I had a lot of downtime during the Holiday break. I managed to finally get into Final Fantasy XIII-2 (in preparations for Lightning Returns), bought way too many Steam games on sale, and also found time to watch the first season of Sword Art Online. It isn't often I give a new Anime a chance, let alone watch it in its entirety within a day or two, however the premise behind it was so intriguing, I just couldn't stop.
Sword Art Online is hardly the first Anime to deal with an MMO where a player's conscious and senses are fully realized within a virtual space, nor is it the first that deals with the tragedy of being unable to log out from this environment. However Sword Art Online manages to feel more real in the sense of how characters cope with this tragedy, and thus make the viewers more connected with the main characters.
The diverse cast of Sword Art Online, filling almost every Anime trope you can think of
The story starts off in the year 2022, when the world's first virtual reality MMORPG releases to only 10,000 people thanks to technology called NerveGear. It's a dream come true for many that find their real lives unfulfilling, and gives them a place where a single sword can take them anywhere. Things turn tragic however when it's revealed that the game's creator has taken out the ability to log out of the game, and states that the only way for them to leave the game is to clear all 100 floors (essentially a 100 self contained worlds). If anyone tries to take the NerveGear off of a player's head, the microwaves will fry their brains, immediately killing them. Furthermore, dying in the game, means dying in real life. Dark.
I might go into slight spoiler territory, but it will only help explain why Sword Art manages to succeed in telling story that's both captivating and tragic. It is important to note that I'll be mostly talking about the first arc of the season, which I'll also explain in a bit.
The first story arc deals with SAO the game exclusively, and this is also where the show manages to elicit a lot of emotion from us viewers. A big reason for this success relies on telling a story over a large span of time, two years to be exact. That is a long time to be stuck in a virtual world while your body is lying in a bed. What's interesting is the change in dynamic from the start of the show, up until episode 11.
When everyone is alerted to the fact that they're trapped in this world with the real possibility of dying, it becomes everyone's main objective to try and clear the game as efficiently as possible. The first few episodes really showcase the determination of the characters to move forward to try and save themselves from inevitable doom. Us, the viewers, feel the sense of urgency. Most of us have played an MMORPG before and know how easy it is to die from doing something stupid. In SAO, dying isn't an option, and knowing that makes every encounter as nail-biting as the very first.
As time goes on and months pass by, we start to see a shift in attitude. People start to accept living in this virtual space. They take on professions such as blacksmithing, and learn things like cooking skills. It becomes clear to many that they may never get to leave the world of Aincrad. Seeing this acceptance among the game's inhabitants feels natural, if not a bit tragic.
SAO also pays homage to a lot of MMORPG tropes. In the first episode after everyone learns their fate, the creator gives everyone an item that makes them look like their real selves instead of their created avatar. This leads to cute girls turning into old guys and handsome warriors turning into overweight buffoons. Like in any MMO, you never really know who you're playing with. Things like crafting are also kept minimalistic as we're shown that a single ore turns into an ornate sword with a single hammer strike. It's also amusing to see things like party and friend invites still have to be done through a menu, in a game where physically that shouldn't be necessary.
This whole arc concludes by episode 14, even though the series still has 11 more episodes to go. This is where SAO starts to fall apart though. The first arc had a sense of urgency and eventually acceptance. Our protagonist couple, now married in-game accepted their virtual life. Even by its conclusion in episode 14, the two actually ended up dying in-game while beating the final boss and thus saving everyone else, leading to a tear-jerking conclusion which had both characters saying goodbye to each other in their final moments.
Kirito and Asuna's final moments in Sword Art Online
If that's where the show ended, I think I would have been completely OK with it. Did they wake up afterwards and find each other? Did they die and lived on together in the afterlife? These are some questions that might not have ever been answered, but just like Inception, it would ultimately allow the viewer to make these conclusions.
The show continues with Kirito (real name Kazuto) waking up from his 2 year coma, only to realize the love of his life is still in one. Eventually we learn that a new company took over the server, giving birth to a completely new VRMMORPG called ALfheim Online, and Asuna is still trapped within the game. Of course Kazuto makes it his priority to put on the NerveGear once again, the same machine that threatened to fry his brain in case of failure.
That's right… Fairies…
Everything that made the first arc great was completely lost here. Death was inconsequential, the villain wasn't nearly as menacing, and we lost the dynamic interactions between Kirito and Asuna thanks to making her completely useless as she was a prisoner this time around, rather than the kick ass fighter she was in SAO. The fact that the new MMO focused on flying fairies as playable characters also downplayed the arc quite a bit.
I still recommend you check the show out, as it's available on Hulu and Crunchyroll. If you're like me though, you're going to want to stop at episode 14. Everything after is just a terrible disappointment. Also make sure to check out Accel World.