I actually found this episode quite entertaining. But let’s get this clear — I’m a big fan of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. To put it another way, if this blog stops updating on the 28th of August, you’ll know why. As a result, all of the MMOisms in the anime amuse me.
Take them away, however, and Sword Art Online will look and feel like any other shounen adventure. And hell, that’s sort of true now. If the ED is any indication of how the rest of the series will turn out, SAO doesn’t look like it’ll have much staying power. But for the time being, yeah, I enjoyed it.
10,000 players find themselves trapped within a virtual reality MMO that sure looks a lot like Ragnarok Online (then again, where are all the BR players?). In addition, if you die in-game, you’ll die in real life. If you disconnect from the game, you’ll die in real life. If you loved ones try to save you, you’ll die in real life. The game’s creator promises his players that any attempts to quit playing the MMO will result in their brains being microwaved. Think of it as Diablo 3‘s hardcore mode, but less laggy and, sadly, probably more fun. Still, having your brain slowly turn to mush as you kill Azmodan for the billionth time is quite analogous to having it microwaved instead!
Basically, SAO brings a whole new meaning to poopsocking. So is everyone screwed? Is there no hope? Are we doomed to camping 21-24 hour timed spawns in a area so small other players fade in and out from hardware limitations? Must we idiotically fight a boss so difficult for so long that we literally throw up in real life? If death is permanent, player griefing must be out of control! Perhaps some of the 10,000 SAO denizens will lose all hope and surrender themselves to something akin to Moon Guard’s Goldshire. Well, being a game and all, our hero Kirita must naturally ascend a 100-floor dungeon and, presumably, defeat the final boss. Kirita, being the MMO nerd that he is, has already planned out the best route to leveling up.
What’s the big deal then? Isn’t this just another hack-and-slash, medieval-themed anime along the likes of The Sacred Blacksmith? Can the thin MMO veneer add enough of a twist to such a tired premise? That’ll depend on how committed the anime is to the potential of the MMO concept. Don’t get me wrong — I love to play MMOs — but the genre is rife for mockery. SAO manages to nail at least one. There are a lot of people out there so addicted to MMOs that they’ll forsake their lives in the real world. The results are sometimes horrific. Well, the entire premise of the show is that if you stop playing, you die. Is this a larger commentary of gaming addiction in general or just a superficial plot element? We’ll see.
Later in the episode, the creator dispels every players’ in-game avatar. A boy-girl couple is thus revealed to be a fat guy and a skinny guy respectively. Neither of them are as young as they had previously claimed under the guise of anonymity. Incisive? Not exactly, but the gag nevertheless got a laugh out of me.
Still, I would have preferred that the characters’ in-game avatars had not been permanently dispelled. This would then leave the door open to explore the phenomenon of sex and its role in online communities. After all, we have guys who will, at the drop of a hat, send thousands of gold or free items to another player if there’s even the slightest hint that the other person behind the computer screen might be female. Then there are guys who think all girls in MMOs are good for nothing but destroying guilds and forcing others to carry them through difficult encounters. On the flip side, there are girls who must announce their sex in any conversation.
Then there are girls so disappointed by the negative attention that they prefer to adopt male avatars instead.
So what are other potential topics that SAO could tackle? Will the show touch upon the rampant sexism in video games? Will it address how MMOs often have their female avatars wear nothing but plate bikini?
Or how about the fact that the genre has, for a long time now, employed a gameplay dependent wholly upon mindless repetition of the carrot-on-the-stick model? The short bit where Kirito teaches Klein how to fight boars had some promise, but South Park did a better job. It would be fun to see our hero endlessly grind instanced dungeons over and over in order to level up. After all, is that not what an MMO is like?
Could the anime also address the contentious dichotomy between so-called hardcore players and their arch-nemesis, the casual carebears? Are there even NPCs in SAO? How will they be portrayed?
The thing that’ll likely happen is that SAO covers none of these issues, thus disintegrating into another adventure time anime with an MMO twist. Some will then defend this as totally valid, claiming that the anime was just for fun. But wouldn’t touching upon the issues outlined above be fun too if done properly? In any case, SAO has potential for now, but that’s as far as I’ll go.