I made mention of Sword Art Online on Twitter a few days ago, but it’s taken me a while to really formulate my thoughts regarding this topic. While my write-up will probably be incomplete, it’s good to at least start the process of discussing this rather intriguing light novel and anime series.
To discuss Sword Art Online as an anime or written work to a group of MMORPG players is difficult, mostly because I get the feeling that some people aren’t particularly interested in the intersection of what is virtual and real and because direct comparisons to other media that discuss MMORPGs will enter the fray. To discuss Sword Art Online to a group of literary critics is also difficult, because the Japanese light novel structure, publishing format, and demographic is vastly different from that of reading other works (I defer to the Wikipedia page on Light Novels for a description of the differences between novels and light novels).
That said, I think the only way I can really discuss Sword Art Online (henceforth termed SAO in this piece) is if I discuss its premise and how reading and watching SAO makes me feel.
The story of SAO begins at 1:00 p.m. of November 6, 2022, when the world’s first completely immersive virtual reality MMORPG goes live in Japan. Only 10,000 copies are available for this game, and in the morning of the game’s release, all 10,000 copies are purchased.
To create the immersive experience of SAO, Akihiko Kayaba, the creator of SAO, also developed a device known as NerveGear. The Nervegear is a VR helmet that works by rerouting signals from your brain into the game, such that you can perform actions in the world by thinking them, and your body would remain immobile because the NerveGear bypasses your ability to move.
At the story’s beginning, we are introduced to Kirito, who served as one of the 1000 beta testers in the game, and Cline, another player who befriends Kirito. Kirito teaches Cline the basics of SAO’s world, Aincrad. In SAO, aside from magical crystals that heal and teleport, there is no magic that can be cast in the game. Instead, players rely on weapon skills that are trained and leveled up in order to acquire new skills, in addition to allocating statistics that increase dexterity or strength. Aside from fighting skills, crafting and gathering skills also apparently exist in the game, such as smithing, item appraisal, and fishing.
Four hours and twenty five minutes after the launch of SAO, Cline attempts to log out to pick up a pizza, only to discover that the log out button has been greyed out and cannot be used.
At 5:30 p.m, all the players of the game are teleported back to the starting city. By 5:40 p.m. of November 6, 2012, all hell will have broken loose.
Between 5:30 and 5:40 p.m. the sunset-lit sky is tinged blood red, and blood drips from the sky. A faceless man, clad in dark robes, coalesces from the blood: an monolithic figure who simply says, “Attention players, welcome to my world.”
The faceless man is none other than Akihiko Kayaba, and he continues his speech by saying that the inability to log out of the game is not a bug, but a feature of SAO.
He continues, “You cannot log out of SAO yourselves, and no one on the outside can shut down or remove your NerveGear. Should this be attempted, the transmitter inside the NerveGear will act like a powerful microwave, destroying your brain, ending your life.”
To stress the futility of the attempt, he adds that several players’ friends and families have already attempted to remove the NerveGear from the heads of 213 players, resulting in their removal from the game as well as their deaths. The news media has already picked up on the story, and save for officials transferring players to hospitals by temporarily disconnecting the NerveGear from a power source and letting it run on its internal battery, it is expected that no further attempts to remove NerveGears will be made.
Furthermore, permadeath is instituted in SAO. If your HP drops to zero, the NerveGear will activate the microwave, killing players who fail to survive in the game.
To log out of the game, players must ascend the 100 levels of the floating realm Aincrad, defeating a floor boss on each level to gain entry into the next and ultimately defeat the final boss on the 100th floor. As a means of comparison, Kirito mentions earlier that beta testers spent two months attempting to reach the eighth floor.
As an added dagger to the back of every surviving player, Akihiko Kayaba presents each player with an in-game item, <<Mirror>>. Examination of the item forces every player remaining in the game to be represented by a scan of his real-life attributes, including height, weight, muscularity and facial features.
By 5:40 p.m., Kayaba’s speech ends, his robes and body revert to blood, fly back into the blood red sky, and disappear, revealing sunset once more.
These are the first 10 or so pages of the first book of Sword Art Online, and we’ll have more to talk about later on when I continue this post series. Till then, don’t die.