Sword Art Online (Crunchyroll) has certain similarities to Accel World which isn’t surprising since both are based on light novels by Reki Kawahara. However the differences are more striking than the similarities. The most important difference is that Sword Art Online, in spite of its cute drawing style, has a premise that is incredibly dark and grim.
It is so grim that in spite of the high quality of the writing and the artwork, I’m not sure I will be able to continue watching this. So far it has been remarkably depressing. Honestly this makes Fate/Zero look like a cheerful diversion.
Like Accel World, this involves an online game that is made to seem as real as the real world through the use of direct brain-computer interfaces. In Accel World the game is still just a game and what really matters is how they players apply the lessons they learn from it to their real lives. In Sword Art Online the real world has ceased to matter. The players are trapped in the game and their success in it has quite literally become a matter of life and death.
As the story begins crowds of game fanatics are scrambling to buy copies of a new game by the renowned designer Akihiko Kayaba (Kouichi Yamadera). It is a massive online role-playing game (RPG) with a sword and sorcery theme. It achieves total immersive realism by means of the “Nerve Gear” helmet, Kayaba’s invention that directly stimulates the brain. Only 10,000 copies of the game are offered. They are quickly snapped up and the buyers immediately log on to try it out.
Our protagonist is Kazuto Kirigaya (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) who plays under the name of “Kirito”. He helped beta test the game and is eager to play it for real.
Everything seems to be going fine until he notices that the “log out” command is missing from the game menu.
Kayaba appears to the assembled players. Unfortunately it seems that he is totally psychotic. He has rigged the game so that the players can’t leave. Furthermore if they die in the game their Nerve Gear helmets will really kill them. The helmets will also kill the players if someone tries to remove them or if they lose power. (Though this isn’t explicitly stated I presume that the players will also be killed if Kayaba is arrested and stops administering the game.)
The only way out is to win the game by reaching the top level. But no beta tester ever came close to doing this.
As final fillip Kayaba forces all the game avatars to look like the actual players. This leads to an amusing sequence where most of the cute girls turn out to be nerdy guys.
Of the original 10,000 players about 2,000 immediately freak out and quickly get themselves killed. The rest buckle down and start leveling up in earnest.
In most shounen fighting anime you can safely assume that the main characters won’t get killed. Or at least if a major character does die it will be a heroic death that really means something. In SOA however characters get killed right and left, including characters we know and care about, and their deaths are inherently meaningless since this is just a stupid game run by a lunatic.
Kirito initially acts like a jerk, using the knowledge of the game that he gained as a beta tester to level up quickly without stopping to consider that by sharing his knowledge he might save a lot of innocent lives.
By the second episode he sees the error of his ways and adopts a more heroic role. He becomes the sort of mysterious lone hero who joins up with weaker players, helps them out of a jam, then waves goodbye and rides off into the sunset, trying to avoid forming close ties with anyone. This is still a rather cold, unlikeable persona but maybe he will get better in the future.