I’m pretty sure everybody, their mom, their mom’s fitness trainer, and their mom’s fitness trainer’s cousin’s goat has seen the South Park episode ‘Make Love, Not Warcraft’. The episode had a wonderful, self aware plot about people who took World of Warcraft way too seriously attempting to kill a rogue player who was essentially unbeatable through conventional means. The more you thought about the context, the funnier the episode got, as each character began to take their role in the game more seriously than anybody has any right to. Sword Art Online is that, but with no sense of how ridiculous it really is, the irony being that it almost ends up a more striking comedy as a result.
It has characters sneaking around, and plotting acts of espionage in order to better their positions in the game world for ultimately selfish reasons. There are double agents, assassins, and well thought out acts of subterfuge that take painstaking patience and thought to pull off. This would all be fantastic, if the ever-looming specter of the logout button and conveniently withheld exposition didn’t make it into anime’s unintentional answer to South Park’s own ode to MMOs.
For once, I don’t have much to complain about with Kirito. Yes, he’s still the cocky, inexplicably powerful swordsman whose treatment of other characters, particularly of the female persuasion, is rather suspect. And yes, he continues to wax philosophical like Socrates would if he was an author insert without any neurons to fire off. But hey, he got slapped for biting a girl’s fingers, so there is some justice in the world.
On the battle front, the fact that he attempts several times to break through an easily flanked shield wall (the defense of Senlac Hill, this is not) before essentially saying “fuck it” and transforming into a hulking goatman was actually pretty fun to watch, if undeniably cheesy. It would have worked better if it wasn’t being played entirely Poe-faced, but I can’t ask too much from what’s essentially people mumbling at each other to conjure shit. Unfortunately, the lack of any real consequence for death beyond Kirito’s trip up Yggdrasil being delayed another 3-4 hours completely ruined any suspense that remained, even if it wasn’t guaranteed that Kirito would pull some hitherto unknown power out of his ass.
It’s not that the game mechanics automatically eliminate investment in the game’s conflict. As much as I loathe it, .hack//sign managed to have player deaths in an ultimately normal game world have a semblance of weight. While this was because it explored the characters themselves rather than the overarching, painfully dull story, it still proved that MMOs are not necessarily a barrier for drama based around player death, as long as it’s explored fully in the context of a game. Hell, Sword Art Online could have done a great job in developing Kirito’s character along these lines, given that his actions while in monster form were done with more than a smidge of sadism. It not only neglects this potentially interesting point of development, but actively ignores its consequences past a pretentious monologue about game behavior somehow translating to the real world. To anybody who’s played Grand Theft Auto or committed 18 acts of infanticide in Crusader Kings to solidify their position on the French throne, that’s mildly insulting.
I know I’ve said that the writing is lacking before, but this is just shameful. There are some serious problems when navigating around the story’s biggest problems can be easily done with the press of a button or a quick message to anybody with a fucking pulse. Maybe it’s supposed to add to dramatic tension or something, but I don’t see how it works. It’s a damn shame, because what could have otherwise been a compelling subplot about the shift of power in ALFheim is marred by the ease of escaping from it, making it the equivalent of medieval LARPers smacking each other with wooden swords while insulting each other in shoddy Cockney accents. With giant goatmen.
Really though, the episode itself is as good as the show’ll likely get, and I’d like it more if my immersion wasn’t immediately severed by the fact that it takes place in a fucking game without ever seriously addressing that fact. I don’t think it’s asking too much to want the characters to acknowledge that the grand plot against the sylphs is a bit silly when taken in the context of a goddamn game, and can be easily derailed or at least not count for enough to warrant gigantic spy networks. I mean come on, I don’t want Kirito being slapped and Recon being paralyzed in a sewer to be the only high points of the episode, but it looks like I don’t have much of a choice. Serves you right, you smug, bitey ponce. Stop being such a dick.