Why Is SAO a Bad Anime?
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.
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 at the beginning of the story. But at 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. At 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 makes 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.
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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.
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 - 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.
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.
One problem with SAO in terms of storytelling is side-tracking and branching too much. It sets up this super important concept; holy moly, everyone's trapped in World of Warcraft and they'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 of 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.
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.
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 and cleaning up their waste? Are they being bathed? Are they getting bedsores? 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.
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
Question: 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?
Answer: 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.
Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on February 16, 2020:
"You can’t judge this anime in 11 episodes "
Sorry but that's actually more than it takes to judge an anime. It takes five minutes to the first episode. A show has to hook you in the first five minutes. I'm not wading through however many episodes of pure boredom waiting for a good ending. It has to be interesting and exciting off the bat, and for me it isn't because it never feels like Kirito and Asuna are ever in any real trouble.
The Mad Quinn on February 12, 2020:
if you finished the show you you’d see your reasons aren’t good. you do learn more about the villain when the characters learn about him. the storyline shows that the creator of the game was playing the game with them and was the final boss, he wanted to play the game he created so that’s why he disappeared and why his identity wasn’t shown so he could blend in like a normal character. They show the real world and the news showed how the game trapped people and killed people when they died in game the people playing the games were put in hospitals and were taken care of. Kirito does fail a few times and struggles but is saved by his friends. You can’t judge this anime in 11 episodes the storyline isnt finished and everything is answered. SAO wasn’t my first anime or my last but it’s one of my favorites I’ve seen every season, Movie, and video game. learn to get the facts straight before judging because the only problem that wasn’t solved was Asuna covering her face which if I guessed or used common sense she was probably trying to process what just happened and was trying to conceal her emotions so she wouldn’t come off as weak and be killed right away.
Samiens on June 01, 2018:
I can see your logic on that but Looking at SAO as a whole, rather than the first half of season 1 (which covers about 4 novels in the series) I think it would hurt much more than it would help - the juxtaposition of real world and game world becomes increasingly important, and interesting, as it progresses - particularly in the material that will make up season 3.
That’s not to say I couldn’t see a fantasy setting better supporting the first arc though as you say - but I’m not sure that it wouldn’t be indistinguishable from the raft of genetic isekai shows that followed it if you did that - for better or worse.
It’s an interesting discussion though - and one that’s helped me answer your poll question. I’d definitely go for another writer - not so much to set the direction or major plot points but a more skilled author with more space to address the flaws in the setting and better bring out the (light) philosophy that underpins it.
(Not to say I don’t love Reki Kawahara for creating something I really like of course!)
Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on June 01, 2018:
That's kind of why I think it would have worked better wholly in a fantasy setting. They already have isekai by magical means, that would have been fine, rather than absurd technologies and poorly thought-out game mechanics.
Samiens on May 31, 2018:
I definitely agree - the in-universe explanation is that the cardinal system that underpins the game does all of the maintenance, and the vast majority of the development, tasks you would normally need a whole army of people to carry out. It seems somewhat incongruous with the level of technology otherwise present.
It’s also patently ridiculous that you could bring a high profile VR headset to release (even if it is a tiny launch of 10,000 machines only) with so little testing that no one would notice it can actually kill people.
This kind of highlights where I think SAO both does and really does not work - as a work of science fiction it is simply too inconsistent to stand up and not remote enough in setting to ignore. Similarly as game literature the mechanics aren’t sufficiently explored to provide enough depth to truly engage (not to mention that some seem way off from any modern design philosophy).
As a light novel genre fusion (by result rather than intention I suspect) however, it covers a lot of bases - it has a solid romance, decent action, recognisable game elements and an interesting enough setting to support light philosophising on the real world/virtual world split (though this is more apparent in later arcs and the novels). While even I, as a serious fan, can’t say it is the best, or even great, in any of those areas I think there is a case for it being entertaining across multiple genres (though that is of course entirely subjective) which I think both helps a larger number of people find something to like about it and gives it some character (even if each individual element is heavily, if sometimes pleasingly, generic).
It’s one of those shows that can be entertaining, exciting and sometimes touching, which are all factors in its popularity, even if it doesn’t hold up under aesthetic or critical examination.
Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on May 31, 2018:
Well those are good points. But as for the villain's motive, it doesn't really explain how he does anything, or how he gets away with it. Real MMORPGs need so much manpower, rows and rows of people sitting at computers all day. To have a huge company with that kind of capability on a technical level, it would have been, as I said, impossible to get around the ethical violations involved in even exploring the possibility of an MMORPG that MIGHT trap humans inside. Experimenting with people's brains is a lot of red tape. For good reason.
Samiens on May 31, 2018:
I will preface my comment by stating that I love SAO - it remains my favourite property (even though I’m well aware of its many flaws and fully accept there are much better crafted shows around).
I’ve always thought that the biggest issue for SAO is one of marketing - it’s advertised as a high concept work when in actual fact it’s a hot mess fusion of action, romance, isekai and other genres (depending on series). This leads to subversion if expectations (both good and bad) which I think is a major factor in how polarising the show is. I’m not sure it needs fixing (though despite how much I like it I can see areas for inprovement - though probably not those above, interesting as they are) so much as repositioning.
Only other point for now, because I’ve never got why people raise this as a critique, is that we absolutely do know why the villain did this - it is explained in the first episode (he wanted to create another world different to reality). It might not be a sophisticated, or even good, explanation but it is there and borne out in later episodes.