New this past summer in Japan is an anime about an MMORPG with a twist. Sword Art Online debuts with characters putting on a device known as ‘NerveGear’ in order to completely immerse themselves in the Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online RPG called ‘Sword Art Online’. Why ‘Sword Art Online’, you ask? That’s because there’s no magic in the game, hence ‘Sword Art’. The twist? The creator has hardwired the equipment so that people can’t log out, and those who die in the game or have the equipment removed from their heads die in real life. The only escape is for someone to be victorious and complete the final boss.
While the concept of people being stuck in a game and having to play for life and death isn’t exactly a new one… this specific application is unique. It isn’t a short term affair – the players spend years in the game. Rather than the typical ‘stuck in a game until you beat it’ scenario where players are forced to face challenge after challenge because that is just how the game is designed… this is an MMO. A game designed with peaceful areas, player versus player combat, team play, crafting, a day/night cycle, bosses that are so difficult that people work in large groups and typically would need to die dozens of times to defeat. In other words… this is a virtual world, and ten thousand people are trapped there forced to make their way until someone manages to win it.
Life in the Not-So-Real World
This makes a huge difference in how it feels. The creators really put a lot of effort into thinking of how players would react to this. Some players become craftsmen, others try to strike out on their own because they don’t want to trust others with their lives, some try to power-push their way ahead of everyone else to get out of the ‘farmed areas’, others try to form large guilds figuring there’s safety in numbers, and so on. And, the characters know they only have one life and there’s no magic there to heal them… so they have to be very cautious. You see one person commit suicide when all of his friends perish; and another girl who believes with all her heart that she’s going to die create a delayed Christmas present for the main character to tell him that it’s not his fault and that he should move on.
Essentially… it feels like a very real world, and many people just accept it. Others fight to try to progress… and others try to do whatever they can to help those who are trying to move on. There are even children in the game… it just feels like a potentially believable world.
Our main characters are Kirito and Asuna. Kirito is a bit on the soft-hearted side, but is a stereotypical gamer nonetheless. He’s kind of anti-social, focused mostly on being as powerful as he can, and mostly plays on his own. He’s a realist, though, and decides that since he’s trapped in the game anyways, he might as well enjoy his time there. Asuna, on the other hand, is a bit of a social butterfly, and very much a perfectionist. Striving to be the best she can, she joins a guild and ends up rising in their ranks quickly. She initially only wants to get the game finished as fast as possible, seeing every day spent in the game as time she’s lost.
The character interactions and development over the course of the story is fantastic. Watching the two characters influence those around them and be changed by the events of the story is an immensely engaging experience. I’m not ashamed to admit I found myself cheering at their successes and mourning alongside them at their tragic losses. The first major story-arc is completed now, and I warn you – if you’re afraid of crying, do not watch the 14th episode – the finale of this first arc is a true tear-jerker.
But What About the Swords?
Yes, this series takes place predominately within an MMORPG about swords. And like many of you, I Like Swords too. And this game has some awesome combat using some pretty fancy looking swords. While the game is more about the characters – the fact that it takes place in an MMO means that a lot of that character development happens while questing, or doing dungeons and raids. And such things mean combat. One rather amusing scene has Kirito get attacked by some lower level players who are a part of an assassin’s guild. Watching them go all out on him and not even touch his health will have you rolling on the floor laughing.
The bosses are incredibly well thought out as well, with each one being unique in appearance and style, and every one feeling like a real struggle, which truly makes sense as real lives are on the line every time a boss is engaged.
As you can probably tell from reading this – I strongly recommend this anime. I think almost any anime fan would enjoy it, but especially if you’re a gamer. Many things that happen in this anime will really speak to you if you’ve been a part of an MMO yourself, or if you’re just familiar with online games. But those inside references don’t really detract from the experience, and as this is one of the best and most well-made animes I’ve ever seen, I cannot recommend enough for people to give it a shot. If you can get past the second episode without being hooked… I’ll be truly shocked.