Reality and Dreams in Sword Art Online
August 27, 2012 2 Comments
Sword Art Online started with a bang, introducing a world that was full of danger and death, a game that had suddenly become the reality of those who were stuck there. Kirito as the central character appears to have accepted this new reality, and has moved on, learning to cope with the idea that a simple slip up could mean death in the real world. However, he has gone out on his own, wishing to have as few problems to deal with as possible. As a character he is afraid of responsibility, and more importantly he is afraid of having to deal with the responsibility of another players life. During the first episodes when they cleared the first floor dungeon we see an important character (at least to the gathered players) die due to ignorance and what could be argued as stupidity. He believed utterly in the data gathered by all those who had been beta tests (he was among them), and thought that with such knowledge they would be able to clear the dungeon with ease. He therefore discounted the possibility that Kayaba may have changed things in this game in very subtle ways, thus invalidating such information.
His death comes as a blow to the group, but also allows Kirito and Asuna two destroy the final boss with little trouble. However, it is clear that there are those who viewed beta testers as cheaters, people who knew about the game but were keeping such valuable information to themselves. They blame Kirito for what was arguably a stupid and needless death, one that could have been prevented with some thinking along with not taking beta information at face value. Rather than argue against such a falsehood, Kirito decides to take on the mantle of a ‘Beeter’ (a handy portmanteau of Beta Tester and cheater) and thus decides that it would be best to play on his own rather than have to deal with the responsibility of looking after others. He effectively runs away from the problem, decided to be on his own rather than have to face his own fears and worries about the game and those who are also stuck with him. The subsequent episodes have however demonstrated that over time he has begun to reassess how he approaches the game and those within it. Kirito has effectively grown up and begun to realise that while he can quest and fight on his own, there are times when it is necessary to have human contact and even make friends.
To everyone trapped in Sword Art Online the tower of Aincrad becomes their home, their world, it becomes their reality. Instead of thinking about it in terms of just a game there are characters like Kirito that have accepted their current situation and see Aincrad as their current home, a place where they can meet people, but also somewhere that they need to survive. The series helps in this respect by focussing entirely on the world of Aincrad, never showing a glimpse of the real world or those who have to deal with the reality that their children, friends, or family may die. There are characters that cannot cope with such a situation, and instead of attempting to help clear the floors and thus provide a way out they merely stay in the large towns.
There are questions surrounding what Sword Art Online is and why all these people are stuck inside. While there are clearly elements to do with how computer games work and how an MMO environment may allow for such a game, it appears that there are other questions surrounding ideas and attitudes towards being human. While Kirito may have accepted his reality, acknowledging that while he may not be entirely powerless, he has to understand that the only way to live is by accepting that Aincrad is now his home, there are others who do not. Aincrad is viewed by many as a form of purgatory, where they could die at any moment, and yet they have to keep fighting in order to survive and clear all of the floors. There are also those who begin to question the reality that they find themselves in, wondering if death in the game really means death in the real world. Kayaba shows all those who were gathered at the beginning news reports of various deaths to do with the forced removal of the NerveGear.
However, during the course of the series so far there has been no indication that this is true, but conversely neither has there been anything to suggest that dying in the game really has no consequences. All these characters are cut off from the real world and thus must begin to view Aincrad as their home and take the idea of death as a serious consequence of being stupid, or not paying attention. It is the uncertainty, or perhaps the certainty in many players’ minds, along with the ever-present fear of death in a game with no compromises that pushes many forward. Kirito gets around some of these problems by going solo, thus removing all elements of accountability and responsibility from him as a player and a person. During the Red-Nosed Reindeer episode for example he blames his own inability to save those who had trusted him, and especially the death of Aichi on himself. He cannot cope with the idea that there are those near him who he may have to protect or watch die, thoughts that drive him into taking on supposedly suicidal quests regardless of what the consequences may be.
However, as the series has progressed it has become apparent that Kirito is beginning to acknowledge his own weaknesses and has started to open up to many who gather around him. Through his meetings with other players such as Sachi, Silica, Liz and Asuna, Kirito has slowly begun to adjust his attitude towards Aincrad. While Asuna for example may worry constantly about death in this game, going so far as to suggest that sleeping under a tree is far too dangerous due to the ability of some ‘Player Killers’ to attack you even while you sleep, Kirito views things differently. He knows that there may be death around every corner, but because of that, and perhaps because of his acceptance that Aincrad is now their home and so he and many others must accept this, Kirito is capable of relaxing. Kirito appears to have accepted what many others cannot, that while he can fight with all his might there are elements of the world of Aincrad which are out of his control. Many others are controlled by their fear of the death that awaits them (as they view it), and are effectively controlled by the fear that Kayaba has instilled in them during the first episode.
By using those who (allegedly) died from having their NerveGear removed to demonstrate the nature of the game that they are trapped in is reminiscent of Battle Royale. In many respects society is recreated within the game, only there are far less consequences for those who truly wish to hurt and destroy. The idea of Player Killers while very similar to PVP (Player-versus-Player) in many MMO style games takes on another element when we think about the role that society plays in creating laws and rules that are supposed to be followed and obeyed. Although many laws can be overly restrictive, they help to create boundaries that in the world of Aincrad no longer exist, thus opening the door to many who care about themselves and view the weak as easy prey. It is therefore a mirror of society, only with the laws and rules removed and replaced with the attitude that those who are strong will survive.
Kirito also meets characters that question their own reality, wondering if this world is real or if it is simply a nightmare that they cannot wake up from. Similarly, there are those who, because of their new surroundings change, becoming stronger than they once were, or perhaps allowing their inner strength to come through. Sword Art Online in this respect shares similarities with Ghost in the Shell and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner) in its questioning of the reality that many people live in. During Phantom Avenger for example, Grimrock is shown to have killed his wife Griselda due to his inability to accept that the game had allowed to her change and become a strong and independent leader. His wish to utterly control and posses her, allowing her to be the perfect wife, but one who lacks the freedom to do what she truly wants leads to her death. He cannot accept that people can change depending on their circumstances, and seeing his wife become a strong leader, someone who has accepted that they could be killed by the game, but doesn’t let the fear control her is overwhelming. In the end he cannot accept the reality that is before him and chooses to destroy her physical body so that the memories that he wanted remain.
While Griselda was only ever introduced as a character that had existed, her attitude is similar to that of Kirito in her ability to accept the current situation and move on with her life. They are like Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, an android who knows that she was once human, but has no real recollection of the past. Although in her case there are questions surrounding her past and whether she was ever truly a human being, or if she has always been an android. However, by accepting her reality she is able to move forwards with her life rather than dwelling on the past. Kirito and Griselda are similar in their ability to accept that they are stuck in this game, but instead of allowing it to control them, they are able to move forward, pushing ahead and becoming stronger. By comparison, Grimrock is trapped in the past, at a time when he had his ‘perfect’ wife, who in his imagination was destroyed the game, and therefore killing Griselda was simply a means to destroy that which he viewed had destroyed his wife.
While these aspects of Sword Art Online are fascinating, there are however certain significant problems with the series. Arguably the most glaring problem is the inconsistent nature of the plot, and the apparent lack of character progression. The beginning is self-explanatory, with the central characters being introduced, along with the sudden change in their lives due to Kayaba and his apparent madness. However, the episodes afterwards are merely side stories that were written as extras to original plot, although the series has apparently been adapted in chronological order. During the most recent episodes it is evident that the central characters of Kirito and Asuna are high level, and more importantly over half of Aincrad’s floors have been cleared. There has also been a significant change in how Kirito acts and interacts with others, demonstrating that he has at least acknowledge that he cannot always be alone. Unfortunately there is nothing to show how he got to this resolution, along with the events that have turned him into such a strong and feared player.
Character progression only works when it is shown on screen, this does not mean that everything has to be linear, and in some series character progression can take place in reverse or in stages. However, being shown a ‘developed’ character without knowing what happened to create such a change results in a somewhat jarring experience. Such a faulty plot results in questions being asked about how and why Asuna and Kirito have become so close, or perhaps where Kirito gained his reputation and the name ‘The Black Swordsman’. There are obvious answers to such questions, such as Kirito wearing black and using a black sword, but the fact that questions such as these are asked demonstrates the series lack of proper progression of explanation. Sword Art Online has some fascinating elements; such as the way characters begin to question their own reality, wondering whether they are truly in the game or if it is all a dream. The parallels that can be drawn between this series and Ghost in the Shell, or even Battle Royale or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep demonstrate that the story has the ability to produce something fascinating. However, it is clunky and has yet to gain any sort of rhythm of flow that would allow the characters and story to evolve and change naturally, rather than throwing the audience into random bits of the plot and expecting them to make all the links.