Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Sword Art Online

It is a sad fact of life that video games portrayed in other media will always beat the video games we actually have in real life.

The graphics are always better, the interactivity is always better, the stories are always better, and the gimmicks are always better.

For example, I'm still waiting for a copy of Brainscan to appear on store shelves.  And why couldn't the Power Glove be as awesome as the movies made it seem?  Why didn't we ever get a playable version of Sugar Rush?  WHY?

But these days, it's about augmented reality and virtual reality, seeing just how close we can get to actually experiencing the game.   I just reviewed Ready Player One in my last post, which involves a virtual reality gaming experience that the entire world embraces, now we're looking at a another hugely popular video game world that comes with a twist.

Namely, a Japanese anime that addresses the idea that someone rigs up a whole bunch of virtual reality consoles so that if you die in the game, you die in real life.

You know, someone should take that phrase and put it into a movie or something.

...you know, someone should take that phrase and put it into a GOOD movie or something.

Where was I?  Oh, right.

Sword Art Online.

Set in the near future, young Kazuto "Kirito" Kirigaya is one of the lucky people who gets to try the new online multiplayer game Sword Art Online, using a virtual reality gear that allows players to directly link their nervous system to the game and experience the whole thing through their senses.  However, all of the players online discover there's no option to log out, and the creator of the game appears to explain that "oh, hey, everybody, you're all stuck here.  If you die in the game, the helmet you're wearing in the real world will fry your brain.  If anybody tries to disconnect you, it'll fry your brain.  The only way out is to kill the final boss at the top of a 100 floor tower.  Good luck!"

Two thousand people die in the first month of playing.

Now, this is something that was missing from Ready Player One, a real sense of urgency.  While RPO had people "die" in the game just to later be just fine (yes, there were people who were killed in real life, too), the sense of urgency was more like having someone close a door in their face, not actual death.  SAO, on the other hand, does a great job demonstrating just how high the stakes are.  There are characters who die through the whole season, and each time, it's treated with a lot more gravitas each time.

It also helps that these people aren't "super players" or "ultimate hackers" or anything like that.  They don't have encyclopedic knowledge of entire decades worth of pop culture before they're in their 20s (seriously, I really did like Ready Player One, it just had so many faults!), they're just people who wanted to play a game.  Many of them start out the game having no real idea how the combat system works.  There are a few players who were "beta" players, but a rift quickly grows between the beginners and the beta players, as the beta players immediately start grabbing the best stuff for themselves.

The series takes a sudden shift in the last third, as the Sword Art Online story gets almost wrapped up, but Kazuto finds himself needing to log into another massive online game based off the original's code in order to wrap up loose threads.   In the second game, it's a mix between Disney's Fairies meets World of Warcraft, where players get to fully feel the sensation of flying as they engage in combat with each other, just with a less chance of everybody actually dying.

Seriously, I want my full sensory immersion "you can fly!" game.

There's a lot I love about Sword Art Online, to the point where I'm seriously eyeing some of the corollary products that are coming out for it, like video games and the original manga.  It's an original concept in a unique setting with interesting characters and a clear sense of pay-off as the story continues.  The voice work is well done, there are some ingenious twists and turns as the story progresses, and as a whole, the story kept me hooked from beginning to end.

But it's not perfect.

Oh come on, you knew this part was coming.  I only pick things apart because I love them and I think whatever learns from them as a source material could be even better if they fix a few things or find clever ways to handle issues.

The start of the series feels a bit disjointed, due to the fact that they needed to condense a lot of the story into just a few episodes.  Kazuto spends one episode playing himself up as a jerk, just to be really friendly to a small group of people the next episode.  His characterization tends to jump all over the place before the story finally sets its pace and calms him down.

There are other side story hooks that I wish were explored further.  There are "player hunters," other players who are either insane from being trapped in the world or simply don't believe that people really "die" when they die in the game.  After all, what proof do they have besides the word of a madman?  There are people who recognize early on that they aren't cut out to be fighters, so they become shop keepers, weapon smiths, fishermen, and builders.  What's their stories?

The series also takes a very sudden shift in tone in the very last episode.  It's a bit of a spoiler, so jump ahead to the next paragraph if you don't want it ruined.  Someone that Kazuto becomes extremely attached to ("in wuv, twue wuv") is mentally "stuck" in the new game, their real world body hasn't awakened yet.  Kazuto fights his way to where her mind is being kept, but the bad guy "defeats" him, and promptly starts to molest his girlfriend in front of him, ripping off her clothes and laughing.  There's nothing extremely graphic shown but the fact it's happening in this game is a really sudden shift that I didn't expect, and it sort-of jerked me out of enjoying the episode.

Everybody back?  Okay.

Sword Art Online is a fun watch, something that I encourage anybody who wants a clever, original story with a lot of fun and heart behind it to watch.  Character designs are flat-out amazing, the worlds are absolutely gorgeous, and I left every episode silently wishing and hoping that I'll live in a time where I can neurally link myself to a game world like that and experience everything I can imagine as if it was real.

Sigh.  Some day...

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