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.