Popular anime/manga series Sword Art Online wrapped up its second season run on American television last month and did it with style, just in time for the new game, Sword Art Online: Lost Song, coming out next month. For a show that destroyed its titular digital world halfway into the first season and seemed to have covered all bases in its exploration of near-future virtual reality technology and its potential effects and hazards pertaining to gaming culture along the way, it left a lot of questions as to what a second season would even look like. What, just another generic fantasy adventure anime that happens to take place in a video game world?
How about nope. While covering a ton of emotional and conceptual ground in its groundbreaking first season (which I discussed previously here), I think it’s possible to argue that the second season somehow even improves on it. Many of the criticisms were addressed and in getting a little further away from the constant danger of the actual “SAO Incident” (in which gamers’ minds were trapped in a MMORPG that would kill them irl if they died in-game), the widespread subsequent brain-hacking of gamers, and damseling of Asuna the series actually blossomed with a somewhat lighter, more casual tone. After all, gaming is supposed to be about fun, right?
But while SAO2 has somewhat lower stakes than the first season, it makes up for it with more of the show’s trademark strong conceptualization and exceptional character building. Maybe thousands of people’s live aren’t in danger and maybe nobody is being held prisoner on servers and virtually molested by villainous businessmen using their creations for ill, but there is still a lot at stake for the characters and not everybody is making it out alive. The second season resets the standard for integrating gaming culture and concepts into popular entertainment in a thoughtful and exciting manner. Spoilers follow.
SAO 2 opens with our heroes and heroines living virtual lives in their home away from home, ALfheim Online, a VRMMO (Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online, naturally) game where most of the protagonist Kirito’s friends migrated after Sword Art Online disintegrated. I mean, one life-threatening forced two year imprisonment inside a video game isn’t going to put off a hardcore gamer from VR gaming, now is it? This setup is interesting in itself because ALO isn’t just a place to quest. It’s where they go to socialize, watch feeds of other games together, and sometimes even sleep. Gaming is not just about adventuring or achieving anymore in this series; it’s literally a lifestyle unto itself.
Kirito is recruited to investigate unexplained deaths in a post-apocalyptic game named Gun Gale Online in another case of the show bucking any preconceptions you have about it. Not only is Sword Art Online not a thing in the show of the same name anymore, but now it’s going to take place in a world dominated by guns instead of swords to boot. DEAL WITH IT! GGO is the only VRMMO that people can make an actual living playing, so it’s serious business and less than inviting for a noob.
Putting Kirito out of his element was a good thing as he now had to make new friends to show him the ropes. The humor here is that his assigned avatar is female, giving the protagonist a peak through the eyes of an online female gamer and implying some interesting things about gender identity and expectations.
Just from a pure gaming perspective, GGO is a blast to explore and a welcome change of pace. The open-world deathmatch tournament concept “Bullet of Bullets” is awesome and I really hope the next SAO game takes place there. When Kirito shows up there are debates about the viability of AGI and STR builds regarding recent game balancing that any geek is going to latch right onto. Details like this are what make the show feel so legit. It makes the viewer almost want to jump into the screen and create a character.
Alright, that’s enough setup. This show thrives on going above and beyond most shows to really get into the unspoken philosophies that move gamers in their everyday lives and the hidden psychological aspects that lead us to invest ourselves so heavily in these digital experiences. SAO takes things that are already here in gamer culture and simply pushes them forward a few decades to a place where we will have the ability to almost abandon reality entirely. The first season showed a lot of the pitfalls of that, but season two shows how gaming could change lives for the better or even give a fulfilling existence to people who are unable to have one in their real bodies.
While exploring GGO Kirito makes a new friend, Sinon (who was just helping out a fellow girl gamer…or so she thought). Her story is an incredibly interesting one. When she was a child, she got caught up in an armed robbery and ended up shooting and killing the assailant; an incident that scarred her for life and gave her a crippling fear of firearms. Her way of overcoming this fear was to join GGO and become comfortable with guns in a virtual environment where nobody could get hurt.
Kirito is investigating apparently impossible real world deaths from in-game wounds received from a mysterious player creatively named Death Gun. And no, this isn’t like it was in the first season as that tech has been done away with and replaced with something less invasive. It turns out that a pair of murderous gamers are coordinating the murders. One breaks into the victims’ homes and kills them while they are immersed in the VR at the same time that the other kills them in-game. That is to say that Sinon’s virtual coping mechanism is going to be put to the test irl.
A line in this season states that “wherever you are right now, that’s your reality”, further driving home the show’s theme of virtual experiences being potentially as valuable (or harmful) and “real” as the physical world. I mean, there are actual scientific theories that the universe is nothing but a computer simulation itself. If it’s real to you and makes you feel real emotions and share genuine experiences with people you care about, what does anything else matter? Why discriminate between physical and virtual at all?
And that brings us to the second arc of SAO2, in which we go back to Alfheim Online. This is the point where the first season went bad, with series co-star Asuna being damseled in humiliating fashion. This time, things fare much better with Kirito taking a back seat for the first time and Asuna getting a chance to do her own thing. She’s a strong enough character to carry the show, and getting to know her as well as we know Kirito is arguably what makes this season better than the first.
Asuna’s story is that she uses VR to escape from her real life. Now we’re getting somewhere. She prefers the excitement of ALO’s procedurally-generated adventures (in spite of its AI’s occasionally apocalyptic tendencies) to the prim, proper, and privileged regimented life she lives in Japan, observing “in the real world, I don’t have any power”. Naturally, her parents neither understand, nor approve. The resolution of this arc comes when Asuna -unable to confront her mother in real life- invites her to log in with her. While showing her mother the life she’s built for herself in ALO and the sentimentality attached to the digital construct, mother and daughter are able to understand each other in this virtual space in a way they never did while occupying the same home.
The final story of SAO2 cranks up both the feels and the practical conceptual possibilities for utilization of VR technology to better lives. Asuna challenges the most powerful player in Alfheim, Yuuki, for kicks and ends up joining her guild for their final quest together. The reason it’s their final quest? Yuuki is terminally ill. In fact, the entire Sleeping Knights guild is made up of people on their last legs; hence the urgency. Yuuki hasn’t logged out of the virtual world in years because her body just doesn’t work, hence her overpowered in-game build. It’s one thing to play a lot of games, but it’s something else entirely to never stop.
In spite of her extended convalescence, Yuuki has lived a rich and full virtual life in that time. At one point, Asuna connects her to a shoulder-mounted camera designed to share real life with her and Kirito’s in-game AI daughter Yui and tours the town with her in another practical extension of the VR tech that the show explores. In the final episode, she passes away quietly in Asuna’s arms as thousands of players fly above to pay their respects to the most hardcore gamer of all. It’s a beautiful moment punctuated by her tearful assertion that even if it was only in a virtual world, she was truly alive there.
While considering her time with the Sleeping Knights, Asuna observes: “A safe fight, a certain victory. There’s more to a game than that”. It’s true in gaming, it’s true in life, and it’s true in storytelling. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Without loss and strife, there can be no true satisfaction in accomplishing, and if you do it right you’ll always take away more than you lost. The satisfaction of having given your all to achieve your goals -whatever they may be- on your own terms is what makes any undertaking a success and the experiences along the way are what make your life yours.
Sword Art Online could have relied on good will from the first season and become just another shonen series about indomitable male heroes getting stronger and facing increasingly ridiculous foes or aped the games it represents and just had a bunch of quests and good times cruising on the strength of established characters and accepted tropes. But instead it chose to break its viewers hearts yet again and explore both the meaning of life (however brief it may be) and the reality of our online experiences in a single character. Not a safe fight, but one that turns out to be a certain victory after all.
SAO 2 took chances and arguably topped itself when so many had written it off halfway through the first season with little regard for anything but telling great stories that will emotionally resonate with anyone who’s ever devoted themselves to a work of fiction to escape from harsh realities and found a welcoming like-minded online community waiting for them.
Virtual reality technology is coming and this show may be the single best exploration of what that could mean for us as gamers of all stripes. And make no mistake, gamers will pioneer this frontier and adapt it into a new way of life long before non-gamers come around to the possibilities. Sword Art Online recognizes this reality and has crafted itself around it in a way that respects video games and the people that play them in ways that are unheard of in Western popular media. And that’s something you’ve just got to appreciate.