Sword Art Online’s first season and Log Horizon clearly share a lot of similarities. I’ve had a few people tell me, after watching a few episodes of the latter that it’s a rip off. In fact, when I first read the description, I thought the same. But as you get into Log Horizon, it becomes apparent that this is not at all the case. But let’s explore that in more detail by taking a deep look contrasting the two, shall we? This article, unlike my reviews, will not be spoiler free as I intend to discuss both shows in-depth, so if you’re concerned about spoilers… do not click the more link!
Aside from the base premise, people being trapped in an MMORPG, the two shows really are nothing alike. Sword Art Online puts an air of finality to it by removing the resurrection element MMOs always have. Death has become permanent, and you have people coming to terms with the possibility that a bad decision could become permanent. Adding in a ‘win condition’ where the players can escape if they win the game creates a completely different atmosphere from Log Horizon. Log Horizon makes a complete mystery of how these players came to be there and there’s no indication of why they’re there or, more importantly, how long they’ll be there.
Life or Death Trials
Sword Art Online’s fear of death is its most fascinating aspect, and one that I was always disappointed they didn’t have time to truly explore. Yes, you got to see a variety of different reactions, but so much time is skipped due to those years being compressed to just over a dozen episodes that you don’t really get to explore it in full. It is this fear that drives the show into most of its most interesting moments – Sachi’s ‘gift’, Pina’s death and subsequent rebirth, Kirito’s near death at the hands of a traitor, etc. These moments hit hard and drive the show to build attachment in an incredibly short time.
Log Horizon doesn’t share that fear, death isn’t permanent but comes with its own unique penalty. You see, Log Horizon tries to represent what a typical Experience Point death penalty would mean if it was being inflicted upon a real person… what would it be like to be stuck in a fantasy world and gradually forget the real world you came from? Would you forgetting something lead to questions of whether it’s just a moment of forgetfulness or whether you’d completely lost that memory to the death penalty? How would that impact your personality, your behavior? And would you even know if it did…
From a Hero to a Scholar
Sword Art Online’s protagonist, Kirito, is a character I related to very strongly. I could see a lot of myself in him – I could see myself making a lot of the same decisions he did. But in the end, he was very close to the typical anime hero. The traits that form the basis of his character are all too familiar to long-time anime fans even if the end result isn’t quite stereotypical. He is the heroic introvert, the silent protagonist of so many video games. He’s the character doing everything all on his own, and surpassing everyone else along the way. Because of how strongly I resonated with his personality, his near-perfect power never really bothered me, but it is noteworthy nonetheless.
It is also noteworthy just how strong the focus is on a single character in SAO. Sword Art Online is Kirito’s story. Asuna, Sachi, Lisbeth, etc all play big roles in that story… but in the end, it is clearly Kirito’s story. This is not a bad thing, especially in an anime where they are so clearly strapped for time. The 14-ish episodes they had for the first arc were not nearly sufficient, so they had to focus almost exclusively on a single character or else run into the problem often associated with Bleach: too many underdeveloped characters who all feel like main characters.
Shiroe, Log Horizon’s central figure, is far less of a traditional hero. He’s a strategist, he’s a plotter, he’s a scholar. He’s not there to be involved in the action, he’s there to help make sure everything goes as planned. In a lot of ways, Shiroe’s role is very reminiscent of the role of the villain of a traditional show or anime. The guy who is behind the scenes manipulating everything, responsible for what is happening without ever taking the spotlight. Having the ‘hero’ of the show act in this way is fascinating, and it allows for other characters to take the spotlight away from him.
In a lot of ways, Log Horizon is not Shiroe’s story, but rather the story of the world of Elder Tale. Shiroe is a central character, but Akatsuki is clearly equally important, despite her claims to just be Shiroe’s ‘personal ninja’. But I could name at least another half-dozen characters that are absolutely integral to the story, that in many cases upstage Shiroe and take the focus, not just for a single episode but for entire subarcs. The last subarc, for example, of the show focused almost completely on 4 characters: Minori, Rundelhaus Code, Marielle, and Crusty. Shiroe had brief appearances, but almost felt like an accessory to the arc. They also seem to have the ability to take the time to really develop these characters, and are doing a great job of actually pushing them to become more than just secondary.
Sword Art Online takes place in a completely fantasy-driven and fictional world known as Aincrad. SAO is a Virtual Reality MMORPG, meaning that when someone logged in they lost control temporarily of their real body as the VR helmet intercepted the signals going from the brain to the body so that the person could control their character in stead. The problems come about when the option to log out is removed from the live version of the game and it is revealed that removing the VR helmet without first exiting the game will cause the death of the player.
This is important as it is the reason Aincrad operates like a video game. Despite people being trapped in it, it IS still a video game. NPCs are rendered invulnerable by the system, crafting is still exclusively possible using the in-game menu, etc. Aincrad is fascinating because of the way people are forced to adapt to living in this video game, not because it has become something else.
Elder Tale, on the other hand, was a traditional MMORPG just like any we might find nowadays, controlled with a keyboard and mouse. Which makes it all the more baffling when suddenly people find themselves in the place of their characters… suddenly forced to experience first person what before had just been a game on a screen. Elder Tale’s as-yet-unnamed world is a scaled-down fantasy-variant of Earth, and thus far the players have been focused on the Japanese region.
Unlike Aincrad, the world in Elder Tale has become essentially a real world that just happens to be bounded by certain video game tropes and rules. For example, crafting. In Elder Tale, crafting could always be performed from the menu – provided what you wanted was in the menu. Now that they are actually in the world; however, the former players can use a combination of their in-game skill level and their real world skills to produce products that aren’t a part of the menu. Once this discovery is made, everything changes.
By far the most interesting part of Log Horizon though are the “People of the Land”. When Elder Tale was just a game, they were the NPCs – your vendors, questgivers, etc. Now, they are quite literally people, complete with personalities, histories, hopes, and lives. And they, unlike the former players, can die – and it is permanent. The interactions between the players and the NPCs drive a large part of the game’s story, and it really makes you question who are the ‘real people’ here in this world… the players who revive when they die, have superhuman strength, speed, and magic… or the former NPCs, who have normal human frailties and can actually die?
I won’t go into preferences here… the two shows really are just too different to rank in such a way. But I think these shows are best taken together, as they take a similar concept and explore it from virtually completely opposed perspectives, and the experiences of each show actually build upon each other in a fascinating way. I find that by taking the concepts of both shows together, the experience of watching or rewatching each of the series to be more complete, to be enriched by the knowledge of the other.