Sword Art Online – Episode 1

That’s right fuckers, I’m watching some Sword Art Online. I actually dropped this pretty early back when it came out, but what with its crazy popularity and that second season coming out, figured I might as well give it another shot. Kind of hard to avoid the weight of the internet’s consensus on this one, but I’ll do what I can – if it’s interesting to talk about craft, I’ll talk about craft, if it’s more appropriate as a subject of roast, I’ll break out the marshmallows. Alright, that’s enough chit-chat. Let’s Sword Art Online!

Episode 1

1:51 – This whole opening bit’s pretty good. Dropping us straight into the premise, the exposition/suspense of the wordless login, and then this first-person device to make us feel “entering a world” in a very visceral sense. All solid choices

Sword Art Online

2:01 – “Returned?” Hm. Seems like a strange choice – Log Horizon had to introduce a whole secondary cast to establish the combat rules of its world in a graceful way, and having the main character be a novice is easily the most convenient way to both align the viewer with the character and make tutorial-esque explanations come across as natural. Guess we’ll see where they go with it

3:03 – Welp, that answers one question. Dump a noobie on the MC for him to explain the rules to

3:14 – Aw yeah. Clearly a Cool Dude

3:40 – Alright, so it’s less an actual MMO system, and more “do cool stuff, and cool stuff happens.”

I’ve explained this before, but I generally think there are two schools of thought when it comes to fiction-fighting. There’s the “rule of cool” system, where battles are basically just an excuse for visual spectacle, and the weight isn’t attached to the specifics of the fight itself – stuff like Gurren Lagann or Madoka would fall into this category. Their priorities aren’t related to making the fights exciting as visceral back-and-forths – their conflicts fall on other axes (generally character-development ones – characters win fights when they overcome mental hurdles, not because they outplay their opponents), and so the fight doesn’t have to be engaging on its own terms. And then there’s the “weighted battle” system, where firm rules, powers, and danger are established, making battles inherently exciting on their own terms – stuff like Hunter x Hunter or Girls und Panzer (and many other sports shows) would fall into this category. Because the viewer actually understands the full context of the fight, they can see why what a given character does is impressive, foolhardy, or clever, and thus actually be invested in the fight the way they would be in a competitive sport. Based on this fairly touchy-feely explanation here, I’m assuming Sword Art Online will fall into the first school – fights as spectacle used to illustrate character changes, not as tangible battles.

Sword Art Online

4:04 – Yeah, this is nonsense. Vague enough to allow anything to happen

4:29 – I like the interface stuff. Combat system aside, this does feel tangibly game-like so far – the technology and world all seem to have a somewhat coherent aesthetic

4:48 – Dude, when are boars ever fucking mid-level bosses? Fuckin’ lowbies

5:07 – The core concept here is pretty damn compelling. Move with your body, and it automatically maps to an array of badass skills

5:20 – Yeah, they’re really trying to sell the viewer on investing in the inherent fun of this situation. A good call

5:43 – Dang. Pretty

Sword Art Online

6:54 – So are they gonna explore how this is, uh, not a good thing? “For two months, all I thought about was SAO” – this little speech reads like a paean to escapism, but I haven’t heard of this show actually exploring that kinda stuff in-depth, so…

7:32 – Alright, good, we are going somewhere. MC-kun is kinda isolated, obviously

9:43 – Holy shit is that thing ripe for lawsuits

9:45 – Yeah, really. Zap one kid’s brain and class actions all up and down

Sword Art Online

9:47 – Every gamer’s worst nightmare. Your life at the mercy of the GM’s competence

10:07 – Wait, seriously, we’re going here? Fuckin’ gamers…

10:30 – Yes, like filling it with people who rapidly die of dehydration

11:40 – Well at least they designed their debug system to minimize panic

11:44 – Actually laughed out loud at this. THE TRADITIONAL DEBUGGING BLOOD RAIN

Sword Art Online

12:00 – That is the most metal summoning animation. I AM GRAGTHAS, BORN OF BLOOD

13:05 – That seems like a difficult feature to sell to the investors.

14:07 – Man, what is this guy’s deal? What a jerk!

Yeah, this is all some incredibly awkward, arbitrary scene-setting. It’s something battle royale-style stories often engage in, but A. it’s pretty much always hammy and ridiculous, overtly drawing attention to the “gaminess” of a story, and B. most of these stories at least take the time to establish some context for these situations in the first place – compare this silliness to something like The Hunger Games or Battle Royale itself, each of which provided a proper context for their death games. Here, it just feels like this is the kind of story this writer wants to tell, and so he’s fast-forwarding through the justification as quickly and nonsensically as possible

Sword Art Online


15:17 – Wait, but what’s this guy’s motive? Hell, what’s MC’s motive – the one human detail I’ve picked up so far is that he’s antisocial. Plot can’t just happen for its own sake – it has to emerge naturally from human desires

Well, I guess “not die” is a human desire. Not a particularly compelling one, though. Purely plot-driven shows are just not that substantial

16:16 – Aw that’s just petty, GM

16:38 – This is profoundly unnecessary exposition

17:00 – Man, this guy sure loves theatrics. But yes, actually, that’s exactly what I’d like to know

Sword Art Online

17:09 – THAT’S IT? His motivation is “MWAHAHAHA”? Goddamnit, show

17:22 – “I’ll get you, evil bad guy!”

17:39 – Hah, nice effect. And our villain lags out

19:17 – Jeez, really? That doesn’t fit with any MMO I know, but it certainly adds some tension. Probably a good call

20:21 – Nice shot

Sword Art Online

20:51 – He’s not really particularly socially inept. If he can gracefully respond to “I like your cute face,” I’d say he’s ready for anything

22:08 – Wait, that’s going to be his outfit? A black trenchcoat covered in belts? Hm…

And Done

Yeah, pretty much what I expected – solidly produced, but just kinda generic. The MC isn’t particularly interesting, the premise feels very arbitrary, and I don’t see any ideas twinkling yet, so I dunno. Maybe they’ll go somewhere with “playing god?” I guess we’ll see – I wasn’t really grabbed by anything, but I’ll give it another episode.

28 thoughts on “Sword Art Online – Episode 1

  1. They do give us an explanation for why Kirito is so invested in SAO later on but it always felt more like “animu drama that the viewers WISH was the problem with their life” instead of being something more relatable. Hell, probably would have been better if he had just been a “I like games and this was fun to beta test so I was really looking forward to the real thing” kind of guy. Although it’s still better than Asuna’s, that got convoluted in a really dumb way….

  2. What a coincidence, I’ve been watching this as well! I’m up to episode 8 so far, and this show is definitely more worthy to be treated as a roast and nothing else.

    Two scenes stood out to me about episode 1. Do you remember that one moment where the crying daughter is being held by her mother in the news story? If you look at the end of the episode, the two people change to resemble Kirito’s sister and what I’m presuming is his mother. He may say stuff about how he feels more alive in the game, but I think he certainly wants to go back for the sake of his family.

    The other scene was when that blood/server jam/whatever drips onto Kirito’s thumb, mirroring when he got that papercut in the beginning of the episode. We’re told that people in SAO don’t feel pain, and to include a shot of Kirito feeling pain before he goes into SAO is interesting in a couple ways. If you combine this pain with the overall dreariness that the real world is treated with in first few seconds, you get the sense that Kirito, indeed, favors virtual reality. Yet, with the new threat of actually noseriously dying in his mmo, the blood appears on his thumb again, reminding him of reality, of pain. If we interpret Kirito’s reason for joining SAO to be a form of escapism, you could argue that this whole “die in game, die in real life” scenario is essentially the real world intruding upon Kirito’s paradise.

    Yeah, I had high hopes for this show based on the first episode.

    • Ooh, I like both of those bits. You’re right, they both lean towards a more nuanced exploration of the impossibility of truly disengaging from reality than I’d expected. A shame to hear the show doesn’t follow through on that.

  3. I’m looking forward to seeing some of your reactions to the rest of this show. I have a feeling you will be pleasantly surprised by a lot of things, and very upset about others. (Of course I could probably say that about most shows)

    • Looking forward to getting to those bits, both good and bad. I’ve kind of been too careful about my backlog to watch a show that’s really frustrated me for a long time, so this’ll be a nice change of pace.

  4. Some people seems to have trouble to understand the 2 combats style thing. I see often people dismissing the first style by thinking that it shares the same goals than the second. And critic it has being a bunch of asspulls when fair competition was never the goal and was only meant has a character check-up + a spectacle.

    Idk I just like the fact that you took the time to make de distinction.

    Never saw SAO nor do I intend to but it is one of my friend favorite anime.

    • Yeah, it’s a pretty popular source of complaints when people just have a sort of general dislike for something – like plot holes, it’s an ultimately inconsequential thing that you can at least tangibly point to as a “flaw.”

      Though if your battles are just spectacle, and aren’t actually attached to character turns/big narrative shifts, then I’m generally less forgiving – that’s just sound and fury signifying nothing. That’s why I didn’t like the original Kyousogiga ONA, and was one of my big problems with the pre-festival Kill la Kill episodes.

  5. While I actually like this show more then most people, (at least on /anime,) I am looking forward to you destroying this show as it goes on. I like it for the mindless action, and a “meh” romance…both things you are sure to tear apart.

    • I remember the second episode having some really teeth-grinding moments from my first attempt at watching it, so I’m sure you won’t have to wait long!

  6. Actually, you’ve already identified the major themes of the series, and rest assured that they will be addressed. Poorly. But not ignored!

  7. Sadly, SAO combat fits your first definition, minus the spectacle part.

    The GM does actually have a reason, and it isn’t too bad of one on its own. It just isn’t a reason for trapping everyone in a death-game.

    I actually enjoyed SAO, but I enjoy pure speculative fiction. I will enjoy seeing your roasts of it, if you can manage to get through it.

    • Oof, that’s not a good place to be. It’s looking like I’m gonna have to take being entertained into my own hands.

  8. Since when are boars mid-level bosses?
    Someone hasn’t played much Dark Souls. Which someone should, unless someone is terrified of boars and lizards and the dark. Which I am not. Not at all.

    I wouldn’t call the villain’s motivation “MWAHAHAHAHA”; it’s far closer to “I want to MWAHAHAHAHA, my way”, which, for fiction consumers like us, is not a very far-fetched idea. Sword Art Online is, for the villain, the perfect (escapist) fantasy. I doubt any of us can say that we aren’t, or weren’t ever tempted by such an idea.
    I like the villain. I’d even claim him to be the best character in the show.

    I think that, in a show as targeted at this to a gaming viewership(casual or not), which itself doesn’t really play games for any real purpose save enjoyment, it is appropriate that Kirito’s motivations be this vaguely defined at this point. What motivates a gamer to start the next fetch-quest in Skyrim? Nothing really; it’s more of a unspoken impulse to do what the game tells you to. I doubt gamers, in a game, who are so used to picking between fixed choices without questioning the choices, or blindly following in-game orders, would really have, or empathise with, a character driven for very specific, non-game-related, or personal reasons.
    Though, I have to ask, why do you say that the desrire to survive does not make for an interesting motivator?

    The first half of SAO was nice. Certainly not awful.

    • It’s true that in-game motivation is generally just “do the next thing because it’s inherently satisfying to accomplish in-game goals”… but I wouldn’t base a story around a character like that. I actually feel the opposite way as far as character empathy goes – I’m much more likely to empathize with a character who has clear goals that help define him as a unique person. Ditto with “survival” as a goal – that’s just what any living creature wants, and unless they use that to explore him as a person, it doesn’t help give me a picture of who this protagonist really is, and why I should care about him.

  9. Kirito’s love of virtual over reality is celebrated as the reason love interest falls in love with him. 😀 Blarg.
    (Well, okay, it’s really a contrast to love interest’s deliberate ignoring of any of the up-sides of living in SAO in her obsession to get out, but outside of that, they still treat Kirito’s escapist viewpoint as the way to go, which doesn’t work without some sort of complete anti-escapist strawman character to demolish.)

    • Well the second episode has demonstrated this show is far from above constructing ridiculous strawmen, so I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

  10. Really looking forward to seeing you review this show. I feel like SAO wasn’t really awful, but more… bland? Both in plot and characters, I thought it was quite bland.

    Very nice art and animation though. Loved the first OP too. Trying to lure me in with that eye candy…

    Anyways, excited for your thoughts on this show!

    • That was my impression the first time I tried to watch it – competent enough, but just no reason to keep watching. I guess I’ll see if I feel the same later on.

  11. “if it’s interesting to talk about craft, I’ll talk about craft, if it’s more appropriate as a subject of roast, I’ll break out the marshmallows.”

    Not to suck up or anything, but that right there is why I like this blog so much. Your posts are incredibly insightful but also really funny when the opportunity arises. And I think SAO is actually a pretty good show for that, it definitely tries to do something, at least initially, and it certainly has a couple of moments through out that are admittedly kinda neat but for the most part it’s a trainwreck, A good looking trainwreck, but a trainwreck nonetheless.

    Also fuck yes to the blood rain dropping down from the skies. I like to think the GM specifically went to some programmer and requested blood rain be put in.

  12. The “limited” comment on the resources isn’t about a strict respawn limit, it’s about respawn timers. If the entire world is farming outside one town, then it’s gonna take a while for anyone to get anywhere.

    SAO is one of those things that’s pretty ehhh throughout its run but has good material later. Phantom Bullet

    I’d recommend looking up the “First Day” side story; it was part of the second LN of side stories, Volume 8. The original and the anime both skip forward at this point, but for all the clumsiness of online LN translations, First Day is probably my favorite of the main and side stories up until the concluding arc, Alicization.

    • Regarding resource limits, I was going to comment on the same thing. I remember the old days of RPGs, when players would stand around a spawn point waiting for something to spawn… and that was in PvP off games. With PvP on (like UO before Trammel), spawn points would become central points of conflict, as people fought over the limited resources of the world.

      These days, MMOs are mostly set up to avoid this, though that doesn’t stop people from boss-camping with bots.

  13. “Man, this guy sure loves theatrics.” That’s pretty much the point of his character and motivations. The creator of the game is a sociopathic chuuni, who had these delusions. It’s not even fan speculation at this. It shows later in his character, and how he treats everything.

    His goal, for creating SAO, and Aincrad, was merely that. To create a floating castle, and live in it.

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