Being an MMORPG player is suffering.
I’m pretty sure most people reading this post would at least be familiar with Gen Urobuchi (the writer of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Fate Zero) and the uber popular, uber polarising Sword Art Online. Superficially, neither of them have anything to do with each other. Still, you may have wondered – like I have – what SAO would be like in the hands of our favourite nihilist writer. Would it be a better series? Probably. It would definitely be a more consistent one.
For what it’s worth, I think that for all its flaws, SAO is a worthwhile series as it is and I have no qualms about it being popular. So this is not a hate post. But I’m not so single-minded in my affection for SAO that I think it can’t be improved or to feel resistant to radical reinterpretations of the source material. In this post, I’d like to discard everything that I know and like (or dislike, for that matter) about SAO and focus on what Gen Urobuchi would have done with the same concept: people being trapped in a life-or-death MMORPG. While I can’t pretend I know exactly what the man thinks when he sits down to write, to me, the SAO setting seems like the ideal arena for Urobuchi’s characteristic moral musings to take center stage.
So here are some speculations about the MMORPG setting in SAO and how this could be used in a narrative that would be, at its heart, a critique of society and what it means to be human. The classic Gen Urobuchi fare.
Theme #1: Gaming as Escapism
Who is more at fault? Akihiko Kayaba for trapping people inside a game or the outer world itself for driving people to an escapist outlet?
I fully expect Urobuchi would explore the idea of why people have escapist desires in them, even when they are not necessarily unhappy people.
This is actually something he delved into pretty deeply with Fate Zero. People are inherently idealistic – they have an inexorable desire to change the world. But they can’t pull it off. It never works. The world is too apathetic to your existence to bend to your ideals.
The gaming world is seemingly a world where ideals matter for something. It’s a world designed from scratch, made to look perfect.
But the gaming world doesn’t work perfectly either. In the end, it’s just a mirror of the real world. It can never be perfect because it is a subset of reality, and reality itself is hopelessly flawed.
This wouldn’t just be reflected in how people die when they are killed in the game. It would also be reflected in how people respond to each other inside the game and how lots of people are really just dicks. Kind of like how the Internet works in real life.
So what does this mean for Gen Urobuchi’s MMORPG-verse? It basically means that you’re screwed if you end up in it. No one is going to lend you a hand, no one is going to be nice to you. It’s every man for themselves.
“Ah,” you say, “but what about the guilds? People have to team up to fight off the bosses!”
That’s true. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to like each other and that people aren’t inherently selfish, according to Urobuchi’s worldview.
In the end, I suspect Urobuchi would be trying to say that escapism is akin to cowardice, but it’s flawed cowardice. You’re not running away from reality. You’re just seeing another part of it. Because no matter where you go, people will always be the same and that’s something you can never truly run away from.
Theme #2: Silica would probably do stuff, but still end up being useless
There always seems to be that cute girl in an Urobutcher work, the one who represents “purity” or “innocence” or something. Silica would be that girl.
There has to be someone who naively believes that everyone can actually escape from the game world if they just get along and make daisy chains together.
I actually think Urobuchi would be pretty likely to include a plot where a girl like Silica would get conned or scammed in the game. The fact that female players are purportedly so rare in SAO could even be used for plot purposes here. Urobuchi could draw out a scenario where female players get harassed and bullied and a kind of social hierarchy sets in, where hardly anyone can have their say.
This could be similar to anti-socialist literature like Animal Farm, in a way. The world of SAO is like the ideal world for communism because in theory the level system would make everyone equal. But it’s actually not as equal as you think because of factors like Beta Testers, players having better connections than others and the luck-induced item drops. Someone would attempt to amass all the wealth and items and impose their own ideals on everyone else. It would serve to reinforce this theme that the video game world is not as fair as one might think.
So by obtaining the rare dragon she has as a pet, Silica could end up being a prime target for Urobuchi’s nihilism. She could suffer very greatly just for being lucky and daring to stand out.
Theme #3: There would be mostly adults
That actually isn’t so much of a surprise since a lot of gamers are adults who feed their gaming addiction by being working members of society. Adult gamers would probably be more proactive than the children and teenagers in trying to work together or coming up with a functional system in clearing the game since they have a greater sense of maturity and responsibility. So as far as Gen Urobuchi would be concerned, the story as told through the adults’ perspective would be the most interesting to tell, which is why (in my view at least) he would choose that angle.
That’s not to say that there would be no teenagers in the story. If Kirito existed in Gen Urobuchi’s SAO, he would likely exist as a caricature of himself: the introverted yet talented gamer. Characters in Gen Urobuchi shows seem to represent an idea rather than existing as their own beings, and the characters in his version of SAO would probably be common archetypes of the gamers we come across in real life.
So instead of being overpowered like he is in the anime, Kirito would probably struggle heavily to survive. He would probably also be used to show the “outsider” perspective on what the adults are doing, since Kirito is the type of person who would place himself outside of their responsibility and be relatively untouched by whatever corruption goes on.
Mostly, I see Urobuchi as focusing more on the internal politics between guilds and in the game in general rather than on Kirito’s personal struggles. A character like him is useful, but mostly as a foil. Urobuchi’s actual protagonist would more likely be an adult character with a heavy investment in the politics of the game. For people who are so wise in years, adults can be quite petty and childish, and that kind of thing is interesting to watch unfold.
Theme #4: Would They Even Manage to Escape?
I see two obvious ways Urobuchi could go with this.
If they don’t escape, it’s because everyone in the world has finally lost the plot and can no longer distinguish between fantasy and reality. People go mad.
If they do escape, they all wake up and find they’re weak, paralysed and have lost their jobs, their income and any way of sustaining themselves in normal society. People go mad.
Take your pick. Which route seems like the better ending to you?
That’s about all I can think of for now. The fun thing about thinking about Gen Urobuchi’s writing style and applying that to SAO is that it brings out a lot of the underlying philosophical ideas in SAO’s setting that, for better or worse, the anime never explored. At most, they were only simply touched upon. Would SAO have worked if the social commentary was at its forefront and its action and romance elements only a side element, as opposed to the other way around?
I’m actually not sure what I think. I don’t believe Urobuchi would offer any real answers about whether games are good for us in the end or not. So in a sense, watching his version of SAO would ultimately be a copout. In the anime as we know it, we do get the feeling that the author loves games and the theme is that games are good for you, especially if you become as pro as Kirito, but would you even want to play the version of SAO that Urobuchi would probably imagine? That’s a hard question to answer.
Personally, I don’t think I would want to play the game, any more than I would want to sign a contract with Kyubey and become a magical girl. I highly doubt Urobuchi would be a fan of MMORPGs any more than he is a fan of magical girls, and this would definitely show in the story that he would weave. It might be a better story from a literary perspective, but it would probably not appeal to the gamer in me. But that’s just my take on it.
There are a lot of gaps in my speculations, mostly because I haven’t fully worked out myself what kind of series SAO would be if Urobuchi wrote it. That’s why I wrote this post in the hope some of you readers might fill in some of the blanks with your own input. What kind of anime do you think Sword Art Online as written by Urobuchi would be like? Would it be better or worse than the SAO we already know?
(And no, don’t just use the comment box to make some cheap, smartass remark about how much you think SAO sucks. We get it. It’s shit. I won’t moderate or delete your comment, but that won’t stop me thinking you’re an ass. lol.)
I remember thinking what if Urobuchi wrote a Key game once. Turns out that game actually exists, except instead of Urobuchi, it’s that OTHER grim VN writer who’s into social commentary, Romeo Tanaka. It was…um…interesting to see moeblobs cut people’s heads off while debating whether the world should be saved or destroyed, so to speak.
That… certainly sounds like something. Have you written a review of this game? I’d love to check it out. (Too lazy to actually play the game.)
Working on it, but I’m still trying to find a good angle. I’d say skip the game altogether if you’re not a fan of VNs though (the format tires me out). The gist of it is that it’s interesting, but I didn’t like it that much because Tanaka’s writing and social criticism can be insufferable for me to sit through at times. In case you don’t know, he’s the guy who wrote Jinrui, and whilst most people like it, I found it wildly uneven.
Oh, and if I have to hear one more Key moeblob talk about how important the Earth is…
Heh, can’t wait to read what you have to say! I liked Jinrui but not enough to chase up everything Romeo Tanaka’s ever written, so it’ll be interesting to see what someone who’s not in love with his style will have to say.
After all the points you raise, then yeah, I really think it could work. Nihilism could fit with the goal they are chasing in the SAO world. Asuna’s death would’ve meant a lot more. Kirito would have more dialogue regarding escapism and the value of gaming and something like that.
the novel it was adapted from is pretty solid though. A1 pictures just f*cked the anime up. An Urobutcher script requires a lot of focus on the characters and I dunno, it’s still tricky. I can see SAO ending up as PsychoPass though than anything else. But SAO is so deeply rooted in Shounen, it would require rewriting the entire script.
That would mean removing the harem element, the puppy dog disgusting romance and the emphasis on the RPG element that made SAO pretty unique in the first place.
my mind is racing. it could work but it’s tricky.
though honestly, i just want 16.5 animated. That’s my only gripe with SAO.
If they just animated 16.5, all the stupid shit in SAO would be promptly forgiven. There is a God!
It’s mentioned in the LNs that it was Asuna’s older brother who acquired the copy of SAO, and actually planned to enter SAO during the launch day, However, because he had sudden business commitments, he was unable to do so. And Asuna picked up the Nerve-gear out of curiosity and the rest is history.
I can actually see Asuna being replaced by her elder brother in an Urobuchi written SAO. If that route was taken and Asuna’s brother is an Urobuchi male protagonist – I wonder what kind of Archtype he would fit into. Would he fit into the profile of a broken idealist, a Corporate Heir who finds that his skills and status are completely useless? Perhaps a casual gamer himself, who has moved on to the adult-world, but sees SAO as one last Hurrah? And of course , SAO comes as a huge shock to him.
I’m not even sure that Kirito might be even a male if Urobuchi was writing SAO. Or even a high school student, for that matter. Perhaps this hypothetical Kirito might be a University student majoring in Computer Science, female, largely a loner who idolizes Kayaba (as his canon self does). A rare female gamer. Perhaps, no more naive than an average freshman undergrad. I think such a Fem! Kirito would be Urobuchi’s symbol of “purity”, or perhaps fit the Homura arch-type. No, I think several females might represent purity (in the eyes of Kirito), and would be killed off, or horribly broken in one way or another. Saachi is really a prime candidate here- more so than Scillia.
There was another theme touched upon in canon SAO that the anime butchered horribly (by skipping a major character-development story) between the first and second episode. That story, First Day delved deeply into Kirito’s psyche – and one of the themes explored was his relationship with his sister. What the story makes clear is that in many ways, Saachi, and to a lesser extent, Scillia, served as a sister-surrogate of sorts. I think it’s omission made the Leefa sub-plot rather… inexplicable in the anime. I think Urobuchi would really play that theme of Surrogacy and Substitution up to eleven, and certainly with far more grace than Kawahara tried to execute that with.
If indeed, Asuna is replaced by her brother, and Kirito is a female, then I think any romance between both of them would be quite twisted in some ways. Perhaps something akin to two rather broken people clinging on to one another.
And ALO wouldn’t be a cartoonish attempt at creating a NTR Rage-fest. No, it would be a cyber-punk thriller on Corporate Politics, a scramble for Kayaba’s IPs, and Sugou would probably be more of a Makashima with a huge inferiority complex than…. that slime that got fatalitied in a hilarious manner in the last episode.
I think Urobuchi might have kept the premise of GGO intact – inexplicable killing in Virtual Reality, that also lead to deaths in the real world. But the development would have been different – Murphy’s law would be in full effect here.
Mother’s Rosario would be human experimentation on terminally ill patients, with the human experimentation part played up and emphasized, and made more horrific. I think Urobuchi would really emphasize the theme of Escapism there. (Is it really better for the terminally ill to spend their last days in pain and crippled in the real world, or in an illusory Virtual world? Kawahara’s answer to this question is a simplistic yes in Mother’s Rosario, so simplistic that the question isn’t even explicitly raised but Urobuchi probably would deconstruct that.)
And of course, all harem and yaoi bait nonsense (and one man Kirito army pwning ten thousand) in Alicization would probably be side-lined, parodied and mocked instead of being taken seriously, while the main focus would be on the moral issue of the rights of Artificial Intelligence, as well as a commentary on Technological Singularities. While the “I must scream” possibilities of the Fluctlight system would probably be played up too.
There is But one Ultimate Way I suspect would question the nature of reality, as opposed to an attempt at mocking the absurdities of the harem genre.
Holy crap, Asuna’s brother x genderbent!Kirito? Someone write this fanfic!!
Seriously, awesome comment here. I’d overlooked all the successive arcs in SAO, but you pointed out nicely that there would be plenty of places for the Urobutcher to work his magic even outside Aincrad.
I hope I didn’t make out I was dissing Reki Kawahara’s skills. In the end, he wrote a story that pleased himself, and that’s far more important than writing some deep social commentary. Truly the author’s ideal.
One thing Urobuchi probably won’t screw up at least is the crippling reliance of the SAO LN on the internal thought processes and monologues to develop it’s protagonist. Furthermore, I suspect if Urobuchter actually wrote SAO, he’d focus on earlier Aincard (where the majority of the dying took place), as oppose to the very last six months of the game that SAO focuses on (where most of the characters have either adapted, or died by then).
The main problem with the fanfic is that Asuna’s older brother is effectively a blank state. Which means, for all intents and purpose, he is an OC – which has many possibilities, but I think would also prove to be a harder challenge.
The main appeal is that such a relationship between Kiriko and Asuna’s Brother might be less bereft of “puppy love”. But then again, a poor author could screw it up badly. Same with female Kiriko – although, tomboyish introvert would certainly be a very unique and interesting character to explore.
The setting of SAO, even outside Aincard is incredibly rich. It’s my view that Kawahara Reki is attempting to write a world on the verge of a technological singularity, while still remaining reasonably near-futurish familiar, through the eyes of adolescents on the edge of adulthood.
I think the problem that some people have with Reki is that he touches on certain social themes regarding VR deliberately, but certain viewers demand that the commentary be deep. This is especially prevalent for anime only viewers – I think that was one, among many things that the anime failed to capture from the SAO LNs. However, I find him an unashamed apologist for Virtual Reality – it isn’t balanced. But hey, as you said, he wrote for his pleasure, and it turned into a job.
However, Kawahara is a very inexperienced author, and I think the anime really showed that. On the other hand, SAO has enjoyed massive commercial success – and pandering alone can’t explain it, because there are other LN franchise with unique premises, which also are just as guilty of harem and moe pandering, and fail disastrously. On the other hand, I am of the view that SAO is one work that actually improved past the fourth volume, even if Reki tends to have the self-confessed habit of writing new female characters every single arc.
In-fact, I think that most LNs follow a cycle of a good first volume, lower quality as the writers try to follow up in subsequent volumes – and if the LNs continue getting published, their much later volumes actually often improve dramatically, if the series in question is their first big-break. SAO to be one example, Hagani is another.
In SAO’s case, one big problem was the non-chronological nature of the work. However, the author is now doing a rewrite of the entire Aincrad arc, floor by floor. It’s called SAO Progressive, and if I heard spoilers correctly, only three floors have been cleared by the end of the first volume. Basically, the first volume of Progressive isn’t even likely half way through (or even a quarter way through) filling the gap between the SECOND and THIRD episode of the SAO anime.
Any SAO Progressive anime would likely take the format of a long running Shounen anime, I can imagine.
I completely agree with what you said in your opening couple of paragraphs – yes, SAO has its flaws (and they’re obvious enough that just about anyone could point them out, regardless of their familiarity with anime), but the series also has a number of great points that, for me, are more than enough to outweigh its issues. I enjoyed SAO immensely, and while it’s certainly not going on my top 50 list, I have no qualms whatsoever about saying so.
Anyhow, that aside, another great article. I don’t particularly have anything to add to it, so I’ll just finish by saying that I respect your opinion as an anime fan and as a blogger, and you never fail to write well, so thank you.
Awww, thanks! While I can easily understand the vitriolic hate that SAO gets, I prefer to see people enjoying something than complaining about it, and SAO was never honestly that awful anyway. Childish and mediocre is probably the worst you can say about it.
I admit I do start grinding my teeth in frustration whenever someone says something like, “SAO is the worst anime ever.” I respect people’s likes and dislikes, but I think more anime fans in general need to learn how to differentiate between something they don’t like and something that isn’t good. Not liking something and something actually being terrible are two completely seperate issues. I have to assume that people who honestly believe that SAO is ‘the worst anime ever’ are either blatantly stupid, or simply haven’t watched much anime.
Great article and awesome comments here. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and thinking about a nihilist social commentary version of SAO. I’m incredibly fond of a similar anime (Log Horizion) that focus’ much more on the world and how it affects the users, rather than being a shounen adventure. This type of SAO would be a very interesting watch. Unfortunately, I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion that hasn’t been mentioned already. I do think, though, SAO would of been much better if the anime stopped at the ending of the first arc. It was hard to read through the second and third arcs, much less watch the anime for it. :c Alas, I’m a sucker for seeing novels made into translations and got through it anyways.
novels made into animations*