Sword Art Online–Midseason Thoughts

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In spite of my initial qualms I’ve been faithfully watching Sword Art Online but I find that I am liking it less and less. My first reaction was to be startled at how dark the premise was. Now I feel disappointed that they have taken that very dark premise and turned it into a very very lightweight fighting anime.

First let me say something positive about the show. The animation is very good.

It’s very good and very cute-looking. Everywhere we look we see cute girls, one cute boy and lots of ruggedly handsome men. How does that square with the scene in the first episode where Kayaba forced everyone to use avatars that looked like their real bodies? Where are all the overweight nerds with skin problems? How likely is it that so many cute girls would want to play a game that is almost entirely about killing monsters?

Well that’s nitpicking. The real problem is that the story seems shallow and derivative with shallow, poorly-developed characters.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose that instead of trapping the players in a virtual reality game, Kayaba had teleported them to a quasi-medieval alternate universe. (Basically the same premise as 500 other shounen action stories, though with more characters than usual.) The adventures that we have seen so far could take place pretty much unchanged and there would be the same risk of getting killed. But if it were done this way I think most viewers would dismiss the show out of hand as unimaginative and derivative.

Another thought experiment: suppose instead of spending all its time in the game world the show alternated between the game world and the real world. In the real world the players are basically in a coma–one that apparently extends for several years. Their bodies are slowly deteriorating and their families are frantic. Presumably there are dogged investigators trying to track down Kayaba and force him to release the players.

Possibly if it were done this way it might be really good, even a classic. It would take great writing skill though to keep the real-world and game-world parts in balance. In any case that is clearly not what the writers have in mind.

I find it hard to believe that Kayaba is such a world-famous game designer. The SAO game doesn’t really seem all that good. Leave aside the futuristic immersive direct-brain-link VR technology. The game itself seems to have nothing resembling a plot or storyline. It’s just an arrangement to kill stronger and stronger monsters to gain experience and treasure. Any of today’s popular online role playing games can do better than that.

Watching the mechanics of the game leads my mind in evil directions. Is there sex in the SAO game? Don’t tell me that Kayaba wouldn’t have included it! Probably both players would bring up the appropriate popup menu, choose the desired options and press the Submit button. There would be a flash of light and the status display would tell them whether pregnancy resulted. (They haven’t actually shown us this, but is that surprising?)

I find it hard to believe that this comes from the same author as Accel World.