It’s interesting that you have to lie down to play these VRMMOs, but not only do you have to lie down, you also have no awareness of the real world. You give yourself completely to the other you. Yeah, with the headset strapped onto your head, you can’t see anything but the VRMMO. But you also can’t hear, smell, taste, or feel anything that’s happening in the real world. If you’re a gamer of any sort, I’m sure you’ve heard about the Oculus Rift. Certainly, the Oculus Rift is nowhere near the SAO‘s headsets in terms of technology, but the idea here’s relatively similar. They’re both about achieving a sort of efficacy with respects to virtual reality. My point is, is it really necessary to render yourself unconscious in order to play a VRMMO? Why can’t you just sit upright in a chair and play one? Why can’t you play a VRMMO without going to sleep? Shouldn’t this be possible? It should be from a practical standpoint. There’s no reason to think you should have to completely deaden yourself in the real world in order to play a VRMMO.
This is the SAO universe, however, so things are different. The nature of the NerveGear is somewhat illogical, because at the end of the day, their function is purely thematic. The subtext here is that you don’t get to live two lives. You symbolically have to kill yourself in one world in order to experience other worlds. Yes, yes, we’ve seen instances where death in the virtual world meant death in the real world. But think about it. As you are playing any of these games, you have no protection whatsoever in the real world. What was supposedly scary about the GGO arc was that the killer knew where Sinon lived. In fact, the killer could’ve been standing over her in real life, and she’d never know because she was so deeply immersed in GGO. And as many commenters have stated over and over before, it can’t be healthy to play games in this fashion. Sitting in a chair for hours on end is one thing, but lying down in bed for hours and hours on end is ludicrous!
When it comes right down to it, this is not a story about realizing how virtual reality can add or enhance our lives. Would I want to play a VRMMO? I wouldn’t want to lie down on a bed for hours and hours, but sure, I’d love it if a game like Final Fantasy XIV had Oculus Rift support. For me, what’s enticing about virtual reality is the potential to experience things I would never be able to experience in the real world. I’ll never be a spoony bard in the real world (I hear it pays poorly). But SAO isn’t just about that. It’s not just about experiencing things you can’t experience in the real world. Rather, it is a story about rejecting the real world entirely. As a result, our characters treat the MMO worlds as if they are real. Look at the way Asuna cries tears of happiness upon buying her virtual house. It’s a fucking virtual house! It has no equity! But it has emotional equity. Because our characters have rejected the real world, the fake suddenly becomes real. But let’s keep going with this logic. What else do our characters do?
They symbolically commit suicide every single day to do mundane things in a video game. Y’see, our heroes are not always raiding. They’re not always achieving world firsts. They’re not always going on grand quests. A lot of the time, they log on just to hang out with each other. Hell, they even log on just to watch e-sports footage from another game. They log in just to study and do homework. Worst of all, these are all activities they could do in real life. The potential of virtual reality captivates most of us because we think it’ll allow us to feel as though we’re in a fantasy world, doing battle with dragons, demons, and whatnot. But we only see this stuff like half of the time in the SAO series. The other half of the time, these characters put their real bodies at great risks to do the same mundane activities they could do in real life. Again, they symbolically kill themselves for hours and hours on end just to do homework in an MMO. The question is why? You would only do such a thing if the real world, to put it plainly, sucked.
It then becomes quite apparent that Asuna is the only fully realized character on the show. If you really, really think about it, she’s the only person who has a reason to commit this sort of ritual suicide day in and day out. She’s a caged bird in the real world. She has no autonomy. She’s a rich girl from high society, so she has to conform to certain standards. This includes marrying herself off to some equally rich suitor just to benefit her family. Hey, we’ve seen this same plot line before. It’s nothing new. But the point is, Asuna actually has a legitimate reason to resent the real world. It’s not a terribly original reason, but she has one. She has a reason to want to kill herself. In an MMO, there are no expectations. She doesn’t have to act in a certain way, she doesn’t have to marry the server’s most accomplished player (though she does so anyway), so on and so forth. Asuna’s character makes sense. Asuna’s character actually has pathos. If I really think about it, she’s the only one with a good reason to reject reality.
As for the other characters, they’re useless by comparison. Kirito’s reason for playing MMOs was what? He felt like an outsider in his own family when he found out he was adopted by his aunt? Whatever, man. That’s nothing. I mean, c’mon, really? It’s not like he had to sleep outside in the cold or eat nothing but gruel. Leafa and her mom treated Kirito as if he was one of their own. Speaking of Leafa, she only started playing VRMMOs to understand her “oniichan” better. So again, she doesn’t really have pathos like Asuna does. You could argue that she kills herself in the real world, because she has the best chance to marry her “oniichan” in an MMO, but even then, it’s weak. As for Lisbeth, Silica, and Klein, we don’t know anything about them. We don’t know why they would put their real bodies at such great risks to do mundane things in a video game. Maybe they have sad stories too, but SAO has not bothered to explore their reasons for wanting to play these VRMMOs.
As for Sinon, we’ve discussed her to death in the GGO arc. Long story short, using an MMO as a form of exposure therapy might have been meaningful, but her story was executed rather poorly for a variety of reasons. In the end, Asuna is the only character who really fits SAO’s twisted narrative. You kill yourself in order to experience another life. You use the death of the body in order to allow your mind to escape. But who here really has a good reason to kill themselves in the real world? It’s Asuna. But therein lies the flaw with the story as a whole: even if Asuna does manage to resolve her issues in the real world, it’s not like she’ll stop playing these video games. She’ll keep killing herself everyday just to do mundane things in a virtual world. I have a hard time believing that her character will grow, and as a result, she’ll move onto bigger and better things. She’ll simply end up being like the rest of her friends, i.e. symbolically killing themselves for no other reason than to have fun.
Now, here comes the battle of competing philosophies. In this week’s episode, Asuna has to pull herself away from the virtual world in order to have an uncomfortable dinner with her mother. At the dinner table, her mother states, “You need to move your own hands when you do [your homework], or you don’t learn anything.” Naturally, nothing can be more meaningful to Asuna’s mother than the real world. There, she’s a lady of high society. She’s rich and likely influential in upper class circles. When Asuna argues that this is the only way for her and her friends to spend time together, her mother adds, “If you’re using that machine, you’re not really meeting them.” It’s true, though. She’s not really meeting the real them. This is reflected in the way that we know almost nothing about these characters in the real world. Most of the time, we see them in an MMO, but even when we see them in the real world, it’s almost always at that bar that never seems to have any other customer.
(Even the bar in Tokyo Ghoul, which served both humans and ghouls, had generic, faceless customers during the day. In other words, even this bar in real life feels unreal. So that’s why our heroes hang out there when they’re forced to interact in the real world. It’s like this safe, secluded spot somehow isolated from the rest of reality. In that case, it may as well be virtual. But I digress.)
The point is, we hardly know anything about these characters and their real life situations and/or problems. We learned a bit about Sinon, but of course, as soon as the GGO arc ended, it’s like it no longer matters what her life is like in the real world. How has she been coping since the scary incident with her “friend?” Has she reconciled with her mother? Is she still facing any bullying at school? No one cares anymore. According to SAO, we can only learn so much about these characters’ real lives. And now, the spotlight is on Asuna, so naturally, Sinon has pretty much all but disappeared entirely from the story. She doesn’t even hang out with them in the virtual world, which is odd, isn’t it? As for the other characters, what they do in real life is almost irrelevant. Hell, Kirito’s the star of the show, and we hardly know what he does in his “spare” time. As a result, Asuna’s mother isn’t wrong. No one really gets to know anyone in the real world.
But again, this is a battle of competing philosophies. For Asuna, who rejects her real world situation, she doesn’t really care to know her friends in the real world either. I mean, she may say she cares, but the proof is in the pudding. No one actually makes any real attempts to hang out in the real world when Japan has one of the most extensive mass transit systems in the world! So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t buy this bullshit: “Everyone lives far away.” No matter what Asuna might claim, her actions say othewise. I mean, really, she and her boyfriend rarely go on dates in the real world, and even when they do, they talk about MMOs. What kind of couple is that? But Asuna has so thoroughly rejected reality that this apparent fact about their relationship never even bothers her. She also didn’t even seem to care all that much when Sinon openly flirted with Kirito in the previous arc. She had a frown on her face, but that’s it. She relegates herself to to being just another haremette when she’s supposed to be his waifu.
Of course, on the surface, this is really just a harem anime, so the audience doesn’t really expect Asuna to complain. Individual members of the audience may say they’re either on Team Asuna or Team Sinon, but deep down, we don’t expect Kirito to really commit to either of these girls. Asuna’s passive acceptance of her fate as a haremette is almost tacit approval of her boyfriend’s behavior. But the subtext here is that this harem fantasy is vastly more preferable to Asuna than the real world. And what does she have in the real world? She can have her own harem! In last week’s episode, we saw three suitors line up to court our heroine. Kirito might have a virtual harem, but Asuna can literally have a real harem of her own. In fact, Asuna’s a bit of a Mary Sue. Here, we have an incredibly rich, intelligent, and beautiful girl. But screw all of that, Asuna basically says. She hates her real life so much that she’ll become a haremette instead. And that’s pretty sad…
As a result, Asuna’s going to challenge this mysterious Zekken person. That sounds silly, doesn’t it? What does some random, virtual swordsman have to do with Asuna’s real life problems? Well, one of her friends suggests that if Asuna wins, her notoriety will return. She can’t help but then stare at Kirito. In any other story, this look could be read in a lot of ways. Asuna used to be a well-known player, but not since she hooked up with Kirito. She used to be a frontliner, but not since she hooked up with Kirito. In any other story, you would think, “Perhaps the girl somewhat blames her current banal existence on her lover.” But this is SAO, so that’s obviously not the case. This is SAO, so Asuna could never blame Kirito for anything. So why does she even pause and give him this somewhat plaintive look? Probably because she feels as though she doesn’t deserve Kirito or something. Probably because she feels she needs to challenge this Zekken person in order to prove her worth to the Gary Stu. After all, he got to go maraud about in both ALO and GGO, and look like a badass without her.
Asuna, on the other hand, is not only powerless in the real world, she’s nothing more than the group’s healer most of the time. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with being a healer, but if you’re all about “Rawr, I’m a strong, independent warrior who can make my own decisions in life,” then most healer characters don’t usually fit that persona. So what we have here is a lot like the Sinon situation: if Asuna can assert herself in the virtual world, then perhaps this’ll translate to the real world as well. But as I’ve discussed above, SAO’s unsettling subtext is that these characters symbolically kills themselves every time they dive. With Asuna specifically, she has plenty of reasons to reject the real world. Unfortunately, unless she can somehow upload her consciousness into an MMO, her mother won’t let Asuna ignore the real world. As such, she has to confront reality, and to make things worse, she’s running out of time. Nevertheless, our heroine is resisting. That’s why Asuna is challenging this Zekken person. This conflict is a stand-in for her real life problems. If she had a real plan for her real life, she wouldn’t be here, wasting her time fighting some random player.
The hope is that she’ll somehow find inspiration in the virtual world, but that’s a lot to ask of simulacra. In any other story, Asuna would perhaps realize there’s no substance to the images around her. But this is SAO, so I’m sure the girl will solve all her problems through an MMO. Hey, it worked for Sinon!
Stray notes & observations:
— As expected, Asuna’s relationship with her mother is cold and frigid. Plus, the color of that wine doesn’t look right. I have never drunk a grey wine. Worst of all, that’s a champagne flute, lady, but you are clearly not drinking champagne. And you call yourself high society! You don’t even use proper stemware!
— Asuna can’t even look her mother in the eye. But I don’t like the cinematography here. It feels strained because they are both not fully in the same picture for some odd reason. The standard thing to do is to just pull the camera back in order to illustrate the impassable gulf between the two characters. But the truth is, they’re not even sitting far away from each other at all, and I don’t know why they’re not. SAO is just not very good with visual metaphors, I guess. Shit, even The Simpsons can accomplish this much, and it’s a comedy TV show. Then you see this shot, and you can’t help but wonder why we didn’t just see it right from the get-go.
— Blah blah blah, her mother wants to put her in another school. She even wants Asuna to graduate and start attending college after just half a school year. Our heroine has no say in her life, et cetera, et cetera. As I’ve discussed above, the subtext here is potentially intriguing, but the actual plot events themselves are pretty unoriginal.
— Asuna: “It doesn’t matter if it takes me another year or two to get into college.” Sorry, but it kinda does. She then says she doesn’t have to attend college. Then what will she do with her life? Yeah, you don’t have to go to college to be successful, but you still need to have a well thought-out plan. Right now, I can sort of see where Asuna’s mother is coming from. Yeah, yeah, I wouldn’t like it either if one of my parents had tried to dictate my life. But Asuna isn’t asserting herself. She doesn’t have a plan that at least says to her mother, “Look, you may not respect me or my decisions, but at least I know what I want to do with my life.” Instead, our heroine literally says she has no clue what she wants to do: “Right now, I don’t have the answer….” Asuna comes across as a lost lamb, so naturally, her mother will try to — as mothers are wont to do — mother her. If you’re going to act like a child, you’ll be treated as one.
— I love the hilariously ominous music that plays when the arranged marriage was brought up. The horror! The horror! The problem here, however, is that she’s only 18. The age of majority in Japan is 20, I believe. Not much Asuna can do, then.
— The music gets even more ominous when her mother reveals she had investigated Kirito’s background as well! B-b-but Kirito’s going to be a great MMO engineer, and his technology will bring e-lolis like Yui to life in the real world! With kawaii-chans like her around in the real world, we’ll never have to commit ritual suicide again! But jokes aside, Asuna finally decides to storm off from the dinner table when Kirito was brought up. That’s how important the Gary Stu is. Honestly, this arc could be deep and interesting, but it’s still bogged down by Kirito’s existence. Case in point, the girl later retires to her room to gaze at a picture of her and the Gary Stu. They’re not even holding hands, embracing each other, or anything. They’re just standing side-by-side, and… that’s it. You can hardly tell that they’re supposed to be the story’s first-rate couple. The sad thing is, this is the guy that Asuna is fighting for.
— Then out of nowhere, Asuna drops this bombshell: “You’re ashamed of my dead grandma and grandpa, aren’t you? You’re angry you weren’t born into a rich, important family, aren’t you?” Aw shiiiit. Family drama! I don’t like this turn of events, though. Asuna’s mother was already unreasonable enough. C’mon, you’re not going to convince very many people that her mother is in the right. But SAO is, like a lot of other anime series, very heavy-handed. As a result, Asuna’s mother has to have a complex. She has to be that unreasonable just in case you didn’t realize that she is wrong to try and dictate our heroine’s life.
— So what do we see next? Asuna returns to the virtual world to spend more boring quality time with Kirito. She has to figure out what to do with her life, but this is what she chooses to do. Even worse, it feels like she’s living in the past: “Hey, do you remember the first time you came to my room in Selmburg?” So of course, Kirito and Asuna then reminisce about that one time he took her e-virginity by pumping copious amounts of e-sperm into her. Actually, I have no clue when this e-sexing took place on the sacred SAO timeline, but since we’re living in the past, I may as well bring it up again. It’s interesting though that Kirito drools over the memory of the stew Asuna had fixed for him, not the part where she basically stripped down to her underwear. Needless to say, Asuna smacks him on the chest and says, “You only remember food, don’t you?” The subtext here is hilarious.
— What did Kirito say to this Zekken person? He said, “You’re totally living in this world, aren’t you?” Totally living in this world. This implies that Zekken is all but dead in the real world. If we consider everything that we’ve discussed thus far, this Zekken person must have a really, really good reason to reject the real world compared to Asuna. And maybe Asuna will get to know this person, and realize that her first-world problems aren’t all that bad. But anyway, what could that reason be? Literally AIDS? I remember commenters repeatedly mentioning something about AIDS. If this is really the case, that’s hilariously over-the-top.
— Ugh, this post is way too long. Let’s wrap this shit up.
— As it turns out, Zekken is a she. And she’s very lame-looking. But why is Asuna surprised to learn that Zekken is a girl? Why would you even assume that it’s a guy? Guys play as female avatars all the time in the real world. Some of the best PVPers in the world have female avatars! But more importantly, even if you can’t play as the opposite sex in the SAO universe, so what? This is an MMO, so the physical differences between the sexes shouldn’t even come into play. So what is this bullshit where Asuna is actually shocked and surprised to learn that Zekken is a girl?
— Our heroine then wonders if Kirito had gone easy on Zekken because the latter is a cute girl. That’s how much of a womanizer the Gary Stu is. You can thus stop feeling sorry for her, because the subtext here is that Asuna tolerates his philandering to a certain extent.
— So in an MMO with a lot of different magic spells, this Yuuki character — that’s her actual in-game name, apparently — will only rely upon her sword. But even then, she can beat anyone. Look, if she won’t use anything but her sword, that means she can’t erase any status ailments. That means you can CC and enfeeble her in all sorts of ways. So how in the world has Yuuki never been defeated? Well, this is SAO, so you just have to swallow this sort of tripe. Defenders will just say that Yuuki’s super speed allows her to dodge all incoming magic spells or something bullshit like that.
— The duel is pretty fluid. It’s just too bad the camera shakes a bit too much. And like before, we don’t need to see the characters’ life bars.
— Yuuki still wins despite Asuna putting up a decent fight, which is to be expected. So now what? They will now become tomodachis for life, right? Yuuki picks Asuna off the ground, flies our heroine to some secluded spot in the clouds, then says “they” need the latter’s help. Welp.