Online Again: a Critique of Sword Art Online, Seasons One and Two

Sword Art Online 1
If you watch anime at all, you are probably already aware of the massively popular Sword Art Online. For those who are not familiar with it, here’s a quick recap of the first half of season one: Sword Art Online takes place in 2022, a time when “Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games” (VRMMORPG) are popular. A headpiece called “Nerve Gear” allows players to “dive” into the game, controlling their online avatars with their brains. However, when SAO players log on for the first time, they soon discover that they cannot log out. They  are informed by the creator of the game, a man with a serious god-complex, that they will be stuck in the virtual world of Aincrad until they reach the 100th level of the game and kill the final boss. The kicker? If they die in the game, they die in real life.

The first half of the first season goes through an interesting exploration of the real world vs. the virtual world. The protagonist, Kirito, who is determined to beat the game and save the 10,000 players trapped inside it, has an interesting take on the virtual world. He tells Asuna, his fellow player and love interest, that “there’s no meaningful difference between a real and a virtual world.” While she believes that “every day we spend here is one we’ve lost in the real world,” he tells her that “right now, we’re alive here, in Aincrad.”

It’s a smart and refreshing take on virtual reality that gamers and lovers of fiction can to relate to. Too often fiction has the negative stigma of “escapism,” implying that you’re somehow less-than if you want to break away from reality. Sword Art Online takes that escapism to its logical end: there is little difference between Earth and Aincrad. You can die in both worlds; you can fall in love in both worlds; you can have meaningful relationships and experiences in both worlds.

The second half of the first season, which takes places in a different VRMMORPG called Alfheim Online , diverges greatly from the first half. It’s lighter, follows a more stereotypical plot, and is definitely not as compelling as the first half. However, it’s still worth a watch. It has the characters that you’ve grown to love and its share of heart-warming moments.

*Spoliers from this point onward.

 Sword Art Online 2

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the second season of Sword Art Online. The vast break between the critical analysis of the psychological effects of being stuck in a virtual reality of Sword Art Online and the light, stereotypical plot of Alfheim Online already feels like the real break between two seasons.  The actual second season, which takes place within the world of Gun Gale Online, seems to be much of the same so far with its four released episodes. It’s a step back to the first half of season one. The new character Sinon (real name Asada Shino) is dealing with post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety surrounding guns by playing the online game. Kirito, must play this game in order to discover if the “Death Gun,” a gun which can supposedly kill the player both in the game and in real life, exists.

This is where the second season loses its appeal  for me.  Regarding the Death Gun, Kirito says: “To kill someone from the real world in the virtual world… I just can’t believe it’s possible.” Kirito-kun, where have you been for the past season? Perhaps stuck in a game where you can kill someone from the real world in the virtual world? His disbelief in the Death Gun doesn’t make any sense. He seems to be strangely willing to enter yet another game where death threatens him. It made sense with Alfheim Online, with the cringe-worthy plot of saving a literally caged Asuna, but it makes much less sense with Gun Gale Online. He doesn’t trust Kikuoka, who tells him to explore the game; he has a good thing going on with Asuna, Yui, and his friends in ALO and in real life; and I think he should be just a little more wary of diving into another life-threatening game, especially so soon after his own traumatic experience.

So far the second season has repeated many of the same themes of the first, has questionable lines and plot holes, and feels a bit extraneous on the whole. The first season wrapped up nicely, and unlike many other anime (*cough* Ouran High School Host Club), didn’t need a second season. Despite these faults, Sinon is a compelling character, and the theme of virtual reality is one that I love enough to see it repeted in this second season.

 -contributed by Emily Maggiacomo


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