Sword Art Online Ep. 5: The problem with killing NPCs

“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?

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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.”
Asuna: “Huh?”
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.

Addendum
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.

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13 thoughts on “Sword Art Online Ep. 5: The problem with killing NPCs

    1. Naota

      I don’t think anyone is likely to say the fake, though there’s always the question of whether or not they have the same value. If something is truly indistinguishable from something else, can it really be considered a fake?

      Reply
      1. E Minor Post author

        There’s always that saying for the socially awkward: “Pretend as though you have confidence. Eventually, you’ll realize that you had it all along.” I don’t know though. Like my pair of questions to the previous commenter, it just feels as though the real thing is more intuitively valuable. But why should we put so much stock into intuition anyway? It is, after all, a bit of shortcut that our brain employs. To even engage in the thought experiment, one must first be told of the conceit, then pretend as though one has never been told. It’s a bit of a loaded question.

        Reply
    2. E Minor Post author

      If your wife only pretended to love you, and you had no idea, would you be okay with it? Would you want others to tell you? Let’s say she even cheats on you behind your back and there’s no way you could tell. Would you want someone to tell you then?

      Reply
      1. Meluiv

        Having to fake loving another human being must be pretty miserable, even if you get money for it. So the question is whether I want to put the person I love into that position and the answer is, quite frankly, no. (Your thought experiment suggests that I will love them.) The reason that this experiment makes us uncomfortable is the suggestion that either we will be fine with having our partners feel miserable as long as our needs are taken care of or that we are somehow failing to notice that our partner aren’t happy. But if that were true, do we really love them? Or do we just love that they love us?

        If you take into account that humans are pretty bad long term liars, we are both going to end up miserable anyway. I would rather have the wife with the courage to confess that she doesn’t love me anymore and then break up with me, instead of the cheating one.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          Well, there’s no reason to assume that our partners are also miserable. Maybe they’re happy to lie to us. This part isn’t really that significant. The thought experiment is designed to be about you: are you content with just the mere experience alone of love rather than the real thing? Likewise, do you care that the virtual reality experience is nothing more than just ones and zeroes messing with your mind?

          If you take into account that humans are pretty bad long term liars,

          Of course the thought experiment fails if you stipulate that it will fail!

  1. Ryan R

    Yeah, I felt that the first five minutes of this episode was its strongest section. I found the philosophical conflict between Kirito and Asuna compelling, precisely because it is ambiguous, and I can see where both sides are coming from.

    I also agree with the distinction you’re making between NPCs and the wind/sun. With something non-personable (like the wind/sun) I’m not sure if indistinguishable artificial replicas really do have significantly less value than the real thing. If I was in Kirito’s position, I’d probably want to enjoy “the weather” myself.

    OTOH, if I felt that sacrificing a few NPCs was necessary in order to beat a boss, I’d do it. But then, I’m speaking hypothetically there. After being in a MMO for several months if not years, maybe I’d find it hard to continue mentally distinguishing between NPCs and real people. I guess it would depend on how well-wrote the NPCs are (i.e. If they’re capable of saying more than just the same two or three standard lines each time you talk with them).

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I guess it would depend on how well-wrote the NPCs are

      Everything in SAO feels so lifelike, but we haven’t yet actually dealt with an NPC. It’s kind of odd, really. Why has the anime (or the source material if the anime is being faithful) deferred this moment for so long? Well, that’s not entirely true, I guess. In a way, Pina from the previous episode was also an NPC in the truest definition of the term (non-playable character). Pina went so far as to sacrifice itself for its owner. Then again, was it merely programmed to? Was it merely designed to compel its owner to go on a potentially dangerous quest for some life-reviving flower? Is this all a conceit to get the players attached to the game? Also, are the human NPCs similar to Pina? These are questions I wish the show would actually dive into instead of just hinting at from the surface.

      I look around at other blogs, and I see a lot of the same commonsensical reactions: “It’s just a damn MMO. Who cares about a virtual pet?” Right there, SAO has failed. It has failed to distinguish its premise as more than just the biggest poopsocking MMO. Like I’ve said before, no one in the audience has to believe that they suddenly like MMOs after watching SAO, but they should at least feel as though the premise is possible. SAO, however, isn’t suspending anyone’s beliefs.

      Reply
  2. Marcomax

    I get the feeling the show won’t answer this question until the end when it moves into it’s final arc and making it defining statement. I’m interested in seeing how they handle it. The show right now seems enamored with the world of Aincrad as it should since be since that is where we the audience will be spending most of our time. Will that change in the second half of the show?

    The main reason I’m interested in the mystery is because it seems to be built around the idea of rare items and Guild unity. I’ve seen the kind of havoc a rare item can cause. 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.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I get the feeling the show won’t answer this question until the end when it moves into it’s final arc and making it defining statement. … The show right now seems enamored with the world of Aincrad as it should… be

      Why wait though? Wouldn’t addressing the metaphysical and epistemological underpinnings of the premise flesh out the world of Aincrad? Wouldn’t doing this also help the audience buy into the idea that SAO is more than just another video game that carries a negative stigma?

      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.

      I guess that’s an interesting angle I hadn’t considered. It would explain why no one could see a victory message or whatever. 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.

      Reply
      1. Anonymous

        I thought the assumption was that the NPC would be “tricked” into killing someone. It’s the murder weapon, not the agent.

        Anyway, while personally I’m the kind of nerd who gets all excited about a Locked Room Mystery involving game mechanic exploits, I can see how that’s less interesting than the philosophical questions that are raised in the beginning of the episode. However, those questions seem to be a recurring theme of the entire series, so I don’t think it’s necessarily the duty of a single episode to address them. Almost every episode so far has dealt with this issue in some way, like the bread with cream that Kirito offers Asuna in episode 2, or the effect on Silica of the death of her NPC pet. Not to mention her excitement over the flowers and whatnot.

        Even something as casual as “we’ll be even after I treat you to a meal” speaks volumes in this context. He just protected her life, as they go into great detail explaining in awkward exposition, and she thinks a virtual meal which by definition is nothing but the experience of taste can pay him back? The fact that the series also has the conceit of not showing us what’s happening outside the game, and that the people inside have apparently made it an unspoken rule not to talk about it are all hints towards this unifying theme.

        In the beginning the villain said that his plan was complete the moment he trapped the players in the game. They had the option to fight for their freedom, or they could sit around and wait to be rescued. He didn’t care. He’s not trying to torture them, nor has he created an impossible scenario where they have no choice to die. Kirito thinks the game is “fair”. In the end, what the villain seems to have wanted was simply to create a real world, where people live real lives that they can’t abandon by logging out, lives that they care about because of the fear of real death. We haven’t seen enough of the villain to say whether or not he’s more than just a generic mad scientist, but the theme of the world he created has been clear from day 1. What’s real is only what’s in front of your eyes.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          However, those questions seem to be a recurring theme of the entire series, so I don’t think it’s necessarily the duty of a single episode to address them.

          I want the questions to be more than just a thematic undercurrent though. You’re right in that everything you’ve mentioned — the bread and cream, Silica’s NPC pet, etc. — are all relevant to the issue, but they are also just a small part of the anime’s total story. Why can’t they be the story? Stuff like tackling raid bosses and player-killing are practically indistinguishable from your generic hack-and-slash adventure tale. The only difference is the introduction of game mechanics, but is this actually a profound difference? So why focus on these aspects? If the excuse is that “Well, we need action to draw viewers in,” I just see that as a cop-out.

          the people inside have apparently made it an unspoken rule not to talk about it are all hints towards this unifying theme.

          I’m not sure if there’s anything to really say that wouldn’t just end up depressing the players, i.e. “Why haven’t we been rescued yet?” It would all be speculation, so as a result, I’d imagine there’s no real point in entertaining the thought.

          Kirito thinks the game is “fair”.

          I’d disagree. The game favors those who are good at action video games. MMOs attract a variety players. There are those who just want to craft, those who just want to sightsee and explore, and those who just want to socialize. We do not see the possibility of how, for instance, a crafter might be able to escape from the game. SAO is inherently unfair to them, favoring the likes of Kirito and those who can abuse group dynamics, i.e. taking advantage of your guild. Merely “sitting around and wait to be rescued” is hardly a consolation prize. You don’t know if it’s ever going to happen.

          In the end, what the villain seems to have wanted was simply to create a real world, where people live real lives that they can’t abandon by logging out, lives that they care about because of the fear of real death.

          If this was really his goal, it seems fruitless at face value. The real world already accomplishes all of the things you’ve listed here, i.e. real lives, can’t log out, a life one must care about, etc. We can pretend to abandon the real world by, say, logging into MMOs, but the real world eventually catches up to all of us. So I’m not sure he’s done anything fruitful here by forcefully inserting people into an alien environment they might not necessarily be equipped to handle. The story may very well flesh out the creator’s motives in later episodes, but for now, I don’t see SAO as being anything but cruel.

          but the theme of the world he created has been clear from day 1. What’s real is only what’s in front of your eyes.

          This may very well be the theme, but I feel as though the anime is doing a poor job of asserting a position — any position — on the issue. I thought last week’s episode was poorly executed, and while the jury’s technically still out for this mystery arc, I’m dismayed that the bigger issue has been overtaken by more player-killing stuff. Hopefully, next week’s episode will try to tie the mystery into the anime’s overarching message, but I thought Pina’s episode totally bungled that same opportunity.

      2. Marcomax

        Your right it would help build up the world of Aincrad and the anime as a whole. I still have this feeling that these ideas will just remain surface dressing and that’s a real shame. Fully exploring an interesting concept like this are one of the things that differentiate good shows from great shows. This applies to any medium.

        Reply

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