Sword Art Online – Interesting but flawed and disappointing
December 29, 2012 6 Comments
Sword Art Online was not a very good series, in fact it was a rather disappointing and largely flawed series, but neither was it terrible, with numerous elements that were interesting and a fascinating set of worlds. As a set of stories Sword Art Online partly fails because of its inconsistencies and generally problematic nature of the entire setup and how it is portrayed within the series itself. Certain key elements to do with the worlds and how they work in a broader context for example are pushed to one side in order to concentrate on the central characters such as Kirito, Asuna and later on Sugu. This isn’t the end of the world of course since Sword Art Online is at its heart and action adventure, with the virtual world and characters allowing for excellent action sequences and some rather grand fights between players and boss monsters. The worlds are vast and colourful with an immense variety in terrain and monsters, thus producing vibrant and fascinating looking sets and landscapes. Unfortunately none of this is ever really used until the Alfheim Online, but even then these worlds, regardless of their vibrancy and apparently central nature are ignored and pushed to one side. It is therefore a series with lots of potential that never truly fulfils it, or does anything with the tools that are available. As a series it continually introduces new and actually rather interesting ideas and characters, but never really uses them to their fullest, often forgetting about them almost as soon as they are introduced.
Part of the problem is arguably because of Kirito and his inability to die regardless of how ridiculous he may act and the sort of situations that he gets himself into. This on its own is not terrible however, because Kirito is effectively an action hero and to allow him the possibility of death would largely defeat the purpose of his character to begin with. His apparent immortality is reminiscent of the characters found in every action film such as the James Bond and Mission Impossible franchises. His ability to bounce back and overcome any problem in his way regardless of the odds against him further reinforces this notion and puts his inability to die or be truly defeated into a wider context. Part of the problem with this entire situation however is that Kirito is effectively infallible and therefore one-dimensional with little room to learn or grow. His entire purpose within the story is to wield swords and generally chop up every enemy that comes near him, Asuna or anyone else whom he is associated with. Because of this his character just isn’t real enough to fully work in a story that is supposed to be about a life or death game with the main characters trapped in a virtual world for two years. In such a situation a good main character should be flawed and arguably should also be largely ambiguous, possibly hiding darker parts of themselves.
Terry Pratchett provides some excellent examples of good main characters who are interesting, but also ambiguous and unintentionally heroic in the form of Rincewind the Wizzard and Sam Vimes. Both characters feature in numerous books with Rincewind saving the world on numerous occasions, albeit unintentionally, while Sam Vimes happens to apprehend numerous criminals including a dragon and even the Tyrant of Ankmorpork. Sam Vimes is a particularly interesting character because, while he does possess a very strong notion of justice, he is also a morally ambiguous person with an incredibly dark side to his personality. There are numerous occasions within the stories he is involved with where Pratchett alludes to a far darker aspect to his character. In one particular book we are told that there is a beast inside Vimes, a darkness that constantly threatens to overtake him, something that is so terrible Vimes has created a special sort of jailor to watch it. His central fear is that he stops being on the side of justice and becomes the thing he fears the most, he becomes the criminal, only one with such knowledge and ability that he could very well be the best criminal in the world. He is therefore a fundamentally flawed individual who nonetheless continues to try and do the right thing despite being used and abused by Vetinari and anyone else who happens to be smarter than him.
But it is precisely because he is flawed, and his flaws follow him throughout his numerous adventures that Vimes is such a fascinating character. As the reader you know that he even describes himself to be a ‘Bastard’ with a hint of pride, along with his willingness to stretch the law to its limit in order to solve the case and make the arrest. Such qualities make him a fascinating character to follow and watch as he grows and changes over the course of the books. Kirito on the other hand lacks none of these complexities or subtleties and there is absolutely no hint or indication that he could turn an extremely efficient mass murderer or despot. This then makes him a dull, emotionless character that can lack presence when there isn’t any action but also someone who becomes the perfect action hero when there is. In a pure action adventure this may work, but Sword Art Online constantly dips into elements that suggest it is trying to go for something deeper, and trying to make things far more complex. We then get to the central problem with Sword Art Online, and arguably a larger problem with Reki’s writing, his apparent inability to write interesting and ambiguous antagonists. It isn’t just Sword Art Online that suffers with Accel world plagued by the same sorts of problems that ultimately spoiled the enjoyment of the final arc.
Neither Noumi nor Suguo are particularly enjoyable to watch, quite the opposite in fact. When watching these characters you get the feeling that you are watching the worst parts of humanity all mashed up into small balls of pure hate and revulsion. Instead of interesting, ambiguous and above all flawed character that might not necessarily be particularly bad, they are instead characters to be spat upon and possibly thrown into a pit with angry honey badgers. They are not enjoyable to watch and largely ruin any scene they were involved with. Sugou is however nowhere near as bad as Noumi, largely because he lacks the presence and essential parts in the story to really make you hate him. Instead we are left with a classic Bond villain who could easily be sitting in a hollowed out volcano stroking a white cat rather than attempting to take over a virtual game involving fairies. Indeed, both are about as ludicrous, and the rants and main speeches that Suguo subjects Asuna and the wider audience to gives the impression of someone who is slightly unhinged and may start frothing at the mouth at any minute. The lack of a good antagonist really hurts this series since Suguo is so ridiculous that you cant really take anything he says or does particularly seriously and since Kirito is the quintessential action hero he will inevitably beat him into the floor with the heal of his boot, or in this case a very big sword. The most interesting antagonists are actually Akihiko Kayaba and the original Sword Art Online game itself, unfortunately neither of them really feature all that prominently.
During the first arc the primary antagonist is arguably the game itself, unfortunately we see so little of Aincrad and its wider population that it is impossible to really get a feel for what it would be like to live in a game where death is permanent and literal. The initial shock of being trapped in a game is quickly forgotten about and rather than the constant, impending sense of dread that should be almost all pervasive, we are left with the notion that this is largely ignored. The world is certainly beautiful as demonstrated during numerous episodes that give us a tour of numerous levels, but at no point do you get the feeling that these characters could easily die if they make one small mistake. It is the feeling of unfulfilled promises that really hurt the series, and the complete lack of presence that the titular game has further hurts what could have been a fascinating series that explores the thin line between the virtual and the real. The series starts off with the inevitable madness and mayhem that Kayaba’s announcement brings, followed by the problems that Kirito faces as a former Beta tester. However, there remains a massive gap in the story between the first boss being defeated by Kirito and the later episodes, which misses out a significant chunk of time and potential character, story and world development.
This problem is further emphasised by the numerous side stories that took up a significant portion of the series. These side stories are all interesting in their own right, especially as they introduce other aspects of the world and other characters that all associate themselves with Kirito. There is so much of the world and its inhabitants that are forgotten about in the mean time and we are left with the feeling of an empty and lifeless world, despite the knowledge that there are several thousand players still alive out there somewhere. The world is effectively forgotten about, despite apparently being at the centre of the story, and so the dread that is instilled in these characters during the first couple of episodes is slowly lost thus ruining what was arguably one of the best aspects of the series. The other disappointment is that Kayaba is essentially forgotten about until he reveals himself to have been playing as the character Heathcliff all along. His reasons for creating Sword Art Online and trapping so many players in the game are never made clear and a central, antagonist who is actually rather ambiguous is effectively forgotten about in the rush to show sword fighting and big monsters. The story would have benefitted from his presence as much as it would have benefitted from the notion that these characters really were stuck in a true survival game.
But this is symptomatic of more general problems with Sword Art Online, namely the inconsistencies, along with the largely flawed and choppy nature of the narrative and characters. Plot devices and other elements are introduced and then immediately forgotten, or when the story requires Kirito to go into full on superhero mode. It is a series with a lot of promise that remains unfulfilled throughout, one that demonstrates that Reki has many good ideas but through either a lack of ability or perhaps the restrictions of the light novel medium itself remain unexplored. We are therefore left with an action adventure that wants to be far more; it wants to be a serious series that explores certain elements of the human psyche, it wants to explore notions surrounding the divide between the virtual and the real, and it also wants to look at the ability of people to adapt to such extreme conditions. Everything that the series needs is there, and we are given glimpses into the wonders that could have been on numerous occasions throughout, only to be denied at every turn. And it is precisely these inconsistencies that ultimately hurt the series, with all its promise counting for naught in the face of a narrative that cannot decide whether it wants to be a deeper story or simple an action adventure with swords, spears, minotaur’s and fairies. As an action adventure it is great fun to watch, with Kirito, Asuna and Sugu involving themselves in brilliant fights that have real energy and tension. It is during these moments when Kirito’s flawed character makes sense and really comes into its own, with the combat and the soundtrack flowing around you, and even sucking you right into the middle.
The series comes alive during these moments when the life and death struggle is laid bare with a quiet simplicity that helps to portray what the rest utterly fails at. The problem is that these moments are all too brief and are ultimately let down by a story that is fatally and fundamentally flawed and characters that are one-dimensional and lack the necessary gravitas and charisma to push the story forward. It is not a terrible series by any means, and there is enough there to entertain, but because of all the failed promises and wasted potential that Sword Art Online ultimately fails and disappoints precisely because it fails. It is a series that was overhyped and is certainly overrated, but because it has so much mainstream appeal and at its very core is a simply and easy to understand action adventure it is little wonder that the story is so popular. To suggest that enjoying the series means you lack taste may be missing the point that sometimes enjoying a series is not about how complex or thought provoking it may be. If this were the case then no one would enjoy the stupidity that we see in screen in action films such as the James Bond franchise or the Terminator films. It is arguably a series best enjoyed when your brain is switched off, unfortunately there is so much wasted potential in Sword Art Online that even though I enjoyed large sections of it the disappointment in its inability to live up to the stories promise continued right up until the final episode. It is a very silly series and should be seen as much, but as a story it could have been so much more and because of that it is a fundamentally and fatally flawed work that is neither good, nor terrible, which is perhaps worse than calling it a complete failure.