is less urban-fantasy-meets-traditional-fantasy and veers more into indulgent territory (in service of the character collection mechanics, naturally).

“Indulgent” here meaning “lore throwbacks” and “bikini outfits”, sometimes on the same character.

And, again to be fair, this is not the first time the series has seen this kind of softer tone. In particular, there have been three seasons of a light-hearted magical girl spinoff of the series – making it bizarrely the longest-running TV entry of the bunch – and a slice-of-life fluff show about domestic meal planning of all things. And even the more serious stories like Zero certainly have elements of levity to them.

But there are two key differences between Fate/Grand Order and these spinoff series that make the former raise an eyebrow where the latter didn’t:

  • Grand Order is treated as a “main” entry in the series, whereas the two anime spinoffs are clearly “what-if” scenarios far removed from the continuity of other Fate
  • Grand Order has well over 30 million downloads.

It’s hard to make direct comparisons, especially considering how rarely streaming services share viewer numbers, but you can bet dollars-to-donuts that fewer than 5 million people in the U.S. have watched Fate/Zero or Stay Night, whereas at least that many people have played Grand Order (and the visual novel, lacking for an official English translation, is but a blip on the radar). Video games are just a way larger market with a much broader audience in the States – especially mobile games – than anime is. For all its visibility and influence in “geek” subculture, the latter still has a fairly niche appeal outside of juggernauts like Studio Ghibli or Pokémon. Anecdotally, I’ve seen far more people write about and produce fan-art of the mobile game specifically than of any of the other main-series stories, many of whom admit to only being familiar with the Grand Order.

This puts Fate/Grand Order in a position where it defines the public perception of the series – particularly in the West – more than the existing original entries, while simultaneously being an odd gatcha-game crossover representative of the canon with a tone and character design decidedly unlike its predecessors. It’s likely that even the heavy urban fantasy setting that defines most Fate stories isn’t part of its identity at all for many new players. That’s probably even more true for non-players, as the mobile game’s popularity has already begun to dictate the marketing materials surrounding the series as a whole that might reach outside the fanbase’s social bubble.

But this is all petty when you get down to it, because way more people are enjoying this game than the previous core audience would allow for. Aside from some nostalgic series from the nineties that tuned out to be marketing goldmines, no anime gets the same kind of visibility and wide engagement that a mobile app does. And, in turn, nobody has stopped appreciating Fate/Zero or Stay Night so deeply just because the Grand Order exists; its prevalence will almost certainly end up pushing way more people toward those two shows despite the very different nature of the game.

And, as noted, it’s not even as though Grand Order is bad. It’s just a very different approach to the same content that happened to find the broadest audience of any of these series entires. That’s hardly something to be spiteful about – mobile games aren’t exactly known for shaping the tone of future entries in a franchise, anyway. Thinking that any single item can “ruin” an entire series is not only alarmist, but generally just not true.

Instead, I’d like to think about Fate/Grand Order more as an entry point. There’s a ton of appeal and potential there to get new people interested in the Fate series. It gets folks in the door, if under a pretense.

But it’s just the surface of what the franchise can do.

Someday some of these players will watch the Banquet of Kings episode of Fate/Zero, which makes it a net positive in the end.

2 thoughts on “Fate/Grand Order and Franchise Faces

  1. I am among the few that got into Fate/Grand Order because of the anime. It was a franchise I was a fan of and decided to give the mobile game a try (even though I found the anime adaptation of its tutorial areas just atrocious for various reasons). At first I didn’t like it much because well, the story in the beginning isn’t the best. But I liked the mechanics of the game (except for the Gacha hell) and the story eventually gotten better. So now I am hooked. :)

    Now I just wonder how it is for people who went the inverse route, the ones who started with the Fate/Grand Order and then started watching the anime adaptations. Do they find themselves liking the anime versions more or prefer the “Let’s summon as many heroic spirits as we can get and save the world!” version of Fate/Grand Order?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found myself wondering the exact same thing while writing this; the players I know about were already familiar with or not interested in the anime, so I’d love to hear a perspective on this coming from the other end!

      Liked by 1 person

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