Let us talk about Sword Art Online, particularly its inevitable comparison in my brain to the .hack series, its stated themes, the reaction to it, and its unstated themes. I would ask if that made sense, but it’s probably the most cogent first line I’ve written for a blog in ages (and possibly in my dissertation, who knows?)
If you haven’t seen this show, it’s set first in a virtual reality MMO titled Sword Art Online and then in another titled Alfheim Online, or SAO and ALO respectively. The creator of SAO is also the creator of the virtual reality headset used to experience it, the NerveGear. It intercepts the brain’s messages to the body and so one doesn’t use a controller to play, but instead their thought of moving a leg or an arm. People get tactile response back when they touch stuff, and can even taste and smell.
That’s the basic setup. The basic plot is that the game’s creator wanted to really create his own world, not just simulate one, so he traps all the players in the game. He effaces the log-out button, and with one’s nervous system interrupted on can’t feel or, more importantly, deactivate the headset alone. The microwave transmitter has a deadman switch that will fry the brain of the user if the headset is pried off without a logout command. The only way for everyone to get out is for someone to clear the 100th and final floor of the dungeon in the sky. They’ll also die if they die in-game.
Sounds simple enough. And also what .hack//SIGN did, right? Sort of. That show featured a single character who couldn’t log out and who was a locus for a mystery inside “The World,” the name of the MMO in the show. So is SAO a ripoff?
I would say no. It uses a very similar idea, but fantasy novels were being written in the 70s about people being transported into their DnD games, this isn’t a new idea really. The entire .hack body of work – of which I have only experienced some, not all – honestly never resolves its mystery so far as I know. I watched I think three shows, read two novels, played the first four games, and I still have absolutely no idea why the main character of the first game was trapped in The World, or why the characters in the games even fight when they do. The mystery drove the shows, and I appreciated that, but like Lost or even Moonlighting, when the longed-for goal is reached the interest falls away. So I guess the solution is to never reveal the mystery? But that gets taxing pretty quickly.
SAO (the show) doesn’t really have any mysteries. Sure we and the characters don’t know why the game’s creator does what he does, but we know what has happened and how to fix it. And he lives up to his word, logging everyone still alive out when he is defeated.
I haven’t talked about the characters yet, but let’s do that as we talk about what the show is about, and obviously about. The main character is Kirito, a portmanteau of his first and last names. He is a huge MMO geek, probably, by his own admission, because he feels alienated from his family since he’s adopted. He’s also one of the beta-testers, so he has an immediate advantage in the game and fights all the time on the “front lines,” the highest levels cleared by players, to get the best items and experience. He learns over the course of the story that the relationships built in games are the same as those in real life, since both sorts of relationship are, really, just ineffable things between people. The interactions and feelings matter more than any sense of perceived reality. This is pretty much what the show’s about. Kirito says something similar several times, and the progression of the SAO arc proves it, as people settle into their lives in the game. They marry sometimes, some people get “jobs” such as blacksmithing, and one old man just goes fishing all the time, what he meant to do when he retired. Kirito gets married in-game, and has to rescue his wife in the second arc, in which she does not wake up because a developer managed to funnel a few hundred players into his servers when they were logged out, using them for experiments in mind control. I’m glossing over the second arc because it’s not as good as the first, and the one really good part I don’t want to spoil for you.
Now, what about the reaction? I don’t know too much about it, but from what I understand this show is pretty popularly considered bad. I don’t care one way or the other – I’m not trying to convince you it’s good if you already think it’s bad – but I think the reaction is tied to the message of the show itself. People in the anime blogging community already know online relationships are real relationships. One of my best friends is someone I met blogging, and I’ve spent real, meatspace time with him now, as well. Many people in and out of the blogging community likely use twitter or facebook to make and maintain “real” relationships without ever meeting the person on the other end.
That’s probably not the only reason the show is reviled. It is somewhat clichéd; it even gives away its own advantages over time. I really enjoyed that Asuna, Kirito’s wife, was a strong but not “strong female yeah!” character. But as she falls in love that changes until she’s literally a princess in another castle by show’s end. Sigh.
So what about those unstated themes? Well, I think there’s one about simple mental application. People change from “losers” to heroes in the show through brain power (ha ha), simply by applying themselves. People who don’t bother don’t level up. The show, without banging one over the head with stat bars and so on, actually creates a tangible hierarchy of dedication. Whoever’s most dedicated gets the highest numbers. The show also asks questions about place, particularly game place – as I’ve said before, literature, games included, create places for us to go to. MMOs traffic almost entirely in that. We could probably, for the most part, get better writing and gameplay experiences in single player RPGs, since everything could be planned out far better (this of course varies game to game, company to company). But MMOs are places, where you can see friends and meet new people, even assholes. This show creates a place in which there are other places people go, hence the ending, I think, in which SAO’s creator leaves behind a seed of a digital world, the first iteration of SAO itself, and people, including those who were trapped in it for two years (yes two years and change), go to it.