Sword Art Online Is the Smartest Anime I’ve Seen in Years (And It’s Only Half-Done)

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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.

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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.

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Good — A Sense of Time

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

Illustration for article titled emSword Art Online/em Is the Smartest Anime I’ve Seen in Years (And It’s Only Half-Done)

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.

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Good — The Implications of Creating a Society in a Virtual 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—

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Illustration for article titled emSword Art Online/em Is the Smartest Anime I’ve Seen in Years (And It’s Only Half-Done)

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.

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Good — A Genre-Crossing 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.

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Illustration for article titled emSword Art Online/em Is the Smartest Anime I’ve Seen in Years (And It’s Only Half-Done)

Good — Hooking Up Isn't the End of the Love Story

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.

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Mixed — Predictably Tragic

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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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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Sword Art Online airs every Sunday at midnight on Tokyo MX. It can be watched outside of Japan and subtitled in English on Crunchyroll.

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DISCUSSION

I've enjoyed this anime as well, but it isn't THAT good. If anything the giant plot hole that you can drive a truck through keeps it somewhat limited in terms of realism.

You say that the fact that 2 years have passed is a good point, when in reality is is ridiculous. The player's are supposedly hooked up to VR units and they'll die if unhooked, correct? Well then explain to me how they've been kept alive for 2 years. They can't be taken to a hospital because unhooking them would be fatal. There were over 10,000 at the start and even now the number is still around 6000.

So you are telling me that when their families and loved ones came home to find them unconscious while in a vr game they wouldn't have immediately removed their headsets thus killing them? I know in the anime a few die this way, but I find it unlikely that they ALL wouldn't have died this way before the word got out in time. Even ignoring that you are telling me that all 10,000 (or 6000 at this point) got the proper medical attention to be sustained at home, where they are hooked up, for over two years? Ok, let's even ignore that one. You are telling me that a body that's essentially in a coma for two years is going to be mentally fit enough to sustain their in-game personas? Alright I'll even ignore that as well. So you are saying that at the rate they are clearing the levels some of them will have a body healthy enough to awaken after all this time?

Utterly ridiculous!

Like nearly every scifi show on tv today, the writers were so busy getting worked up over a fantastical plot that they forgot to ground it in reality. What happens to shows like this is the ending is always a letdown because the writers have worked themselves into a corner by the end, due to the improbability of the plot.

The way I see it, SAO can only end three ways.

1. They simply ignore reality and give the survivors a happy ending anyway, which leaves people who pay attention to the "minor details" like myself shaking their heads in disgust.

2. They make up some lame plot excuse to explain away the inconsistencies. Like time was accelerated in the online world... or something like that. It's a solution, but it's a very cheap way to explain away a concept that was doomed from the start.

3. We learn that the part about people dieing when they leave to have been a lie. This would negate any emotional impact the struggles have had.

So the writing to this show is only good if you are one of those people who can ignore major inconsistencies like this and "turn your brain off".

It's kind of like the "How I Met Your Mother" of anime, in that the show is based on the stupidest idea for a show ever, and yet it became popular so they've had to stretch it out much longer than the natural life-span of such an idea.

Now a recent anime that actually does have good writing, a highly emotional story arc, a large time-span and plenty of tragedy and drama is Total Eclipse, also available on crunchy roll right now and also only about halfway over. I would talk about WHY it's better, but episodes 1 and 2 is such a ground breaking concept for the start of a show that it would be a major spoiler to talk about it. And unlike other anime that have tried to do something similar, it isn't just some lame gimmick to start the show off with a bang. The events that occurred in 1 & 2 are revisited constantly and are a crucial element in the show's plot and characters.