By its pilot: Sword Art Online

Happy new year! Let’s start things off with a real bummer! (Things can only go up from there, right?)

Sword Art Online: Anime of a light novel of a video game, part I
Year: 2012
Director: Itou Tomohiko
Seiyū: Matsuoka Yoshitsugu (as Kirito); Yamadeira Kouichi (Kayaba Akihiko); Hirata Hiroaki (Klein)

Initial research:
> Here’s the deal. I wanted to do Log Horizon, but many of my opinions were formed in the context of this series, so I’ll start here instead. Stay tuned.
> That means I’ve seen some of this already. Yes, but in English—and against my will. Let me note that I am not opposed to dubs. (Remember how stoked I was for the Free! dub casting?) I am, however, opposed to bad ones. I sat belligerently through the first two or three episodes in English (at a roommate’s behest), repeating hackneyed deliveries at the TV screen and positively squirming the entire time. This is rather atypical of me, unless there is something so glaring as to be distracting. Like, dull emotionless voice acting, for instance. So that’s my opinion on that thing. Let’s hope the original cast makes this show more watchable.

Summary: You’ve all seen this, so whatever.

Genre: action, drama, shounen, sci-fi
Notable tropes: Absurdly High Stakes Game, A God am IDeep-Immersion Gaming, G.I.R.L.Groin Attack, Lens Flare (and how), Medium Savvy, Red Oni, Blue OniYour Mind Makes it Real (or else the microwaves will).

The review part: Just kidding, here’s your damn summary.

It’s 2022 and a newscast is going on about how the world is very excited for the official release of Sword Art Online, a VRMMORPG (virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game holy motherfucking shit). It apparently makes the best use of the Oculus Rift NerveGear’s hardware to date, and people have been lining up for days I guess and who gives a shit, this guy’s in his room putting a helmet on and he’s waiting for the clock to switch over to 1pm so something is going down. He logs into SAO under the name Kirito and has data from a beta testing period; even though the game has just been released, he’s already got experience with it.

He loads in and looks at his feet and hands so we know it’s a first-person game before switching to a third-person anime. Almost immediately he catches the attention of Klein, who assumes Kirito was a beta tester, since he’s already booking around the hub city like he knows where he’s going. He begs for a few pointers about how the combat system works, and Kirito reluctantly agrees. After getting gored in the nads by a low-level fodder enemy and reacting appropriately, Klein is gently reminded that he doesn’t actually feel pain in the game world.

. . . oh.

Once Klein beats his first enemy, they chat for a while. As one of the 1000 beta testers, over several months Kirito only made it to the eighth area of the game; he claims that much progress will only take him a month this time. This is all fine until Klein invites Kirito to join his friend group, the response being immediate anxiety-ridden introspection.

Soon they prepare to part ways, as Kirito intends to keep exploring while Klein is expecting a pizza, but the logout button is gone. There is no immediate panic, which makes sense because all modern multiplayer games are broken at launch these days. (Remember Battlefield 4?) (Also singleplayer games, special award going to Ubisoft for perpetuating that trend in 2014, fuck right off.) Klein makes his best attempts at exiting the game by sheer willpower:

But Kirito informs him that the menu really is the only way of logging out. They also can’t remove the NerveGear themselves, as it is designed to interrupt brain signals that control physical movements. So unless someone else removes the Gear for them, they’re stuck until the bug is fixed. Kirito has a chance, since he lives with his mom and sister (who would not be into gamers, thanks for asking), but Klein lives alone (so basically he’s not getting his pizza).

They wax philosophic about the effect this might have on the game’s future until a “forced teleport” pops them back to the plaza in the hub town. Ominous red error alerts form a dome that drips blood and turns into creepy red robèd figure. (Video games, you guys.) He explains that the inability to log out is not a bug, it’s a feature and this is a pretty cool world, right? I made it and if you die in the game world the NerveGear will fry your brain with microwaves killing you instantly and also if somebody else removes the Gear for you that’ll super kill you too but 213 people have already died in this way so don’t worry, you guys are probably safe from that going forward.


What, stop freaking out, I’m an admin so I dropped an item in all your inventories that’ll automagically make you all look like your normal nerd selves instead of your awesome in-game characters lol it’s a mirror get it? Okay well the only way to get out alive is for somebody to clear all 100 floors and beat the boss at the top and I guess that’s about it. Peace!


Kirito takes immediate action, pulling Klein aside to tell him what’s what. They’re heading out right away, since XP and items and such won’t respawn, and since Kirito already knows his way around the first eight floors they’ll have a huge advantage over most other players. Klein is hesitant and respectfully declines, feeling a greater pull to rejoin his friends. More introspection leads us to believe that Kirito has pretty severe social phobia and wouldn’t necessarily be able to handle even one more partner; Klein seems to sense this and leaves things be.

Famous last words

As they part ways for real this time Klein serves up a little confidence, assuring Kirito that compared to his avatar, his real face is pretty cute (and this sounds way more crush-y in subtitles than I remember it being in the dub.)

Back at ya, hot stuff

From here Kirito will advance alone, and we’re left with images of this tiny dude dicing up wolves and screaming at the sky. Video games!

The actual review part: Let’s talk about lens flares. It’s an affectation in animation, since real lens flares are an artifact of, well, real lenses. When they have to be added in artificially they’re usually brief, infrequent, and normally accentuate something else. The Star Trek remake is known for employing tons of fake ones to make sure you know it’s sci-fi. (At least I think that’s the point.) And holy shit is there so much of it here too. Seemingly every landscape/wide shot (and half of the medium shots) are dolled up in this fashion, so it doesn’t end up accentuating anything in particular. Sure it’s pretty, and makes everything look fresh and shiny. But holy shit.

Overall the art is attractive but perhaps a little cutesy for the dark themes, especially once Kirito is reverted his to real-life appearance. The forced change in character design is a cute idea, with thousands of players shifting from their svelte, long-haired, and generally “cool” video game avatars back to their dopey, unathletic, or otherwise imperfect IRL versions. Though thanks to Generic Cuteness this is mostly conveyed through haircut and body size. There is one pair that is shown to change quite drastically—featured several times as a suave guy and cute girl before the transformation, becoming a tubby guy and scrawny gonk boy after it—but this feels more like an edge case than a common symptom of a world-rocking event. As it is, a bunch of strangers transform into a bunch of other strangers. Sure, it was impossible to get to know many of them, but greater differentiation between pre- and post-mirror appearances, as with contrasting art styles, would have been a fine substitute and made this scene much more affecting. A minor quibble, but it’s a detail I’m surprised was overlooked. (Kuroko‘s first appearance in his dumb sports anime was a reflection on glass; people think of this kind of detailed shit every day. Hell, I just did, and I’m a dumbass.)

Not to mention, the camera stays on Kirito for several seconds as he navigates his inventory to equip the mirror, while no one else around him makes a sound or even moves, like he’s just surrounded by a bunch of half-programmed NPCs. Or maybe he really is the only actual player. . . . Either way, that’s just poor game design, and it’s jarring as a viewer to observe such a lifeless crowd that ought to be full-on panicking.

Music is electronic and, well, video gamey. Not as catchy as video game music ideally should be (since it is a soundtrack you hear over the course of anywhere from, say, five hours to hundred hours), but still comes across as some kind of Final Fantasy shit and suits the world well.

In my head this word is always in Brandon Keener’s voice

Overall the writing is pretty good, to the point that forced exposition amounts to only minor infractions, and are in fact written (or at least translated) with some measure of craft. Klein comments that he was “lucky to get one of the ten thousand copies” of the game, which tells us just how few people are in this world, as well as logistically how the servers didn’t crash and everyone was able to log in on launch day. (Remember Diablo III?) The “game master” bit was slightly more egregious as far as dumb lines, but this makes sense in the context of guy-who-takes-‘god game’-way-too-literally. The voice acting is pretty good too; this incarnation of Kirito actually sounds like he’s enjoying himself (before everything goes to hell, of course), and everyone else comes off as rather natural, especially compared with the dub.

The next-episode previews say that one month later, the first floor has yet to be cleared. Okay so HOW ARE THEY NOT ALL DYING OF STARVATION. Do you just trust that your family or roommates or whatever have sent for an ambulance and the hospital has you jacked up on IVs like a coma patient? It takes a lot of sugar to run a brain, and doing video games probably consumes a ton of energy. Surely this is explored later on, because whoa. I can only suspend so much disbelief. Not to mention, how did this hardware make it past cert? (“Hey man, why did you put so many microwaves in there?” ::hand-waving:: “I don’t know, still seems kinda dangerous.” ::jangling keys:: “Well . . . you have a point.”)

The SAO anime began airing just as the Oculus Rift was being introduced, so it wasn’t spurred on by the announcement after lying dormant for so long. The original light novel predates Oculus by more than a decade—but not the Virtual Boy which, lol, but still, nor the Holodeck for that matter. VR has been a dream for decades, and as Oculus gets closer and closer to commercial release, the technology will surely receive its fair share of fear mongering, not unlike video games and television and film and radio and comic books and novels and literacy (literacy) before it. I wonder how the development of this technology and the media about it, real or fictitious, will feed each other. Will we have a moral panic on our hands? Probably; America, at least, thrives on that shit right now. Japan too is in the midst of its own cultural upheavals, with young people starting to resent and outright reject the cultural precedent laid by their parents and grandparents. So really, the time is ripe for things to freak out over.

(Speaking of which . . . we should maybe go ahead and preemptively arrest Peter Molyneux, right? “You can push the arrow in,” he says. If it really hurts you to see the horse suffer, don’t program that shit into your game. Guh. Who knows what that guy could be into by 2022.)

Cheese factor: Low.

Overall: [3] (sub), [2] (dub). The merits far outweigh the flaws, and I really enjoy this setup. But after spending the whole pilot hanging out with Klein it sucks to just have him bounce at the end. He has a friendly charm the protagonist lacks, and though Kirito is not colorless while serving as the audience’s eyes, he’s hardly a true audience stand-in. As he is already a relative expert in this world, narratively he requires sidekicks to play the “everyman”; it’s commendable that Klein makes his own choice about playing that role, but it still means he won’t be around as much, and as I had grown more attached to him than the protagonist, well—that leaves me with less to return to.


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