The Love/Hate Relationship with Sword Art Online
The Game That's to Die For
If you're a new anime viewer, you might be wondering where to start. In my personal experience, I started off with the large mainstream hits such as Naruto and Ouran High School Host Club. I then dived down to lesser known titles.
During your quest, I strongly encourage you to check out Sword Art Online if you have not already. It has the perfect balance of action-packed scenes with a strong premise for an anime and it is highly addicting. The narrative makes a video game a matter of life or death. With the video game craze getting bigger recently, it's no surprise that Sword Art Online draws a certain viewership.
If you're considering watching this series (or if you've already watched it and just happened upon the article), here are some facts and personal opinions regarding the show that you may want to consider. Now, don't get me wrong, I still have a strong love for the show. However, it's proven to be inconsistent more than a few times and I've caught myself rolling my eyes at quite a few sections.
I should also note that there are no major spoilers inside this article.
The Premise: 10/10
The idea behind the show is phenomenal.
Think Hunger Games mixed with World of Warcraft. Virtual reality has just started to make an impact on the gaming community and a highly anticipated game is released following the beta testing phase.
Now the twist. Once a character has logged on, there is no logging off. Characters are stuck in the virtual reality game with the forboding knowledge that if you die in the game, you die in real life. With this information, SAO introduced one of the strongest opening sequences of all time. The suspense of this new fantasy world draws in a mysterious aura that anything is possible and nothing is off limits.
It's the futuristic virtual dystopia story that you didn't know you wanted and there is a lot of potential with this premise. Introducing new worlds into a story is an extremely delicate procedure, especially when you're combining the real world with the created one. SAO's main inspiration seemed to have come from The Matrix in the sense that characters were transported to the alternate world through a machine by stimulating neurons in their brains. Essentially, Neo and his hacker friends were operating a game and a lot was left to the imagination. How they ate, how they slept, how they had sex, how all these desires and needs were satisfied just with how the brain perceived them to be.
What was so beautiful about The Matrix was leaving certain things unexplained and, unlike the sequels, the first film did just that. It was a mysterious alternate reality that not even the experts in the field knew everything about and this is the case with SAO. They don't go into great depths about how it came to be, or how that technology came to exist. It just happened that way. It focuses on the characters rather than the how and the what.
So, we have a steady premise, setting, and a rough, but stable description of a timeline.
The Psychological Process: 3/10
Think of films you've seen or books you've read that feature an unwilling transfer from one way of life to another. Hunger Games would be an excellent example. Katniss Everdeen had to wrestle with the idea of a life-or-death scenario. Throughout the book, she is constantly plotting. The sense of doom is affecting the way she thinks, the things she says, and the actions she takes. She knows that every move she makes is being closely monitored.
Viewers would expect characters to behave similarly while watching SAO. Characters should have a psychotic breakdown, or enter into a state of denial. Throughout the show, the protagonist completely accepts his reality, along with almost every other character. There is no mental struggle for most of them.
While there is an "oh shit" moment, that's about the extent of it. No characters wrestling with depression or regret. No psychological breakdowns. No suicides. No riots. Everyone in the game just simply accepts the reality they're faced with and just go with it. This is simply not consistent with the human condition and the mind would take a severe amount of adjusting. The mental trauma that each individual user faced would be tremendous. However, they just seem to be characters in an MMO. It's as if we're watching a show about a group of people that play an MMO together and that's it. There are no real struggles, with the exception of maybe one character, Sachi, who was simply afraid to die. Although, that's a fear common in nearly everyone.
Overall, I was expecting a lot more than "Oh shit...oh well."
The Protagonist: 4/10
Here is where the love/hate comes in.
His name is Kirito (or that is at least his screenname) and he is the first character introduced in the series. It is revealed in the first episode that he was a part of the beta testing program. Among the 10,000 users playing the game, only 1,000 were chosen as beta testers. As a result, they are known throughout the world as cheaters. They know information but do not share it with other users and many of these beta cheaters (or beaters as they are known in the show) are solo players, such as our protagonist.
Good Things About Kirito
He is generally a likable character throughout every point of the anime. Kirito is a strong and knowledgable character that everyone is intimidated to play with or against. He keeps to himself and doesn't bother anyone. His character level and skill levels are more than enough to let others know he is not one to be trifled with. While a good person at heart, Kirito doesn't care for attachment, a trait he had before entering the game. Many relationships he creates are for personal gain. He lives to strengthen himself in the game for survival.
Overall, he's the type of character everyone is eventually hoping to become once joining an MMORPG.
Bad Things About Kirito
- Overpowered: Anyone who sees this show will understand this immediately. His skill progresses faster than any other character in the game and he is also granted unbelievable power for seemingly no reason at all. There is no montage scene or try-and-fail syndrome. Kirito is simply always fantastic in everything he does. He never fails, he never falls, and there's no real evidence as to how he got that way. The timeline in the game should've progressed slower but it almost seems as if the writers were in a rush to finish. In The Matrix, Neo faces some severe obstacles on learning how to maintain and control his power. Yes, he learned kung-fu in a ridiculously short period of time. However, he still hadn't mastered the art and he failed when everyone thought he might succeed. This is supposed to be a relatable hero, one that we believe could exist. Kirito achieving this amount of power almost immediately is unrealistic.
- Lady Killer: This perhaps shouldn't bug me as much as it does but I believe it is worth mentioning. Kirito is an immensely enjoyable character and this isn't necessarily anything against him. However, the effect he has on the women of SAO is slightly laughable. There are a few that make sense and are believable. Then there are others that pop up out of nowhere. Kirito doesn't necessarily flirt with any of these women nor is he particularly nice to them in any way. And yet all of them seem to fall for him simply because he is the main character and the writers want all those lovely love interests. This includes his younger stepsister who has a crush on him in the real world as well as unknowingly falls for his avatar in another virtual game. Many girls seem to fall in love with him in less than ten seconds for no apparent reason at all.
- Character Inconsistency: Throughout the beginning of the first season, Kirito explains to more than a few characters (or simply anyone he comes across) that he is a solo player and doesn't want or need help from anyone. He will defeat this game on his own and there's nothing anyone else can do to suggest otherwise. There is a female named Asuna that is known to be on his same level. She's just as powerful as him but, unlike Kirito, she is the leader of the strongest guild in SAO and believes in working as a team. Of course, we knew all along that this would be the main love interest of SAO. Kirito is easily persuaded by Asuna to form a team in less than three episodes after strongly exclaiming he was a solo player. I almost stopped watching at this point because of the poorly drawn out character development. While I understand that the endgame was for Kirito to eventually abandon his solo status, the intensity of how quickly it happened made it very unbelievable and way out of character.
The Love Interest: 5/10
Here is the primary love interest, Asuna. She is completely new to the gaming world and is first revealed in a large maroon coat, her face and gear completely concealed. Kirito establishes a small relationship with her at the beginning but the main impression given about Asuna within the first few episodes is a mystery. Viewers know she's going to be a viable and powerful character and are excited at the possibility of a strong, female gamer.
Unfortunately, that is not what is given.
At first, Asuna does have those qualities. She's a no-nonsense, shoot first-type of leader and climbs her way to the top of the most powerful guild in the game. This is thanks to the pep talk from Kirito in the second episode. However, her character completely dissolves as she gets closer to Kiriro. The tough general becomes a soft, giddy housewife. It is emphasized throughout the show that Asuna cooks and maintains a very clean, housewife-worthy home. Her entire world now revolves around Kirito.
Like the protagonist, there is very little character development or explanation of how Asuna came to be this way or why her priorities change so suddenly. The anime quickly turned into something that I wasn't at all expecting as many less-than-subtle and humorous clues for a budding romance occurred throughout the series. Events such as Kirito accidentally grasping Asuna's boob and a scene where he asks her to stay with him for the night; Asuna immediately assumes he wants to have sex. As a female, I wasn't necessarily offended by this but the idea that a strong female character would drop everything, including her priorities and personality, for a man seemed to be way out of character.
Even Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-It Ralph had better character development and she had less than two hours to establish it.
Plot Development: 2/10
I won't say much on this given that I don't want to give many spoilers.
The main villain in the first story arc, the man who created the game, was decent in a sense that he is never actually present throughout the majority of the game. He appears at the very end, of course, and has very little dialogue. In the end, Kirito asks him why he did what he did and he says that simply doesn't know anymore which is an intriguing look at his character. It is not often that that villains are left with ambiguous motives. In the end, I found it more entertaining than the average villainous response which would have been something like "I just like to watch the world burn" or a variation of that phrase.
Mild Spoiler Alert!
Once the game was beaten and the characters returned to their normal lives, the show took a turn for the worse as the main hook of the premise is gone before the first season ended. It was too abrupt They bypassed two full years of gameplay in less than 15 episodes. The second villain that appeared was honestly pretty appalling. His entire motive was to create another "save the damsel in distress" moment for himself. There is an implication that he planned to rape Asuna, which was thoroughly disgusting. Her calling out for Kirito to save her was the point where I stopped watching the show. I couldn't tell you where the plot proceeded beyond that point.
End of Spoiler!
The plot was paced horribly and the introduction of even more virtual reality games was a bit excessive. The first game, Sword Art Online, should've continued well throughout the first season and into the second. In that extra season of gameplay, the writers would've had time to develop Kirito and Asuna and possibly prevent the show from getting so many poor reviews.
If nothing less, SAO has outstanding animation. The game world was beautifully established and is certainly pleasing to the eye. It's not overly distracting and the different monsters and character designs are very intriguing. Anyone who loves MMO games would think this a game they would really want to be a part of, It is that beautiful.
The fighting scenes are intense. Each character is given a different and unique way of protecting themselves and battles can feel pretty visceral. It never feels like two children are fighting.
Don't Get Me Wrong
Despite all the low ratings that I and many others have given Sword Art Online, the characters are still salvageable. At the very least, the strong premise keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. It's a creative anime that I enjoyed watching. However, it was short-lived in my opinion. If the pacing had been done differently, it could have thrived for far longer than it had.
This is still a recommended watch. However, don't expect the perfect anime by any means.