Here Are 6 Things 'Sword Art Online' Needed to Be Better
Critics love to hate Sword Art Online. It's become infamous for being a bad anime. It's also a common starter anime. That means its existence splits 'newbs' who like it as their first/only anime experience, from veteran otaku, who hate it for its numerous anime clichés, writing flaws, and the overwhelming amount of hype for it.
That hype is why people mainly hate SAO so much. It's oversold, in a world where there's simply just lots of better anime around. People whose favorite anime is SAO are probably missing all these better anime that exist. What they also don't know is that SAO has many faults with its writing that may only become apparent to the experienced anime fan. Or at least to someone who has seriously studied anime and storytelling.
No, you're not bad if you like SAO. It's fun. Harmless, escapist, entertainment, like all the other action-adventure hits. But it has flaws. If you care to listen to a nerdy, self-described 'analytical diatribe' on the subject of said flaws, try this video. It's over an hour long though. Who has time for that? Drawing off what critics have said about Sword Art Online, how could the show be fixed?
(No, not in the cleansing fires of the sun. Stop it, evil thoughts! Lalalalalala I can't hear you, evil thoughts!)
Note: This is mostly a discussion of the beginning episodes. I'm a big believer, as is Digibro, that you can judge an anime by the first episode, or at least the first couple of episodes. If the beginning of an anime sucks, there's no real reason to keep watching. Most things I've seen only go up or down by one point at most when I've watched the whole thing.
I recognize that something may be missed by me not having seen the ending. But if the characters are introduced so badly I don't care to see the ending, it doesn't matter if the ending fixes plot holes or answers important questions. Even the coolest of endings can't make up the incompetent way it handled our introduction to the plot and characters. So that's what this list is setting out to fix, the beginning.
6. The Villain and the Evil Plan
Now, this is a weakness from the fact I haven't finished the show. I've forced myself to watch up to episode 11. And I realize that the villains of any anime are not going to unveil their full plans and motivations in the beginning of the story. But in the beginning of Sword Art Online, there are a number of odd things the villain does, with no explanation given.
The villain here I mean is the creator of the game called Sword Art Online. In the beginning of the series, he traps people in his online world. Why? We don't see that. How is that possible? We don't know. Doesn't a plan like that involve a LOT of people being in on it in terms of programmers working under him? Stop asking questions, I guess?
The villain just shows up, gives a painfully dull amount of exposition, and yet we're left with what feels like not enough exposition. In that, he drones on and on, but never gets to any of the real questions we might have. And nothing reveals who he is as a person, his motivations, his emotional state. Part of what make a villain work well is if we do see that about them. For example, one of Disney's greatest villains is Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Now, even before he sings a song about it, we know his motivation, the reasons he acts the way he does. We get an idea pretty early in the movie what kind of person he is. What makes him interesting is that he's so morally conflicted inside.
In contrast, the maker of the game Sword Art Online has no visible emotions or inner conflict. He has no doubts about the ethical quandaries of his actions. He just does stuff. Out of nowhere, for no reason. Not only trapping people in the game, but making it so that people will die in real life if they die in the game, and setting up a contest where only the strongest players who beat the game's 100 levels will live. Or something. He also changes the game so that people go from using avatars they designed to having avatars that resemble their real faces. We see Kirito get bummed out as he is forced to change from the older character he wanted to be, to his younger, but still adorably merchandise-worthy, face.
None of these actions are things the audience gets a clear understanding of the villain's motivation for. Also, the villain then just up and disappears. I got to episode 11, and outside his initial appearance, we never see the villain, nor anything that happens in the real world. We're left much like the characters themselves, blindly stuck in a fantasy world.
So to fix Sword Art Online, they need more about the villain. He needs some real-world scenes. We should, as the story continues, at least get hints about who he is and why he made the game, perhaps even hints about why he added details like forcing everyone to use their real faces.
As it stands, even though he's the maker of the story, his initial exposition dump just feels like a Big Lipped Alligator Moment that explains nothing and is later not even relevant. We also need to see how he gets away with all the crap he does in the real world. Because that part left me super confused when I watched the first few episodes. You can't do human testing without an ethics committee evaluation. And yes, that exists in Japan too. So the whole existence of something that is a video game, that can kill you if you die in the game or stop playing it, is illegal and would very quickly be shut down at the development stage.
Main point: Show a whole lot more about how this is all set up in the real world, or everything just feels like an Ass Pull. Make the villain feel more like a real person with real motivations and less like a generic doomsday villain. Since villains are so important to any story, and in this story, the villain made everything, this would go a long way towards fixing SAO.
5. Fix the Unreveal of Asuna's Introduction
You might not have remembered this if you're more into the recent episodes than the beginning, but the way Asuna was introduced as a character had a glaring flaw. What I mean is, she is set up as a mysterious character, hiding her identity with a hooded robe that covers her face. But when she ditches the hood the first time she has to fight a bad guy, she ditches it for good. Later, we see her interacting with Kirito and there is nothing revealed about why she started out wearing a hood to conceal her face. She never had any reason to conceal her face.
When you show a character concealing his or her face, there's usually a reason for it. A scar they want to hide. She might have been famous in the real world. I would have accepted that she was a serial killer clown. Or a serial killer of clowns. Anything would have been better than this - a confusing anticipation of a reveal that goes nowhere.
In contrast, Holo in Spice and Wolf. She has a pretty clear goddamn reason for concealing her face; her eyes and furry ears would give her away immediately as non-human. She would be called a demon, imprisoned by the church, and it would cause trouble for Lawrence. So it's a pretty big deal whenever Holo is seen without her hood, and the story builds a lot of tension about the possibility of her identity being revealed.
How could this have been fixed?
- Give Asuna a clear reason she has for sometimes hiding her face. OR,
- Have her not put a bag on her head in the first place. It's not exactly a cute fashion statement. If a character has no reason to hide their face, the simplest thing is to not have them hide it.
4. Pick a Genre, Any Genre
If I had known from the start that Sword Art Online was going to be a lighthearted romantic comedy about yet another Generic Boy meeting his Awesome Fantasy Harem, I'd have been OK with that. There's a huge gap between what was promised by the first couple of episodes and what the story actually ended up being.
So the fix is simple. Choose either an action-adventure, gritty Sci-Fi where death is breathing down everyone's neck, or choose a light-hearted, funny, romantic comedy about wacky hi-jinks involving tsundere panties and elf boobies. But don't promise one, and then deliver the other. The tone and genre inconsistency here was probably the main reason many people quit the show after the first few episodes.
Sure, you can have light-hearted moments in a hardcore science fiction. And you can have serious dramatic moments in a lighter story. But the overall tone in SAO is so hard to pin down, because it's trying too hard to be two things at once, which causes it to fail at being either of them very well.
3. Make it All One Story
One problem with SAO in terms of storytelling is side-tracking and branching too much. It sets up this super important concept; holy moley, everyone's trapped in World of Warcraft and the're all gonna die! That's exciting. Well now let's follow Wonderboy and his faithful companion Tits Redhead as they... do teen romantic comedy stuff that isn't at all exciting, or new to anyone who's seen any other anime.
Yeah. A similar problem happens in Inuyasha, where the main plot of the story (collecting the Shikon jewel shards) is too often abandoned for side plots. Many of these side plots are less interesting than, and add nothing to, the main plot.
How to fix this? Well one thing is that it could have been written so that it all takes place in a fantasy world. The fact that it takes place in a video game that everyone presumably is desperately trying to escape from makes it problematic whenever anyone spends any time not freaking out and running towards the goal. It's like setting a fire in a crowded building and yet watching everyone go about their shopping as if there were no fire. You can't create panic and a sense of urgency in the first episode, only for the characters to have completely dropped that sense of urgency just a couple episodes later. Nothing seems too trivial for Kirito to pursue. He never says, hey, let's not waste our time here, I want to get out of this game. It almost feels, after a while, that the game plot may as well not exist, because it's so little focused on or mentioned.
So why not just set it entirely in a fantasy world to begin with? Have Kirito be a kid in some village who wants to become an adventurer and get stronger, like Ash, Naruto, or Gon from Hunter x Hunter. There's nothing wrong with that. A lot of the problems in the story are caused by the fact that it is a video game. Taking out the video game might make it less original, but if that aspect of it is not going to be taken that seriously by the plot, maybe it could be dropped altogether.
2. Kirito Needs to Struggle More
One problem people have noted is that Kirito is a Gary Stu, a male Mary Sue. He's too perfect and rarely fails at anything. He's often able to save the day in implausible ways. And even though the game was changed between beta testing and the final version, and there are other beta testers, they use the fact that he was a beta tester as a shorthand for, 'he knows everything at all times, is never in doubt, and is just awesome'.
The problem is, a main character who's like that all the time, and never falls flat on his pretty little face, is boring. Any character who always wins or always loses will inevitably make the audience lose interest, because then the character has become predictable. Victory also means less if there is no real struggle for it in the first place. It's like having a sports movie (or anime) where none of the rival teams are actually very good.
Challenging your characters also gives them an opportunity for character growth. The main problem with the Mary Sue and her male counterpart is that there is no room for growth or learning life lessons, because the character had no personal flaws to overcome to begin with. No, a static character is not a bad thing. But to really care about a character, it's good to play it less safe and make them feel like they're genuinely vulnerable at times. For example, in Deadpool 2 (no spoilers), Deadpool's nearly limitless power of regeneration is put on hold by collars that block mutants' powers, making him more vulnerable. If your characters are awesome and badass all the time, in every situation, that's boring. There's no reason for planning or strategy. Just, let the main characters charge in and save the day. That really only works in child-oriented superhero works, and it barely works there, because it creates too much predictability. In action, it's not exciting unless there is a chance that the main character might lose or fail. Kirito, as far as I know, is invincible and is never forced to rethink his tactics or question himself.
How to fix that? Well it's simple. Have Kirito fail, and be forced to rethink his tactics. Or have him do something dumb, like charge into an ambush, that forces him to think about the way he handles problems. I don't know if the rest of the show does this. I'm hoping for it, but not hoping too hard.
1. Make People Voluntarily in the Game - Not Trapped
In Ready Player One, people spend all their time in a massive multiplayer online game because they want to. The world outside has gone down the toilet, so the game, called the O.A.S.I.S., is escapism for most people. You could do that with SAO and that would make it better.
For one, it gets rid of the aforementioned problem with creating a desperate sense of urgency to get out of the game (lighting a fire in the mall) and then dropping that urgency immediately. If people were just going into the game voluntarily, perhaps because the real world had all gone to shit, it would make a lot more sense. You also don't need such a boring, mustache-twiddling villain behind everything. And if you're going to carelessly dispose of the villain in later episodes too anyway, why not just do away with that idea altogether?
Very little is gained by having the characters be trapped in a video game. And being trapped in a game for so long is like being in a coma. It's depressing to think that all the characters, as happy as they are in the game, are wasting away in real life. Who is feeding them an cleaning up their waste? Are they being bathed? Are they getting bed sores? This is a nightmarish horror, an agony. And yet, creepily, all that real world messiness is just ignored and the later episodes of the game really do act like the game is voluntary, and fun. A game can't be fun if you're forced to live in it. Even if you wanted to be there originally. Not being able to leave and not knowing who is doing what to your real body are horrifying things to deal with. Yet SAO ignores the inherent mood dissonance between the reality of what's happening and the cute fantasy being presented.
A much better way to deal with this would have been for people to be in the game of their own accord. You could still have the villain be the game maker, and still have him use the game to fuck with people. But it doesn't work to have a beautiful wonderland of a game that people seem content in, and also have them forced into/trapped inside it, tragically. It's just weird and incongruent.
What do you think the best solution for SAO is?
Identifying problems is easier than knowing how exactly to fix something bad and make it better. I tried to do this with Sword Art Online. I feel like that anime had a lot of potential that went nowhere, frustrating many audience members and critics. So the above suggestions and comments are ideas for how to salvage that potential, and actually make it pay off with a better story. Some people like the quirks of SAO. And that's fine. It can be a matter of personal taste.
It's become kind of popular to hate as a backlash against its overwhelming popularity. The reason this popularity pisses off some people is that there is much more good anime out there, and people worry those good anime are getting buried by mediocre crap like SAO. It's bad, but there's no real reason other than that for it getting so much hate fandom. Reasonably, it simply suffers from a few storytelling mistakes that could be ironed out, and certain episodes are actually enjoyable. I'm no fan, but I'm not really a hater either. Do you like or hate SAO? How do you think the show should have been changed?
Questions & Answers
Most of your comments seem to suggest the best way to improve SAO would be to standardize or more closely follow norms, of genre, structure or form. Why do you feel this is necessary and wouldn’t that strip away the few defining, or at least characteristic, aspects of Sword Art Online?
I do want shows that are unique. My suggestions are intended to make it a stronger story. Defining characteristics of a show are important, it's good for a show to stand out. But the things I'm calling out here were defining characteristics I felt didn't work - didn't contribute to the emotional weight of the story. I wouldn't say standardize, but it would have been better if there was consistency rather than what felt like misdirection.