Sword Art Online is an anime based on a series of light novels which has just hit the midway point of its TV run. Twelve episodes in, it is the smartest anime I have seen in years—even including the recent Lupin III. But before we get into why this is the case, let's take a look at the story.
When the first 10,000 lucky people log into Sword Art Online, a new, highly anticipated virtual reality MMORPG, they find themselves trapped in the game with no way to log off. Worse yet, the players discover that if they die in the game or the connection is severed from the outside, the VR helmet will microwave their brains and kill them in the real world. The only way out is to pass all one-hundred floors—each a self-contained world in and of itself—and defeat the game's final boss.
In fiction, a story like this would normally last about a month their time—long enough for the players to become inseparable friends, but not long enough to change who they are at their core. Twelve episodes in and more than two years have already passed since the start—two years spent living in a VR world. This allows for
an in-depth look at the psychological implications of being in a virtual reality for so long that you start to wonder if the real world even exists. And if it does exist, should everyone still be trying to get back to it instead of giving up and starting to make new lives for themselves inside the game world.
But beyond discussions of reality, Sword Art Online also delves into the sociological issues of living in this virtual world. Some people trapped in the game are hardcore gamers while others—
casual players or young children—don't have the experience or skills to be risking their lives in the still unbeaten dungeons. So do you, as a hardcore gamer, draft the whole lot and make them fight? Do you just leave them—including the children—to fend for themselves? As a non-fighter, can you really spend all your time leveling up a trade skill—trusting the hardcore gamers to get you back to reality? And with a return to the real world always there to motivate you, can you justify slacking off, falling in love, or training in the cooking skill? All these questions and more are addressed over the course of the story.
Because everyone is trapped inside the game, their knowledge of the virtual world is limited to what they learn in the game itself. So while everyone knows the basic rules of the world, no one knows the specifics other than the data collected in the beta test. This makes the world perfect for adventures from a wide range of genres. Sometimes it's a mystery; sometimes it's a love story; sometimes criminal suspense; sometimes supernatural horror; and sometimes it's a straight-up fantasy adventure.
If there's one overused cliché in anime, it's that once two characters hook up, it's the end of the story—like the relationship after that point is a given. Thankfully, Sword Art does not stick to the norm. Thus the plot explores a love story in Sword Art's unique setting and brings definition to exactly what love is like in a virtual world.
If there is one problem with Sword Art Online, it's that it is overly tragic. No matter the situation, you are pretty much guaranteed the most tragic resolution possible (that leaves the main character alive). Even the most triumphant and uplifting moments are clouded by some major tragedy—usually involving the deaths of player characters. Because of this, the series becomes somewhat predictable since any happy endings are, by and large, off the table.
Sword Art Online is a fantastic anime series so far. While not the first anime to have the "trapped in an MMORPG" setting (see .hack//sign), it is certainly the deepest when it comes to the psychology and sociology behind it. Will it continue its high standard of quality for the second half of its run? Be sure to check back with Kotaku East for the final verdict when the series wraps up in December.
Sword Art Online airs every Sunday at midnight on Tokyo MX. It can be watched outside of Japan and subtitled in English on Crunchyroll.