Sword Art Online
Number of Episodes: 25
Production Company: A-1 Pictures
Brief Overview: In 2022, the new online game "Sword Art Online" is released to much fanfare. When people begin to log in, they soon realize that they're unable to log back out. A player named Kirito vows to beat the game and release his fellow players from its grasp, because a death in the world of the game means their death in the outside world.
Episode 1 Summary: People have lined up all over Japan to purchase their release-day copies of the new virtual MMORPG, "Sword Art Online." Kirito is one of the lucky ten thousand able to obtain a copy, and he logs in as soon as he can. Having played the Beta, he's very familiar with his surroundings and he befriends a new player who's unfamiliar with the battle system. Eventually they decide to part ways, but discover that neither of them can log out.
They, along with all the other players, are transported back to a central courtyard where the game's creator, Akihiko Kayaba, informs everyone that this is no fluke; he's gathered all of them to inform them that the only way out of the game is to finish it, which involves climbing to the one-hundredth level of the dungeon and defeating the final boss, Kayaba himself. If anyone tries to leave the game, is defeated within the game world, or if their equipment loses power in the real world, their bodies will be killed. Kirito soon embarks on his quest to finish the game and be set free.
Thoughts: I'd avoided this show for a long time because almost immediately after its broadcast began, the internet became inundated with semi-pornographic images of the yet-to-be-introduced female lead and I needed to take a step back. I'm glad that I took some time to re-center my thoughts, because the first episode is actually much better than I would have expected from the series description. Despite some pretty obvious flaws in its plot setup, at first glance the show seems like it could be very entertaining.
This isn't the first time that anime has attempted to tackle the subject of online gaming. Hunter x Hunter, .hack//sign, and even Welcome to the NHK! have, in all or part, devoted time to exploring the dynamics of online gaming and speculated about what sort of dangers they could pose. Sword Art Online begins in a manner that doesn't make a lot of sense - a potential smash-hit game is released in incredibly small numbers, an evil mastermind decides to start a life-or-death game just for kicks - but its first episode ends having at least made a couple of good points about the way in which online gaming is related to our real-life culture of emotional disconnect.
It could be argued that MMO games promote a different value system than your run-of-the-mill single-player experiences. Most, by their nature, require the cooperation of several players to accomplish the major goals of the game. Players create guilds, build friendships, and navigate the fictional world while helping one-another (or teaming up to put the smack down on other groups, as the case may be). These games have a social aspect to them that those of other genres simply do not; one could put forth a very convincing argument that these sorts of games serve a beneficial purpose to society. In some cases, they probably do, but in many other cases they end up revealing some depressing things about the primary ways in which we tend to interact after the dawning of the internet age.
I played a certain high-profile MMO for a little while five or six years ago. For the most part, I was a loner; I preferred the format of the game's quests to that of many other RPGs, but I wasn't all that interested in the social aspect. I finally reached a point where I was required to join a team to be able to tackle an event dungeon, and I managed to end up in a group of more experienced players who were friendly and patient with me, a relative noob. This might sound like the dream scenario for an online gamer, since horror stories abound of immaturity, verbal abuse and sexism/racism in online gaming. In a way, it was a great experience, since I was able to accomplish a shared goal. But that goal took six long hours of my day to complete, during which I was glued to my chair, my eyes glazing over from staring at the computer screen. Our team, which had so readily banded-together, just as readily went our separate ways afterwards. I began to notice an effect on my health, and became troubled by the realization of how fleeting the relationships I'd enjoyed began to seem. After that day, I allowed my subscription to run its course, and I put the game away for good.
The experience of online gaming can be very fulfilling for some, and there are people who build strong friendships through the internet, but for me the experience was much less positive. I, and I suspect many others, tend to put my shields up and hide behind the mask that is an online persona. When one's avatar can be anything and everything, we tend to idealize ourselves. We tend to play a part rather than act according to our real-life incarnation, and while role-play can be fun, I think that the fact we feel unable to share our real selves with others is a bit damning towards the idea that the internet is some great bastion of human unity.
I think this is why this first episode really grabbed me. As part of his master plan, game-master Kayaba reverts the players' appearances to that of their real-life bodies. Some people reveal their true age or body type, others reveal their true genders. The playing field becomes equalized and players are forced to face who and what they really are as they attempt to organize and survive the trial ahead of them. This act takes away the comfortable fantasy to which all MMO players willingly submit. Players are forced to become friends with real people rather than avatars. The game is no longer a retreat from the world, but a forcible call to face reality in a different setting.
Follow-up Episodes (2-5): Kirito joins a group of players who are trying to tackle the boss of the first dungeon floor using the knowledge left to them by the beta-testers. Here, Kirito meets Asuna, a mysterious cloaked girl whose skills are greater than she lets on. The two help defeat the boss and open up an opportunity for others to progress in the game. Later, he returns to his loner ways and encounters a guild of high-school friends and a surrogate little sister looking to heal her injured pet before teaming up with Asuna again.
The second episode culminates in a climactic battle that features some great character animation. If there's one compliment I can give this show so far is that its production values are above-average and often drift into "excellent" territory when required. The background art is also a treat. I often find that set in fantasy worlds don't always seem cohesive in the art department. The artists may dress up so-called "normal" landscape features in corny ways to give them a cheap fantasy feeling, but there's some very good use of color and design at play here that gives the floating islands and skies with multiple moons a more intentional feeling.
Though I only watched a small fraction of the series, many of the early episodes seem to be consumed by the theme of death and dying. That's not really a surprise considering how often death happens in any MMO game, but the unique permanence of death in this scenario makes its prominence as a subject an interesting and obvious choice. Two early episodes in particular deal with legendary items thought to be able to bring the dead back to life (with certain conditions). Many meetings that Kirito has end in the death of one or more players. It's not simply a background concern and the dead aren't just an ever-increasing but easily-ignored number. There's a real sense that anyone, even experienced players, could be caught unawares and be killed at any time. It's this tension that really helps elevate the atmosphere of the show.
Of course, there are also some bits and pieces that manage to do the opposite, the most obvious of which is a loli-bait episode during which we're treated to some pretty lousy fanservice and learn that Kirito has a bit of a little-sister complex. Goody. That kind of material is bad enough when it's actually expected, but when the series could operate perfectly well on its own merits yet chooses to indulge in something cheap, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
There's also the problem of logic, and this series' lack of it. It's simple enough accept some things at face value, but it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore many of the logical leaps required to get through a typical episode. The most nagging question I have (which may have been answered in one of the episodes I haven't had time to watch) relates to the bodies of the players who are trapped inside the game. How are they kept alive? I assume that many people have family who've made arrangements, but I'm guessing not everyone would have that luxury. I'm very curious to see if this is addressed in any satisfying way. I'm also a little irritated by the fact that the virtual-reality helmets that players use to enter the game world seem to be without failsafe measures. Who in their right mind creates a product that could completely fry a player's brain if taken-over by the wrong person?
Though I pride myself on being able to predict my own reactions to some extent, it's always fun to be surprised. I didn't expect to enjoy this show when I first read a synopsis, but five episodes in and I'm eager to watch more. There are a few problems with the subject matter that I hope remain mostly isolated, but in all I'm interested to see whether this action-oriented drama manages to follow-through on some of the deeper issues that crop up within its episodic stories.
- This is a nice-looking show with good animation and beautiful background artwork.
- It takes the online gaming concept and uses it to turn a lens on things like death and isolation.
- Some of the story setup requires the viewer to suspend their disbelief quite a bit.
- There's an unnecessary interlude of creepy fanservice a couple of episodes in that throws the atmosphere a bit.
Recommended? The series is already very popular, but I'd advise viewers who are wary of the series that it at least shouldn't be defined by the large amount of pornographic fan artwork available. It's got solid action and great-looking visuals that help boost it up when some of its other aspects are taking a vacation from quality. It's definitely not my favorite of the year, but it's very entertaining.