Purgatory, self-sacrifice and hatred in Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online is an adaptation of the light novel by the same author behind Accel World, and tells the story of a video game gone horribly wrong. Video games and virtual reality have been covered on a few occasions in anime, most notably with the .Hack franchise, exploring how a game can become someone’s reality. Sword Art Online is the latest anime to explore this area, and may possibly be the most over-hyped anime of the summer. In general I tend to be wary of such hype since it invariably leads to disappointment when the series cannot possibly live up to such high expectations. With that in mind I approach Sword Art Online with some caution, hoping to enjoy it, but wary of getting my hopes up only for them to be dashed against the cliffs of disappointment. It was a pleasant surprise then that Sword Art Online is not only a very good series, while also touching on some fascinating ideas to do with self-preservation and what humans do when put under extreme pressure.

The story takes place in the world of Sword Art Online, a virtual reality game where a central castle of Aincrad towers over all around it, providing one hundred floors of dungeons, quests and rewards. There is only one small catch however, if you die in the game and get a ‘game over’, your real life body also dies. While other franchises, and most recently Accel World have toyed with the idea of failure, it has never been especially extreme. The rewards in Accel World are immense, but to finally lose everything means that you lose your link to the Accel World rather than truly lose your life. The stakes in this respect are still high due to the advantages that the Brain Burst programme provides, but the risks are in a very real sense minimal. In Sword Art Online the risks are very real, and what makes it so interesting and powerful was the way in which these risks were told to us and to the people in the game.

We see what could be a normal game or technology launch, with people queuing for several nights in order to get their copy of Sword Art Online (reminiscent of Apple launches in many respects). This game is therefore incredibly popular, made more so by the scarcity of copies and the hype that has accompanied what is meant to be the first true Virtual World. Our introduction to the game is that of any other large scale Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), where everyone logs on and then begins to wander around and essentially learns the game. In a way our introduction to what will become a fight for life is a benign one, where the worlds appears to as harmless as it is beautiful. It is an introduction that belies to true terrible nature of this game, something that is only discovered when Kirito and Klein discover that there is no Log Out button, thus trapping then in Sword Art Online.

It is fascinating to see how a game that can be considered to be beautiful, and indeed, epic can suddenly turn into a nightmare land, one that is in many respects akin to purgatory where lost souls are tormented for eternity. When the creator Kayaba, appearing in the form of a Dungeon Master announces that the game had suddenly become a fight of life and death, we see how people are incapable of accepting such a thing. In many respects this is very much like the complaints than many gamers now have of existing games being too easy, with harder games being so hard that it is an exorcise in masochism to complete them. In a very real sense Kayaba has provided the most hardcore, and skill based game in existence, pitting people against the game monsters, but also themselves in an attempt to clear all one hundred floors and be capable of logging out.

His warning that those who attempt to remove the netgear that allows these people to play the game will result in your death is a fascinating one, demonstrating that he is essentially conducting an experiment on humanity, with Sword Art Online as the testing ground. His use of those who died from having their netgear removed as examples for the rest is reminiscent of Battle Royale, with students being made examples of in order to demonstrate the nature of the game. Similarly, the idea of once you die in a game you are gone for good was used in the classic film Tron, only in this case we have a far more sophisticated setting. While everyone else panics and attempts to either become stronger or escape from the world, we see Kirito acting rather calmly. His acceptance of this state of affairs is oddly chilling, as if he has resigned himself to the fate of being stuck in the game, while also simultaneously pushing forward.

However, he goes out on his own, deciding to run away from everyone and forge a path for himself. The offer from Cline to join him and his friends in order to clear this game is turned down by Kirito, instead deciding to be a lone wolf. We see Kirito not wanting the responsibility of having to look after others, and while his knowledge, as a beta tester would be useful, the burden of other lives is too much for him. Kirito, while making a sensible choice to get ahead of everyone else and become strong enough to survive in Aincrad, also abandons those that he has left behind. He is using the knowledge that he has gained for himself, not wishing to be burdened with responsibilities and only feeling comfortable as this lone wolf who has chosen to pit himself against the dangers that lie in wait. That he can come to this decision in such a calm and calculating manner suggests that he is a very shrewd individual, but also one who cannot handle responsibility.

The idea that there are Beta testers within the world of Sword Art Online becomes a subject of debate, with those who were testers ending up as objects of hate and distrust. The idea that they were able to push ahead, leaving everyone else behind in a bid to become stronger is something that people cannot accept. With the ever-present notion of death hanging over everyone, these testers become a scapegoat, blamed for all deaths within the game, regardless of how stupid this may seem. Kirito comes to his decision because he is afraid of the pressure and the responsibility of having another life in his hands. His attitude is therefore that it is better to be alone than to have to watch someone else die.

Kirito’s meeting with Asuna and the subsequent boss fight demonstrates a different side to him though. He shows concern for those around him, along with excellent teamwork and the ability to lead and work within a party. He is a calm and collected individual, one with immense inner strength and the ability to accept his surroundings, while simultaneously trying to use his knowledge and powers to the best of his ability. His conversation with Asuna brings up questions about what it means to be alive, along with the attitude that it is better to accept your current reality and work with it rather than do nothing. It is therefore better to fight for your life and freedom and perhaps die while doing so than to attempt to ignore your surroundings, drowning yourself in drink.


We see Kirito change his attitude towards the game and the people who are involved in this hellish reality. He now understands of the stigma that is attached towards being a beta tester and how it is used to justify abuse and insults regardless of what actually happened. The name ‘Beater’ might be a handy portmanteau, but it helps to encapsulate the feelings and emotions that many feel when faced with the idea that there are those with an unfair advantage in an unfair world. By becoming the villain and suggesting that he knows about every boss and mob in the world Kirito saves the groups moral, and brings everyone together in the face of a common enemy. While he is still alone, Kirito has now found a new purpose; he must remain strong and become the common enemy of everyone in Aincrad. It is fascinating to see how someone who initially ran away from responsibility has now taken on a far more dangerous and important task than anything that has come before. His choice to alienate himself from those in Aincrad and by forging a path alone is something that marks him out from other players as a strong individual, one who is capable of making the right decisions when it counts.

Death is ever present in the world of Sword art Online, and while many try to ignore it, they cannot escape. From the ending sequence in episode one we see other characters that have appeared and survived, those who Kirito will gradually get to know over the course of the series. While Sword Art Online is clearly about what could happen if something were to go horribly wrong with a virtual reality game, it also seems to be something else. In a similar way to Battle Royale, and even to some respects Tron, it seems to be a meditation of humanity and its ability to cope, adapt and survive. What is fascinating as well is how we are always reminded of the danger that faces those in Aincrad. The final scene shows us a wall with names written on it, much like a monument that you might find on the Somme, or other First World War battlefield, commemorating those who lost their lives. As we watch names are crossed out, and we learnt that within the first month 2000 people lost their lives and the first floor is not cleared. This is a clear reminder that while we are presented with a beautiful anime, one that has a fantasy setting, it is a constant battle to survive.

The series seems to deal with similar issues that can be found in numerous other films and anime such as Battle Royale, Ghost in the Shell, Tron, Blade Runner (and therefore Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), and in some respects Minority report. It is a meditation on what it means to be human and whether or not artificial life can have a human soul. We can therefore see the central characters of Asuna and Kirito taking on symbolic value, with the black coated Kirito as the one who dwells in the shadows, hated and despised by all, whereas Asuna basks in the sunlight, loved and revered by everyone in Aincrad. Aincrad has become these characters lives, a living, breathing, but above all dangerous world where only the strong truly survive. As we delve further into the purgatory that is Sword Art Online we begin to see peoples true natures come to the surface, and it is only through the self sacrifice of Kirito that many are able to continue living and be capable of reasoning away the deaths of those they have befriended and trust.

About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

2 Responses to Purgatory, self-sacrifice and hatred in Sword Art Online

  1. Andmeuths says:

    Actually, SAO’s focus in this arc is not what it means to be human, but rather, the validity of virtual experiences. In many ways, SAO is an Apologetic and this become a stronger theme especially in the later novels.

    • illogicalzen says:

      Perhaps that is one way of reading it in the light novels, but I only have the anime to go on. For me it can be read in both ways, and the way I read it was as a reflection of humanity and the necessities of survival. I dont think it necessarily has to be one or the other though, and can quite easily be read in both ways depending on who is watching.

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