Sword Art Online – Review
In the near future, a Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG) called Sword Art Online has been released where players control their avatars with their bodies using a piece of technology called Nerve Gear. One day, players discover they cannot log out, as the game creator is holding them captive unless they reach the 100th floor of the game’s tower and defeat the final boss. However, if they die in the game, they die in real life. Their struggle for survival starts now…
Stemming from the novel series by author Reki Kawahara, Sword Art Online is a superbly crafted series that often hits its mark more so that it misses it. On one hand, the series delivers a vividly imagined universe that accurately reflects our own contemporary infatuation with massively multiplayer online gaming. On the other hand, the second arc of the series surprisingly leaves much of what made it interesting behind, instead transforming into an almost completely different series by its conclusion. This approach certainly makes Sword Art Online a series that is without a doubt one with an extremely intriguing premise, but also one that may disappoint some viewers who were expecting the narrative strength offered in the series’ first half to remain present throughout its remainder.
It would be ignorant to state that Sword Art Online does not start out strongly. Providing a reflective look into the popularity of massively multiplayer online gaming, the series offers up a genuine exploration of how such an activity may eventually evolve in our own world—which is not exactly a positive notion. With the introduction of “Nerve Gear,” participants within online games can now fully immerse themselves into such games, living out their character’s lives as if they were their own. As they soon find out though, due to some malfunction that prevents them from logging out of the game, the players suddenly find that they are trapped within the confinement of the world of Sword Art Online. We as viewers slowly begin to realize that the players’ social connection to that of the real world is starting to disintegrate and transform into that of the social hierarchy offered through the game’s world. We witness a multitude of diverse groups and individuals each attempt to dominate the landscape and players, whether through means of ruthlessness, oppression, or simply to maintain some sense of communal order.
This interesting approach offers much to ponder towards how we understand online gaming and its potentiality as a serious viable form of entertainment. While other works such as Serial Experiments Lain (1998) and .hack//Sign (2002) have already offered a mature exploration into the realm of the internet, Sword Art Online revitalizes such themes by more fully showcasing the positives and negatives of viewing the internet as an outlet for purposes of entertainment. Similar to the recent series Btooom! (2012), Sword Art Online too starts with a lead character, in this case Kirito, who has become addicted to online gaming, choosing to spend much of his time within the virtual world more so than the real one. The character of Kirito offers an eerie reflection upon which we can judge real world cases of individuals who neglect their personal lives for the sake of constantly being connected and engaging within a world that is not real. The series raises questions that are profoundly considerate of such circumstances, questions that become increasingly troublesome from a purely psychological standpoint as the series progresses.
But as we witness the universe of the first arc of Sword Art Online flourish, we begin to see that the normal actions that one may experience while playing a role-playing game have heavy consequences here, primarily due to the players being trapped within such a virtual world. The sociological effects shown throughout the series are fascinating to say the least, especially to those viewers who ever played a role-playing game before. We witness strong friendships come to fruition, individuals helping lower-level players defeat enemies, and even Kirito falling in love and getting married, all within the space of the virtual world. On a darker note, we also witness individuals who enjoy killing other players, factions struggling for dominance, thievery, and even death. The narrative remains focused on bringing about the familiarity of online gaming to the audience, showing us the immense influence that in-game actions have on the players and their affect on the virtual world—and real world—as a whole. This approach provides Sword Art Online with a deep sense of mystery as the world is slowly unraveled before us through the endeavors of Kirito, building suspense as the narrative progresses. It is refreshing to see that it is a series that removes itself from many of the stereotypes often confronted in anime—at least until it reaches its second arc.
With all the grandiosity, social examination, and thrilling adventuring offered by Sword Art Online’s initial 14-episodes, the series takes a drastic departure in regards to its remaining episodes. In many respects, while the series does a fantastic job in establishing the virtual world of Sword Art Online as a practical situation that could indeed happen, the second arc situates Kirito mostly within a real world setting that contains a plethora of stereotypical tropes that just diminish the considerable emotional impact established by its first arc. The series also introduces yet another virtual world that Kirito must contend with, which situates the series in a Return of the Jedi-esque approach in more ways that one as the series introduces a sexually-revolting villain, Kirito’s relationship with his supposed sibling hitting bizarre levels of attraction, and even introduces a rather superficial argument for the importance of online gaming that totally negates what the first arc proposed. One could even suggest that the second arc will be a crucial turning point for many viewers, essentially forcing them to reevaluate their stance on the overall series from that point on—and not necessarily for the better.
It is rather unfortunate that the series suddenly ventures into an almost entirely new—and cliché—territory with its second arc, as the strength of the first arc had so much potential that was left unexplored. The compelling universe witnessed in the first arc had provided the foundation in which to offer a more fulfilling commentary on the state of massively multiplayer online gaming as we see it today, instead becoming awash in banality that makes it seems as though we are watching an entirely different show altogether. The differences are jarring, inconsiderate, and largely uncalled for, often seeming as a vain attempt to simply prolong the show.
Despite issues concerning the direction taken by the series’ second arc, Sword Art Online overall remains a series that provides an astute social observation into the state of online gaming and its influence on the individual and communal level. While the series does fall short of its true potential, one can still see the relevancy of themes explored throughout the series as reflective of our contemporary times. It is a series that is surprisingly attentive in regards to the realm of online gaming, showcasing its knowledge through its usage of terminology, enemy duels, and the illustrious and distinct vistas that the characters traverse. And with the abundance of massively multiplayer online games reaching markets far and wide throughout the world today, Sword Art Online presents an honest examination as to the potential—and danger—that virtual reality may one day offers us.
Author: Miguel Douglas
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