You know, it’s at times like this that I think it’s most important for all of us to remember not to jump to conclusions. I know you want to. I know I want to. And it’d certainly be easy! Over time, as these episodes have stretched on, I’ve given snide little asides and mini-sermons on what I think of the underlying philosophy of this show. How it plays into perverse, naive ideas of meritocracy popular among gamers or outsiders in general. How it doesn’t really seem to understand human beings on more than a superficial, “man-creatures do this” level. How it seems to like violence just maybe a little bit too much. And it’d be easy to extrapolate from this that, say, all gamers are psychopaths who dream only of murder. Or that videogames are popular because they provide the killing fields these bloodlust-crazed time bombs so desperately desire. Or that Sword Art Online represents an idealized view of the world written from the perspective of a person who knows he deserves to rule, scorns those who currently thwart him in the cruel outer world, and longs for the day when he will bring swift and long-awaited justice in the form of righteous, delicious, endless acts of brutal, merciless violence.
But let’s not jump to conclusions.
I could be frank, though!
Should I be frank?
Alright, let’s level for just a brief moment here.
(And before we begin, let me make it clear that I am not talking about “all gamers,” that my statements come from a position of extreme investment in the medium, that everyone I know and am friends with plays videogames, and that I will probably be playing some Soul Calibur tonight or hopefully New Super Mario Bros if I can convince my housemate to let me use his system)
If you read these posts, if you follow my twitter, if you’ve visited my ask.fm, you probably know I have a, to put it charitably, “dim view” of the gaming community at large. I don’t think this is because videogames turn people into monsters, although I’ll get to that in a moment. I think it’s because videogames are what they are.
They’re alternate worlds. Escapism in the form of controlled realities. They are inherently appealing to people who feel powerless, and people who feel powerless often feel the desire to exert power. They’re a specialist interest, leading to insular communities. They were traditionally the domain of boys shunned by social circumstances, leading to an ingrained undercurrent of resentment and an us-versus-them mentality. They make strict, logical sense, a comfort to people who wish the world or other people would do the same.
All of these things lead to gaming surrounding itself with a community predisposed towards some pretty negative stuff. And this is compounded by the fact that videogames are Murder Training Devices.
Alright, hopefully that got your attention, even if it’s a lie. Because it is a lie – if videogames are murder training devices, they are not particularly good ones. But it is true that our media influences us. Forms our cultural landscape. Tells us what is normal and unacceptable. Makes us feel more or feel less. And perhaps most importantly, our media helps us grow.
Which is really the biggest single problem I have with someone who dedicates their life to gaming, and one of the central problems exhibited by Sword Art Online. It’s most strongly illustrated by the villains here, but it’s evident in almost all the characters – they don’t feel like people. They seem like ideas of people, like stories received from a book or, more likely, a videogame. In order to create stories, you must engage with the world, and engagement with the world requires absorbing a variety of rich experiences and rich media. Games are, to be frank, not there yet. They are still largely toys, and cannot substitute for an engagement with the world through literature, film, and human experience. The problem with games isn’t that they are good for you or bad for you – it’s that they are nothing for you. Two hundred hours spent in Call of Duty does not teach you one single thing about why someone might be led to commit an “immoral” action. Fifty hours of mastering a specific speed run won’t give you a single insight into how people react to traumatic circumstance.
Sword Art Online is hamstrung by the fact that its author did too much research, and too little engaging with the world. He does not understand people, and so he cannot write them or empathize with them. His story is an extension of himself, and his shadow does not extend very far.
That may be the harshest thing I’ve ever said about a writer! But it’s honestly the impression I get from this work. The binary worldview, the simplistic characters, the gleeful violence – I think it all comes back to this guy just not spending enough time really trying to understand other people. And I kinda feel sorry for him, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna go easy on his creepy little adventure.
It’s time to finish this, old friend. Let’s Sword Art Online.
0:01 – No matter what you say about this show, you can’t deny it’s pretty. They did their best, those animators. They really -sniff- really tried
0:11 – I like the choice to end back here in the real world. His final hurdle is literally turning his online human connection into a real-world one
0:29 – More pretty shots. Pretty music, too
0:48 – AW SHIT
1:05 – FINAL BOSS: DUDE WITH A KNIFE. Careful Kirito! If you slice a guy in half and impale him your sword in the real world, juries are rarely sympathetic to the “I AM THE GILDED HERO” defense
1:26 – One of the few realistic things he’s said. I’m sure Facebook would love to hire the man who unlocked the secret to reprogramming brain chemistry
1:45 – Nice dynamic shot
2:00 – Losing sucks, but at least he gets to do the “meddling kids” line
2:31 – Aw shit you said the magic words Kirito rage mode unlocked
And to think, Kirito had the power to beat up a crazy man in a parking lot inside him all along
3:32 – If his attacker had been more careful about leaving knives laying around, none of this would have happened
3:43 – See!? Good as new
3:48 – KIRITO THE JUST
3:53 – AND NOW, TO SEE MY WOMAN. Doesn’t this even look like a horror movie shot?
4:06 – For a second I thought that scratch on his cheek was the extension of his smile and I was like Finally, this show understands itself
4:11 – Yesss, listen to the voices
This show extending that “the virtual world can be a valid reality” point into “the real world is just like the virtual one” is leading to some pretty weird moments. I know they’re just trying to indicate the strength/confidence Kirito apparently found in videogames is translating back here, but considering the last thing he was doing in the virtual world was naming himself the “Gilded Hero” and torturing a man to death, that is not a comforting thought
5:52 – There it is you kids. You’ve earned it
6:05 – She must have the worst breath. Two-year-old saliva and stale air all up in them nostrils. Kirito is a champion
6:14 – Moments like these, where the show’s just indulging in its own “legacy,” make me kinda sad I can’t enjoy this like I might have ten years ago. It’s kinda nice to be able to unquestioningly love an indulgent piece of media
6:55 – All that color
7:12 – No matter how hard you try, you always end up in a high school eventually. Curse you, anime!
7:51 – Tragically, many waifus do not survive early childhood, due to injury and sickness’s inability to make them any less kawaii. Please take your waifu for regular checkups, as potentially serious illnesses will only express themselves through a slight blush or possibly an adorable cough
Looking for Alaska, a book I recently read that’s directly aimed at teenagers, featured heavy petting and an extremely awkward blowjob. The Twilight series features a goddamn vampire baby chewing its way out of its mother’s womb. I think anime can handle teens holding hands.
9:11 – Now that’s a great callback
9:26 – YEAH YOU WOULD THINK
9:33 – REKT
11:20 – I might actually prefer the full harem version of this show, if only because Lisbeth and Sugu are much more interesting to watch than Kirito and Asuna
12:35 – It is kinda weird that the world has just overtly agreed to this
12:57 – Heroism has its perks
14:31 – Oh Agil, what can’t you do
15:43 – I figure this will eventually actually happen as a result of the continued growth and convergence of social media, not from games organically connecting to each other, but it makes sense that this author would see it from this perspective
17:32 – Keep it in your pants Sugu
17:39 – Sugu plz
18:18 – This is just like that scene from Utena except they’re siblings and I don’t care about them
19:21 – Freedomisthetheme.jpg
20:22 – Impressive
20:39 – Really? You… really want to do that, now? I’d think you’d be kind of, you know, haunted by the deaths of all the people you knew there, and constantly reminded of all the hours you were trapped there, and whatnot
I mean, I guess this can tie into “appreciate your time in a virtual world,” but wasn’t that about people making that time meaningful?
21:01 – The purest love
21:46 – Aw don’t even try to pull that shit, Kirito. Are we seriously ending with a “the secret words” thing? That’s not even relevant to this show! That only means anything when it offers a lingering question regarding… wait, don’t you run away from me, SAO! That’s just one more thing you know “stories do,” and so you include it even though you GODDAMNIT IT’S OVER
SCREW YOU SAO. GAH. DAMNIT. FUCK.
Well, that episode was fine. One last battle, a tearful reunion, and we got to see all our bros again. Not much happened, but this show has always been indulgent, and so an episode indulging in your assumed love for the characters at the end is pretty appropriate.
I’d offer some final thoughts, but the next season starts in two friggin’ days, and I think you all know more or less how I feel. Or at least I hope you do. Jesus christ, I wrote maybe a hundred pages about this show, I really hope you do. It’s been a fun ride (honestly), and though SAO was terrible, it fulfilled its promise of Rarely Being Boring. Plus, hey, it was pretty, the soundtrack was good, nice animation – if you’re gonna take a ride into the dark depths of all that is terrible, you could pick a much worse vehicle than Sword Art Online. Sure, it was inept and often downright despicable according to every narrative metric, but we all have our quirks. And it’s certainly been a pleasure hearing you assholes giggle about whatever horrible creature awaited me around each new corner.
You want a list, though, don’t you. The paragraph to drop in the face of any bright-eyed new fan, fresh off their first favorite anime and eager to tell the world how great it was. You jackals want me to hurt that new fan. To give you a weapon, to put the gun in your hand. To burn them so they may never grow, never seek past their first brush of fandom, never get a chance to see anime as anything more than a thing that assholes like us watch.
Eh. Fuck it.
Sword Art Online is a pretty terrible show. Aesthetically, it’s actually very solid – strong direction, nice animation highlights, and a lovely soundtrack. Unfortunately, all that production is working in service of a narrative that is broken, ineptly written, and often downright toxic. Sword Art Online is often dismissed as a “power fantasy,” which its fans have rightly challenged as something that’s both common and not inherently meaningful as a criticism. But the way Sword Art Online expresses its power fantasy nature makes it fail pretty definitively as a dramatic narrative.
The elements of the story all tend to work in service of making the protagonist Kirito look good, generally at the expense of both dramatic weight and character writing. All the female characters end up either simply falling in love with him or, at worst, being used as damsels to create tension. This is necessary because Kirito himself creates no tension, because Kirito Always Wins. Though he’s initially framed in such a way that you’d think his “antisocial nature” would be his central flaw, the show simply doesn’t support this – Kirito is charming throughout, constantly winning friends and admirers, and he handles each new challenge thrown his way with ease. Characters actually become worse in Kirito’s proximity, because the story continuously bends them to either love him unconditionally (if they are a character defined as “good”) or hate him/make him look powerful (if they are defined as “evil” or “neutral”).
Couple this with the show’s structural problems (disjointed, development-killing vignettes in the first half, very poor pacing in the second), generally low-tier writing (which occasionally erupts into tension-destroying melodrama), and inability to actually convey a convincing digital world, and there’s just not really much to grasp onto. And compound this with the show’s truly toxic elements (primarily its love of using sexual assault to generate cheap tension, its general disrespect for its female characters, and its ultimate, frankly disturbing embracing of violence as an element of justice), and there’s no way I can really recommend the show. Shows I consider “competent” at what they do receive a 6/10. Shows I consider “bad” receive a 3. SAO does not truly reach the depths of depravity necessary to drop it to my lowest available score, but it certainly gestures in that direction – and so ultimately, I award Sword Art Online a 2/10.
SEE YOU NEXT TIME.