Sword Art Online – Episode 3

Back on the Sword Art Train! Last episode was, well, pretty messy. Not only did it seem bizarrely dedicated to proving the wretchedness of the non-beta characters (for multiple definitions of beta even OH SHIT SWOOSH sorry), its ending had pretty much the same issues the first episode did – a combination of awkward narrative leaps to get the story where it’s supposed to go and a theatrical flair that turned drama into self-parody. And at this point, one of the central complaints generally leveled at SAO is becoming clear – the show really, really wants you to identify with Kirito, and some of the choices it’s making on that front are, well, pretty silly from a non-Kirito-aligned perspective. The one-man-army fight, the Batman speech, the trenchcoat. And this all gets back to things I’ve always said about how characters are defined.

Good character writing depends on the author creating a person whose background and specificity come across as genuine enough that even if you disagree with that character, or don’t relate to their situation, or even don’t actually like them as a person, you can still empathize with why that particular person would act the way they do. If you make your characters seem alive, any kind of viewer will be able to relate to their struggle, because what makes them sympathetic isn’t the specifics of their personality, it’s the believable humanity the collection of their variables represents. For a great current example of this, check out Hunter x Hunter – it’s currently in an arc that contains close to twenty key characters, but the viewer is invested in each of those stories because each of them has their own distinct way of expressing what makes them tick. They each have their own method of self-expression, their own motivation, their own quirks, their own fears.

Here, we haven’t quite gotten that. Aside from his antisocial tendencies (which the show doesn’t really seem that consistent about portraying), Kirito’s basically a blank slate – meaning for the audience to already sympathize with him, they have to become him, and fill in the gaps in his personality with their own choices. This is why harem leads are generally so generic – because they’re not supposed to be a specific person, they’re supposed to be the audience. Same with many protagonists in YA novels – Bella Swan is pretty much a nobody because if she were a somebody, the readers would have more trouble seeing themselves in Edward’s arms. Every action such a character takes that defines them as a unique person threatens to break the spell of escapism, and so generally they remain vehicles, not people.

Which means that, as a person not particularly interested in action-adventure escapism, I’m not really so hot on Kirito’s character at the moment. Good character writing is preferable not just because it’s more true and resonant, it’s preferable because it also works for everybody – shell-writing only works for the people who want it to work. So I’m hoping Kirito gets a bit more definition soon, though the fact that this is indeed one of the Big Complaints about SAO doesn’t exactly fill me with anticipation.

That said, last episode certainly did leave us with some momentum, at least – they’ve broken through the first floor with Kirito both in the lead and apparently now Public Enemy #1. That definitely gives us some ripe drama to work with!

One last thing – I’m getting a good number of “I like this show, but I’m excited to see how you tear it apart” comments, and so I just wanted to add that you guys are awesome readers. I assume pretty much all my theory essays demonstrate how much I care about respecting the validity of all our various experiences of shows, and it’s heartening to see you all also appreciate how important that is too. You guys are great.

Alright, enough preamble. Let’s Sword Art Online.

Episode 3

0:01 – …11th floor, huh? Wait, and April 8th? When was the last…

Sword Art Online, you had one job

Welp, once again we’ve skipped one of the most dramatically fertile options. Let’s see where we go instead, I guess

0:16 – Still doing what he does best – making friends through force of videogame competence, not personality. Again, I really like this – it’s something that’s both very true to how people deeply invested in hobbies (and less good at social interactions) tend to act, and something that could naturally play into the “validity of the game world” focus THAT EVERYONE KEEPS TELLING ME ABOUT IN THE COMMENTS GODDAMNIT GUYS I CAN FIGURE OUT THE THEMES FOR MYSELF


Sword Art Online

0:31 – A gentleman NEVER asks a player his level! I like that this isn’t something inherently known, though – last episode really played up the players not really trusting each other, and this plays into the show’s mercenary politics in a very natural way

0:36 – You reach a point where there’s not a lie in the world that you could use to make the boys believe you’re still in your 20s

Oh shit their new album just came out brb

1:06 – Suspiciously damselish

1:14 – Good. Glad they noticed

Sword Art Online

1:33 – I’m sure that makes our antisocial hero feel totally welcome!

1:50 – New girl, new guild. So we’re into those side arcs everyone talked about, I guess. This was the last episode I originally watched, and the structure was one of the big reasons I dropped it – I felt about as enthusiastic about episode 2 the first time I watched it, but the one thing it did have was momentum. I didn’t care about Kirito and the show seemed kind of silly, but I did want to see what happened next. Jumping from that to random vignettes basically kills all the tension built in those first two episodes, and renders Kirito’s big speech even more meaningless than it would be otherwise – it basically resets the character board. And considering this girl isn’t the one in the OP, whatever they’re baiting here doesn’t have particularly sharp teeth

3:07 – Oshit cameo I lied

3:36 – I love the ominous chimes with this title. I guess there’s a special Christmas event?

Sword Art Online

3:40 – Dang, with them a whole month. And they’ve progressed ten floors! Guess he really doesn’t want to be alone

3:48 – Jeez, that month of melee training really paid off

4:06 – A month to gain three levels? These noobs are terrible

4:09 – Holy shit he’s proud of himself. This is embarrassing to watch

4:15 – Hah, pretty great. There’s a whole in-game culture at this point. Of course you’d have people who usually run the blogs now selling the Weekly Raid Review

Sword Art Online

4:20 – Basic motor functions. The ability to use tools and follow simple instructions

4:28 – More about the selfishness of everybody. This writer sure has a dim view of humanity. Even if you were trying to act in your own best interest, isn’t the ultimate goal here just “escape as fast as possible?” You don’t get points for first place – aside from not wanting to have your grinding circuit mobbed, you’d think having more people with more full information would only lead to faster progress. Meaning the logical conclusion would be that they don’t know much meaningful information, and really just do know somewhat more efficient grinding patterns. Which is fair enough, I suppose

4:36 – Don’t preach to me about the grand spirit of self-interest, preacher man

4:42 – Don’t quite follow this one

4:48 – Protected from what? How are the high-level players protecting these dudes? Or does he secretly know Kirito is basically Level Jesus, and is urging him to abandon them and go find his true calling up with the raiding pros?

Sword Art Online

5:32 – Oh man, Kirito’s been attending some extracurricular activities

7:32 – Well, this will end well

Okay, this episode has definitely had a few interesting pieces so far. There was Keita’s speech, which Kirito described as a “set of ideals” but which really boiled down to “willpower willpower friendship friendship.” There was the celebration over their daily gold, where the most interesting line to me was “we can almost buy the house of our dreams now!” And now we’ve got Klein basically pitying Kirito for his choices. Add it all up, and it seems like the line we’re building here is complacency with this system versus the will to fight against it.

Which is interesting, because Kirito’s shtick seems to partially be that he feels most at home in this world, and yet embracing a life here seems to be correlated with “giving up your pride/humanity” or something. That could actually go to pretty interesting places, so I hope these ideas continue to be pursued

7:44 – Sword Art Online: stalkers welcome. I’d say “why wouldn’t her friends use this ability,” but there are plenty of valid explanations for that, and it’s not important to the story. I’d mainly like to head unfair plot hole accusations off at the pass

Sword Art Online

8:39 – So yeah, looks like we’re going there pretty much immediately.The will to fight!

9:36 – This is pretty much as deadly as “after this mission, I’m getting married!”

9:44 – Kirito why would you say that you know how this works

9:51 – Do I need to point out what they’re doing with light and dark here? Well, consider it pointed out. Simple trick, pretty much always effective

10:14 – Kirito is insatiable

Sword Art Online

10:19 – Is it actually unusual to him that she’s afraid of dying? Kinda weird

Anyway, as far as Sachi goes, it seems pretty obvious she’s gonna die, and die in a hurry, considering her entire characterization so far has been “afraid of getting hurt” and “doesn’t want to die.” Which is basically the inverse version of what I was talking about with Kirito’s characterization, and pretty much just as bad. If they want me to actually care about her character, they have to define her as a unique person I should be invested in before they start throwing all these death flags – otherwise she’s not a tragedy, she’s a statistic. Meaning that, just like with Kirito, people won’t automatically invest in her character – the ones who care, like with Kirito, will be the ones who actively want to care. And to those who didn’t arrive predisposed to invest in any tragedy the show feels inclined to dole out, they aren’t really offering much incentive to

10:27 – Huh. So is this implying he’s just sort of naturally gifted in the “will to fight” indicative of the high-performing characters? It’s an interesting distinction to make

11:20 – Whoa slow down there buddy

Sword Art Online

11:50 – Oh god. I know how this ends

12:08 – This is a nicely directed sequence. Good tension-building

13:20 – Damn, that was good. I wasn’t particularly invested in these guys, but that was a really well-orchestrated little tragedy. This show knows how to hit some beats

13:23 – Hah, quite the scene transition


Sword Art Online

14:09 – I like all the little details of their culture, like this information broker

14:57 – Dang, that sucks. Guess socializing ain’t worth it after all

15:46 – I also like that Klein is just popping up from time to time as representative of the now-core players. It’s another detail that sort of fills out the impression of a larger world going on around Kirito. The big time/floor skip here was also good for that – it’s clear that this is Kirito’s story, not the story of this world, and so it’s just an evocative series of accomplishments going on in the background of his own personal issues. Which is actually much more my kind of story – I prefer adventure and worldbuilding as window dressing to things occurring on the relatable, human scale

16:04 – Oof, that’s great. Klein tries to scare him off by making him fear death, but death and the fear of it have been on his mind for months. Brutal little bit of character truth there

Sword Art Online

16:56 – Well that’s, uh, remarkably generous of him. Guess Klein’s just always wanted to say that line

17:35 – DEATH TO SANTA. There’s actually something kind of absurd and poignant in attaching all these important character moments to the damn arbitrary ephemera of an MMO. It’s true, too – I have many great memories of doing things that were on their face very silly in videogames, purely because those moments were invested with real poignance by me and the people I was playing with

18:23 – Aw, that’s a spirit breaker

19:04 – Damn, that’s an elegant callback. This is all actually working pretty well – I didn’t care about, uh… Sachi, but I can buy that Kirito cared, and he’s the one we’re being given reason to invest in. This episode is faaar more subdued and effective in its storytelling than the first two, and is using this premise in a meaningful way to tell a solid little personal story.

This is actually a damn good episode, you guys!

Sword Art Online

19:57 – Back to resolve

20:22 – Who wouldn’t?

21:28 – Digging that knife in

And Done

Damn! That was a really good episode! I wasn’t really moved by it, but if I had been given reason to be invested in Sachi’s character, I wouldn’t really have any complaints with it – it used the world well, raised some themes to explore, and handled all of its dramatic moments extremely well. Hell, it even gave Kirito something completely valid and human to fight for! That was miles ahead of the first two episodes, and actually has me pretty excited to continue. Bring on the next one!

60 thoughts on “Sword Art Online – Episode 3

  1. 18:23: The implications of this detail have always been one of the most horrifying and cruel things about the setting here. The person behind this was a brutal bastard.

    10:19: The way I read this when I watched SAO was that a lot of people were still treating things as a computer game instead of a life or death struggle. One can read that sort of casualness into the actions of the group here, for example, as well as what various people did in the second episode.

    • Yeah, I guess people have been treating this like a game. Sachi seemed like the only person with a reasonable reaction here – her and maybe Klein, who at least seemed exasperated with Kirito’s hero routine. Why anyone wouldn’t prefer “slow and steady wins the race” when there’s no penalty for it and the alternative is death, I dunno.

  2. The quick 10 second death window seems a bit unfair for that revival gem. It also doesn’t make much sense when you remember that the nerve gear kills people by frying their brain if they die in-game, not really sure how the in-game gem could fix that. Also it didn’t show how Kirito escaped from the trap or how he busted Kringle. Both plots on their own could’ve made for a decent episode separately (could’ve at least given Kirito’s guild a full episode come on!) perhaps but these ideas were just lumped together in a very lame way..

    • The ten second revive thing actually did seem reasonable to me – I just assumed the headset didn’t immediately kill them, and that the gem could cancel the kill signal before it was initiated, but obviously couldn’t revive someone once they were dead.

      As for both of the fights, I kind of prefer that they didn’t show those. I even almost made a comment saying I was thankful the show didn’t make the Kringle fight into a big thing, because this episode wasn’t about being exciting for the fights, it was about Kirito’s emotional journey.

    • And, not that I think about it… When people die IRL, they get detached from the Nerve Gear (and medical equipment) and get, you know, buried.

      Could have developped a cute short trollfic about reviving a zombie or and MMO ghost.

  3. “Same with many protagonists in YA novels” As a HUGE reader of YA I’d disagree with you there, yes there are certainly other protagonists like Bella but just about all the books I read, even those I dislike, have lead characters which are fleshed out or mostly fleshed out characters. Honestly I think it depends a bit on the genre within YA, I’ve long gotten the impression that romance leads are written a bit more “blankly” for the same reason harem leads in anime are. But that’s more of a debate to go on my blog than here.
    4:28-Agreed, especially since if one person beats the game then all, still living, people escape at once so it makes sense that if some people can safely clear the levels super fast then they should. Also, holy crap why did it take you guys a month to go three levels in a month? Like, I’m pretty sure people playing MMORPGS as part of a real world life could do that in a week at least.
    7:44-I think only Kirito had that ability and, since it was a higher level one, he hadn’t told them about it.
    Aw, I thought 11:50 would be the “never split the party” song. XD

    • Sorry, didn’t mean to disparage YA novels in general – I’ve read a ton I think are great, that’s just another medium where I’ve happened to notice that style of character writing. For the sake of my upcoming project, I hope more of my readers are fans of YA stuff…

  4. Isn’t Sachi in the OP, alongside the rest of the vignette girls that Kirito meets? That at least should be indicative of how much they matter in the long run.

    I am mixed about this episode because I’m farther ahead (just finished the first half). Like you, I can appreciate the small things in the execution and sensitive moments that make the episode what it is. At the same time, the hasty progression and the unsubtle death flags make the episode feel like a cheap source of angst. This is Kirito’s tragic backstory, the moment in his SAO life where he swears off the mere notion of joining a guild. It’s meant to be a cathartic moment where his personal weakness condemns his guild to oblivion, but when your guild gets caught in a trap because they’re both deaf and stupid, him being guilty about not warning his guild fast enough feels iffy as a primary motivation to avoid guilds altogether.

    Not to mention there were moments in this episode that I honestly could not take seriously.

    • My feelings are a little mixed, because I was actually fine with most of what this episode did on a craft level, but it obviously didn’t “work” for me – I felt nothing, and this episode clearly wants you to feel something. It was like watching a fairly competent athletic routine, or something – “yes yes, fine craft, on to the next event.”

      Although if this episode is supposed to make me understand why Kirito would blame himself for these events, yeah, no dice. It clearly happened because his guildmates were stupid, and Sachi even directly told him not to blame himself. I figured the ending of this episode would give him a source of resolve – “I have to win no matter what, for Sachi’s sake.”

      • As far as why he is supposed to blame himself, it goes back to the hiding his level deal. He did not trust his allies enough to show his real strength, and as a result they did not take his warnings as seriously as they should have. After all why would he know so much if he’s only barely higher level than him. Also if I remember correctly you were supposed to have the impression that he did not give them all the details of the danger because he was not supposed to have known so much at his supposed level. He put keeping his secret ahead of his friend’s safety.

        I do agree that that message gets lost in how stupid the guild members act though.

      • In addition to what Ctom42 said about Kirito’s warnings not being heeded, the episode also left me with the impression that Kirito may have been quietly semi-carrying the rest of the group in encounters, giving them an over-inflated sense of their own power and their ability to take on stuff (and numbing their sense of caution).

        Of course I don’t know if this is real or just something that I read into the episode to make it make more sense.

  5. hehehehe

    I hate being reminded of all these SAO episodes, but watching Bobduh go through it exactly how I (and most of us) did is irresistibly entertaining.

    Go on! Bring on the next one! Satisfy that desire to continue watching this show!!!
    And let us enjoy you crush your own soul and wallow in… ah, I’ll just wait. We (your readers) all know what’s coming. XD

  6. Uh… three points:

    1) I disagree with your interpretation of Kirito. You’re not really supposed to relate to him so much as fall in love with him. Because he is better and more driven and more special than your average player, ie: everyone else he meets. He’s not Bella, he’s Edward. Or at least that’s how I read it. Maybe this is just something that becomes more obvious later, or maybe I’m reading it wrong.

    2) This story was originally written as a flashback, so the audience literally knew that Sachi was dead before we even met her. The difference between “obvious death flags” and “foregone conclusion” is an interesting one. That doesn’t excuse writing her as someone with no purpose but to die though.

    3) The anime did an incredibly poor job with exposition. Cutting out the extraneous details is nice, but I think they cut a bit too much. The game is cleared by everyone as soon as anyone beats the final boss. That’s what the guys meant by them being “protected”: the people clearing the game are in some sense risking their lives for everyone else. Although in another sense risking their lives for themselves. This is kind of important for understanding anything about the society they’ve built up,and the anime skims over it.

    • 1) That would be strange, because I’m pretty sure the show is marketed/made for young males who probably play games and are socially awkward and wish that playing games well was a superpower. Might be different from a female viewer’s perspective (Where does Asuna fit into this? She sort of heads down Bella road [I have never read Twilight, so I’m inferring from general comments about Twilight I have heard]).

      2) It’s an adaptation. The “audience that knew” is a different one from the one that’s watching the show.

      3) Pretty much. That’s why I like Log Horizon so much better, because it actually covers the “How? WTF? What do?” parts of getting dropped into an MMO instead of turning it into a straightforward kill the generic evil rude dude quest that you could do in any other setting. That, and ya know, characterization.

      • 1) The target demographic/love interest thing is a bit of a tangent from what I meant. I could probably write a whole essay about this, but in direct response to Bobduh’s point, you don’t have to “become” Kirito to empathize with him. As an example from this episode, it was pointed out that despite it being difficult for the audience to care about Sachi, it’s easy to see that Kirito cares, and to judge the power of the narrative based on that instead. He is a different person than you. We are merely meant to feel sorry for him here, not necessarily to feel the tragedy ourselves. Kirito is meant to be a character that the audience reacts to positively, not merely a blank slate for the audience to channel it’s own reactions to other characters and events through.

        2) I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I just thought it was interesting how the very same things that form dramatic irony in one version are interpreted as unsubtle foreshadowing in another. Context greatly changes the perception of the same events, probably unintentionally. I guess I should stop comparing them though, at least for these comments. Sorry.

        3) I actually like the villain in SAO. He’s probably the most interesting and subtle character in the series. Log Horizon’s purposes are better served by not having a real villain at all though.

    • 1) From what I’ve seen so far, this seems like the standard audience-insert hero. All the things that make him distinctive (mainly just being good at stuff) don’t really define him as a person – they’re just things to fist-pump about. These characters are often meant to be the audience as they wish/think they are/could be.

      But hey, three episodes in. I guess I’ll see.

      3) Oh! Well, that’s some very useful information. I guess that makes sense then!

  7. The biggest problem with the anime was that…. it’s very hard to really capture an introvert like Kirito without getting into his head. Seeing his actions alone, without seeing his internal thought processes results in a blank slate character, unfortunately. I think that’s why Kirito came off more believable in the LNs themselves – at least, the reader could see into his internal mental world.

    The anime utterly failed in translating those aspects properly.

    Red Nose Reindeer is one of the best written stories in SAO, at least until Mother’s Rosario (which hopefully, the second season will cover).

    • It’s tricky. Adapting a written medium to television pretty much always necessitates expressing characters in new ways, which in turn generally means the show has to prioritize different things, or rewrite the story somewhat to better express what’s easy to express from inside a character’s head. Personally, I think successful adaptations from book to show require a much more ruthless and creative process than most creators are willing to adopt, particularly if they’re worried about upsetting fans of the original.

  8. I didn’t care about, uh… Sachi, but I can buy that Kirito cared, and he’s the one we’re being given reason to invest in. This episode is faaar more subdued and effective in its storytelling than the first two, and is using this premise in a meaningful way to tell a solid little personal story.

    I actually quite agree with this, and is one of the reasons I’ll defend some of these earlier episodes. They really are the “best” part of the show, and are the only times Kirito is actually a fairly relatable character.

    I didn’t care about Sachi (past my general affection for cute girl characters), but Kirito obviously did. Of course, some stuff that will happen later will make some of these events seem really…blech, but as a standalone little story, its not bad.

  9. I ragequit Sword Art Online and I look forward to seeing you go through what I did 🙂


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  11. Remember what I said, specifically about this episode? Imagine watching it after you already care for Kirito.

  12. I think you hit this about right: it’s hard to care about Sachi when we’ve only been with her for 15 minutes before she bites the bullet. The short story isn’t much better in this regard, though it does have the upside that you know she’s going to die beforehand–it’s told in flashback starting on Christmas Eve. Arguably, this is a better construction, though really, it would’ve hit home that nearly one whole year of SAO is unexplored. Again, a difficulty in adapting a novel plus some short side stories to a linear format.

    But, in the end, this is more about Kirito’s grief than it is about us feeling bad for Sachi. As you say, it’s easy to identify with Kirito here, despite the briefness of Sachi.

    That said, one question that will have to be kept in mind is whether this episode changes Kirito–whether it provides an impetus for development. Again, knowing how the SAO novels are structured, I think you probably know the answer to that question already.

    You’ve made a good commentary on the nature of bland protagonists in escapist work, and on how crucial it is for such work to encourage the audience to identify with a character. If Kirito succeeds, we’re supposed to cheer. If Kirito fails, we’re supposed to feel down about it, just as he does. You mention that a character needs more definition–clear goals, quicks, and so on. I think it may go further than that. Does a character need to do something that some, or perhaps most, people will disagree with? To break that link of being so tightly identified, of having personality traits overcome by those we expect or anticipate in the audience, does a character need to do something the most of the audience surely doesn’t want them to do?

    • I like your last question here – for good characters, I’d argue that yeah, they need to be flawed. And not just “inexperienced” – they need to actually have elements of themselves that are selfish, or that they’re not proud of, or that work against their own goals. Our flaws are what make us human – just like how you appreciate the human imperfections of the actual people you love, so it is with great, ever-imperfect characters. And these flaws can’t just be lip service to the idea of multifaceted characters – they really do have to be expressed through actions the audience won’t agree with, otherwise they aren’t actually a meaningful element of the character.

      • Someone pointed out that the show RWBY lends itself to Mary-Sue/Gary Stu characters, but yet said characters are extremely lovable. There are two characters with obvious flaws, but many of the most beloved are the ones who haven’t even received much character development. Their main appeals are that they are extremely competent, and have very distinct character quirks that lend themselves to making any imagined scenario involving the characters to be entertaining.

        Furthermore, said quirks are so distinct and defined that the imaginings can easily extend to situations wherein their quirks that are positives become flaws, and so contribute to the entertainment factor. (Distilled and saturated, it is why woobie and dorky character inspire moesuch fan fervor.)

        From this, I feel that strong character writing means coming up with personality features that can be explored so deeply that they are meaningful as both strengths and as flaws, which is also more realistic and thus easier to identify with. Introducing flaws for the sake of introducing flaws can still be contrived, and is less compelling than a character who rides their personality advantages right up until they fall over the edge into disadvantage-land, and then have to grow because of it.

        Few people purposely adopt flawed behavior. They do it because it does something for them, and only are considered flaws when they do more damage than good in situations the person is in/wishes to be in.

  13. Likewise, I didn’t much care for Sachi’s character – there just wasn’t all that much there for me as a viewer to care about to begin with – but as you pointed out, her character matters a lot in relation to Kirito, who I did end up getting reasonably emotionally attached to. When I watched this series for a second time, this episode really stood out to me for that reason. (Yup, I’m another one of those anime fans who actually quite liked SAO, despite its obvious flaws. Luckily, I’m pretty okay with people who crititise what I like, so long as they manage to do so intelligently.)

    • I get the feeling I’ll end up enjoying it more than the internet seems to, or at least the first half. Outside of the theatrics at the end of the first two episodes, I haven’t really had a big problem with anything.

      • It does seem to be one of the anime fandom’s favourite whipping boys. And I do understand a lot of the hatred, particularly in that oft-mentioned second half – I remember my friend watching it and saying to me, “what, did they fire the writers?” I’m one of those weirdos who quite likes the whole series though, second half and all, despite the undeniably serious issues that crop up.

      • I actually enjoyed the show quite a lot, despite recognizing it as “bad”. I think I liked it for what it was trying to be more than what it was. To me, it failed to live up to its own goals, but I give it points for trying.

      • My short summary here is that the early SAO episodes aren’t bad, just clumsy. And whatever flaws SAO has it was always quite good at not being boring and doing individual episodes well.

  14. I’m glad you ended up enjoying this episode by the end. This show definitely has some writing issues, but it also does some things well. From what I’ve heard this episode and the other smaller short stories in the episode to come were actually thrown in later in the novels as flashbacks (someone correct me on this if I’m wrong). So part of the idea was you were already supposed to be invested in Kirito at this point, and this story was supposed to emphasize why he stayed a loner for so long. He got close to people and then they died. It’s a pretty simple and common reason for loner characters, but it’s effective because it’s so human.

    Anyway I don’t see this show as anything deep or even particularly well written. But I do see it as fun, and it does some things well that a lot of anime does not. For that reason I will continue to enjoy it even if it’s not particularly ground breaking on the thematic front. I do love that you appreciate that your readers enjoy the show and you ripping on it though.

    • Yeah, this episode definitely did some good work in establishing Kirito’s character. And I certainly hope the readers stay okay with whatever I say – I’m getting comments with every possible opinion on this series at this point, so I’m sure I’m gonna piss off someone eventually…

  15. I was actually the opposite of you. I really liked the first two episodes, thought they established the setting and the stakes well, and had some awesome action. And this episode is really good in theory because it really shows their mortality in this world. Her death does have an impact on Kirito that lasts throughout the series.

    But I couldn’t get invested in it because they literally killed her off halfway through the episodes. If they had expanded this into a 3-4 episode arc and rounded out her character, the show would’ve had me in tears. But she’s such a one dimensional character that I didn’t really care. And I can see your argument that Kirito cares, but it still isn’t good storytelling when the only attachment Kirito has to this girl is two conversations and months of time offscreen.

    • I agree, this episode needed, well, more episodes. It is possible to establish a character the audience would want to invest in in a few broad, rapid strokes, but this episode was juggling too much other stuff to really prioritize that specifically. But I think it at least did the job it needed to do.

  16. I once thought it would be nice to see a SAO side-story from Klein’s perspective and about his guild. As in, five grown-ass people without the cheating uber-abilities dealing with a VRMMO on a daily basis. Now that I’m reading your write-ups, the thought resurfaced again.

    … Oh, wait, it’ll basically be Log Horizon.

    • If it was Log Horizon with better (or just less) comedic moments and SAO’s animation and music, well, I’d be sold on the spot.

    • I think it might actually be better for me to be watching this show post-Log Horizon, since I don’t feel at all annoyed at SAO not really engaging with what’s interesting about actual games narrative-wise. It’s fine that this is a character story, the good “trapped in a videogame” anime already exists.

      • One of the interesting aspects of SAO versus Log Horizon for me is that SAO is much more about being in a game than Log Horizon is (which makes sense, people in LH are not ‘in a game’ in the way that SAO characters are). Game mechanics and game issues are pervasive and important all through SAO, to the point that you can’t forget the setting at all.

        (This actually surprised me at the time I watched SAO, because I had expected ‘trapped in a game’ to basically be an excuse for a fantasy setting. SAO doesn’t do that at all.)

  17. Apply the same self-insertion logic to Sachi, and I think it becomes apt that Sachi recieved relatively little airtime; recall that a lot of other people are meeting, and have met similar ends, somewhere else in the game. Her entire character development sets her up as the unfortunate victim, and that there are plenty of them is something SAO wants us to remember.

    This isn’t simply “Sachi matters to Kirito”, its “people matter to other people”, and it serves to, in microcosm, give us a model of the kind of crap going on in other corners of SAO. I think Sachi’s death was an act of worldbuilding.

    • Second point: note that a lot of people here wanted to be more attached to Sachi when she died, as opposed to not having Sachi die at all. Fiction consumers are a bloodthirsty bunch.
      Now relate this to Kayaba Akihito, who wanted to build a world, and deliberately put a loaded gun into the system. More than anything, I think he wants to see all this drama play out. It’s similar, though not the same, to the way people want to eat up tragedy with popcorn.

      • Well, the show pretty much defined her as “about to die,” so I don’t find it too surprising nobody actually felt a desire to keep her alive. In light of her characterization, it seems kind of unfair to point the finger at the audience for “wishing for her death” – the audience wasn’t given a choice, she was “marked” for death in a transparent narrative gambit.

        I do like the point that this works as a worldbuilding vignette, though.

      • I think the difference here is between talking about wanting the story to be better constructed versus talking about wanting a different story. As consumers of the story we know that wanting a different one is mostly futile and the story itself made it very clear that Sachi was marked for death from the start (and that her death is not an unimportant incidental thing that could easily be changed).

        On a meta-level I dislike the setting of SAO exactly because of all of the death and cruelty involved (and I reject the view that you need real death in the story to make things ‘matter’, which is an argument that some people have advanced). But SAO is what it is and if I’m going to engage with the show at all I get to live with it.

  18. Welp, I’ve learned not to read your posts in the middle of the day, as it spun me off into thinking way too much about this, and now this comment is probably longer than it has any right to be.

    1) Log Horizon comparisons are inevitable. It’s fascinating that simply by some propagating a culture looking down on the beta-testers, that suddenly anyone on the front lines becomes a suspicious character, rather than as potential saviors, who could end this game that much faster because of their experience, and so “What level are you?” becomes a dirty question. While there was a little bit of level-segregation in Log Horizon, with the 90’s doing their own thing and exploiting the newbies, Shiroe’s primary annoyance was still in lower-level players using him as a resource, rather than as a person. In a death game situation, you’d think that that would be a much more desired dynamic, as the less experienced should be protected. But because the beta-testers are ostracized, Kirito CANNOT act as mentor to the Moonlit Black Cats the way Shiroe did with Minori and Touya. So the “Kirito finds a family” scenario fades into wistful what-ifs, emphasizing the tragedy of what does happen. If only he hadn’t cemented the anti-beta culture with that Batman speech…!

    2) That brings up how Log Horizon posits the “making friends through force of videogame competence” social structure as a valid and positive one, because it’s based off of a game that people have already played for years and level-capped in in the real world, instead of being a new release with everyone starting at 0, so gaming culture, with its revering of game competence, carries over. In contrast, it’s kind of implied that the (in-game) counter-intuitive anti-beta culture of SAO is partially due to a good number of non-gamers being caught in the death game, and possibly feeling resentment because they no longer hold any edges they may have had in real life, and instead of embracing the expertise of the beta-testers, sought to return them to their real-life standing as social rejects. (It doesn’t help that things like Kirito’s actions at the end of ep 1 and Diabel’s attempt at hoarding the prize in ep 2 reinforce the negative perceptions.) Then once the initial culture is established, the gamers respond by going “Fine, then you deserve to be abandoned!” forgoing Diabel’s attempt to unify everyone, resulting in the frontlines being, as Kirito puts it, an insular atmosphere. (So then, not much different from the culture of the early Log Horizon episodes after all.)
    Tangent: I refuse to believe a PC research club would consist completely of non-gamers that clueless as to how bad their progress is, and why their later behavior is effing stupid. What the hell.

    3) Had Sachi lived, she would have served as an interesting character contrast to both Kirito and Asuna. I get the impression that, sometimes, the frontliners’ “will to fight,” which you note later may tie into a lack of fear of death, comes from their familiarity with (and before SAO, enjoyedment of) MMO structures. There’s less unknown to fear. That’s Kirito. But then you also have Asuna, a non-gamer like Sachi, but whose fear of the unknown drives her to master the game and rectify her lack of knowledge. Their speeches in these episodes, back to back, are night and day, which was probably intentional. Asuna would rather die at the hands of a monster than to dwell safely in the village, (the latter of which she considers “losing to this world”) while Sachi can’t even muster the despair to commit suicide to run away from “this world.” None of the three really fall into Kirito’s musing on people that lack the know-how or passion to make the front-lines, but still enjoy living in Aincrad. I guess some of the later vignette girls could apply. But back to Sachi: had she lived, been more than a device to justify Kirito’s behaviors, how would she have developed? Would she have remained passive in her fear, would she have grown to enjoy “this world,” and how would the Black Cat’s ambitions help or hurt that? Some of her unease was because she may not have minded just living, but that the goal to reach the front lines was forcing her into combat situations outside of her comfort zone. If they were taking it more easy, would she still have such fear of death? (I haven’t watched long enough to Log Horizon to know, so how does she compare to Minori?)

    4) Kirito’s affections towards Sachi had some real potential that hit the limits of what 30-minute animation can afford to focus on. In an hour-long live-action, there could have been lots of body language conveying all sorts of subtext about Kirito’s current and previous interactions with girls. I would greatly welcome an Oregairu-style examination of Kirito’s social tendencies. Was Sachi the first girl he interacted with for an extended period of time? Did he know any gamer girls pre-SAO? Had he ever had romantic feelings before, and did he ever consider Sachi as a romantic prospect? What would this episode be like if Tetsuo and/or Sachi were gender-flipped? The presence of these sorts of questions, such depths hinted at but unexplored, may be one of the reasons SAO (the show) has such popularity. The way its premise offers such possibilities drives the development of fandom the same way Harry Potter and Naruto do, whereas writing that keeps everything tight may be more masterfully crafted, but leaves less incentive for derivative speculative/transformative works.

    • On 1): When I watched SAO I didn’t get the feeling that people on the front lines had become seen as suspicious (or were particularly beta-tester heavy); if anything I had the impression that they were respected. I read Kirito’s unwillingness to admit to his real level in this episode as having much more to do with his mindset than anything else, with a sideline of a general ‘why is someone with a front-line level hanging around here? that seems odd to me’ thing. Basically he seemed to be trying to be inconspicuous and admitting to being a high-level player wouldn’t have helped that at all. Then an initial reluctant lie snowballed terribly once he grouped up with other people; in the manner of lies, owning up to it would be admitting that he had betrayed their trust by staying silent.

    • 3) I find this whole “will to fight” idea pretty interesting, partially because it seems so misguided. In the end, only one group of people will free them, and as soon as the best reach the end, everyone goes free. In light of that, what’s even the point of someone who’s mediocre at videogames attempting to reach the front lines? They’re risking their life for the sake of what – pride? Pride in their ability to beat this game they’ve been trapped in? But that wasn’t even their choice! I really hope the show continues to explore what really prompts these attitudes.

      4) Yeah, I’ve heard similar thoughts before – how “loose” characterization allows for far more audience interpretation. Personally, I prefer the ambiguity to be in a show’s ideas – I like stories that raise questions without easy answers, that actually prompt viewer participation because the concepts involved are that personal, not because the author withholds information. But it’s an interesting concept… something I’ll probably want to write about at some point.

  19. The one thing I remember most about this episode isn’t the buildup or purpose of Sachi’s dead, but my disappointment of the portrayal of the actual death. Sachi and co. just disappeared into pixelated sparkles; it was the most PG-rated thing. I couldn’t buy the supposed gravity of the event. Heck, the guy that jumped off the platform was a more traumatizing event.

    It’s a complaint I hold against SAO in general. The deaths and other big moments don’t feel nearly as real or consequential as the story wanted to make them out to be (or they end up being clownishly hackneyed, as you’ve seen earlier).

    Also look for the pattern of Kirito-helping-cute-teen-girls-on-inconsequential-adventures-with-his-uber-gaming-skillz instead of fleshing out those very important months players were acclimating themselves to the current situation. I say this while acknowledging the most competently written episodes are the these first 8 or so. I know the author wrote the main story for a contest when he was 16, but this anime adaptation is a professional production with resources worthy of a AAA property. To profoundly miss the big picture and flub the most important moments at every opportunity blows my mind.

    • I didn’t mind the sparkly deaths when I watched SAO because it was part and parcel of SAO being a MMO game, not reality. If anything I felt that the sparkles and the artificiality of it played up the core horror of what was going on; after all, each of those casual puffs of sparkles had a real person being executed behind them. I also think that it makes elements of the overall story at least more plausible because it distances the people in the game from what’s going on; they know intellectually that people who die in the game die in real life too, but the in-game lack of reality of it lessens the emotional and gut impact. If in-game death left bloody corpses it would be a much more visceral and less antiseptic experience for the players.

      (I am far from convinced that the production team or the original author thought about it this much.)

      • I had a similar reaction. The artificiality of it forces the audience to intellectually understand the character’s death, which when compared to the various gorefests you might otherwise be inundated with in other media makes it “realer than real”. You engage with the concept of death itself in a way that mere blood usually fails to do. Like, just today I chopped hundreds of video game mooks in half, leaving bloody gibs everywhere, and it meant absolutely nothing to me because there’s no implication of “death” or “mortality”. This isn’t so much that I’m desensitized as it is that fake violence feels fake. And nothing is faker than anime violence.

        The scenes themselves could have been better directed in many cases (the music too plays it up a bit much: eventually I just started giggling whenever the “dramatic” song started up), but I don’t think making it more realistic would have helped at all, and in fact would have hurt immersion in the game world.

      • I like both sides of this – the horror of how this representation basically trivializes death, and how that minimizing of the horror of death might actually affect the psychology of the players.

    • I know the author wrote the main story for a contest when he was 16

      People keep spreading this misinformation. He wrote the novels in 2000-2002 (published online in 2002) or so, he was born in 1974.

      The artist doing the artwork for the series was 16 when she began.

      • Oh, that’s news to me. There’s a world of difference in life experience and writing skill between 26 and 16. So then why does it come across as so juvenile?

        • Because it probably is 🙂

          It also fits with the way these books are written, style-wise.

          You know, maybe Reki is a genius, and he’s not immature and all that, but he just knows that’s what will sell, and being a shrewd businessman, gives the readers what they want.

          I’m reading Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei now, and it doesn’t have much going for it, SAO was much more interesting/exciting, so it also has me thinking on what SAO did right, compared to this series. Then again, SAO took some time to get going for me as well.

          And yeah, the twitter-blogger group you’re part of is currently spreading this misinformation. Someone said it, and then people keep repeating it, so trying to stamp it out >.> You can obviously dislike it and call it immature (it’s not mature, not much to be said about it), but to blame it on the author’s age, when it’s not even true? :3

    • I was actually fine with the visual representation – frankly, more often I disconnect because drama goes too far in the other direction, with deaths you’re supposed to care about being TOTALLY GRUESOME OH MY GOD BLOOD. That’s how I felt about most Titan deaths – when the mother was getting killed, all I was thinking was “RAIN OF BLOOD THIS IS METAL AS FUCK.” Subtlety is a virtue!

  20. “After this mission, I’m getting married”.

    Why does this ring a bell? Have I heard tgis quote before? Where? Who said it? Was it Gurren Lagann? I don’t remember it’s driving me crazyyyyyyyyyyyyaaaaaAAAAAAAAA

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