TV Review: SWORD ART ONLINE
The plot is familiar territory, a near-future setting where the invention of fully immersive virtual reality means videogames have taken a staggering technological leap forward. The massively multiplayer epic fantasy world Sword Art Online has just come out of beta testing and thrown open its doors to the public. Thousands of players are taking their first halting steps through the game's early stages, only when they try to log out they discover something's gone terribly wrong. Their headsets won't let them log out, and the software's been wired to kill anyone who dies in-game. If they're forcibly removed, they die too. The only way to escape is to defeat the final boss - but persuading enough people to work together to get this done proves to be no easy task.
The audience surrogate is Kirito, a shy young man who's on familiar ground, to some extent, as an avid games player and a former beta tester for Sword Art Online. Painfully conscious of the drawbacks that come with being so much more skilled than most of the hoi-polloi, after an early attempt to make friends goes disastrously wrong Kirito takes to throwing himself into the fray solo, shunning human contact as much as possible. Then he meets Asuna, a girl in one of the most powerful guilds attempting to carve a path towards the final boss, whose single-minded determination to beat the game and free everyone means she's suffering emotionally. The two of them start a tentative personal as well as professional relationship, and in the process discover their new home is a world much deeper and stranger than they'd previously imagined.
"If you die in the game, you die in real life" may have become an instant punchline, a mark of a writer who's singularly failed to 'get' modern technology, but there's still life in the idea for all that. It's hardly wholly original territory - Tad William's monolithic Otherland books covered a good deal of this same ground already - but in some respects Sword Art Online seems poised to explore it further still. What would it do to people to be locked up in a virtual space for more than two years? How would societal rules re-establish themselves, or alternatively break down? How would this change given how differently the virtual world works to the real one? What could anyone do to get people to risk their lives breaking out? And what would happen when they finally did break out - how would it change them, and how would they act towards the people they'd shared that experience with?
Which is what makes it so frustrating that Sword Art Online squanders nigh on every single opportunity to do something interesting with answering any of these questions. From the moment Kirito helps one of the supporting cast acclimatise to the game, to combat in a virtual space, surviving and gaining experience, it's painfully obvious this is a show catering first and foremost to people who know all there is to know about the subject, or who like to think they do. It's not completely impenetrable to a newcomer, but there's a definite air of blasé indifference throughout. There's no real exploration of what it would mean to get stuck here for someone who'd never played such a game in their lives. Kirito spends a couple of episodes soul-searching then promptly transforms into awkward Jesus for the rest of the show - solving everyone's problems, trouncing enemy after enemy.
None of the big questions get picked over for more than a few minutes, if that. There's a moment early on where it's revealed everyone has been forced to use their real appearance, rather than their usual avatar - then it's never touched on again. Kirito and Asuna's halting friendship gets a couple of throwaway lines of development, then it's decided yes, online relationships are exactly the same as real life, case closed. The breaking down and rebuilding of societal conventions gets trotted out to justify a couple of tired, predictable subplots then promptly shelved again. Almost half the show goes past before anyone mentions that by the way, aren't we all wasting away in hospital beds in the real world? Shouldn't we try and get out of here before we, you know, die?
But why chew on something genuinely meaty when you risk the nerds tuning out? Sword Art Online is wish-fulfilment more than anything else; people don't watch this stuff to ponder the mysteries of life, they want to think wow, what if I were trapped inside a videogame, with a few token nods to something more substantial to make them feel they're not wasting their time. Witness how the show hits every idiot beat Japanese animation's been in thrall to for the past ten years, from a pointless incest sub-plot to a brain-dead cartoon psychopath of a villain to turning a reasonably strong female lead into a flower vase with a side order of tentacle rape (gotta have tentacle rape, eh, Japan?), to say nothing of countless plot holes and lazy writing (anyone want to explain why there's a convenient back door for the hero in a virtual world?).
Sure, Sword Art Online could be worse; it could be any one of the countless harem shows drowning the medium in a tidal wave of bland, interchangeable beautiful people character designs, or all the big shonen action shows currently running on fumes, desperately throwing increasingly convoluted plotlines and dumb spin-offs in all directions. Sword Art Online is different, at least, and shows flickers of promise across twenty-five episodes... but it simply can't forget that the same people who buy into the soap-opera crud and the action nonsense pay its bills, and the slavish insistence on giving them all the vacuous melodrama and incongruous fan-service they want ultimately brings it down, and hard. Sword Art Online has already been described in some circles as the best new anime in years: weep, weep at the idea that could actually be true.