Awesome Premise or Extended “Let’s Play” Video?
The official blurb for the first season of Sword Art Online goes something like this:
In the near future, a Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG) called Sword Art Online has been released where players control their avatars with their bodies using a piece of technology called: Nerve Gear. One day, players discover they cannot log out, as the game creator is holding them captive unless they reach the 100th floor of the game’s tower and defeat the final boss. However, if they die in the game, they die in real life. Their struggle for survival starts now…
Trapped in a virtual reality?
Permadeath takes on a whole new meaning?
The realization that everything they’re doing is little more than informing a computer to carry out a certain subroutine and that anything cool someone does is a result of grinding levels rather than, say, learning physically learning something?
A little less cool.
Is this an anime with a cool premise and overarching story line, or is it an animated “Let’s Play” video with a gimmick to keep you engaged?
I hadn’t heard much about this series going into it, but it seemed like it hit the top of the popularity lists really fast, and it is just in the middle of its second season so this seemed like the best time to take a look at the first season and find out if it’s worth the hype or if it is worth grinding through it all just to catch up to the current season.
So the official description is close enough, but to get a little more specific, SAO is the biggest thing to hit the game world since digital violence because now the hardware allows you to fully immerse yourself in a complete virtual world. And by complete, they mean a fully realized, working, and changing environment. Only 10,000 people are allowed in at launch, though a thousand or so had previously taken part in a beta test, so they’re the only ones who really know what to expect.
The main character, Kirito, was a beta tester and jumps right back into the world, ready to go. He’s going straight into the game, ready to start leveling up again when he meets someone else who asks for his help. They do some training and leveling, and then when Klein is ready to quit for the night, they realize that the logout option is gone.
Suddenly, everyone is teleported to a central area where the game creator appears, towering over everyone, and gives them their situation.
In short, die in the game, die in real life.
Anyone try to unhook you from the outside world, instant death.
The only way to get out is to clear level 100.
Enjoy your time and please recommend us to your friends.
Next time EA tries to charge microtransactions in a full-priced game, just keep telling yourself that it could be worse.
And the next thing you have to think is: are they really trying to give us an anime where the skinny, socially inept, generally withdrawn and mopey protagonist is going to save the world and get the girl with his video game skills? (Talk about pandering to your audience.)
Well, the answer is…
Sorta yes and sorta no.
But we’ll get to this later.
Let’s start with the basics.
This was pretty standard TV anime fare that really hits its stride during the battle with the Level 1 Boss. (And yes, I did mutter: “Leroooooooy Jeenkinnnss!!” as they all rushed in.) Nothing particularly unique in the character and environment designs, or the art style in general, but it is solidly done, and they put together some great action scenes.
Here’s where I was pleasantly surprised. First, my initial read of Kirito turned out to be fairly innacurate. Rather than the socially tone-deaf, overly obsessive, girls-seem-to-like-his-vacuous-personality-for-no-reason anime stereotype I was expecting, I got something else.
Kirito is a loner, but he’s personable.
He’s selfish, but he learns why that’s unacceptable.
People want him to succeed because… well, I’m not too sure. This is sort of that “we love you because you’re the hero and we don’t need another reason” thing that I’m not quite sold on.
Through no fault of his own though, he does fall into a particular anime trope that is a little lazy.
The thing that usually makes a hero interesting is their weaknesses. They are heroic because they overcome setbacks. They have to learn some kind of lesson to overcome the initial failure and win the day. This try-fail cycle is what helps people relate to a character and think: if he can do it, so can I.
Kirito doesn’t really have this. Most of his growth occurs between episodes as he grinds through his levels, so he always has plenty of strength, items, or information to resolve the episode.
You could argue that he experiences tragedy, which could be considered a trial or setback, but because of the way the biggest personal tragedy went (episode 3) it wasn’t really something he had to overcome. Though, admittedly, it does inform some of his decisions later on, so maybe I’m being too critical here.
Asuna is impressive because, in an entertainment world where phrases like “strong female character” get thrown around a lot, most producers still miss the point and end up creating nothing more than a dude with boobs. She’s not really a female character at all.
Asuna is better than that. She’s not a “strong female character.” She a “confident character.” The end. That’s all. And that’s way more interesting.
She can be a awesome fighter one moment and completely empathetic with a girl who experienced a tragedy the next – and it all fits. How many times have you seen “strong female characters” who “just don’t get other women” because they’re “just one of the guys?”
She’s a leader because she encourages and pushes others to do their best, and she’s a strategist who fights at the front lines.
She’s a genius because she can examine algorithmic information and derive how to make things taste like things from the real world that the game never planned for.
She’s a caring person, whether she knows them well (Lizbeth) or not (the army guys).
And then they go and ruin it all by having her hide behind Kirito to get away from her own bodyguard!
I thought it was just a lapse in coolness when she stepped in to end the duel, but then she faints!? (Well, maybe it was a swoon, I’m not sure of the difference.)
It was unfortunate, and hopefully not a recurring theme.
And Now, Back to the Story
There are two things that get to me about the first nine episodes. First, what I’ve already mentioned. Kirito doesn’t have much in the way of a try-fail cycle. Things either work out for him, or he’s forgiven for his mistakes as long as he promises to make it to the end. If he has a challenge, he’s already got the skills or strength he needs between episodes.
Still, he’s likable enough that I’m mostly okay with it.
The second thing is the mystery of the world.
There’s a huge mystery that should be a major concern. We keep exploring the world level by level, but no one seems to care at all WHY someone would do this to them. Why would someone choose such an elaborate way to mass murder thousands of people? Okay, technically the creator said that his reason for trapping people in the world is… apparently just to trap people in the world. But what kind of answer is that?
The first person to even mildly wonder why they’re in the world is in episode 3. Then in episode 4 someone says there’s no proof that people actually die in real life. But anytime these questions are brought up, they’re quickly swept aside so because apparently such concerns would just get in the way of grinding levels.
So we know who did it, but we don’t know why – and no one seems to care. By episode 8 we’re apparently 2 years in without any apparent knowledge gained or word from the outside world hacking its way in. They could still play this right to be cool in the end, though.
The Best Part
Episodes 5 and 6 were the highlight of this batch. These episodes reintroduced Asuna as a character who has grown significantly between now and then. She’s is now in a major leadership role and very confident in her abilities.
There is some good interaction and banter between her and Kirito, because they’ve apparently become a little adversarial over time, and now they’ve got to work together – but not to defeat another boss monster. Now they’re facing a murder that happened within town boarders, which is something that isn’t supposed to be possible. As in, the game does not allow player kills inside towns, unless there is an official duel.
So it’s a murder mystery – a locked room mystery, really – and the two of them have to figure out why, who, and how it was even possible.
So it’s like a CSI episode. They have to determine motivation, collect evidence, interrogate witnesses, and put it all together according to the rules, laws, and physics of their virtual world.
And they did. It was pretty cool.
Also, it was a chance for Asuna and Kirito to become legitimate friends. She doesn’t start liking him because he saved her from some terrible monster (the easy and trite thing to do to set up a romance). She likes him because they make a good team. (That’s an over-simplification, but good enough for now.)
I am enjoying Sword Art Online so far, but it’s got room to go wrong or right depending on a few things.
1. Asuna never ever hides behind Kirito or swoons again
2. We start delving into the mystery a little more
3. Kirito actually experiences a real setback and we get to see him come back to the challenge and overcome it
4. Kirito stays basically personable and likable
5. There are more “moments” like taking the time to nap and enjoy the day or jest getting meals together, because banter builds character
Bottom line: The show has been enjoyable so far because of the characters, but I expect a better plot to develop than “get to level 100.”