If you think about whimsical children’s television shows, there seem to be certain scenarios that appear at least once in each of those shows. For example, there always seems to be at least one episode where a character shrinks and has to figure out how to get big again. There is also probably an episode where a character turns into a dog and realizes he would much rather be a human. But the one scenario that I want to focus on is where characters get trapped in a video game and cannot escape unless they win – and if they die in the game, they die in real life.
One of these episodes that I remember quite well is from The Fairly Odd Parents. In the episode “Power Mad,” Timmy Turner wishes for a video game that’s challenging, one that you can’t wish yourself our of. So Cosmo and Wanda give Timmy exactly what he wishes for. Timmy’s friends, Chester and A.J. get trapped in the game while Timmy is indisposed. Timmy returns and is about to reset the game, but Wanda warns him that his friends will disappear forever. (Since it’s a kid’s show, they can’t say die.) Timmy has no choice but to go inside the game and beat it if he wants to save his friends. Timmy puts on his VR helmet and enters into the game. He makes his way passed the electric shredder balls of doom, an underwater version of his Aunt Gertrude’s house, and even the classroom of doom. The final boss of the game is a giant robotic Vicky.
It’s a pretty good episode, but at the end of the day, it’s still a kid’s show. They can’t say the word “die,” nor can they actually kill off a character. But what if someone presented this concept in a format that wasn’t constrained by a children’s TV show? What if someone presented it in a way that made it feel like it could actually happen? What would it be like?
Based on a light novel of the same name, the anime Sword Art Online debuted in July 2012. The story follows a boy named Kazuto Kirigaya who is obsessed with virtual reality gaming. One day, he picks up a copy of the first VRMMORPG (that’s Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) called Sword Art Online. Having been a beta tester, Kazuto already knows the ins-and-outs of the game. Before the official release, all beta testers were logged out.
On November 6, 2022, Kazuto sits in his room as he waits for the official launch of Sword Art Online. The VR helmet that Kirito uses is called the NerveGear. This revolutionary piece of equipment intercepts the wearer’s brain signals, thus allowing the user to move their arm in the game without moving it in the real world. This helps to eliminate any risk of injury or damage while playing the game. As soon as the clock reaches 12:55pm, Kazuto puts on his helmet; and once the clock strikes 1, he calls out, “Link Start!” and gets transported into the game.
In the real world, Kazuto lives with his mother and sister – or at least, that’s what he thought. Later in life, he would learn that his mother was actually his aunt, and his sister was actually his cousin. Gradually, Kazuto began to feel distant from those he once viewed as his close family, causing him to lose a sense of identity. So, he escaped from reality by plugging in to virtual reality. In the virtual world, Kazuto can create a new identity, beginning with his name.
Most players of MMO’s create a username based off their real name. Kazuto crafted his VR name by combining the first two syllables of his surname with the last syllable of his given name. Thus, he crafted the username – Kirito.
Upon entering into SAO, Kirito immediately begins to hit up as much as he can in order to get back to where he was when the beta test ended. Before he gets very far, he gets stopped by another player named Klein. He says Kirito seems to know what he is doing and asks for some pointers.
Kirito begins to teach Klein the basics of SAO in the outskirts of The Town of Beginnings. Despite Kirito’s anti-social nature, the two manage to form a bond. By the end of the day, Kirito even trusts Klein enough to tell him why he plays VR games.
“In this world, a single blade can take you anywhere you want to go,” says Kirito, “It’s a virtual world, but I feel more alive here than I do in the real one.”
Kirito asks Klein if he wants to do some more hunting, but Klein has a date with a pizza at 5:30. So, the new-found friends shake hands and part ways for the day. Klein returns to his apartment and chows down on his pizza, and Kirito continues to play Sword Art Online until he becomes the strongest player in the game.
And the two lived happily ever after. The End.
Or at least, that’s probably the ending you wanted to see, because that would be the happy ending. But if the story ended here, without any conflict, it wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? So instead of taking the blue pill, why don’t we take the red pill and see just how deep this rabbit hole goes?
Kirito and Klein depart ways for the day. Klein opens the menu and scrolls down to the bottom of the menu. Kirito turns away, but as he does so, he hears a chilling sentence come from Klein’s mouth.
“Huh? There’s no button to log out!”
“Look closer,” Kirito responds, “at the bottom of the menu.”
Kirito opens his menu too, but to his shock, the log out button is not there.
This is where I would assume that Kirito would begin to have a sinking feeling in his stomach. Like the feeling you get when you can’t find your car keys, or when you realize your kid is not anywhere in sight.
As if that weren’t chilling enough, the bells from the town begin to chime.
Kirito and Klein get teleported into the courtyard in the middle of the Town of Beginnings, along with all of the players is SAO. A barrier appears around the courtyard, preventing them from escaping. A massive, hooded figure draped in a cloak of blood descends from the sky. The hooded figure pronounces himself as Akahiko Kayaba, the creator of Sword Art Online.
“I’m sure you’ve already noticed that the logout button is missing from the main menu,” says the hooded figure, “This is not a defect in the game, but a key feature of Sword Art Online.”
Kayaba explains that the players cannot log out of SAO at will, and no one on the outside can help either. Should anyone attempt to do so, the transmitter inside the NerveGear will emit microwaves into the user’s brain – ending their life. Despite Kayaba’s warnings, many families and friends have tried to unplug their loved ones from the game, but as a consequence for doing so, those 213 players have already died. There is also no longer any way to revive a player from the game. If a player’s life points hit zero, their avatars will disappear forever – and the NerveGear will simultaneously destroy the user’s brain. The only way to escape the game is to defeat the boss on the 100th floor of Aincrad Castle.
“Now, you might be asking yourself, why? Why would Akahiko Kayaba, the creator of Sword Art Online do this?” he continues, “I created Sword Art Online for one reason: to create a world and meddle in it.” (That’s the best answer that he gives. I still don’t understand it.)
Kirito clenches his fist. Blood sheds from a paper cut he got before logging into the game. He now realizes, “This is real…the genius who created the NerveGear and created a completely virtual space, Akahiko Kayaba. I admired this man, so I can tell…everything he just proclaimed is true…If I die in the game, I die in real life.”
Kayaba wishes the players good luck and disappears. The barrier surrounding the courtyard evaporates. Kirito quickly pull Klein aside and offers to take him to the next town. If they stay put, all of the hunting grounds near The Town of Beginnings will be cleared out. If they head to the next town now, they can get to the resources before the other players do. Klein thanks Kirito for the offer, but says he would rather stick with his buddies – the ones he waited in line with to get the game. So Kirito and Klein make the difficult decision to part ways. Kirito sets off to become as strong as he can in order to clear the game.
About Sword Art Online, Akahiko Kayaba said, “This is a game, but it’s not something you play.”
Could Kayaba be referring to the fact that you only have one life in SAO and in real life? Does he mean, that it’s not a game you play, it’s a game you live? Could this story be an allegory of life? I suppose only time will tell.
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And so begins one of the most recognizable, and fandom-wide controversial series of the last decade…
Interesting thought on the merging of virtual reality with our own. Now that I think about it, with the advent of these kind of technologies and how isolating it can be from living our real life, SAO’s first half could be construed to be a critique of the role tech has on our actions and attitudes towards life.
I won’t spoil much for now but I look forward to more of your series analysis!
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With the development of virtual reality on the rise in the real world, there is definitely a danger of people wanting to live an imaginary world so badly that they neglect their responsibilities in real life. SAO does a great job of presenting a grey area where virtual reality helps some characters to thrive, and others to deteriorate. This is a consistent theme throughout the entire series.
I’ve seen most of SAO, up until the middle of Alicization. I was originally going to review each arc of SAO in one article, but then I ended up writing so much about episode 1, that I decided to write about one episode at a time. I’m now working on the review for Episode 2, so stay tuned, and thank you so much for checking out this article!
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