November 6, 2022.
This is an auspicious date for Sword Art Online fans—it’s when the “Sword Art Online” game launched in-universe. The staff celebrated with a full-blown event with music and special effects, which is kind of morbid when you think about it. We’re all celebrating the moment thousands of people got trapped in a video game, where death in game terms equals death in real life.
It’s been a few days since then, but I’m still reveling in the excitement around the date. The fun of science-fiction stories set in the near future is living long enough to see reality catch up to fiction. How much of Sword Art Online became real and how much did it miss the mark?
On the whole, I think SAO was pretty prescient, and that’s why the anime managed to stick around for 10 years. It’s why even people who don’t care at all for the series can still appreciate the significance of November 6, 2022.
Stories about virtual reality and gaming were dime a dozen, even back in SAO’s day, but the main thing about its story that sticks out to me now is how firmly it insisted that the “virtual” was an extension of the “real”. Akihiko Kayaba was a villain who trapped players in the virtual world without their consent, but he proved the point that the game was no escape from reality. Later volumes in the series would depict him as an ambivalent figure who posthumously pioneered major scientific advancements.
Despite its status as a frivolous and misunderstood geek hobby, gaming taught the world how to move forward, both in SAO and the real world. When Reki Kawahara first wrote the web novel near the turn of the millennium, there was a greater separation between online and offline. This was perhaps why SAO’s narrative held such imaginative power—it violently fused the two worlds together.
Yet even if no VRMMORPG death game ever came about in the real world, we now live in a world where it’s almost impossible not to be connected online. Gaming technology has found many applications in other fields, like software development, computer simulation, and motion controlled vehicles. SAO’s Alicization arc contained a major plot about the military trying to harness VR tech, which is extra profound when you consider that Palmer Luckey, the Oculus VR founder, is literally trying to make the NerveGear while also making military tech.
Of course, SAO was far from the only story that forced players to confront the reality within games by making it impossible for them to log out. As critics liked to point out when the anime first came out, .Hack beat SAO to the punch. But instead of coasting along on just one good idea, SAO remained at the top of the anime world because it continued to explore new frontiers in tech as it progressed. The Ordinal Scale movie centered on Augmented Reality just as the Pokémon GO craze was taking off around the world. A fortunate coincidence perhaps, but it helped that it was just a darn good film.
Admittedly, the anime has stalled a bit in the post-Alicization years. The Progressive films kind of sucked. They went back to the series’ roots and added some anime-original elements, none of which were interesting enough to justify the inconsistencies with the original story. Much of the new content revolves around new characters for the revolving wheel of cheap gacha and console games. SAO is absolutely shameless when it comes to those. I am writing this post with the full awareness that the franchise is past its peak.
But my respect for Reki Kawahara’s skill as a novelist remains undiminished. It occurs to me that he is one of the few light novel authors who takes science-fiction themes seriously. SAO influenced an entire wave of VRMMORPG and “isekai” light novels, but few are concerned with the relationship between tech and society. That’s fine—there are plenty of great light novels that focus purely on gaming as fantasy—but it means that even today, Kawahara fills a niche that no one else in his lane does. When he releases a new book, people pay attention for good reason.
Personally, my interest in the series received a second wind when I watched the Alicization anime. Tonally, it felt like a departure from the series up to that point. Instead of zipping through virtual worlds, we really got to sink our teeth into one setting and see it evolve in unpredictable ways through both internal and external influences. Also, it had Eugeo, and it was really cute to see Kirito make a close male friend. Even though the original story was written ages ago, somehow it still felt fresh watching it on screen a decade later.
So yeah, the bottom line is that there’s a reason SAO stood the test of time, enough that we’re still talking about it in 2022. Here’s to more years of adventures for Kirito and friends!
By the way, there’s a really fun Twitter account tracking the events of the series in real time. I wonder what will end first: the “Sword Art Online” game or Twitter itself. Let’s check back here again on November 7, 2024.