Let’s talk about Sword Art Online.
But why start there? asks that jerkface in the back row. You’re starting an anime blog, J-Mo: begin with one of the classics! Talk about Cowboy Bebop or Fullmetal Alchemist, or evenPokémon
, for crying out loud. Analyze something respected, something that’s stood the test of time and proven its mettle, just so we at home know you’re not just some hack-at-a-Mac who thinks he can say whatever he wants about our sacred cows. If you’re going to start wrong, why start at all?
Well, truth be told, Sword Art Online was the first anime I ever watched.
And let’s make one thing clear right now: when I say “watched,” I mean watched—
as in, completed. Or at least that I made a concerted effort to decide if a particular show was worth my time. And you know, I was a kid once. I watched Toonami same as all of you, and got my own fair helping of the Dragonballs and Pokémons and Sailor Moons of the day. But Sword Art Online was the first anime I ever watched as what I’ll call here a Discerning Viewer—and not only watched, but finished
, first episode to last.
What made SAO different? In a word, “consistency.”
Because of course SAO wasn’t my first experience with anime. I dabbled some in high school—I had an experimental phase! Shocker!—but at the time I found the seas unwelcomingly rough. Why? Well, at the time, Bleach and One Piece were the heavy hitters, but in both these series, stuff…. Just kind of happens. What the hell’s a Soul Reaper? Why can that pirate stretch like that? Why are they just floating there and talking instead of fighting? Long story short, I got lost fast
, but I was determined, striving headlong against the mighty current of displeasure until I…
What? What’s that you say?
THREE HUNDRED AND SIXTY SIX more episodes to go?
But then! Like a balm amidst the tempest, like an oasis in the desert, like a Wayne Brady catchphrase in the middle of a terrible mixed metaphor… Sword Art Online appeared from the void. A video game-like fantasy world with well-explained rules? A small, focused cast? American-style storytelling? ONLY THIRTEEN EPISODES? Deal me in, Perry!
Unlike the anime series I’d sampled before, Sword Art Online established from the get-go that it had rules
. For you uninitiated out there, here’s the basic premise:
In the near-ish future, a virtual-reality technology allows for the development of the Fulldive System, a video game console that interfaces with players’ nervous systems, allowing them to enter virtual fantasy worlds and control the game with their thoughts. The first game of this sort is Sword Art Online, a hack-and-slashy MMO that emphasizes swordplay. SAO is extremely popular, but as soon as the game comes out of beta the game’s creator Kayaba removes the option to log out, trapping thousands of players inside the game in a bid to become a god in his own virtual world. Kayaba warns the players that if they are defeated in the game—or if their Fulldive System is tampered with from the outside—microwaves will fry their brains, killing them instantly. In other words: you die in the game, you die in Real Life. The only way out is to clear all 200 floors of the game and defeat the final boss, upon which the game will end and all the trapped players will be released.
Naturally, this news terrifies most of the players. But one player, a beta tester who calls himself Kirito, resolves to use his prior knowledge of the game to beat the 200 floors, defeat the final boss, and free his fellow players. It is Kirito we follow throughout the game, and much of the drama of the series stems from both the physical and psychological conflicts he encounters along the way.
So what does this have to do with rules? Well, anybody with any gaming experience can tell you that a good video game abides by a certain set of rules. Mario can only jump so high. Sonic loses his rings when attacked without a powerup. Link can swim, but if his air-meter runs out—that’s curtains! Savvy fans might also calls these rules mechanics:
they’re the building blocks of game design, and determine how the player interacts with the game. Good mechanics ensure that the player feels in control of their experience at all times, and that failure or death in-game feels like their fault, and not the game’s.
Now remember that SAO takes place inside a killer videogame. You see where I’m going with this? I started SAO on the assumption that the writers would follow the same rules to create a fake game as they would a real one. At first I wasn’t disappointed: because SAO doesn’t include any sort of magic system, Kirito and friends are limited to swordplay, grounding the combat from the start. Players become more powerful by gaining experience from monster encounters and item drops, similar to any MMO.
But remember how I said “at first?”
Any of you who have seen ANY of SAO know that Kirito, the protagonist, becomes extremely overpowered very quickly, so much so that he survives punishment that would have demolished any other character in the series. In fact, it becomes a running joke in some of the more lighthearted episodes to see just how much of a beating the kid can take without biting the big one. But this brings up a somewhat troubling question: how much can we possibly care about an invincible protagonist?
We’ve seen this problem before; most recently in the big-budget Superman reboot Man of Steel.
Many critics have noted that the climax of the film is forty-five minutes straight of Supey and villain Zod punching each other through literally every single building in Metropolis—barely mussing the hair of the Kryptonians themselves. Luckily, for the most part SAO avoids this pitfall by focusing on the psychological repercussions of combat just as much—if not more—than the physical. Kirito establishes himself as a powerful fighter from the first episode, but instead of being hailed as a hero, the other players accuse him of cheating, and selfishly hiding his true power. This coupled with the shocking death of a party member drives Kirito deeper and deeper into lone-wolf-dom, opting to quest alone while the other players take shelter in large numbers. But no matter how much he tries to avoid his fellow players, he breaks his self-enforced solitude again and again to help players in dire need. This is where the emotional drama of the series lies: no matter how powerful Kirito becomes, he can’t always protect his friends, and each tragic death he witnesses drives him farther into hermitage. Eventually, however, he meets another player, a girl named Asuna, who’s just as powerful as he—the only kind of person he could ever love.
But enough highbrow analysis! Let’s talk about:
The Top 3 Reasons Sword Art Online is Awesome
One thing you’ll be hearing me talk about a lot in this blog series is a little concept I like to call the “Motion Percentage,” or Mo%, if you will. This refers to the amount of run time in which the episode isn’t in either still-frame mode or talking-heads mode—ultimately, how much is moving on screen over the course of x amount of time. Shows with high Mo% tend to look better and feel more engaging, while shows with low Mo% tend to feel cheap or rushed. High-budget shows tend to have higher Mo%, but this is not always the case. SAO runs at a constant 75 Mo% throughout, which is pretty high for a series of its complexity. And even when things aren’t in motion… folks, Sword Art Online is gorgeous.
Aincrad, as far as world-building goes, is a friggin’ masterpiece,
and really feels like a living, breathing world. There’s a moment in one episode where realizes he’s actually happy being trapped in the game, and after spending so much time in Aincrad with him, I can believe it. Everything has this glow to it, from the incredible detail in the vast fields, to the utterly charming character animations, to the phenomenal monster designs—some of which are truly intimidating. No matter what part of Aincrad you’re looking at, the art of SAO makes coming back time and time again a visual treat.
I don’t know why this is, but when I first heard about Sword Art Online in high school, I assumed—erroneously, of course—that the series would function more like Attack on Titan does: as an ensemble piece, with loads and loads of characters and no clear protagonist. Instead, SAO largely focuses on just Kirito, and later on both Kirito and Asuna, with the addition of a small supporting cast that pops in and out of the narrative in cameo appearances. Let’s talk about Kirito first.
Lordy, lordy, lordy, is Kirito a badass.
Okay, I know I complained earlier about how boring an invincible protagonist can be, and to be honest there’s a lot I should really hate about this character. For one thing, he’s essentially a neckbeard living in his room playing video games, but somehow SAO turns this unsavory trait into a superpower
—he likes games so much that he can’t be killed!. Sometimes he’s emotionless and bland, but sometimes he’s the emotional heart of the series! Sometimes he’s awkward and socially inept, but later we see him being both a good husband AND a good father! What?
But perhaps his most defining trait is that unholy, grit-and-iron willpower of his. Sure, most anime protagonists exhibit shades of this, but Kirito’s resolve literally allows him to break the rules of his own fictional universe. Over the course of the first 13 episodes, Kirito performs the following Charles Atlas feats: A) He withstands a fatal poisoning just by sweatin’ it out, B) hacks into the game to save an AI character through sheer determination despite no knowledge of how to do so, and C) OVERCOMES HIS OWN DEATH to stab villain Kayaba through the chest—freeing everybody trapped in SAO—just by wanting it bad enough.
If you’re not inspired by that, you’re either a plank of wood or a porcupine. A porcupine that can’t read. Shame on you.
Kirito’s main squeeze Asuna is a lot of fun too, even though for the first half of the season we don’t see too much of her. This actually works to the series’ advantage, because every time we catch a glimpse of her, she gets stronger and stronger, implying that she’s having her own awesome adventures just off-screen. This means that we’re glad to see her every time, if only to find out what in the wide world of sports she’s been up to in the meantime. And when the show finally begins focusing on her, it gets even better. Asuna’s just as much of a badass as Kirito is, and any scene where the two fight side by side is always a series highlight. This isn’t to say Asuna’s just about fighting. Yeah, maybe I should get upset that one of the show’s female lead’s defining characteristics is that she maxed out her cooking skill
, but, you know what? I’m not: because she even makes cooking
look badass. Remember when she threatens Kirito with that butter knife? Yeah, I jumped too. Sucks about what happened to her in the second season, though…
1. And the number one reason that Sword Art Online is Awesome is….
Sword Art Online is an emotional blender, the kind that tears your stomach out, puts in where your heart should be, blindfolds you, spins you around three times, and makes you watch your favorite characters die. I don’t know why I keep comparing SAO to Attack on Titan, but I’m about to do it again: I actually think Sword Art Online wins as far as emotional impact goes. I don’t know: maybe it’s the dreamlike feel of the fantasy setting, maybe it’s the sheer unpredictability of some of the deaths (you’re predictable, AoT—get over it), but no series before or since has made me feel the levels of terror, triumph, sorrow, and joy that Sword Art Online has. I cried when Sachi was struck down and murmered her unheard last words to Kirito, and wept all over again when the show just REOPENED that wound with NO PROVOCATION when we finally got to hear what she said. I laughed when Lisbeth fought to confess her love to Kirito above the roar of terminal-velocity winds. I felt my own sense of bitter defeat when, after Kirito watches Asuna die, he grimly staggers after Kayaba, too grief-stricken to even swing his sword. And—my friends, I am being one hundred and forty-four Mo% honest with you all when I say this—when Kirito awakened from SAO at the end of the last episode, when he struggled to his feet despite being weak from coma-induced malnourishment and hobbled off to find Asuna—I felt as though I, too, had won an astonishing victory.
That is why I love Sword Art Online, and why I continue to revisit it to this day.
And then the second season happened…