‘Kokoro’ means ‘heart,’ y’all. Seriously, it doesn’t get any better, does it? Those of you who’ve seen the episode will get what the title is all about. For the rest of you guys, read on.
• The episode opens with a room full of kids munching away at food. I wouldn’t say that MMOs are super popular. World of Warcraft is definitely the outlier, but other than that, you won’t find any subscription-based MMO with more than a million active accounts (though it is odd to see Aion‘s suddenly popularity — it was such a shit MMO — just because it went F2P but that’s neither here nor there). As such, while I expect people of all races and age groups to play something like WoW or maybe Lineage, I certainly wouldn’t say the same about most other MMOs.
I’ll even say that only MMO fans will follow the development of such games like Rift, The Secret World, etc. So to see a bunch of young kids trapped in an MMO like Sword Art Online, which only started with 10,000 players… well, you can certainly see my disbelief. I realize, however, I’ve been bitching about this particular issue since the start of the series. To avoid beating the dead horse any further, I’ll try to make this the last I’ll ever broach this particular topic.
• I do know that most stories tend to suck when kids are introduced, but maybe SAO will be the exceptio-… nope, I can’t even say it.
• A lady by the name of Yulier shows up to give us some delicious exposition. Apparently, the Liberation Army has grown too large for its own britches, and now there’s an internal power struggle. In fact, we even get to meet an old buddy we haven’t seen since the second episode. Remember the dude who bitched about Betas having an unfair advantage over the rest of the players? He’s now consolidated a lot of power, and his faction is monopolizing the best monster spawn points.
So how accurate is all of this to the actual world of MMOs? On a scale from one to ten, I’d say about a seven. So kudos to SAO. People do monopolize monster spawns in MMOs, but I haven’t played all of them so I don’t know if anyone actually does monopolize EXP monsters. In the games I’ve played, however, people will spend all day and night camping open world monsters that drop nice loot.
The internal power struggle thing is what I’m a little iffy about. It sounds cool on paper — political intrigue and all that — but you can’t really struggle for power in an MMO. People will usually just leave and form a splinter guild. Of course, SAO is a hardcore PVP game where people die for ‘real realz,’ so I guess a powerful faction of the Liberation Army could threaten the rest of the guild with death if they don’t comply. Still, the idea stretches my suspension of disbelief a tad much.
What I do like, however, is the character of Kibaou coming full circle: he first whines about other players getting an unfair advantage, then turns around and exploit those same advantages when he gets the opportunity. In the circle of friends I play MMOs with, we call this the “fuck you; got mine” attitude. What’s funny is that this is hardly limited to MMOs. Oh, Paul Ryan definitely benefited off of Social Security to put himself through college, but now that he’s a successful congressman and a vice presidential candidate, fuck your social welfare programs! But really, this shit happens all the time in MMOs.
• Still, I can’t approve of this sort of exposition-dumping. Yes, some background knowledge is always necessary in storytelling, and I’m not decrying all forms of exposition, but Yulier is literally sitting here and telling us gobs and gobs of plot that could’ve just been animated. Of course, that would’ve meant taking the focus off of our main man Kirito, but y’know what, I think I could’ve managed. Oh no, I might’ve missed out on the episode with Lisbeth or Silica! Seriously though, I would not have minded at all. With an MMO premise anyway, wouldn’t you want to cast a wide net and follow the developments of several characters and see how each person adapts to the situation they’re in?
• Yui tells her “parents” that Yulier is telling the truth. How does she know! She doesn’t know how, but she just does! Welp, lemme stare into those giant eyes for a second…
…yep, I trust the loli. LOLIS ARE NEVER WRONG. Also, when loli wants to accompany you to a dungeon, YOU TAKE LOLI WITH YOU.
So Kirito and Asuna get out of their civvies, but Yui’s just walking around a dark, dangerous dungeon in a pinku sweater. Good parenting. Asuna assures Yulier that Yui’s much tougher than she looks because… because… uh, she ate a spicy sandwich? I mean, shit, that’s all we’ve been given. Then Asuna and Kirito giggle over the thought that Yui will become a great swordswoman one day. They are so lame as a couple. I hope Asuna gets netorare’d.
• Killer frogs:
• In the middle of a critical rescue mission — our prisoner, we’re told, has been stranded for three days now — Kirito and Asuna goof off and throw toad legs at each other. Look at Yulier’s face:
Look at her face of exasperation. That’s my face.
• Soft piano music plays as Asuna grabs Yui’s hand. Aw, how cute. Except, again, we’re on a rescue mission. There’s no sense of urgency whatsoever. Excitement comes from a constant state of anxiety — that edge of your seat feeling. Needless to say, that moment doesn’t arrive until later.
• Somehow, the characters find themselves fighting against a death-like enemy:
According to Kirito, “It’s probably as strong as something from the 90th floor.” Aw hell, what are we gonna do now? Naturally, Yui reveals herself to be a special child with special powers:
God, I hate this trope. So continues anime’s long obsession with mysteriously powerful lolis. First, it takes no skill or creativity. It’s basically shoujo ex machina. I have yet to see a fight in SAO resolve itself in a satisfying fashion. People just push the “I win” button. Nobody makes a strategic move or anything that might leave them open to danger. Secondly, the screencap above looks fucking ridiculous.
• And somehow, the incident unlocks Yui’s lost memories. How convenient. You know what that means… more i-i-i-infodumping! SAO is regulated by a system called ‘Cardinal.’ It basically sounds like the game engine. More importantly, Yui is a program.
This is where the angst comes in because Yui realizes she’s not real, but bawww she’s such a cute loli. As a result, we get into this old sci-fi debate about whether or not it matters that she’s not a real person. I will say that Wall-E does a fantastic job at relating how we can form compassion for artificial life.
On the other hand, Yui is… well, she’s too transparent an attempt to tug at your heartstrings. The whole loli package that she comes in, her helplessness, her desire to call two strangers her mommy and daddy… this is all meant to cover up the fact that we’ve only known Yui for one and a half episode. Then as soon as she’s introduced, she’s going to get deleted by the system. It’s all too fast, too cheap, too forced, too shallow. Yui’s character doesn’t resonate unless you already have a thing for cute lolis.
In a tale like Pinocchio, we see a character struggle to bridge the gap between simulacrum and the real thing. Yui, however, is just emotional shock and awe. There’s no real depth here. How could we have fixed this? Well, the uneasiness one finds in the simulacrum is how lacking it is. As a result, one possibility is to juxtapose Yui’s lack of authenticity as a child with her desire to be loved by Asuna and Kirito. The horror then comes in the struggle between the realization that there’s something offputting about Yui’s behavior, but the idealistic faith that she could nevertheless become a real child the longer she stays in our heroes’ care.
You could then heighten the anxiety. Let’s say Asuna and Kirito find out much earlier that Yui is a computer program. There’s then the suspicion and fear that she is a spy, or will betray them in some way. After all, if you’re trapped in a computer game, and you want to escape, would you necessarily trust a program born from said game? Especially if it comes to you in a potentially manipulative package such as a loli? Nevertheless, the couple’s maternal/paternal instincts compel them to face down these worries.
Anyway, there are many ways to expand on Yui’s problem that would make it a hell of a lot more intriguing than what we got from this episode. The problem is that everything in SAO is too easy. Whoops, I’m really a program, but I also want to be your kid. By the way, I’m gonna die now. Please feel bad for me. Here’s a little memento to remember me by:
What is it, you ask?
Excuse me for a second…
/cue soft piano music
• Somehow, Kirito and Asuna hope to re-construct their digital child when the story is all said and done. Y’know, the child they just met. Then at the end, Yui’s disembodied voice has to chime in with “Mama~ ganbatte!” This is on par with Griselda’s “digital ghost” making its pointless appearance at the end of the sixth episode. Scratch that, it’s even worse.