A Brief Synopsis
Sword Art Online is an anime that aired in 2012 and is based on a series of light novels written by Reki Kawahara which had a rushed first installment to meet the deadline for a writing competition. The series focuses on Kirito (Kazuto Kirigaya) and his many adventures in virtual reality MMORPG games. In most of the arcs circumstances arise that trap a certain amount or all of the players and if they die in the game, they die in real life. In the first arc of Sword Art Online, Aincrad, the game is revealed to be a death game right after launch, trapping 10,000 people inside. This arc follows SAO beta tester Kirito on his journey through the virtual world of SAO, his interactions with other players, and attempts to escape the game while finding what happiness he can.
Sword Art Online, Or, How to Make a Terrible Game on Every Level
SAO and .hack are the shows most often credited with popularizing the “trapped in a video game” setting in anime in recent years. They didn’t invent that concept, but there’s nothing wrong with using a familiar setting if you play with it in some interesting way. SAO’s setting is a rote, generic fantasy MMO and just looks like a standard anime western-themed fantasy with excellent visual design, flashy computer effects, and people talk about dying a lot. And the plot is your basic “trapped in a game, beat it to get out” fare. But if the visual aesthetic is nice but generic at least they tried to make an inventive game in it, right?
Right off the bat, the kind of people included in the 10,000 to enter and become trapped in the game are not the type of people that would be buying an expensive NerveGear VR headset and waiting in line for the game’s release. Frequently throughout the show we’re shown people who are unfamiliar with the most basic MMO and video game jargon; these people would not have bought the exspensive NerveGear or remotely care about the launch of an exclusive MMO for a new virtual reality headset. Then there’s the idea that this game that is built up as the killer app for this new technology will only have 10,000 units available by design.
Breaking down video game development costs is not my specialty, but Final Fantasy XV was said to require 10 million sales to be considered successful. FF XV had a troubled development that inflated its budget, to be sure, but the notion that a game that was built from the ground up, is purely online, open world, and is a first of its kind MMORPG would only have 10,000 copies available in its first run is a recipe for financial ruin. Maybe the artbook would have 10,000 units available in its first run. The budget estimates for the 4.0 update to Final Fantasy XIV, which is an MMORPG, come in around 35 million USD. And that’s for a free update. Unless each copy of Sword Art Online was sold at a prohibitively expensive price there’s no way the company can recoup their costs; Sword Art Online would be a financial failure that would probably mean the company would have to shut down. No corporation would agree to kneecap their flagship product in this fashion. But if this anime doesn’t understand how the obtuse financials of game development work, at least it had a solid understanding of how games and MMOs work, right?
Sword Art Online’s game design is a sloppy mess from its combat to its skill system. The idea that in SAO you’d have to manually use an interface in-game instead of it being mentally controlled is a baffling design decision. Technically all movements and actions are mentally controlled via the NerveGear, but that just makes the clunky and unintuitive, albeit slick, UI more confusing. And it works as a visual indication that the characters are managing their inventories, but you can still have the menus pop up in front of the characters just don’t make the menus require physical interaction. But that’s just a nitpick, the real meat of the broken mess of SAO is in its skill system and combat. In SAO you have a Skyrim-esque leveling system, that is, you perform the action you wish to level up. For example, if someone wanted to get better at cooking they’d simply cook and cook and cook until they leveled up their stat to the point they were the best cook in the game. This works for a single player RPG like Skyrim, but could completely break an always online game. Imagine how frustrating it’d be trying to PvP someone who had spent their time going on raids and other combat heavy activities when you’d spent your time smithing, and how annoying it’d be to have to carry a team of people who’d invested in gardening and basket making through a raid. Also, in SAO several people are shown to own their own shops in the game world. How? Do you buy the property from an NPC? Then no one else could own that shop. Obviously it’d be different for each server, but SAO doesn’t appear to use multiple servers as all 10,000 players inhabit the same game world as far as we’re shown (The SAO servers are a plot point in the second arc and that’s part of why this is so confusing). The combat system itself is similarly muddled. Kirito says something about performing the motion in your mind and feeling the Sword Art activate then letting the computer automate it. So this game is a virtual reality massively multiplayer online action role playing game (VRMMOARPG), where instead of hitting a hotkey you use your own reflexes to activate skills. You can attempt to balance an action RPG for PvP, see the Souls games, but often there are numerous ways to become overpowered to the point of absurdity. And in action games, especially ARPGS, you have a limited moveset usually based on what weapon you have equipped and any skills/moves you’ve gained. In SAO it appears your moves are completely based on your own personal reflexes.
This means people with faster real life reflexes would have a distinct, drastic advantage over other players. There’s nothing wrong with making a skill based game, but most competitive games are about reacting to the strategies of your opponent and MMOs and other RPGs tend to be about finding the weakness in an enemy’s pattern or gimmick, or just making sure your stats are sufficiently higher than your opponent. Fast reflexes are not the defining factor of most competitive or MMO games. Fast refelexes are necessary to make it to the top-level competition, but it isn’t the sole defining trait of top players. And as if SAO wasn’t a paper thin game already, there doesn’t appear to be any defined classes. MMOs are typically built around three main classes: Tank, Healer, and DPS (Damage Per Second). SAO has no magic system so everyone is stuck with a generic class that seems to lean towards DPS, although you could potnetially try and be a tank if you wanted, the show is unclear about this. So if the setting of the show, the game itself, is poorly constructed then at least it can help tell an interesting story by how the death game setting and the characters interact.
Many people have different definitions of what a good character is; but in general, characters are defined by their interactions with other characters and their own conflicts. They can be scumbags like Dio, or saints, like Jonathan Joestar, deplorable like Shinji, or inscrutable like Dr. Ford in Westworld, but each one of those characters has goals they’re working towards and barriers to those goals. Even if you’re not fully aware of what that goal is, as is the case with Dr. Ford in Westworld, watching characters push for their goals is what gives shows their thrust, moving the narrative and the cast forward. Characters’ differing personalities and showing how they interact with those around them is how you get the audience to care about the larger narrative. Often a great character is reinforced by other good characters around them; good characters rarely stand on their own. An example of this is Simon the Driller from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. At the start Simon is a coward who requires the urging and support of others to act, but as the show goes on and his relationships with others and his confidence grows he becomes more capable and both inspires his teammates and draws inspiration from them.
SAO has TWO characters that are compelling on any level, but SAO decided that they should be pushed aside and only used to prop up one of the most empty protagonists from any media: Kazuto Kirigaya, aka: Kirito.
The term “Mary Sue/Gary Stu” gets thrown around far too often nowadays. Mary Sue used to mean blatant self-insert with the main symptoms being: the Sue is perfect except for one major “flaw”, other characters are drawn to the Mary Sue, and everything in the story revolves around the Sue. Character motivations, the larger plot, all details of the world and supporting cast are tied to the Sue. It is difficult to think of any character that is as much of a black hole as Kirito. Kirito is a vacuum from which no interesting characters can escape. We’re not here to prove or disprove Kirito’s “Stu” status, but he is one of the blandest, blankest, least interesting characters, lead or otherwise, ever. You could almost mistake him for a character from Rogue One. SAO goes to such lengths to put him on a ridiculously high pedestal that it defies belief. Every plot point, every character and their “arc”, every conflict, exists to make Kirito appear as cool as possible. And the type of “cool” Sword Art Online has in mind is the 13 year old who just discovered Batman kind of “cool”. Kirito swings between a surivior’s guilt ridden Messiah figure and a calm and collected veteran who just wants to enjoy the weather systems in this digital death trap. Kirito is the shallowest interpretation of the black coat/cloak wearing, tough but loving, emotion hiding, self-projection that every 13 year old has as their Sonic OC.
Kirito’s goal throughout the arc is to “live in this world” but also he doesn’t want people to die in this world he loves. It is impossible suss out what his actual motivation is. In the show this lack of true motivation means Kirito sits on his overpowered butt and not doing anything to stop people from dying. Despite him saying he wants is to stop people from dying, but whenever he sees someone die he shuts down, doesn’t do anything about it, and then laments how cruel this game world is. Then he turns around and claims he wants to enjoy the beauty of this world and then refuses to help end the death game so he can enjoy the beauty of the game that’s claimed so many lives. If that “motivation” sounds complicated and nonsensical, that’s because it is. Kirito’s stated desires and actions don’t line up at all. He blames himself for other people’s deaths but there’s no reason for him to do so, he isn’t conflicted with his inaction, he’s just brooding and self-doubting because that’s “cool”. Kirito says he doesn’t want people to die anymore, but frequently spends time just lazing around actively ignoring the group that is trying to beat the game and get everyone out of the death game. A character whose actions directly conflict with their stated, and opposing, desires is not a good character. And on top of this confusing, messy, incomprehensible black hole of a lead character, the series’s supporting characters frequently call him sensitive and heroic. There’s a scene where Kirito and his girlfriend have to choose whether to go into a boss room and save some other players or not and just watch them die. Asuna takes the lead and charges in to try and save the players since she has a spark of human decency. Kirito only jumps in to save her. After he defeats the boss using a power he kept secret for some reason, his friend Klein comes up and mentions how glad he is that Kirito went in to save those other players. Kirito did no such thing, only jumping in to save the person he cared about and giving the show an excuse to show Kirito’s angst by having him keep an overpowered ability secret for no reason.
For a reference on how to do a moping, depressed character correctly; in Evangelion Shinji frequently screws up and gets called out for it. The other characters, while they play off him and he is without a doubt the protagonist, have their own thoughts and desires apart from him. Shinji’s failings and his interactions with others as a result is a main point of his character arc. Kirito is a shallow pit; something for characters to be thrown into and not as deep as it looks at first glance.
For SAO, a new character is just another offering on the altar of Kirito. Asuna is the prime example of this. She was capable, self possessed, and most importantly, had a goal separate from Kirito. But then she and Kirito fall in love. The show doesn’t exactly have the greatest romance writing. but at least Kirito wasn’t being as self-indulgently mopey during their time together and it is shocking that a series so defined by its harem let the protagonist get married. Another shocking story point is how quickly Asuna’s character stops. She just stops. She doesn’t progress or grow as a character once she and Kirito are MMO married. All her thoughts of escaping the literal death game they are literally trapped in are gone from her mind. She becomes interested only in domestic bliss with Kirito and their adopted AI baby Yui. Going so far as to say Kirito has shown her the “beauty of this world.” A world that was specifically made to trap and kill unwitting people. She doesn’t switch motivations from wanting to escape to wanting to enjoy the game, she ceases to be driven by anything. Asuna is the epitome of the “strong female character” archetype that has seeped into anime and most other media lately. She is shown to be physically and emotionally strong and independent, but once she falls in love with the main character and becomes completely dependent on him for normal emotional functionality. Asuna’s arc a combination of tsundere and “defrosting the ice queen” tropes but isn’t enough of either trope to get called out. Asuna goes from chewing Kirito out for not agreeing with her sensible battle plan, to cowering behind him after being challenged to a duel by someone from her own guild in just 3 episodes.
There’s a point in episode 12 where Kirito and Asuna gain access to a programming backdoor of sorts. Basically they have access to the game’s base code and instead of freeing everyone, enabling players to logout, or any number of options that could save several thousand lives, they choose to bring back their recently deceased virtual computer baby. Rather than attempt to free the 9,000 humans trapped in a death game, Kirito and Asuna instead choose to bring back an AI they met that day.
Klein should’ve had his own show, or at least be the B story throughout the arc. Klein is the first person we see Kirito interact with in SAO and he leaves Kirito once their situation becomes apparent because Klein has people he cares about and he does what he can to help them, unlike Kirito. Klein is an actual average joe. Just a fan of video games who got caught in SAO and is trying to build his guild and help people out when he can while contributing to the escape effort. But instead of seeing how an average person might struggle and cope with the extreme circumstances of SAO, Klein is relegated to emotional support for Kirito. He only shows up to deliver words of encouragement when Kirito needs them. The rest of the supporting cast are even more ephemeral. The 12 year old idol, the blacksmith, that one girl who dies and “motivates” him to stop people from dying, except Kirito doesn’t follow through with that. But a least Kirito has two opposing motivations instead of no motivation.
Akihiko Kayaba is the man who is credited with designing the NerveGear and the game of Sword Art Online. He functions as an exposition dump in the first episode and then he is never seen, heard from, or mentioned until the end of the arc. The final confrontation is actually set up in an interesting fashion. Through his experience and knowledge gained in the game Kirito realizes the leader of the largest guild is Akihiko masquerading as another player. Akihiko then kills Asuna and Kirito. Now, if Kirito died here that’d be a nice swerve, or if he had a backup or some other trick he had learned or discovered in the game we would have some narrative theming. But instead Kirito comes back to life through sheer willpower. Kirito then stabs and defeats Akihiko’s avatar and is transported to the top of the game world to talk with Akihiko and hear his motivation for creating the death trap. Finally, after 14 episodes we get to see what could motivate someone to create such a cruel trap. Perhaps it’s a darker play on Kirito’s desire to live in a fully realized digital world, giving him and the audience conflicted feelings on the leisure time they and Kirito have spent here. Or maybe he’s just a standard psychopath, which could be disappointing but fun, or maybe he thou-
Oh. It’s literally nothing.
This scene is the conclusion to the first arc, the denouement after the climactic action scene, and it isn’t a bang or a whimper, it’s literally nothing. Kirito shows no anger towards Akihiko for killing over 3,000 people, just happiness that Asuna is alive, somehow, and discovers that the SAO servers are being deleted, meaning the game world is vanishing forever. The arc does end on a nice visual; an emaciated and withered Kirito waking from 2 years of VR imprisonment limping off to find Asuna is a nice contrast to the “coolness” of his in game avatar. Although he shouldn’t be able to move at all after not moving for 2 years. But it is a nice portrayal of our protagonist that contrasts how we’ve seen him up until that point, credit where it is due.
Sword Art Online is bad. Poorly written, obsessed with making its lead character as cool as possible, and confusing in its themes and messaging. It is not completely without merit, overall the visuals are great to passable and the character designs are truly stellar. A couple of those characters are even compelling and likeable when the show lets them do their thing. But all that is buried in a show can’t focus on anything aside from shallow wish fulfillment.
Tell me how SAO is the best anime ever and I’m a dumb westerner who can’t comprehend its depth at my Twitter.