Virtual/Reality: Sword Art Online

“There is no doubt that this is a virtual world, that everything we see and touch is an imitation created from data. But to us, our hearts do exist within this reality. If that’s true, then everything we’re experiencing here should also be true.” Asuna, Sword Art Online

I’ve never played an MMO, but I’ve always enjoyed listening to the stories of friends who have. Particularly in the case of games like World of Warcraft, where users have invested months of their lives into their characters. There’s drama amongst teams, scandals, heroes and villains. People can become renowned for their talents, make friends and hang-out all week-long. As such, can we really say that these experiences are so trivial as to be “just games?”

On a surface level, of course, MMOs are just video games like any other. You can beat monsters or troll other players, and who cares? You don’t have to take any of it seriously if you don’t want to. You get to choose how to play, and who to be.

That’s not just MMOs, that’s the internet. The nature of the internet is that you can exist within a reality of your own making. Your Twitter feed might be an interactive medium, filled with people you enjoy talking to, or you could just passively follow a bunch of celebrities. It all enriches one reality or another, and it’s your choice which.

I struggle with this all of the time: I won’t go out of my way to link offline friends to my online accounts. I have a Twitter profile, but I’m not on Facebook. Facebook is like the real world put online, and that’s troubling to me. I feel like I’m more in control on Twitter, but for whatever reason, Facebook has never felt like that: even its name suggests a connection to the real world.

Getting back to why all of this is being posted on an anime blog: Sword Art Online. It’s a new series about an MMO, the twist of which being that if you die in-game, you die for real. Immediately then, this is a story about ideas near and dear to my heart: the frictions between virtual and real worlds.

There’s a myriad of complaints about the series so far, notably that it’s a “dumb” premise and “unrealistic.” It would seem that an MMO with real-world consequences is an idea that many either ridicule or refuse to entertain. I find it fascinating, though. After I’d seen the first couple of episodes, I even started reading the fan-translations of the light novels.

It’s not like the writing is great, either. The story is dominated by many an anime cliché: it fringes on the cute tragedy porn of Key, but just that core idea of another reality has me hooked.

What does it mean to make friends in Sword Art Online, and to fall in love? These are such prescient questions, and as more people find themselves online, the more we face these same dilemmas. What is real in the virtual world? Do we sense hearts between the tweets and pixels? Arms reaching from your computer screen, pulling you in?

Author: bateszi

A huge bloody nerd. I apologise in advance. I live in Cambridge, England. That's not an excuse, by the way.

18 thoughts on “Virtual/Reality: Sword Art Online”

  1. Sounds interesting enough, I hope the crazy animation quality in the trailer holds up somehow. About Key, most of their stories could be categorized as “cute tragedy porn” but one show in particular really elevates Key beyond such a description. Try watching Clannad, all 50-something episodes of it. The second half of the after story arc is incredibly moving, excruciating and raw. Of course you’ll have to trudge through a few not so eventful episodes to get to the real meat of the story. The pay-off is extremely rewarding though.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Ivy. My opinion of anime by Kyoto Animation has eased over the years, so I’ll give Clannad a shot at some point. After Story sounds interesting: I love that they actually followed the characters into adulthood!

      As for the animation quality of SAO, well, you’re spot on. It’s been consistently good and has some lovely action choreography.

  2. The show has slowed down a bit since it started, but I still think it’s the best new show this season.

    I don’t see the lack of realism as an issue, this is a sci-fi show we are talking about. As long as the show continues to make sense within the reality it’s created, then I’ll be happy. The problem I see on the horizon is whether the show is willing to resume the pace it had at the beginning, or whether it will keep the meandering pace it has had recently.

    As to your facebook point, I think it’s better to think of the site not as troubling, but as an opportunity to strengthen connections with offline friends. (Full disclosure: a good friend of mine works there). I’ve found it’s especially helpful in keeping in touch with friends that live in different states and different cities, it really helps when you are in the same city and want to re-establish off line ties.

    1. The nature of SAO is that it’s just a very fragmented story. The MMO situation is basically tied by up the end of the first volume of the light novel, but the author came back to it years later and appended new side stories: therefore, much of what we’ve seen (as of episode 5) is actually from volume 2 of the series, rather than 1! Volume 1 begins with a 2 year time leap.

  3. I’ve always been a little suspicious of Facebook. I’ve heard too many stories about their policies changing and the ownership of what you put online for me to invest myself there. Google+ probably isn’t much better, but that’s my social network home. Diaspora is better still, though maybe sparse.

    Part of the trouble with SOA’s “realism” problems” for me is I can’t help thinking about what’s going on in the outer world. The scenario begs it, and frankly I think it’d be a better story if they DID show the efforts to stop this insane game and keep the trapped players’ bodies alive. There’s a lot that you could do there. I am also disappointed that the last two episodes have been standalones. I want them to return to the main arc.

    1. Even if it’s something of an epilogue, the story will deal with the outside world. But really, SAO is an anime about MMOs, and is more interested in that than trying to tie itself to the real world.

      I guess this is a key problem a lot of people are having with the series: just that inability to get into it because the story hasn’t adequately explained its premise. That kind of thing has never been a problem for me, but I’ve read it a lot in relation to SAO.

    2. to add to bateszi’s comment, the whole of volume 1 is narrated in first person pov by kirito, and volume 2 was a bunch of side stories.
      since kirito couldn’t know what was going on outside, there wasn’t much mentioned

  4. If you’re really fascinated by the subject of virtual reality vs reality, I would highly recommend .hack//SIGN; I personally find it to be a much more fine tuned, better version of SAO which to me is more of a blockbuster entertainment than a show that delves into the concept of living inside the internet and living in real life. As for SAO, I agree with Peter- while the show has the similar premise, it doesn’t get as gritty (except with one episode, I believe) with the idea that once a person dies they actually, well, die. The production value for SAO is great, but I don’t think the concept is being executed well enough to take it as a serious theme. (.hack//SIGN on the other hand, focuses much more on the idea of alienation, social anxiety in the real life and using gaming as a way to ‘run away’ from real life and its challenges- a retreat that may not necessarily be something bad)

    1. I’m now tempted more than ever to check out .hack//SIGN, especially so that I can compare it to SAO. I think this was just the push I needed, thanks :)

      1. .hack//SIGN is brilliant. It’s much better with the themes, and there’s a much deeper connection with the characters. You really end up getting inside their heads and feeling their pain (and hell there’s a lot of it). But! Despite how tragic it is at some points, it is very well-written. It doesn’t feel artificial, and there are points where you will cry your heart out. The music is wonderful too (it adds a whole new dimension to the show).

  5. While I still kind of look forward to a new episode each week, I feel like this show has almost ruined itself for me with its side stories. Too much of the gallant knight saving cute girls that are too incompetent to actually sit straight without some man’s help.

    Sure, there’s Asuna and she gets to be a badass. But even she has to revert back to “cliche anime girl mode” time and time again. Best example would be the latest episode. Why can’t a female character’s badassedness continue even in romance? Ok, probably not a very hard guess that it’s simple otaku bait.

    Doesn’t change the fact that a lot of the time the series is very underwhelming in terms of writing and characterisation. I hope it’ll get better with the return to the main storyline.

  6. Honestly? I don’t think adding more detail would help with this series. It’s the focus, the lack of an outside world that is the point, both of the show and games in general.

  7. hi I saw all of the 25 episodes like 10 times and I keep watching it, I was wandering about the rest of the 13 lite novels of S.A.O can yo make them in to episodes and make a movie. If you read this make shure that you can keep asking an find the one ho made the 25 episodes an aske him to make the other novels into episodes.

    if anyone see dis try to publish it in all over the whorld.

  8. I really didn’t like where this anime went, because the story is highly fragmented. There is so much time passing that hasn’t been shown on the show. For example, I would like to see some battles of Kurito. I would like to see his progression on the front-lines more. There is too much that has been missed. I want to see him go through struggles to achieve special abilities that can help him on the front lines. I feel that the character is very one dimensional. The first and second episode was great. I like how he had to play a facade to show that he is this total badass. The facade completely disappeared in the third episode. This anime has potential, but I think it was executed poorly.

    1. If it interests you, the author of the original Sword Art Online Light Novels is currently working on and having published an alternate series called Sword Art Online Progressive, which shows just that (i.e. “his progression on the front lines”). It has some “minor” differences from the original canon given in the first set of Light Novels (minor if you’re not a stickler for canonical detail and continuity), but it mostly does a good job of showing how the players acted and going more into the intricacies of the game and Kirito and Asuna’s characters, following their advancement through Aincrad in a floor by floor manner.

  9. Also there was an episode where Grimlock killed his wife because she… … … was happy… … … What… … …?

    I think they can be more creative than that.

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