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.)