Look people, it’s over. The jig is up. Dear God… I can’t believe these words are spilling onto my screen… I, David Charles Thomas (yes, I have three first names, leave me alone), like Anime. There! I’ve said it. I’ve hidden it for too long; no more will I nervously point Snapchat videos or photos away from the TV, and I won’t hastily change the screen input before guests find out. Okay, that second one I didn’t do, but the first is true, honest!
For the most part, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching Death Note, Code Geass, and One-Punch Man. Though, unfortunately, I finished Code Geass too early. I needed something else to procrastinate exam study: Enter, Sword Art Online (SAO). A show I had been warned about, urged to watch, and ‘meh’d’ by everyone and their dog. It began as some goofy fun, but as I pressed on, steadily but assuredly reducing my final exam score, I gravitated to some meaningful messages. After discussing it with my handy sidekick, Lawn, I decided to write an article about it. It is game related after all.
If you’ve actually been spending your time wisely (and aren’t aware), Sword Art Online is a show set in a near-future Japan where Virtual Reality takes off to the enth degree. Just by wearing a head-piece, players, and their full-body senses are immersed in entire worlds. It’s what I’ve been dreaming of since birth (I developed early). However, this fantasy world takes a dark turn, as a crazy developer places a kill-switch in the headset, which murders people in the real world when they get killed in the virtual one. Players are trapped, unable to log out, they either resolve to defeat the game and escape, or die… For realsies.
The first half of Season 1 is my favourite; it plays on classic MMO tropes in a very cutesy way. It does take a bit of dive after the show’s initial blast, but it reels it back in. However, critique isn’t the purpose of this article. The more I watched SAO, the more I felt a degree of empowerment and relatability to some of the messages in this ‘ball-crazy’ anime.
Everyone searches for an escape from the real world. We want to distract ourselves from the troubles of our real lives, or just have an enjoyable experience that makes us feel some dopamine-filled pleasure. But sometimes the worst happens, the thing that we sort solitude in, the experience we loved the most, gets twisted and blackened. Incapable of discovering that joy we once felt, we become trapped; forced to fight for survival. We’re separated from our families, and have the persistent and looming fear of death, loneliness, inadequacy, or anything else that plagues our minds daily. If you’re inexperienced — someone who hasn’t played many games before — or didn’t get to ‘beta-test’ this dark world, you’re at an even greater disadvantage. So, what happened? Well, people died, and the ones who survived were trapped for two years in a virtual world.
“The thing we sort solitude in, the experience we loved the most, gets twisted and blackened”
Whilst watching the show, I couldn’t help but view the story as an allegory for so much of life. The places we find comfort in, the experiences we share with each other, and the activities we enjoy, become feared. They get broken and disfigured beyond recognition; we find ourselves incapable of feeling the joy we once thought we’d never lose. We feel trapped, incapable of ‘logging out’, and fall deeper and deeper into despair.
But just like in SAO, there is a way out; a journey we can choose to confront or try to ignore. Players can try and distract themselves for as long as they can, levelling fishing, blacksmithing or cooking. Alternatively, they can take to the dungeon with people they trust, clear the game and beat that fucking boss. It’s always easiest to give up. The path ahead feels so endless, that sitting still and taking 30-minute-long showers seems like an easier thing to do, than to try and push forward. Although, this is a TV show, so the heroes MUST win. It’s important to show the rest of the players, the world, your friends, your family, that the game is beatable. The boss is scary but fuck man, it has a health bar just like everyone else!
Luckily, they figure out that the way to survive, to persevere, is by ‘partying up’. They form friendships and lasting bonds that cause them to risk everything for each other. It’s an obvious trope, but combined with the setting, overall arc, and dramatic score, it tugged on a strong chord for me. Like SAO’s protagonist, Kirito, eventually discovers: You don’t have to be a ‘solo-player’, and it’s difficult to realise this at times. Other people can help you get through a floor in the dungeon, even with the smallest of gestures; what they do DOES matter. Perhaps you just need that weird friend wielding a gigantic hammer to block a strike from the boss, and introduce you to anime, or sit with you to watch a terrible movie.
Similarly, not unlike the real world, unfortunately, people wear avatars. They hide either because they’re ashamed, or they want to serve their own self-interest the best way they know how. Maybe they don’t even know the real reason they’re faking it. The sad thing is, that the honest players around these individuals don’t realise they’ve been lied to until their face down in the dirt, with a sword plunging into their chest and the group they partied up with, running away to save their own skin. But that’s how the world works; people are dicks. Though, don’t forget there’s always someone willing to dive in and initiate a 3-button combo in your defence.
Even after the characters beat the game, barely escaping with their lives, they hop back on the horse. It’d be easy to never touch Virtual Reality again. They almost died, so who could blame them? But what I find powerful in SAO, is that they refuse to let a dark and twisted version of what they loved, plague its potential for good. They keep searching for the world which connects with them the most. Maybe a type of game isn’t working for you anymore, but don’t give up on looking for something that can provide relief from what you’re feeling. It does exist. Maybe we just need a little push in the right direction, be it the group of friends we play games with, or the mate who will help you smash out a David Cage title.
“They refuse to let a dark and twisted version of what they loved, plague its potential for good”
There’s a scene in the show where two of the characters end up napping under a tree. They have a bit of banter between themselves, because duh, why bother napping in a virtual world? Kirito explains that even during absolute shit (paraphrasing here), there are moments of peace; sunshine and a spot of warmth that you can discover, cherish and remember. Whilst the moment may be fleeting or technically not ‘real’, it keeps you going that little while longer — it shows what is waiting on the other side, after it’s over.
I realise I’m probably reading into the show a little too much. Critics and writers tend to search for hidden meaning that was either unintentional or non-existent. But Sword Art Online truly made me think in a way that was totally unexpected. It might not provide inspiration for you to totally overlook whatever dark hole you’re in, but remember that there’s always a weird variety of obtuse characters that can help pull you along to the final boss. Find solace in the moments of peace that you can grasp, and remember that there are people even in the weirdest places that can help you through. Don’t stop trying to rediscover your passion in something that feels as though its lost all meaning to you.