Why Sword Art Online is a Worthwhile Series
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, you would probably have heard of Sword Art Online. Some people love it. Others hate it. As a blogger, I feel like I’ve been more exposed to the hate than to the love. So rather than say it was overrated, I would be quicker to say it was overhated.
It would be unfair to call SAO a terrible anime, but it is equally short-sighted to call it a great one. Set in the near future after the launch of the world’s first Visual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG), SAO depicts a scenario where the death of the player equates to a real-life fatality, and where the only option for escape is to clear all of the 100 floors within the game world. Like most light novels, though, the story of SAO is very premise-driven. The meat of the story isn’t in the plot or in the characters – it’s in the concept. If you can truly get behind this concept and put yourself into this world, then SAO is a very worthwhile series. Still, the plot is thin either way, because it is a victim of its format. It is truly wasted potential.
The biggest and most obvious problem was that it crammed a huge, epic storyline – a plot deserving the length and serious treatment of a multi-volume fantasy epic – into the length of a novella. The first volume is about 70,000 words all up. The entire conflict of the story is introduced and resolved in that span of words. Any further volumes that were written faced a very simple roadblock – the story was already essentially finished. One solution the author came up with was to write short stories to flesh out the characters in the first volume. And these were also put into the anime adaptation.
But the short stories were in an awkward dilemma: each story was too long to be condensed into a single television episode, but they were also too short to be stretched out into two episodes without dragging on. It’s no surprise that the anime adaptation turned out so disjointed. The individual scenes were directed competently, sometimes even masterfully, but the overall direction was haphazard, featuring awkward time skips and glaring gaps in character development. The main character Kirito seemed to change personality every episode. Without hearing his narration to bridge the gap between his thoughts and actions, he lost a good deal of his credibility as a character.
More than that, SAO was simply a childish narrative to begin with. It told a very simplistic story within a very complicated world. By confining the narrative almost entirely to Kirito’s perspective, the expansive quality of a MMORPG setting was lost. Supporting characters were not given the screen time needed to feel like anything more than perfunctory set pieces. Particularly in the Fairy Dance arc, the setting and the characters seemed to exist solely for Kirito’s benefit rather than the other way around. Despite it being repeatedly stressed in the narrative that the female population in the game is disproportionately low, the named supporting characters are mostly female – and all of them with few exceptions display romantic feelings for Kirito. One of the most common complaints about SAO is that it is otaku-pandering wish fulfillment. I don’t disagree with this.
But put yourself in Reki Kawahara’s shoes here. What was he possibly thinking when he came up with this story? Does any of this wish fulfillment serve a thematic purpose? Most would say of course not, it’s just the way it is with these light novels.
I would say this: what Kawahara wanted to create, more than anything else, was a fairytale.
SAO starts off bleak. Of the 10,000 players trapped within the game, roughly 2000 die within the first month. Players are fearful and mistrusting of each other, and most of them cowardly resort to staying within the walls of the safe zone for entire duration of the game. To them, it is someone else’s problem. Kirito himself is a lone wolf, and in the first episode, he rejects his first friend in the game in favour of making a head start and getting some extra experience points. This is all well within the bounds of human nature.
But gradually, the situation, while never improving, changes. Two years pass and no one has cleared the game yet – perhaps they never will – but people have adapted. They live their lives in the MMORPG as if they lived in the real world. And this is where the theme of SAO emerges.
At its core, the Aincrad arc is a love story, or, to put it in more general terms, it is a story about relationships. Though he starts off as a solo player, Kirito forms bonds with numerous players within the game, of them his love interest Asuna being the most significant. But all of his relationships shape him in different ways and it is these bonds that allow him to discover a strength that is distinct from what is in the game code.
Teamwork is vital in this part of the story. The animators put a lot of detail into the boss sequences: players form parties and attack the boss in groups, incorporating defensive manoeuvres and ‘switching’ out whenever they need to heal. This does not guarantee zero fatalities, and one pretty horrific boss takes out fourteen top-level players, most of them in one hit. Sword Art Online is the ultimate grinding and co-op MMORPG, it seems. Even Kirito, the strongest player in the game when it comes to levels, is no match for the bosses when playing alone. This is why he needs Asuna and why Asuna needs him.
The romance between Kirito and Asuna plays out so idealistically because even in a cruel world, innocent love can reach fulfillment. (Also, Kirito probably needed to get laid. This no doubt had a large part to do with it.) Essentially, there is good and bad to any situation. In the first episode of the series, Kirito remarks that the world of Sword Art Online is “a virtual world, but I feel more alive here than I do in the real one.” This is a recurring motif in the series – that the world of SAO is more real than what is actually real. There are more opportunities in this world. The possibility of dying is what actually makes it so much easier to get emotionally invested in the world they’re in. Despite never having met Asuna in “real life”, Kirito’s love for her is still real.
So was their experience worthwhile, in the end? The death count is obscene, but if that situation had never occurred, Kirito and Asuna would never have found each other. The bonds would never have been made, and this is something true for every player who put his life on the line. The series never attempts to answer this question directly, and that is perhaps for the best.
This is why SAO is a worthwhile series when all is said and done – because it leaves so much to the imagination. The world is grandiose and romantic, like something from a sweeping medieval epic. It’s a fairytale. It’s also a game I would definitely want to play. The SAO we create in our minds as we read or watch the story is ultimately a better place than what the series exposes us to. This is something that probably both fans and critics alike can agree to. As the story itself points out, the potential in an online world is limitless. One suspects that no matter what story SAO delivered, it could not have reached the potential it promised, from the very nature of its world.
But we can always imagine, can’t we?