“You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.” — Cypher
“Do you think that’s air you’re breathing?” — Morpheus
There are two interesting moments at the start of the anime.
The first moment occurs when Kirito balks at Asuna’s idea to sacrifice the “lives” of NPCs in order to defeat a floor boss. To Kirito, “NPCs aren’t just 3-D objects like trees or rocks.” Asuna knows, however, that they are just constructs — simulacra of real people. In other words, NPCs lack that certain je nais se quoi. They may act like us, talk like us, and feel pain like us, but there’s nevertheless something altogether lacking underneath. Even worse, one might cynically argue that the NPCs are only there to entrap the gamers in SAO‘s sick world. After all, why leave when everything feels so (hyper)real?
Let’s use a thought experiment. I have a proposition for you. When I snap my fingers, a man or a woman will walk through the door and behave like your ideal boyfriend or girlfriend. This person will be stunningly attractive, bewilderingly smart, incredibly generous, so on and so forth. More importantly, it seems like this person loves you. Just seems though. He or she does not and will not actually love you. In fact, he or she has been paid to love you. Part of this deal, however, is that you won’t remember anything I’m telling you now. As a result, you’ll think and feel as though this person really does loves you, but the truth is it’s all make-believe. Would you accept my offer?
For a lot of us, we’d be uncomfortable with this proposition. After all, we want our lovers to really love us, not just pretend as if they do. This seems to imply that the mere experience of love isn’t enough to satisfy us. The fact that it feels like love isn’t enough to make it love. In that sense, you might argue that it’s silly to pretend as if the NPCs in SAO are real. When Kirito or Asuna interacts with them, they may feel real, but that isn’t enough to make them human.
“They’re just objects. Even if they’re killed, they’ll just respawn.” — Asuna
Even so, where do we draw the line? Let’s say that we manage to create superintelligent AI one day. These robots will be more than just AI simulations in a video game. They will be tangible just like you and me. Maybe they’ll even “bleed” fluids when you cut them. Are these hypothetical robots more than mere objects then? Or can we still “kill” these robots just because we can simply “revive” them? I mean, isn’t that the entire crux behind the movie Blade Runner? When do simulacra become just as substantial as you or me? Can it?
Despite Asuna’s protestations, she appears to contradict her own beliefs just mere minutes later. This is where the second important moment occurs. Asuna spots Kirito taking an idyllic nap and it annoys her:
Asuna: “Even if you’re a solo player, you need to be serious–”
Kirito: “It’s Aincrad’s nicest season, and today is its nicest weather setting.”
Kirito: “Entering the dungeon on a day like this is a waste.”
Asuna: “Do you not understand? Every day we spend here is one we’ve lost in the real world.”
Kirito: “But right now, we’re alive here, in Aincrad. See? The wind and sunlight feel so good.”
Asuna: “Do they? There’s nothing special about this weather.”
Kirito: “If you’d lie down for a bit, you’d understand.”
Again, the debate resurfaces. For Asuna, the real world is superior to this MMO simulation. She wants to get back to it as soon as possible. For Kirito, however, the fake wind and sunlight feel just as real as any experience he could have in the real world. As a result, he’s in no real rush. In any case, Asuna takes Kirito up on his offer, and finds herself dozing off in the shade of a big tree; the mere experience of the fake wind and sunlight was enough to satisfy her. Is she simply a hypocrite then? Well, I don’t know about that.
I think what we have here is the alluring power of virtual reality. On the one hand, it doesn’t really matter how convincing an MMO like SAO can be. At the end of the day, you’re reducing the entirety of our human experience down to a series ones and zeros. It is, in essence, a dehumanizing process. On the other hand, it is our brains that are incapable of discerning the difference between the simulation and reality. Imagine, for a second, that a person doesn’t just voluntarily enter SAO. Rather, they are born into it. In fact, they have no knowledge of the “outer” reality, so to speak. Would they find SAO any less dissatisfying than you or me?
What I’m trying to say is that Asuna is “right” about the NPCs without necessarily being a hypocrite. The NPCs do lack a certain je nais se quoi. The wind and sunlight nevertheless lull her to sleep, however, because simulacra are powerful. Perhaps when we’re dealing with human representations, we can see that uncanny valley, i.e. “These NPCs are not alive like us. There’s just something odd about them.” With something like the wind and sunlight, however, there’s no abjection to speak of. I mean, can you even visualize the wind? You’re probably picturing some curved black lines in your head, but that too is just a representation. Having said that, whether or not the NPCs in SAO are more than mere simulacra, there is still something to be said about avoiding needless cruelty. Even if they are not alive, can we just kill them off willy-nilly to serve our ends?
Unfortunately, this is a question that SAO doesn’t seem primed to answer. Does the anime even want to answer it? Rather, the rest of the episode devolves into an MMO instruction manual disguised as a mystery. At one point, Kirito and Asuna talk to each other as if they’re not actually talking to each other. I mean, we see them talking to each other onscreen, but this visual doesn’t actually align with what they’re really saying. What they’re saying is an explanation of MMO mechanics, especially stuff that pertains to player-killing. It thus seems weird that one high level character should have to explain to another high level character about the in’s and out’s of player-killing. It becomes even weirder when Asuna does the same in return. It’s probably a safe bet then that the anime simply decided to break the fourth wall and use the characters as expository devices. When played straight, however, the result feels stilted and inorganic.
Anyway, since the mystery is left to be continued, I don’t really want to get into it; it honestly didn’t interest me much. If you can convince me otherwise, go ahead and try. But for the time being, I found this episode really straightforward and unexciting after the first five minutes or so.
Here’s an interesting theory from commenter Marcomax:
I also have a feeling a NPC might be involved in this new PK exploit. After the opening segment , I thought about whether SAO’s NPCs fight back like the ones in WoW or Skyrim.
But as impressive as premeditated murder can be for an AI construct, I’m not sure how relevatory it would be to the bigger philosophical issues introduced at the start of the episode. If an NPC is really behind it all, are its motives genuine or is it simply carrying out a set of programming instructions? The issue isn’t really whether or not NPCs can be human-like. Rather, the issue is that even if they were human-like, don’t they nevertheless lack that certain something that would put them on our level — that same something that would convince those like Asuna not to sacrifice the villagers?
Additional issues: Why would the NPC target the people who didn’t want to sell the rare item? Why would the NPC want to continue killing people and thus raise suspicion? People already assume that any suspicious death is the result of player-killing.