‘Sword Art Online’better as a mini-series
By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer
As someone who is obsessed with martial arts, sci-fi, fantasy, medieval culture, and gaming, I found Sword Art Online to cater to my every fictional preference. All A-1 Pictures had to do was not screw it up. And they didn’t—at first.
With the advent of virtual reality gaming rigs like Oculus Rift, we seem to have less and less incentive to go outside nowadays. Sword Art Online agrees, setting the series in a future where gamers enjoy virtual reality headsets that simulate tangible worlds in the mind of the wearer, enhancing the experience of gaming online with friends. The gameis the latest MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) from eccentric genius game designer Akihiko Kayaba. It’s all fun and games until, of course, the players find they cannot log out. The only way to escape is to beat the game, but dying in the game means death for real.
It’s a quaint, rusty hook, but the early episodes make some intriguing catches with it. The gamers evolve a social structure over time: the best players make military guilds dedicated to ending the simulation, while others populate safe zones and perfect their trade skills, such as blacksmithing. Those who risk the most gain the biggest rewards. Players can marry, own property, or even kill one another for personal gain, but they must do it all in accordance with the rules of the game. The population starts dwindling from day one, so each death has impact.
Social commentary aside, the show’s not as clever as it thinks it is. Kirito, the lead character, is so lazily written that he comes across as a blank slate. Playing solo, he manages to out-level everyone else (which never happens in an MMO), slay area bosses, and defy the laws of the game through sheer force of will, even as women fall in packs for his angsty anti-charm. It makes no sense that an anti-social loner is the one getting stuff done while the teamwork brigade loses squad after squad.
That said, it’s the relationship between Kirito and Asuna, a guild commander and foil fencer extraordinaire, that carries the show’s message best. Although their chemistry is amateurish, it shows that these are people who are afraid to be hurt. Opening up is hard for them because of the world they now inhabit, where death is easier to deal with if they don’t get attached to anyone. It’s poignant to see them together because it shows virtual relationships can be just as powerful as flesh-and-blood ones.
Sword Art Online looked so promising from the outset. The animation was at Studio Ghibli levels of detail, the fights only improved with time, and the soundtrack was fittingly operatic. However, the poorly structured plot kills the show quickly. There are too many one-off, filler episodes that distract from the overall goal of escape, which is achieved halfway through the season. Even worse, we never learn the reason why Kayaba chose to trap the players in his death simulator, even though this was the driving question to be answered.
The second half of the season isn’t even worth mentioning. I thought we’d get to see a traumatized Kirito readjust to life outside the game, but instead the writers contrive an idiotic reason to revive presumed dead characters (irredeemably cheapening their sacrifice) and send Kirito into a new virtual world in search of them. What a way to wreck the entire point of the show for the sake of another 12 episodes.
Like most modern virtual reality tech, Sword Art Online is depressingly overrated. You’ll find more adventure outside than you will in this series, so find some sticks and play swords. It’ll be more fun than this show.