When Sword Art Online was announced to air on Cartoon Network’s Toonami anime block, I was a little bit leery. An anime that took place almost entirely inside of a massively multiplayer video game could be a cool concept, but then again the same could be said about a BloodRayne film. What sounds like a good idea can often fail miserably in execution and video games in particular have proven to be a difficult concept to translate to other entertainment mediums without losing the essence of what made them worth adapting in the first place.
But what the hell did I have to lose giving it a chance other than twenty minutes or so of my life? The art looked happening and I have a soft spot for fantasy of all kinds. It was a low-risk gamble that paid off huge because whatever I was expecting from a MMO-based anime (which was based on a manga adapted from a series of novels) was far surpassed by what I got.
Sword Art Online is pretty much a perfect example of Japan being ahead of the entertainment curve and lovingly integrating gaming culture into a near-future science fiction story that legitimizes it in a way that I’ve never seen done before. It’s a conceptual narrative that will likely cause you to think about the very nature of our hobby and question whether there is any distinction worth making between interactions in a virtual world as opposed to the “real” one. And by the end, it may be hard to argue that there is.
The first episode presents the essential plot. On the launch day of a brand new virtual reality massive multiplayer role playing game, players log in using nerve gear, which wires their brain and senses into the actual game, immersing them in it entirely. But at the end of a long day of amazing gaming, the players can’t find the command to log themselves out.
Turns out SAO’s creator had a whole new level of hardcore gaming in mind when he launched this project. The world is informed that players’ consciousnesses will not be returned to them until the game has been cleared, any attempt to remove the nerve gear will result in death, and anyone who dies in the game dies in real life. Game on, noobs.
Again, an interesting idea, but it would have been easy to make this just another fantasy anime with a gimmick of the whole thing being a video game. Thankfully, that’s not what we got. The various adventures within SAO acknowledge gaming’s place as an increasingly social form of entertainment and goes so far as to suggest that a person’s behavior in-game is a better indication of who they are then the way they act in reality.
The protagonist, Kirito, was a beta tester for the game and as a result he has a leg up on the vast majority of his fellow players. While others form guilds for survival, Kirito is determined to be a solo player, and is one of the few strong enough to do it. He also seems fairly unconcerned at the prospect of being trapped in the game, implying heavily that he actually prefers to be altogether free of the stresses of real life. After all, he’s practically a god in-game.
The other players are suitably a mixed bag. Some refuse to buy into the “if you die in-game, you die irl” story and continue killing other players for loot, others organize the strongest players to attempt to beat the game as soon as possible, some are too terrified to even go out into the field and are simply resigned to living out their lives in a virtual world. It’s a fascinating and fairly realistic look at a cross-section of gaming culture and humanity in general.
Individual episodes of the show often tell stories that act as gaming parables. For example, in one episode a man conspires against his real life wife in the game upon discovering that in there she was strong, confident, and better than him in every way. He explains that the ideal woman he married in real life was meek and submissive and that he couldn’t deal with who she was in-game. It’s a really disturbing tale that cuts to the core of male insecurities and gives one a strong urge to kick anybody who would list “submissive” among the attributes that make an ideal wife in the face.
Yeah, this show gets dark, but it’s also full of whimsy, surprisingly effective romance, and strong emotional highs and lows. If you can’t imagine being brought to tears by a cartoon character humming Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, I would suggest you to take the SAO challenge and see if that can’t change. On the other end, there’s a legitimate question posed of whether spending an extended period of time falling in love with another person in a virtual world counts as genuine romance. Again, the show makes it hard to argue against it. Even a life lived in virtual reality is a life lived with real emotions and shared experiences, after all.
It’s historically been very easy and common to laugh off the idea that an online friendship or relationship could ever carry the same weight we assign to real life interactions, but what SAO does is take where we are at now with online interactions and take it to its inevitable logical extreme.
As we are now, social networking may just be words or images on a screen, but what about when we are able to fully immerse our senses in cyberspace? When we can feel ourselves holding each others’ hands and gaze into each others’ eyes in real time, or even share a virtual home together even though we’re potentially thousands of miles apart? Perception of the word around us is nothing more than our brain processing and interpreting information from light, vibrations, and sensations. With this in mind, could you really call a virtual experience between two people in VR any less real?
All this and a lot more is worked into the first fourteen episode arc of Sword Art Online. For the second half of the inaugural season, the show does something extremely unexpected that I won’t really spoil here, but it’s a pretty bold step. What I will say is that the focus shifts and that one aspect of the second helping is kind of a flip side to the online relationship question regarding the true identities of the people you may be gaming with online.
In addition to that, SAO’s second plotline brings into focus some of the prospective ethical dilemmas of a company essentially being plugged directly into people’s brains. Yeah. You think Kinect’s always-on microphone is an ethical dilemma? Child’s play. That kind of VR would literally be corporate god mode.
Overall, Sword Art Online gives the viewer a lot to think about if they are so inclined, but also serves up memorable characters, easy to follow stories, great action scenes, and a lot of feels for those who just want an entertaining distraction.
Like The Matrix before it, it strikes just the right mix of conceptual sci-fi philosophy and good times, and unlike anything else before it, it captures important social aspects of gaming culture and pays tribute to the hobby as something beyond a mere distraction for losers with no life. It treats the medium and its players with a level of respect that hasn’t really been done before that I can recall. If for no other reason, this is why hardcore gamers should consider seeking this show out. It’s really one of a kind.