Having just got to the end of Fullmetal Alchemist season three, we fancied a change of pace. Alchemist is great but kinda heavy going after a while. Three episodes in, and Sword Art Online feels like a breath of fresh air.
The setting is quite accessible: SAO is set in a Virtual Reality MMORPG where the creator has gone bonkers and is forcing all of the players to play ‘for reals’. They have to beat the game, or they die. If they lose all their health points, they die. If anyone tries to remove their headset in real life, they die. Get the idea? It’s a simple concept but quite effective and handled well. VR is a topical subject so it feels quite relevant, too.
The main character, Kirito, is engaging and likable, showing a certain flair for brooding–which is acceptable in the circumstances–but the show doesn’t dwell on this to excess. The tone is, on the whole, relatively upbeat if you take into account the nightmarish context the players find themselves in. It’s quite funny at times and I particularly enjoyed the animus directed against beta testers, blamed by some characters for not helping newer players. Once the true nature of the game was revealed all the beta players ran for the hills and tried to hoard experience and gold for themselves. Which is, when you think about it, almost certainly what would happen in reality.
The words ‘beta testers’ were conflated with the word ‘cheater’ to make the epithet ‘Beater’. It’s ludicrous, of course, but given the tone of the show and the context it was really quite amusing. It was also funny to see, after Kirito joined a low-level guild out of guilt to try and protect them, that these noobs were trying to force the least confident and able player among them (a vulnerable teenage girl, naturally) to act as their tank. It was odd and I don’t know whether there was a broader point being made, probably not. But anyway, it’s nice to be able to see these kind of mechanics being discussed in a TV show.
That touches on a broader point. Until relatively recently, video games were generally portrayed on TV as a) for kids or b) some kind of weird nerd fetish, and most of the people connected with them were weird by association. I remember as a child craving to see video games on TV, as a form of cultural validation; even television ads for new games felt like important recognition of the medium. Now video game culture is everywhere. I suppose it’s just a function of people who grew up with games starting to have jobs and families and stuff.
As befits its subject matter, this show feels seriously addictive and we could easily have blown through more than the three episodes we watched last night. As I understand it, though, there isn’t actually that much of the anime, and I’ve been told season two sucks. So we’ll try and pace ourselves. But we’ll probably have it finished by the end of the weekend.