I wasn’t particularly interested in watching this series as the premise seemed really hokey. However, I found it on Netflix and at a loose end, thought I’d give it ago. Turns out that watching a cartoon about players trapped in World of Warcraft was quite entertaining. Who knew!
The basic conceit is that in the near future, people have virtual reality “Nerve Gear” to plug into their computers which hijacks their nerve impulses and allows them to play MMOs as if they were really there. The new game, Sword Art Online, has just been released and uses a new interface unit that you have to buy specifically for it.
That in of itself is probably fairly realistic. Given the prevalence of online gaming and the direction technology is going (Google Glass, Kinect), we will see an early prototype of this kind of thing within the next 10 years. Hell, early attempts at Virtual Reality in the ‘90s were only abandoned because the money was in home gaming and that wasn’t a million miles away from what SAO is suggesting.
SAO has been released and thousands of people rush out and buy it, get it home and log in. Obviously, in the future, games are completed before released and don’t require a 10 GB patch just to play it…
Once people have been logged in and playing around, there is an in-game announcement which states that no one can leave the game until the 100th floor is cleared and that anyone who dies in the game, dies in real life.
Obviously, everyone then immediately tries to log out but the option is missing from their display. They can’t physically remove their own gear as their nerve impulses from their brain are rerouted by the Nerve Gear. They are trapped!
Worse, the Nerve Gear to use the game, designed to kill anyone who dies in the game, will also kill anyone who has their unit removed in real life (cue: lots of people disappearing in game because of well intending family members and medics).
Lastly, everyone’s in-game avatar is forced to reflect their real life self image (and gender).
And so begins the story… this is all one big set up to effectively tell a story about an online roleplaying game: it has all the hallmarks, including guilds (and the subsequent guild politics), grouping together to fight bosses, levelling, loot (and the politics of who gets what) and all the other things you associate with playing these games (no one is cussed out for being a “shit healer” however).
The main protagonist is Kirito (the handle of Kazuto Kirigaya), a massive gamer nerd and beta tester on SAO. Consequently, he knows quite a bit about the game from beta test and quickly advances in the game.
The series follows Kirito around the game world in different adventures. He normally works alone (exploiting his knowledge of the game by himself) but occasionally teams with others.
I’ve actually played MMOs with people like Kirito: the sort of person who plays at their own rate, doesn’t really socialise and apparently just wants to be involved in the thing that everyone else is involved in. I personally find Kirito-type players to be strange: why play an online social game to be antisocial?
One of the reasons why I like watching animé series, is that they go into detail about things Western animations don’t bother with. Here, the show explores the psychology of people trapped in a deadly game. There is a community and people seem to settle into a semblance of virtual society.
It is quite interesting that as soon as their actual life is on the line, they lose interest in fighting. And that people still find a way to screw one another over: yes, even in a game where there are clearly defined good guys (players) and bad guys (computer generated enemies) with a definitive goal to free themselves, the human players still find a way to exploit the game mechanics to the detriment of one another.
Kirito is quite good as a protagonist. He’s interesting and not a bad guy, just a bit selfish. He does get involved with other people and that’s when the show starts to get better. The politics of grouping and guilding, while obviously dramaticised here, is still worth showing. It’s his relationship with some of the other players which are quite endearing and through that, makes Kirito a much more relatable character. By the end of the series, I had grown quite fond of Kirito and his friends.
The game world itself is quite cleverly created. It doesn’t have any magic in it for two reasons, the first, to make life more deadly and two, so that a person’s talent with a blade (and timing in the use of their powers) is paramount. Because it is virtual reality, the players are genuinely learning to sword fight. It’s a cool idea and I can imagine people actually wanting to play it.
Consequently, the battles are big focus of the show and they are very well done. Obviously the animation is quite a bit better than what we are used to in current MMOs but it does evoke the feeling that they are in a complex, futuristic game but a believable one.
There is a major issue with the narrative in SAO. The story takes a random turn and I really didn’t like it. It comes right out of left field and I think the reason why I don’t like it, is because it offends my Western sense of narrative. However, the story doesn’t actually end there and goes off in another tangent (almost like half way through, they are told they have more episodes, so they tack on second storyline) but it is all tied together in the end with a satisfying conclusion. So I guess there is a payoff to the random choice in the story. Maybe?
Beyond that, the show doesn’t really stand out. The primary selling point is its main conceit. If you have played MMOs, you’ll get it and I think you’ll enjoy it. If not, the animation isn’t particularly exceptionally, nor is the plot or anything else about it. It lives and dies by the sword art online.
TL:DR “Sword Art Online is an animé about people stuck in the Matrix (if the Matrix was made by Blizzard). While entertaining, the only thing which makes it stand out is its conceit. If you don’t like that, give it a miss.”