Allow me to regale you with the tale of how a great thing and a terrible thing combined to make an utter abomination. What’s that, you came for my thoughts on Shakespeare? Sorry, but this new feature takes precedence over the mess that you might loosely term as this blog’s “schedule”. Now sit tight and listen to me complain about a show that I have developed a special form of hatred towards. It’s a hate so prevalent in my mind that I will not be able to write about anything else until I have put it to paper. Or screen, whatever.
Let me be clear in the purpose of this feature: I am not doing this as a knight in shining armour, protecting the masses from the latest model of fire-breathing dragon. Sword Art Online, like much of the content I’ve been consuming of late, is not a new thing. I’m not riding the zeitgeist, here. This show isn’t going to be on most people’s radars, and I’m not trying to do the world a public service by lambasting it. I’m doing this for three reasons:
1: Sometimes people like to hear a rant. It’s why David Mitchell’s Soapbox exists and why it’s so darn good.
2: On the off chance that someone else who’s seen Sword Art Online reads this, it may be therapeutic for them. Or they might not agree, and that’s fine too.
3: I need this. I need this to heal.
Know that there will be spoilers, because in this case I don’t give a single crap. When I spare details, it will be because I straight up do not want to write about a particular thing.
Before I even talk about the main premise of the show, allow me to summarise a particular episode of SAO. I’ll explain why afterwards.
Episode seven of Sword Art Online introduces a character named Liz. To extremely simplify it, Liz and the main character, Kirito, wind up on a little adventure together and, of course, she falls for him. Standard Anime nonsense, but executed unusually well. I will admit that it made me say “aww” out loud, and I don’t even remember the last time I did that because of a show. But then comes the ending of the episode. As Liz is about to make her feelings known, in walks Asuna with a sign saying “Yo I’m the female lead, step off male lead cause he and I will be a thing, ‘kay?”. Well, I didn’t see the sign myself, but it’s just about the only way I can imagine Liz immediately coming to that conclusion. So she runs off heartbroken, is found and comforted by Kirito, and gets slam-dunked into the friend zone. End of episode.
What was the point of all that? To introduce a side character? Nope; Liz appears briefly in all of two episodes in the entire rest of the series. Nothing is achieved other than Kirito getting a cool sword, an accomplishment of questionable relevance even before considering that he has just acquired his signature weapon offscreen. The episode seems to exist for the sole purpose of sucker-punching anyone who dares to become invested in it. The things it did well, in retrospect, only serve to make it that much more annoying when they go nowhere.
The reason I bring this particular episode up is because it serves as a parable that can be applied to Sword Art Online as a whole. Take the last two sentences of that paragraph, replace the word “episode” with “show”, and you have my opinion of Sword Art Online in a nutshell. But it goes much deeper than that, in ways that this parable does not quite convey. We’ll get there, though. It’s probably a good time for me to explain what the show is about.
Sword Art Online is set in the near future, 2022, where someone has apparently gone way ahead of the Occulus Rift and created Virtual Reality hardware that, for all intents and purposes, allows users to become completely immersed in a game, five senses and all. Sword Art Online is the newest one of these, created by the same guy that made the hardware, and the first shipment of 10,000 copies is quickly snapped up by an eager audience. Once inside, though, the players discover that they are unable to log out. They are gathered together and the announcement is made that any outside attempt to remove their VR headgear will result in their real life brain getting fried. The same thing happens if they die in the game. They have to clear 100 floors, each with a powerful enemy guarding the way up, before the game can end. The pilot concludes with this legitimately chilling text:
“In the game’s first month, 2000 died.
Floor 1 has yet to be cleared.”
I am sorry if this is making you interested. If I don’t explain what SAO does right, I’ll never be fully able to communicate what a tragedy it is that it all goes to waste. The narrative road they choose to take with this is by far the most interesting; it’s all about the psychological implications. It hits close enough to home to make this very effective; 2022 isn’t too far away, and other than this VR technology, the people involved are clearly not all that different to you or I. Despite the incredible leaps in technology that would be necessary, It’s not all to hard to imagine something like this actually happening. The setting of a virtual world provides almost unlimited creative license without much risk of breaking suspension of disbelief. The scenario of going from a life of comparative mundanity to a life-or-death adventure is one of the most frequently used storytelling devices there is, but I simply haven’t ever seen it dealt with like this.
With so much potential for dramatic punch, the question then becomes whether the plot delivers on it. It does in two major ways, firstly in its take on the struggle with the idea of death. I won’t spend too much time on this one other than to say that it’s effectively and brutally dealt with in episode three, and dang it if it didn’t make me almost cry. Facing up to the possibility of death at any time is the theme of the episode, and it works so effectively as to colour everything that follows. In this world where death is a constant possibility, it’s given some much-needed weight.
Secondly, and more uniquely, the drama of early SAO is in the questions, raised and implied, about prolonged living in a virtual world. And I mean living. Right from the text that finishes out the first episode it’s clear that this is not a short term challenge. The timeline skips months at a time. In the Pilot, the players are shown news reports to prove that the brain-frying aspect of their predicament is very real, and after that, nothing whatsoever of the outside world is seen. The choice to not show anything of the real world to both the characters and the viewers works incredibly well and makes for some excellent character musings. For example, at one point a character begins to speculate about the state of their real body, and wonders about the consequences of lying essentially comatose for over a year. Man, that’s some fascinatingly horrifying speculation.
There’s also the matter of relationships in this context (DISCLAIMER: Since this first part is mostly about what SAO does well, I shall excise the more troublesome relationship stuff for later): after all, not only are the players completely immersed in this world, but by the end of the first episode they’re set to look exactly as they do in real life . Before the episode count reaches eleven, main man Kirito is married to main woman Asuna. Yeah, married. It surprised me too. This has got to be the first show I’ve seen there the main character starts out single and gets hitched before the halfway point. The buildup leaves a lot to be desired (reminder that the aforementioned Liz debacle is episode seven, and at that point there is barely a hint of romantic connection between the two) but the culminating scene is so sweet that it almost made me disregard that. The show deserves major points for the refreshing change of marriage NOT being treated like a carrot on the end of a stick to keep viewers’ attention until the end. Also, the fact that said marriage has taken place in a world thats very reality is debatable is, to say the least, an intriguing one, and the ramifications are treated in a really heartwarming way. As if wanting to wake the heck up out of a coma isn’t enough character motivation, this genuinely touching personal drive for the protagonists gets added into the mix.
It’s not only romantic relationships in which SAO has a different take; like a game I recently played (Virtue’s Last Reward), it has something to say on how Human Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence might interact if AI could perfectly simulate the real deal. It’s not as nuanced as VLR, but almost as touching, and it’s the foundation of some of the last good episodes in the show.
The last good episodes in the show. I just let out an audible sigh, because I’m almost much finished with anything positive I have to say. Episode Fourteen out of Twenty-Five Concludes with Kirito cheating death and finding a way to end the game on floor Seventy-Five. Asuna’s fate is nebulous at best – she dies ingame shortly before the end, but it’s strongly implied (if logically questionable) that Kirito might have won in time. He wakes up in a hospital bed, two years having passed since the game started, and looks about how you’d expect a two-year coma patient to. He can barely walk, but he slowly makes his exit out of the room and down the hallway, while crying and weakly calling out Asuna’s name, as the credits roll.
I would love to say that Sword Art Online would have been the perfect show if it ended there. Reality check: even if “the perfect show” was a thing, Sword Art Online’s first half falls far short of perfection, thanks in no small part to the Juvenile Asinine Pandering Anime Nonsense that it begins to introduce. I ended up writing a full article on how this kind of thing is so prevalent in awful (and some otherwise good) Anime. Other than its lack of “budget animation comedy”, Sword Art Online part one seems keen to fit in some especially egregious JAPAN moments. Some irritated me, but some just left me confused.
For example, one episode introduces another one-shot female character. The way that said character is treated would fall squarely under “fanservice” if she didn’t look like ten years old. As it is it’s almost like… they were going for comedy? But it’s not really funny and just kind of uncomfortable? And come to think of it a lot of JAPAN fanservice is delivered in a “comedic” fashion? What am I supposed to be feeling, here!?
…I’d better pull out of that before my face gets stuck in a cringe for the rest of my life. If Sword Art Online finished at episode fourteen, it would be a seriously flawed gem. It would be a shame that such an interesting and well-executed concept was bogged down by that stuff that people see in Anime and say, “That’s why I don’t watch Anime”. The ending would lack good payoff and leave some big open questions, but nonetheless it would be a decent way to go out.
But Sword Art Online does not end there. It goes on to systematically destroy almost everything it once had going for it. Why do I care so much? Because in its first half, it created something that I didn’t know I wanted, and dropped the ball so badly that it left me feeling empty inside. Now I have an itch that cannot be scratched. It doesn’t happen often that I watch a show all the way through and wish I’d never known of its existence. In fact, as of now, it’s happened once.
Whether it’s for therapy or schadenfreude (depending respectively on whether you’ve seen SAO yourself or not), come back soon to journey with me into the darkest abyss of Sword Art Online’s second half.