While the rest of the show has done nothing but stumble over itself in a manner reminiscent of only the finest of terrible fanfiction, Sword Art Online’s first episode had me legitimately interested. Sure there were some aspects of it that pushed the limits of my suspension of disbelief, but there was a lot of potential there, in particular with the ways it could potentially exploit the fact that it takes place inside an MMO. Thus far, the most we’ve seen of this have been a few token nods to the video game elements of the world, such as obtrusive menus and a find-and-replace of more typical fantasy terms with their video-game equivalents. Now that these past three-or-so episodes seem to finally be setting the plot into motion, they’ve been slowly reminding me of all the things I wanted to see the series explore.
It’s too bad this reminder came in the form of a systematic avoidance of each of them.
So to make myself feel better, I’m going to write a few posts about the things I wanted to see from the show, and complain about how it’s doing the complete opposite. The first thing I noticed this episode was the prominence of old people in the world of SAO.
Issue 0: Sword Farts Online
One thing that really stood out was old-fart characters like this, who took on a more important role in these past episodes. This Sword Fart issue affects two of the things I liked: 1) Your avatar is what you look like in real life, and 2) An MMO setting would typically be full of teenagers/early 20-somethings.
Bug #1 is pretty obvious – does anybody really look like that in real life? I get that the armor and stuff is customizable, but these people look like they were pulled straight out of your everyday fantasy novel, rather than from their room in the real world. I think it’s the hair that gets me the most. The designs of the Farts like those above have pretty much forced me to conclude that there was some kind of launch day demo session for SAO being held at a local Renaissance Faire somewhere.
What I liked about the you-are-your-avatar bit was that it affords the opportunity to present the visual clash of modern-looking (i.e. not ye-olde-fantasy-looking) people in the fantasy setting of SAO. On a shallow level I think it would’ve been a neat aesthetic way to set the show apart and subtly reemphasize the video-game factor beyond the tacked-on menu system. Looking a little deeper, such a design choice could have been a springboard from which to explore issues such as discrimination towards certain demographics in video games – for example, the stigma towards female players – and the difference between the way people represent themselves online and in real life. In the end, though, it hasn’t really amounted to much, and has quite conversely resulted in continuity errors instead, such as the above Sword Farts and the occasional guild of identical grunts. It’s almost as if the creators just kinda forgot about that aspect of SAO altogether and only ever put it there in the first place as a one-off joke.
The second problem with the Sword Farts is that an MMO is one of the few settings in which I would have liked to see a primarily-teenaged cast. Not only would it have been more realistic, but it would have been a perfect chance to give teenagers a different role in anime – instead of making all the girls moe-moe love dolls and the guys personality-free nobodies, these teens could have been gamers. Make them empowered! Make them smug! Make them mean! If there’s anyone who would shrug off the danger of SAO and push the limits of the game, it’s hotheaded teens who think they’re invincible. If there’s one thing that online games do for teenagers, it’s level the playing field. Online games are a relatively new medium – enough so that adults are often no more experienced at them than kids. It’s not uncommon to have your rear end handed to you by an annoying foul-mouthed 12-year-old in Call of Duty – in the world of SAO, the reckless teens who think they know better than those washed-up old Sword Farts might actually have a point. We could have seen adults and teens acting as equals, instead of the usual formula of the single plot-armored Chosen One teenager defying and miraculously overpowering the adults who don’t believe in his potential. It could have also explored what happens when gaming allows these teens to gain a position of power – how would that hormonal, incomplete sense of judgment affect the world when they are the basis for the decisions of a person with real power and influence?
If, for example, when Kirito had gone to see the leader of the Blood Oath Guild, it had been some cocky teenager instead of a condescending adult, the show could have gone some interesting places regarding the differences in the meaning of age between video games and the real world. Instead, every antagonist so far, as well as anyone with any kind of power (at least that I can remember), has been a Sword Fart. The only exception to the power rule is our main characters, but all this does is reiterate the idea that Kirito is some kind of unique Chosen One and assign Asuna some arbitrary title whose role we never see her fulfill. I’m having trouble putting into words exactly why I’m as unhappy as I am with the Sword Farts dominating antagonism and leadership, but I think one thing it does is make SAO feel less like a game and more like an anime. The Sword Farts aren’t there because they’re meant to represent any sort of adult gamer – they’re there because in any other anime these types of characters would be adults. Rather than taking advantage of its video-game premise and using it to set itself apart from other anime, SAO is ignoring the strengths of its premise in order to prevent itself from standing out from the crowd.
And really, that’s the biggest problem this series has as a whole.