Sword Art Online is an anime based on a series of light novels which is just hit the end of the first story arc point of its TV debut. I’ve been on an anime watching hiatus for about 2 years now. Now I’m back, and excited as ever because of this one show. Warning, spoilers ahead.
The anime begins with the launch of a highly anticipated virtual reality MMORPG called Sword Art Online. The first 10000 players who got their hands on the game suddenly finds out that they’re trapped within the game with no way to log off. To make matters worse, dying in the game kills you in real life. Yes, this did in fact remind me of the .hack series – another anime that takes place within a virtual reality MMORPG called The World but with a much complex storyline from my point of view. Plus, removing the VR helmet (called a NerveGear) would cause it to microwave your brain. The game’s creator, Kayaba Akihiko then challenges the players to clear all 100 floors of the game and he will set them free.
The entire first arc spans roughly about 2 years in 14 episodes. Normally, a story like this would normally last or cover about a month or so of the characters time. With two years spent living in a virtual world allows for an in-depth look at the psychological implications of being in a virtual world for so long, you start to wonder if the world you currently live in is actually the real world. It also explores how the players adapt to their new lifestyles – questioning if it’s actually worth fighting and risking their lives to return to the real world, just give up or start new lives within the game world. This is actually referenced throughout the entire first arc.
A Virtual Society
Like many MMOs today, the player base ranges from kids to adults and on the occasion, senior citizens. Based on the demographics of gamers today, there exists hardcore players, the casual people, the carebears, those that take MMO gaming as chance to live off a second life or the life they never had and the like. Given the circumstances of their current in-game situation, should the casual/unskilled players or young kids/old people be risking their lives in the still unbeaten dungeons? Or they be left alone to fend for themselves? What about those who prefer to play a non-combat role (non-fighters)?
A majority of MMOs (Guild Wars 2, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, etc.) now give the players a choice to take on professions and odd jobs such as cooking, mining, blacksmithing and the like. Can they (the non-fighters) put their trade skills to good use to help the offensive and at the same time trusting the front-liners to get you back to reality? Or you can just retire to a town with a nice looking scenery and pretend (and lie to yourself) that this just isn’t happening to you… Or maybe just turn to the life of crime. After all, this is now the life you lead.
A Love Story Is Not the End
If there’s one overused cliché in anime, it’s that once two characters hook up, it’s the end of the story. Anything after that just doesn’t matter. Sword Art Online does away with this. It instead explores how a love story in a setting such as this would work, bringing definition to exactly what love is like in a virtual world. Marriage in SAO builds on a system of trust with your partner. According to Kirito, when a couple marries in-game their entire inventory is made known to each other. Thus, making a point that if one were to share their lives with another the should be no secrets to hide from one another.
The relationship presented here serves as a driving point of the story. It is one of the key plots near the end of the first story arc and continues well into the next story arc. Kirito and Asuna had contemplated if they should just leave the front lines and continue living in peace. This would then lead to Kirito asking Asuna to stay out of the raid group during the raid of the 75th floor’s boss room. In response, she told Kirito she would commit suicide if he were to die during the 75th boss raid, after he asked her to stay away from the fight. She intended to do so and she became desperate when Kirito asked Heathcliff to prevent her from committing suicide if he died during their duel. She sacrificed herself to save him before Heathcliff could deliver the final blow. Distraught by Asuna’s death, Kirito loses the will to fight and receives a fatal stab from Akihiko. However, at the point of death, Kirito remembers Asuna’s belief in him and manages to regain enough substance to defeat Akihiko using Asuna’s sword. They are both killed simultaneously and the game is declared cleared. Kirito then awakens high above the game world where he finds both Asuna and Akihiko. Akihiko informs Kirito and Asuna that he has logged out all the other players as promised and also explains his motives for creating Sword Art Online, before disappearing. Kirito and Asuna then tell one another their true names, Kazuto Kirigaya and Asuna Yuki, and embrace each other as the world falls apart. To his surprise, Kazuto awakens in a hospital in the real world and, despite being physically weak, sets off to search for the real Asuna.
While not the first anime to feature a “trapped in an MMORPG” setting (remember that I was talking about .hack earlier?), Sword Art Online is a fantastic and enjoyable anime series. As a game designer myself, (no, I am not going to create a world, trap people in it and force them to clear 100 floors) I am indeed impressed with the deep level of psychology and sociology portrayed. It is something that I think people can relate to if placed into similar situations. I really hope that this standard that has already been set by the first arc continue long into its second, third and fourth story arcs (if the anime progresses that far). Take note that I have yet to read the visual novels or manga.