Sword Art Online Ep. 4: Self-doubt

One aspect of MMOs and their communities is the constant struggle between those who takes things seriously and those who don’t. I think the story goes a little something like this… a World of Warcraft player died, and his guildmates decided to pay their respects to him through some sort of in-game funeral. They probably announced the event on a popular forum like, say, Battle.net, which attracted a lot of undesired attention. Predictably enough, the event got crashed by the opposing faction and jimmies were forever rustled.

I don’t grief in MMOs, so I tend to play on PvE servers. I do enjoy PvP, but I’m not a fan of the strong picking on the weak. I see no enjoyment in ganking an unprepared player and bragging after the fact that my “tactics” required skill and precision. This is why I tend to only PvP in a controlled environment (see: Guild Wars 2‘s WvW and and sPvP). Okay, so how does this all relate to Sword Art Online.

I think when we’re watching a story unfold, we usually just accept what we see at face value. When Silica’s pet dies, we find it sad because we can relate; maybe we’ve had a pet that has died on us before, for example. But in actuality, i.e. in most MMO communities, there’s always this tension between players like Silica and players who are more… commonsensical? There are players who take the fantasy seriously, and then there are those who mock people like Silica for forming this emotional attachment to what is essentially make-believe. After all, when a typical MMO pet dies, most people wouldn’t bat an eye. Just resummon the damn thing, right? But again, as I’ve written before, the finality of death in Sword Art Online elevates the fantasy — the Lie — into the Truth.

As a result, every other Lie becomes a part of the Truth. That emotional connection you shared with a digital lizard isn’t just a stopgap solution until you sort out your real life problems, whatever they may be. Your love for the lizard becomes a part of your symbolic reality. Of course, if you want to break it down, the game is nothing more than a series of ones and zeros. But that’s like saying that a human being is just meat. It is dehumanizing to look at a person and just think of them as various components of flesh, blood and bones. Likewise, it’s dehumanizing to look at a person’s attachment to a digital dragon and scoff. Silica’s feelings for the dragon are still very much human even if the dragon itself doesn’t exist in the physical world. The point is that the symbolic reality isn’t fake at all but very much real.

This all ultimately ties into Kirito’s guilt. He helps Silica in order to assuage his real life pains. And usually, our commonsensical reaction would incline us to say something along the lines of “Dude, get off the game and deal with your actual problems!” But that simply ignores the fact that the “fake” world is very much a part of his reality — a part of his “actual problems.” The conceit that death is permanent is merely a blunt instrument to get this very notion across to the audience.

What annoys me about this episode, however, is its inability to commit to the story’s own message. On the surface, Kirito and Silica set out on a quest to save the latter’s pet dragon. At a deeper level, however, they are on a quest to legitimize their symbolic reality. This overarching message is unfortunately co-opted by pointless non-sequiturs regarding Silica’s loli-ish looks. Constantly throughout the episode, the anime plays up the fact that she’s this hot imouto that the viewers should want to bang. None of this has anything to do whatsoever with either the plot, i.e. the events of the episode, or the story, the underlying perspective that ties everything together.

Ultimately, the episode has some interesting ideas to convey, but it is ironically ruined by the very fact that it can’t even take itself seriously. The villain — the leader of a player-killing guild — says something along the lines of “There’s no proof that you die in real life when you die in-game.” The audience’s natural reaction should be: “Even so, how can you take that risk?” But the episode itself takes that risk. By constantly having vaguely sexual monsters with tentacles attack the loli-ish Silica over and over, perhaps the adaptation doubts its own message.

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36 thoughts on “Sword Art Online Ep. 4: Self-doubt

  1. KizukuKanshi

    Generally I’d think a level 44/45 character would be fine going to a 47 area, so I didn’t feel that concerned about the monsters. Seemed like Kirito wasn’t either if he was just letting her hang there.

    Only reason I would’ve paid the monsters any attention this episode is if I felt like they were going to adhere to the pattern of the previous two episodes, introducing people and having Kirito not able to save them somehow. I guess I had faith the show wouldn’t be that same story over and over. That would just be bad storytelling, not that any entertainment medium is immune to that sort of thing.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Generally I’d think a level 44/45 character would be fine going to a 47 area

      Depends on the MMO. For a long time, this would be suicide in Final Fantasy XI. Few classes could even challenge evenly-matched mobs without a lot of downtime. Even in less hardcore games, you might have no problems fighting one or two mobs, but links will kill you if you’re underleveled. In a game with perma-death like SAO, you can see why it’s silly to take that unnecessary risk.

      Only reason I would’ve paid the monsters any attention this episode is if I felt like they were going to adhere to the pattern of the previous two episodes, introducing people and having Kirito not able to save them somehow

      Yeah, I wondered if Silica would’ve ended up biting the dust in the end, but I guess two downer episodes would’ve been too heavy-handed (though why they didn’t see the third episode as heavy-handed is beyond me…).

      Reply
  2. reason

    There was another… well I wouldn’t say important, but at least mildly interesting, thing that got dropped in the adaptation process: Silica named Pina after her pet cat in the real world. It wasn’t focused on a whole lot, there was just one tiny mention of it, but it did make Silica’s attachment to him/her seem more real.

    Reply
  3. Andmeuths

    I think you’ve finally managed to see the underlying theme of SAO that ran through strongly in the LN, which the animators and adaptors might not have realized, but only managed to accidentally convey it accidentally, no matter how hazily in this (relatively easy to adapt) episode.

    Kawahara questions and justifies the validity of virtual experiences throughout SAO. It’s a recurring theme that keeps coming up again and again, and again. The question is asked, and the answer is played out throughout these side-stories (yes, even Red Nose Reindeer) repeatedly.If you haven’t dropped Accel World yet, I think you might be seeing the very same theme playing itself out, even stronger than in the earlier episodes in the Accel World Arc being animated right now.

    What happens in Aincard does NOT necessarily stay in Aincard.

    Ironically, even if one would expect the anime format to convey more than a book, I’d argue that the source often conveys much more, partly because anime is plagued with certain issues – such as directing preferences, (more strongly) commercial motivations and a limited story-telling space, something you don’t see in a novel, at least not so much.

    Finally, your opening comment reminded me of Mother’s Rosario – I won’t spoil anything more, but for a moment there, I thought you were hinting at it.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I think you’ve finally managed to see the underlying theme of SAO that ran through strongly in the LN…

      Kawahara questions and justifies the validity of virtual experiences throughout SAO.

      I’m not sure what you mean by finally. All of my SAO posts have been about whether or not the virtual world can matter as much as the real world, and whether or not SAO will succeed in conveying its message.

      Reply
      1. Andmeuths

        Personally, I don’t think the animators are trying, or have grasped that point. Then again, you must remember that it can take an entire Cour to clearly elucidate and elaborate on this message completely, especially in a 2 Courer, so I might not be fair to the adapters here.

        And yes, the cliche Loli scenes were blatant Otaku pandering. Bah, commercial considerations. They’ve got to sell the BDs to the lowest common denominator after all – just be glad that Silica didn’t need Kirito to save her in that tentacle scene – that was a fairly nice subversion. A sad indictment to the state of anime unfortunately – but this is the same mentality that gave rise to abominations like Guilty Crown and ensures that the likes of Rendezvous would not be the runaway commercial successes that perhaps it should be. (Even though “should be” is in itself very contentious.)

        Thirdly, Black Swordsman to me is meant to be Kirito’s healing episode. Silica is not just an Imouto replacement, she is redemption from the aftermath of Sacchi.

        Finally, if SAO had blindly followed anime convention, what we’d get would be a forgetful Silica allowing Kirito to enter the room before putting a nightgown on herself. But then again, those are rather simplistic subversions.

        I fear that the next episode would be plagued with the same pacing problems as Aria, or RNR. Not in the form of time-skips, we won’t get those disjointed scenes of RNR. But in terms of cramming a story around one and a half times larger than Aria/Beater into one episode. Hopefully, there’d be two devoted to the next Side story.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          Then again, you must remember that it can take an entire Cour to clearly elucidate and elaborate on this message completely,

          I always feel like 90% of the anime series out there could stand to see their running length cut in half. This is especially true of mecha shows, but I’m digressing. In any case, while it often does take an entire cour for a typical anime to establish its themes, it should honestly not take that long.

          Bah, commercial considerations.

          Shrug, not my concern.

          Thirdly, Black Swordsman to me is meant to be Kirito’s healing episode. Silica is not just an Imouto replacement, she is redemption from the aftermath of Sacchi.

          Yes, that’s one valid reading of the episode, which is why it should be even more maddening that they didn’t spend more time fleshing that out versus “Uguu, he might see me in my underwear! Hazukashii~”

        2. Andmeuths

          Bear in mind that SAO hasn’t hit the main plot yet. Alas, they skipped side stories such as First Day, which I think was intrinsically more specific in addressing the issue about conveying the intended themes. Personally, I’m withholding my judgement on how well SAO is doing at conveying it’s themes until the Main plot itself. I do get the sense that the directors are not deliberately aiming to broadcast those themes though, so whatever get’s through to me has all the feeling of being “unintentionally” leaked out from the source-material,

          The next story itself builds up to it’s message, though it only becomes apparent at the end, once you connect the dots together. If it’s one episode, my reaction to this would probably be the same as Episode 2- rushed, rushed rushed, at the expense of characterization and story-telling.

          “Yes, that’s one valid reading of the episode, which is why it should be even more maddening that they didn’t spend more time fleshing that out versus “Uguu, he might see me in my underwear! Hazukashii~” ”

          They could choose some attention to Kirito’s state of mind, or they could have chose fanservice. Alas….

          Well, at least Silica pulled herself together and cut her way out of that predicament.

        3. E Minor Post author

          Bear in mind that SAO hasn’t hit the main plot yet. … Personally, I’m withholding my judgement on how well SAO is doing at conveying it’s themes until the Main plot itself

          Why can’t we judge the story as we go along? If the story sucks at the moment, I’ll say it sucks. When it improves, I’ll say so. I shouldn’t have to wait for anything; the show doesn’t have feelings.

  4. Ryhart

    Where’s kokoro connect post!? I would luv to see what is your thought on this weeks ep ahaha I can imagine your gonna tear through anime.

    Reply
  5. Marow

    I still don’t get why those tentacle monsters didn’t kill Silica. In the last episode, it was stated that Kirito’s high level boosted the monsters’ levels. However, this didn’t seem to be the case this episode. I’ve heard some people mention that there’s a level cap… but this hasn’t even been brought up in the anime. And if there was a level cap, why was it so high in the last episode? (I mean, the dungeon was pretty much about their level except that trap, it seemed like)

    So, yeah, this plot hole annoys me a lot.

    Otherwise, the episode was actually not too shabby. But it feels very fragmentaric.

    Reply
    1. Son Gohan

      Nope, in SAO the level of the monsters is fixed. In episode 3 the Black Cats were just swarmed by a LOT of enemies who were just 3 levels under them. They lost by sheer number.

      Reply
      1. Marow

        This… this doesn’t make any sense. They didn’t even elaborate on that. They died by one hit. This… this is just plain bad then.

        Reply
    2. E Minor Post author

      The show does a terrible job of really fleshing out the game mechanics. When it’s convenient, you see people die in a single hit.

      Otherwise, the episode was actually not too shabby.

      I thought this episode was worse than the last.

      Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          Hm, did they not team up in the previous episodes? Though I guess this was the first time the anime directly addressed player-killing.

  6. Seihai-kun

    I just liked how the Master Beater was just happening to be carrying around micro-skirts for 10 year old girls.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this episode of Sword Loli Online. I had a troubling feeling throughout the episode that Silica was going to be killed off. I guess that’s what the writers wanted after killing off the other loli in the previous episode.

    Reply
    1. Son Gohan

      I’m not a novel reader but I suppose that the equipment automatically adapts to the player’s gender. It’s not like they are carrying real clothes.
      And Sachi definitely wasn’t a loli.

      Reply
      1. Seihai-kun

        But there was no automatic adaption in Episode 1. Hence, that was definitive proof that SAO not only allows but strongly encourages cross dressing. I take everything I said back. He wasn’t carrying around the micro-skirt for Silica. It was for himself.

        Reply
        1. Amador

          In the LN Kirito claims that he just hadn’t got around to selling the stuff yet. Which would explain why he has a dagger at all.

    2. E Minor Post author

      Maybe a master beater is just tired of the rough pants fabric chafing on his inner thighs. Don’t hate, brah.

      Reply
  7. Ryan R

    This is a pretty fair episode review that raises some good points.

    However, the otaku-pandering bits didn’t bother me that much since…

    1) At least they flow seamlessly from the setting itself (you get monsters of all kinds in a MMO).

    2) I felt like nothing is lost from them being there. If they weren’t there, we’d simply see different monster fights. The story content is still “whole” regardless, with no glaring plot holes. I found this episode much easier to follow than SAO Episode 3.

    Don’t get me wrong, I can totally get why these bits annoy you, but I’ve come to accept that cheap otaku-pandering will never be out of anime entirely, and the best we can reasonably hope for is that they’re used like they are in this episode (in a way that’s just “side-attraction” at most).

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Oh hey, it’s good ol’ Ryan R again.

      I felt like nothing is lost from them being there.

      I lose out by imagining what these scenes could’ve been. I thought this episode was worse than the last.

      Reply
      1. Ryan R

        Thanks for the welcome! I’m glad to see you posting blogs regularly again. I also look forward to your review of Kokoro Connect Episode 4.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          Everyone’s just expecting something negative so people can yell at me about how wrong I am. ;v

    2. Naota

      You make a good point about the fanservice (I hate using such a loaded and frequently misunderstood term, but there it is). While it was still a meaningless diversion from the actual plot, and no less obvious about its pandering than I’ve come to expect, it did feel a little less overt than expected.

      You had the puerile humour, granted, but at least there was no voyeuristic camera zoom and sound effects. Underwear was featured, yet it was not the binding fabric of the series’ universe. It was a lot easier to see this as bad, juvenile humour than poor attempts at titillation.

      Non-sequitirs, though? Absolutely.

      Reply
      1. E Minor Post author

        There’s that scene in the middle of the episode where Silica is in nothing but her underwear. When Kirito knocks on her door, she panics when she realizes her state of undress. Was that juvenile humor or voyeuristic?

        There are only 20ish minutes of actual content every episode. Even if we grant that these scenes are nothing more than puerile humor, they take up a slice of the pie that could’ve gone to something else more pertinent to the actual story.

        Reply
        1. Naota

          Point taken, though at least more time wasn’t wasted with the usual series of canned reactions which we would have been treated to if he had opened the door without knocking. It could certainly have been a lot worse – at least a shower wasn’t involved, or worse a bath.

          Fanservice or otherwise, I’ll never understand why so many anime series feel the need to retread overused scenes to the absolute letter without contributing anything of their own. It’s one thing to fill a series popular tropes because they’re popular – it’s another entirely to duplicate the actions, characterization, and events of an already simple scene wholesale and just change the names and appearances of the characters.

          I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shower walk-in or an accidental breast grab subverted, parodied, or even shuffled around. Every single one plays out identically, as if rotoscoped and plagiarized from some mythic bible of Approved Fanservice Scenes. Is there some fear that originality will make the cheesecake less appealing? At this point it’s so stilted and unnatural that it may as well be an advertising break; the anime puts itself on hold so you can watch its characters perform an irrelevant skit you’ve seen ten dozen times before, after which the series resumes.

          Just imagine if this same principle applied to other forms of entertainment:

          SCENE 1. Court of Macbeth’s Castle

          Enter MACBETH

          Macbeth: Thou sure and firm-set earth,
          Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
          Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
          And take the present horror from the time,
          Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
          Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

          A bell rings

          Macbeth: I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
          Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
          That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

          Exit

          SCENE 2. Hallway of Macbeth’s Castle

          Macbeth: Is this a bathing room which I see before me,
          The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
          A ponderous door. Wherefore art thou shut?
          What nameless things, robed in mystery, lie barred abaft your girth?

          Enter LADY MACBETH, clad only in steam and dampness. MACBETH stares, then shields his gaze, abashed.

          Lady Macbeth: Hark! Lechery!

          Lady Macbeth hurls a bucket at Macbeth

          Macbeth: Fie! Calm thyself, good lady! ‘Twas an honest mistake!

          Lady Macbeth strikes Macbeth

          Lady Macbeth: Thou art a lascivious fool!

          Macbeth: Prithee, peace:
          I dare do all that may become a man;
          Who dares do more is none.

          Lady Macbeth: What beast was’t, then,
          That bid you hold vigil, wolf-like, over my private enterprise?
          This is a weight of debt not shouldered with ease.

          Macbeth: It is.

          Lady Macbeth: Redeem thyself in cake. Pastry and shoes speak sincerity where words doth fail.

        2. E Minor Post author

          It could certainly have been a lot worse

          I can never understand this line of thinking. Just because there are worse shows out there doesn’t absolve SAO of its failings.

          Fanservice or otherwise, I’ll never understand why so many anime series feel the need to retread overused scenes to the absolute letter without contributing anything of their own.

          I don’t know if I’d characterize it as a need. I just think it’s human nature to take the path of least resistance. It’s easy to retread. Having said that, I’m not excusing SAO in any fashion.

          Shakespeare-kun

          I suppose it’s only natural that even in anime, you can’t walk in on your own wife.

        3. Naota

          Perhaps a “need” wouldn’t be the best description for the phenomenon, but I do believe it’s a cultural nuance of some sort. It may just be anime culture – I’ve seen very little of the other things on Japanese TV or movies. In my experience Western series have just as many reused tropes and played-out situations as anime, but it’s rare to see them shoot for an exact copy of a popular scene.

          Parody? Re-imagining? Homage? Not-so-coy knockoff? You bet. Copy? Not very often.

          There are recurring situations we’ve seen before (bullets stopped by a badge, the butler did it, the bank heist goes wrong when the last-minute replacement screws up), but it’s not as if a gunfight occurs and I can point out “This is where the main character ducks behind cover. Right here.”, “This is where he shoots two people, and only ever two, before reloading.”, “There’s the railing the villain leaps over before invariably escaping in some sort of vehicle”. Not every wounded detective is saved by his badge, not every butler is guilty, and not every bank heist is foiled by its perpetrators. With anime there are scenes that play out exactly the same, to the letter, in every series they appear in.

          It’s an absolute certainty once a shower incident starts that the male will break character, invent some flimsy excuse to enter the washroom, and voice his prudish despair and/or amazement at seeing the girl naked. At this point he cannot elude detection. The girl will always notice him with the same reaction, and every time she’ll also break character to punish him with physical violence and cries of perversion (even if he’s plainly there by mistake).

          Likewise, if a back is ever washed at any point in any anime, the one doing the washing is mandated to tell us how broad it is during the conversation. No other commentary is tolerated.

          I’ve been watching anime regularly for at least eight years and have never once seen these subverted. The back has never been washed to “it’s dirtier/hairier/less covered in stab wounds/not any different than I remember”. The shower girl has never been understanding or reasonable; the boy has never entered the room unnoticed, raised an eyebrow, and quietly stepped backward without making a fuss. Once one of these scenes starts it’s like it can only ever go through these exact motions.

          I may be mistaken and this happens in western media as well, but if so then I’m certainly not seeing it.

        4. E Minor Post author

          It may just be anime culture – I’ve seen very little of the other things on Japanese TV or movies

          I’ve seen my fair share of Japanese dramas, and I find that they tend to be filled with less male-centric fanservice.

          tropes

          My feeling is that these things are like comfort food. You eat macaroni and cheese for the thousandth time because it just makes you happy, goddamnit! Likewise, you watch the protagonist pretend like he didn’t want to walk in on the girl showering because it’s just fun even after the billionth time. And I think fun is the operative word here. Fun usually entails a blase attitude. Because,

          I’ve been watching anime regularly for at least eight years and have never once seen these subverted.

          …in my opinion, true subversion requires taking the subject of subversion seriously. No one takes these tropes seriously though. They’re fluff, time-wasters, filler, etc. Whenever I complain about pandering fanservice in these shows, the common response is always, “You’re taking it too seriously. It’s just meant to be fun.”

          For the creators, you have major events of a plot mapped out, then you go back and fill in the gaps. What should happen between Event A and Event B? “Oh, why don’t we just have a minute of fanservice fun? That’ll go over well with the fans, and it doesn’t take much effort.”

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