Anime Analysis & Review: Sword Art Online

Updated on September 13, 2017
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Self-proclaimed avid anime fan since first watching Detective Conan in 2008, although probably not as avid as a true blue otaku.

The world is evolving fast. We used to have simple card games and all sorts of outdoor sports. Then came the handheld gaming devices and video consoles. Today, we can see all sorts of devices and machines controlled via different means, such as steering wheels, guns, handheld controllers, gaming mats, and even motion detector sensors.

Might there come a day in the future when virtual reality becomes the gaming norm? When we can log in to a virtual gaming world with our entire consciousness, and every sensory input that our virtual avatar receives is perceived by our brain and our every movement is reflected on our avatar?

Logging into a virtual reality world with one's consciousness is not something new in the world of anime. Perhaps a classic example of such a genre is none other than the renowned franchise .hack (pronounced "dot hack"). Nonetheless, I can't help but notice that this genre is growing in popularity. I've seen quite a few recent Japanese works that explore this genre in one way or another. Among them, the one that seems to stand out the most is the award-winning, light novel-cum-anime Sword Art Online.

Before I proceed further, let me make it clear that the rest of what I will be writing here covers only the contents of Season 1 of the anime series.

Sword Art Online
Title (Japanese)
Adventure, action, science fiction, fantasy, romance
Original run
A-1 Pictures
Adapted from light novel
Reki Kawahara


Main characters in the "Sword Art Online" story arc
Main characters in the "Sword Art Online" story arc

The year 2022 becomes a milestone in the gaming world when the highly-popular Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG) entitled "Sword Art Online" is released. Sword Art Online (SAO) utilizes a helmet device called Nerve Gear that enables the player to feel and control their in-game avatar with their mind. This technology seemingly transfers the player's consciousness into the game upon logging in.

All players log in for the first time on November 6, 2022, only to discover that they are unable to log out. The creator of SAO, Kayaba Akihiko, then appears in the game and reveals to everyone that this was part of his plan, and that only by reaching the game's 100th floor—defeating the final boss and finishing the game—can a player log out. He also cautions everyone that should any player die in the game, the Nerve Gear would emit a burst of strong microwaves that would end up burning the player's brain, killing them in the real world as well. Similarly, forcefully removing the Nerve Gear before logging out would have the same fatal result.

The story revolves around Kirito (a.k.a. Kirigaya Kazuto), a skilled player who prefers to fight solo and is determined to beat the game. He, along with all the other SAO players, spend two years in the game, while their bodies in the real world progressively grow weaker and are hospitalized. Over the course of the two years, Kirito befriends female player Yuki Asuna, with whom he eventually falls in love. After discovering game-owner Kayaba's true identity, Kirito and Asuna succeed in defeating him, thus beating the game and enabling all surviving players to log out safely.

After returning to the real world, Kirito discovers that Asuna and 300 other SAO players have yet to return to the real world and awaken. With the help of a clue, Kirito then finds out that Asuna and the other players are still trapped in another VRMMORPG called ALfheim Online, and that this is a part of a plan to conduct illegal experiments on the human mind and force Asuna to marry a man named Nobuyuki. After successfully stopping the plan, Asuna and Kirito are reunited in the real world and all other players awaken.

Games as alternate realities

Kirito and Suguha (Leafa) in "ALfheim Online"
Kirito and Suguha (Leafa) in "ALfheim Online"

Central to Sword Art Online, .hack//Sign and other virtual reality-based anime, such as Accel World and Log Horizon, is the idea that the virtual world can become so integral to an individual's life that it serves as an alternate reality and escape from reality. Online games become increasingly powerful tools of escapism, where people can live out their fantasies and become beings that they cannot be in the real world. Such is the case for Kirito, Klein, and many other SAO players, whose initial in-game avatars had abilities and appearances far different from their real selves.

Sword Art Online, like many of the other virtual reality-based anime, highlights the fact that virtual worlds provide a means of remodelling oneself in terms of appearance, skills, and agility, making up for whatever inadequacies or limitations one may feel they have in the real world. Games provide the option for one to "begin and build life anew" in an ideal world, with an ideal body.

For some, escapism in this form can interfere with their real social lives and they become withdrawn, attach themselves to the virtual gaming world, begin to hate their real selves, and focus their time and energy on perfecting their virtual selves. However, the storyline and character development in Sword Art Online provides another possible outcome, portraying VRMMORPGs as a means of bringing like-minded people together and boosting the spirit of camaraderie, both in the virtual and real worlds.

Dangers of advanced gaming technologies

Nerve Gear is SAO's brain-computer interface (BCI) technology
Nerve Gear is SAO's brain-computer interface (BCI) technology

I believe I speak generally for all gamers when I say that it is every gamer's ultimate dream to be able to fully experience a game by bringing their own consciousness into the game itself. In other words, to be able to live in the game. Well, at least this is true for me. Wouldn't it be simply awesome if what you see, hear, touch, smell and taste in the game is real? Wouldn't it be amazingly superb if we can control our avatars in battle with our every bodily movement, as if we were using our own real bodies to do combat?

Sword Art Online's storyline makes use of the Nerve Gear to make this possible. Translated into the context of our real world, this is what is known as brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, a highly advanced development in the field of neuroscience that allows direct communication between the brain and a computerized device. Frequently used in the field of medical research to treat stroke, blindness, paralysis and other ailments, BCI research has recently branched into neuro-gaming, thus it may be possible that something like the Nerve Gear technology be developed in the future.

The anime, however, does raise several pertinent questions regarding the ethics and safety behind such a wonderful technology. Kayaba's utter disregard for human life in developing a literally fatal game like SAO and Nobuyuki's illegal experimentations on the human mind call for proper ethical regard and reasonable limitations in the pursuit of technological advancements. On a more controversial note, it also raises the question of whether it is safe or moral to meddle with the workings of the human brain in the name of science (or a better gaming experience). What are the potential side effects of using a Nerve Gear-like technology?

Comments on the anime

There may be some out there who will vehemently disagree with me for what I am going to say, but let me say it anyway; Sword Art Online (or at least the first half of the series i.e. the SAO story arc) is one of the most beautiful masterpieces I have ever seen. From the spectacular visuals to the intricate plot and even spectacular use of background music to create the desired atmosphere, Sword Art Online has proven itself worthy of its title.

Commenting on the animation, I have to say that Sword Art Online's character and costume designs are simply beautiful. They are designed to complement the medieval-cum-fantasy and fairy-like environments in the SAO and ALfheim Online (ALO) games respectively. More importantly, the designs of SAO and ALO's scenic in-game worlds give off a majestic, surreal impression of a distant utopia, a Shangri-la of one's most ideal of fantasies, and a culmination of one's dreamiest of paradises. It is an out-of-this-world beauty indescribable in its perfection. Given the chance, I would personally like to travel into the worlds of SAO and ALO and just bask in the perfect beauty of Aincrad's First Floor sunset and nighttime Aarun—two of my most favorite scenes in the anime.

I cannot forget to mention the stunning designs of SAO's dungeons, the fearsome forms its enemies assume, and the remarkably virtual-ish player menu/command lists and battle indicators (e.g. HP bar, battle target markers etc.), all of which combine to produce a boldly realistic feel of a quintessential virtual battle RPG.

Sunset in Aincrad's First Floor
Sunset in Aincrad's First Floor
Kirito, Leafa (Suguha) and Yui entering the city of Aarun for the first time
Kirito, Leafa (Suguha) and Yui entering the city of Aarun for the first time

Not taking the manga or light novel into account, Sword Art Online's storyline is also a feat worthy of admiration. The anime provides sufficient character development and some of the psychological issues faced by its main characters are intertwined with light moments of comedy and a beautiful romance. Besides bringing its viewers through a grim and desperate plot in the first story arc, viewers are also fed a fair amount of cheerful scenes with festivities, camaraderie, and life's simplicities, offering an overall impression of hope amidst despair.

Kirito, Asuna and Yui enjoying happy times in their lakeside cabin in the Sword Art Online story arc
Kirito, Asuna and Yui enjoying happy times in their lakeside cabin in the Sword Art Online story arc

The second story arc, however, did not provide the same level of excitement, taking the direction of your typical hero-goes-to-rescue-princess genre. Nonetheless, the plot writers deserve credit for adding elements of suspense and action as the hero unlocks the mysteries and secrets behind SAO and ALO's online servers with the help of both in-game and real world comrades. Perhaps my only request for a better storyline would be if all SAO players could make it to the 100th floor before discovering Kayaba's big secret and then face him in a final battle.

While quite a few anime revolve around harem-based genres (i.e. where the main male protagonist is surrounded by a bevy of ladies romantically interested in or related to him), I am an ardent believer that the most beautiful love stories include a male protagonist who was, is, and will always be loyal to one and only one female protagonist. Of course, that same degree of romantic loyalty should also apply in the reverse i.e. the heroine being true only to her hero. SAO's love story magnificently depicts this love down to the last detail. We see a budding relationship between a young couple who coincidentally meet in the virtual world, are trapped in a similar fate, and share a similar vision, even to the extent of momentarily living together in bliss in the SAO realm. True to the common matrimonial phase, "till death do us part", Kirito and Asuna's romantic relationship perseveres even under the most trying of circumstances, with the ultimate reward of living happily together in the final episode.

The "family" reunited in ALfheim Online
The "family" reunited in ALfheim Online

With its impressive graphics, great plot, heartwarming romance, energetic opening themes, and dreamy ending, Sword Art Online deserves a standing ovation for its success and popularity. Prior to the 2013 Tokyo Anime Awards, I had a hunch that Sword Art Online would be a recipient of the award, and lo and behold, my prediction came true!

Given the chance, would you take up the challenge of playing a “death game” like Sword Art Online, where finishing the whole game successfully is the only way to come out of it alive?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2017 James Ang


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