I didn’t really get all the hemming and hawing over the ‘side-story-ness’ of the last two episodes. Our little detective detour did serve a purpose. It gave Kirito and Asuna another opportunity to work together and, as a result, made them friends by the end of the tale. Still, don’t get me wrong — our two-episode mini-arc failed. It just didn’t fail because “Ugh, side stories are dumb and pointless.” The way I see it, the mystery failed on two levels.
Most of us can enjoy a good mystery. What about enjoying a good mystery in a virtual world? This was thus SAO‘s opportunity to get creative, but in doing so, it failed to account for some very obvious holes in its premise. I won’t lie; the way Kains and Yoruko faked their deaths was sort of clever. Unfortunately, the buck stops there. If you really want to make this a mystery within an MMO, you really have to embrace the MMO setting. What do I mean? Kirito reminds Asuna to check her friends list and who should she find on it? Yoruko, who we just saw “die” at the end of last week’s episode. Egads, why did nobody think to do this from the very start?
Look, if you tell me that someone no longer exists in an MMO, I would immediately go and check my friends list. I would also try to message the person, because you’ll usually get two different responses if your attempt fails: (1) “This person does not exist” or (2) “This person is not online.” Yes, I realize that the narrative can still handwave this off. Maybe when a person dies in SAO, they’ll just show up as “offline.” Nevertheless, our detectives never once bothered to explore every possible angle.
This was my apprehension from the start about the whole “mystery within the MMO” concept. For your traditional mysteries, you more or less understand how the real world works. On the other hand, we don’t really know how SAO works. You might be able to infer a few things about the game’s nature if you’ve ever played an MMO before, but even then, your experience doesn’t help you all that much. After all, how are we supposed to know that items will eventually expire and disintegrate in SAO? None of my meals will ever disintegrate in Final Fantasy XI. I’m sure that Pebble Soup I gave my fiancee five years ago is still as good as ever!
The joy of watching a mystery unfold is in either solving the case yourself, or watching the pieces come together as the good guys do their little investigation. Kirito only manages to “solve” the mystery, however, by having butterfingers. The kid is literally incapable of holding onto a tiny sandwich, so voila, an epiphany. As a result, this was never a satisfying mystery because it never once tried to engage the audience in the game, so to speak. It wasn’t even a satisfying story.
In the long run, storytelling is a sacred human tradition because it can get people from different generations, cultures, races, etc. to relate to one another. A sad story gets us to empathize. A tale of epic heroism inspires. In a mystery, the idea, more or less, is to turn the audience into amateur detectives. I mean, I suppose you could’ve guessed at Kirito’s solution, but great mysteries are cathartic to the extent that if you really put your mind to it, you could become Sherlock Holmes himself. There shouldn’t be any dumb luck.
In the end, Grimrock is revealed to be Griselda’s killer. We also get this brief bit of ridiculousness when Asuna talks about how in-game marriages are romantic because it allows for players to share their inventory space. Before we roll our eyes about that — and trust me, it was a very eyes-rolling moment — it’s obvious that this little bit of information was nothing more than a red herring. It leads you to believe that Grimrock may have murdered his wife for the legendary ring, but the murderer confesses to a completely different motive. This is where I think the arc fails again.
The challenge of SAO — and it’s a challenge that the story has failed to meet from the very start of the anime — is to suspend your disbelief. This isn’t supposed to be an anime analogue of your World of Warcraft or Rift. The game calls itself an MMO, but it is completely real on a consequential level. I’ve been harping on this fact over and over too. In WoW, if you don’t get that legendary dagger from killing Deathwing, oh well, life fucking moves on. If you die in a battleground, you just wait ten seconds or so and respawn. You PK a level 5 newbie because “U mad? Get a life, f4gg0tz.” In SAO, nothing is inconsequential.
If you don’t get the legendary dagger, you might not survive the later levels, and thus, you won’t escape this twisted game. If you die in a battleground, you stay dead. If you get PK’d, you also stay dead. As a result, there’s no “Get a life” when this is the only life you’ve got. I don’t care that SAO was originally designed to be an MMO, because it ends up being very real. So what’s the point? Like I’ve said before, everything else that was previously “stupid” in an MMO becomes very important and serious. MMO marriages are dumb in real life, right? But if you’re stuck in a video game you might never escape, is it still dumb?
Unfortunately, SAO‘s main problem is that in-game marriages are very, very dumb. In a life or death game, where any emotional connection you can make with other players is important, Asuna basically equates marriage to fucking inventory space. I mean, what is simulacra and simulation? When does the simulacra become just as good as the rea– fuck it, inventory spaces! Rather than exploring how virtual relationships can be just as meaningful as real life counterparts, Asuna reveals something incredibly shallow about the nature of marriages in SAO. For a story about the efficacy of simulation, I can’t see this as anything but a complete failure on the anime’s part. And then we get to Grimrock.
Despite being about an MMO where death is very real, death and all that relates to it have never really been explored in SAO. Why do the PKers do what they do? We’ve gotten just a tiny glimpse into their motivations: episode four’s villain expressed her disbelief at the idea that anyone truly died when she murdered them. But surely, not every PKer shares her disbelief. Why do others do it? Out of greed? I can at least understand that. We even see this bleed over into the real world. Hell, here’s a very recent story of just exactly the thing I’m talking about. What I find hard to believe is “MY CUTE AND OBEDIENT WAIFU CHANGED SO I HAD TO MURDER HER.” Are there crazy-ass spouses out there? Yeah, you bet, but let’s think for a second what SAO is trying to accomplish.
Yes, some people do come alive when they go online. In fact, I’m willing to bet a good percentage of our real life personas aren’t exactly the same as our internet personas. The disbelief here comes at Grimrock’s reaction. It’s like, “In SAO, you can kill people, so let’s have this asshole kill his wife!” There are crazies who will kill their significant others for having a change in personalities, but this is the exception, not the rule. In hopes of establishing SAO as a very real world with real consequences, you don’t do wacky and crazy shit that makes it even harder for the skeptics to buy into your premise.
The problem here is that SAO can’t just be satisfied with the predictable answer, and thus misses the point entirely. Yes, for Grimrock to kill Griselda out of greed would have been entirely predictable, but SAO fails to see how this would’ve been the perfect setup to explore deeper issues. For instance, Kirito thinks that the game is inherently fair. What’s fair about this?
Asuna: “Say… if it was you, what would you do if you get a legendary drop?”
Kirito: “Well… I hate it when things like that happen, so I happen to solo.”
Asuna: “In our guild, the item belongs to the person who received it. That’s our rule. In SAO, it’s up to the player to announce what he or she received after a battle. Then it’s better to set a rule like ours than to put up with secrets and lies.”
The fact that a difficult encounter will yield only a few scant drops for a small number of participants is inherently unfair. Asuna implies it herself that guild leadership can completely decide what happens to said items. Anyone who has ever played an MMO knows that guild drama happens all the time as a result of the unfair distribution of loot. Guilds that are doomed to failure typically exploit the efforts of newer players for old standbys.
There are other topics that the story could have broached. In the real world, you don’t care about ninja-looting someone’s gear because it’s just a game. Sure, they might get mad for you stealing their “Golden Sword of Orcslaying +3,” but the perpetrator can easily rationalize this as “So what? Just run the dungeon again and hope it drops again. It’s just a game.” The good majority of us are not murderers and thieves in real life though. Most of us know that when we steal in real life, someone suffers as a result. Our conscience prevents a lot of us from committing a lot of crimes when we can envision how our actions hurt the other party as a result.
In SAO, how rich and powerful you are directly influences not just your ability to escape the game, but your chances of merely surviving the wilds. As we can see in this very episode, you are in danger of dying even at lower levels: Yoruko and co. were beset by PKers at just the 19th floor. You can bet your ass that stealing someone’s legendary drops might just doom them to death. Does this then subtly affect a person’s motives when they go to steal an item? In what way does crime in SAO differ from real life? You roll ‘Need’ on a weapon because you tell yourself that it doesn’t really matter. This is certainly not the case in the anime. What then fuels the players of SAO to be cruel to each other? Why doesn’t SAO resemble the real world more if the consequences can be just as real? This is not a complaint about realism. Perhaps there’s a very good reason for why SAO nevertheless resembles any given MMO despite the gravity of one’s actions, but this is entirely my point. What’s that reason and why hasn’t SAO addressed it? In the end, there’s a bevy of material here that the anime can explore, but even when it has the chance to world build, the story misses the mark. It focuses on things of such little consequence when the world of Aincrad itself is so full of consequences.
Unfortunately, SAO doesn’t seem to care too much about exploring the limits of a virtual world in which death is real. To be honest, SAO‘s narrative is no different from any other sword-toting adventure anime of its type. Just pretend that the MMO part of the story doesn’t exist — would the narrative have changed in anyway? The way I see it, the characters would simply stop pausing the action every now and then to break the immersion entirely by discussing MMO mechanics. This just shows that the anime has yet to fully embrace its own concept. The story is very perfunctory, and the MMO basis is treated as nothing more than a gimmick. It should be no surprise, therefore, that so many people think SAO is stupid, because the anime treats itself very stupidly.
Even the ending is beyond comprehension. What does Griselda’s “digital ghost” even add? The truth is that it adds nothing. It’s a silly moment of shock and awe to take up an extra bit of running time, but in the end, it adds nothing to our understanding of the world. It’s an empty gesture, a hollow metaphor — the epitome of pretension that you find in amateurish storytelling. It’s a gimmick. Ah yes, there is mystical shit in our computer game too. Gaze at her spirit, heroes. Gaze in dumbstruck, slack-jawed astonishment at how this means utterly nothing, but gosh, it’s such a “poetic” way to wrap up the story. You can’t even pretend that she’s really alive, because the anime plays it straight. The fact that some people actually found this part “heart-warming” is just a little sad, really. “You revealed my husband to be an asshole. I can now rest in digital peace.”
At this point, fans of the light novels might want to interject and say how the source material doesn’t have the same failings at all. That’s great, but I’m really just talking about the anime and the anime itself.