Anyone who’s ever played an MMORPG-like World of Warcraft or EverQuest knows how life-consuming the experience can be, but the anime Sword Art Online ups the ante by fusing the experience with next-level virtual reality software. When characters in the anime log in to play the titular game — referred to as “SAO” — the experience is closer to uploading themselves into The Matrix than it is signing onto a PC or console. It makes the experience that much more harrowing when thousands of people suddenly realize that they can’t log out. Even worse, death in the game means death in real life, too, all just to amuse the game’s creator. The only way out is by completing the 100 levels of the game’s dungeons.
Thus is the nature of Sword Art Online, an anime that’s as deeply human a story as it is a frightening cautionary tale about emerging technologies. Yet, it still delivers an action-packed story set in a fantasy world of swords and knights.
It’s a must-watch for anyone who’s ever been captured in the thrall of an MMO experience, but Sword Art Online also presents a downright stellar anime story — at least for the first season anyway.
Inventor Kayaba Akihiko created the NerveGear technology and designed Sword Art Online as a world he could reign over as a god. The NerveGear stimulates sensations in the brain and destroys the brain of the host in the event of their in-game death. In the real world, their comatose bodies are eventually transferred to hospitals, but the players are stuck in the game for more than two years.
They react in a realistic array of ways when the bombshell drops that they’re trapped. Most freak out, and some more sinister people kill other players for fun, but a noble contingent of players band together to work towards completing the game and freeing the survivors.
The main character, Kirito, has an edge in the game after playing the non-deadly beta release, and he quickly makes a name for himself as a highly-skilled player. He becomes the moral center for SAO and for Sword Art Online as an anime. Like most of the players in the game, he develops close relationships and has to watch friends die. The emotional toll experienced is catastrophic, and every major boss encounter in the game’s many floors presents a harrowing experience. It’s not quite Game of Thrones-tier, but Sword Art Online doesn’t shy away from killing characters.
Most anime tend to have a scope and stakes so overwhelming and fantastical that they feel far enough removed from our own world that it’s hard to really become fearful for characters. But it’s easy in Sword Art Online, because some of the earliest episodes are about Kirito bonding with fellow players only to watch them die in horrifying sequences. This leads him to becoming a loner and a “solo player,” which only sharpens his skills but also alienates him from others.
Over time, Kirito learns to trust people again. The friends he makes along the way make for good storytelling, especially when a bitter rivalry evolves into romantic tension and then a flourishing relationship. Asuna, an early teammate, also becomes one of the top players over the two years that players are trapped in the game, and when she and Kirito reconnect after some time apart, they become an enjoyable dynamic duo to watch.
Admittedly, Sword Art Online has its weaker moments when it lingers in the realm of a “harem anime.” Kirito has more women interested in him than he does levels to clear in the game itself, and in the second season, odd plotlines involving tentacle porn and an incestuous subplot detract from what otherwise could be a more engaging experience. The first 14 episodes of Sword Art Online are bewilderingly good, but after the story takes a sharp turn, so much of what worked before is diminished. There are still fun moments, but after creating a world with agonizingly high stakes that feel so real, Sword Art Online flounders when trying to recapture that mood in a new setting.
Sword Art Online succeeds in incredible ways by crafting a narrative experience twice removed from the viewer’s own. Inexplicably, the stakes feel that much higher; much like the thousands of players in this virtual world, you too are trapped, watching helplessly as friends die. You’re with Kirito when he throws himself into the fight, potentially sacrificing his own life just to protect people he met in a game.
Everyone starts out as strangers in a strange land, but that all changes over time, in a naturalistic way, as people literally level-up together. And by having a love story set at the center of a larger tale — one that develops naturally in a slow burn — you learn to appreciate the characters that much more.
Sword Art Online is available to stream now on Netflix.