Sword Art Online, Wasted Potential. Finding out what made it go bad.

Sword Art Online is a ‘starting life in another world’ or ‘Isekai‘ type anime that prefaces itself with the chilling premise of “if you die in the game, you die in real life.” Few anime focus on being trapped in a video game; a plot-line that even today brings interesting elements and routes to explore to the table. The only other anime with similar premises that come to mind are the likes of Log Horizon and BTOOM!!!.

There seems to have been a shared idea around 2011-2012 that video game Isekai were going to be the next big thing. This, I speculate, is most probably due in some small part to the recent technological advancements in virtual reality video games. It is easy to see that science fiction likes to mirror our own reality and take our craziest fears and concerns about technology and make them real. The concern of not being able to distinguish reality from a video game and becoming addicted to the virtual reality escalated to the question, “what if you couldn’t leave the game?” All of these series took this idea to different places and entertained me. Despite this, the staggering drop in quality and purpose in Sword Art Onlines‘ first season bothers me to this day.

Sword Art Online, which aired in 2012, adapted the light novel of the same name which was published in 2009, had a lot of potential and hype surrounding its premier episode. I remember first seeing an ad for it in 2012 on Crunchyroll and it got me pumped to watch it that when I finally got to seeing it I was immediately hooked.

The plot and themes were dark and chilling and really made me concerned; these kids had a whole world, teetering on the hope of leveling up enough to break free from the game. It displayed some mature themes, such as suicide and how easily people can fall to the temptation of murder, making us question what we’d do if we were given powers and freedom in a new world, with no consequences and our own survival at stake. This is a Hobbesian world, one where our real state of nature is a cruel and savage, where people are selfish and life is short.

So we have an anime where life is like walking through the RuneScape Wilderness and player killing is rampant and permanent. Where a lone hero tries to protect his friends and lover all while trying to regain a faith in humanity in the face of the crushing reality that life is cruel. Sounds great right? Well, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

The premise was solid, the romance element didn’t feel forced and actually had me warming up to it and rooting for the show’s main couple to get together, and the animation was fantastic. But it all went downhill at the end of episode 14, when it wasn’t the end. What I am trying to convey here is that Sword Art Online had the potential to be a really good 13 episode series. However, it ended up wasting a great ending and even its own reputation by continuing down the road.

The plot was ripe with leads and avenues unexplored that could have really made the series better and more flushed out. Season 1, part 1 as I call it (or episodes 1-14) set up a great new video game world. We see people fighting through the floors trying to escape at all costs and dying in service to the cause. We see people easily accepting their new world, tired of their old life and just becoming shop owners and blacksmiths. There was so much diversity and richness in this new reality that was ripe for future episodes.

We saw episodes with plots revolving around forging equipment, a murder mystery, even an episode where they find an AI program which leads to the characters and audience questioning what it really means to be alive. For example, I really felt for Yui’s plot and the episode asked some good questions about free will and humanity in general.

But, while we had some episodes that tried to develop this world of Aincrad, they were hardly enough. The show Log Horizon had the ability to show the audience in a simple way, what the lives of these people living in the game were like without being boring. Log Horizon really tried to display the slow discovery of how things now worked in this new game world, foregrounding the people adjusting to a crazy life they can’t escape. Sword Art Online instead decided to push this all aside and throw its audience into a fully developed RPG society in Aincrad. This was a mistake I feel greatly cost the anime creative plot material.

The main player town from Log Horizon

This material feels even more cheated out of us when you consider what it could have been compared to what came after episode 14. Season 1 part 2 had many unsettling and creepy plot elements that really threw its audience for a loop:

  • Attempted sexual assault of a minor
  • Incest
  • Mind control
  • Human rights violations
  • Reducing the female lead to a damsel in distress

There was always the lingering terror of being trapped in a video game world. But, this idea of psychological torture and manipulation trying to molest someone’s consciousness just seemed to me a step way too far. It had me asking, “how the hell did we get here?”

Sword Art Online started diverting from its initial interesting plot and new ideas, instead moving towards petty scenes dedicated to shock value and eliciting emotional responses of outrage and sadness from the audience.

I remember watching these episodes and asking, “what happened to the science fiction premise you were riding so high on? What happened to the idea of questioning reality and technologies role in distorting it?” The anime does keep some underlying ideas in its plot such as, ‘the real monsters are the people in the game not the computer generated ones’. But overall the show drastically changes in tone after episode 14 and thrusts its audience into a new, much more unsettling show.

Now I will not deny episodes 1-14 of Sword Art Online didn’t have some dark and unsettling plot elements, but the first half of season 1 seemed to balance them better alongside entertaining and deep story lines, as well as character development. It didn’t feel as though the anime was just trying to shock the audience one scene after another. But that’s all episodes 15-24 felt like they were doing. It made people including myself uncomfortable in many ways and just made me feel upset that this was the direction the plot went in.

The looming notion that, ‘the world doesn’t wait while you’re away‘ and, ‘the two main characters didn’t really know each other beyond their names in game‘, were enticing plot threads that could have tied into the second half of season 1. Trying to watch these people adjust to a new world and find each other outside the game could have been great. A real change of pace for the anime. But it was executed so badly. We once again get a time skip with plot development we should have seen in the anime and a poorly thought out setting that involves putting the main heroine in a coma and being psychologically manipulated, harassed, and assaulted by a psychotic adult male.

All fluff aside the overlying plot of episodes 15-24 of Sword Art Online season 1 is that Kirito is trying to stop a sexual predator from marrying his unconscious teenage girlfriend; a predator who is also performing sexual acts on her consciousness in a game. While Kirito is being a hero again Asuna has been transformed into our damsel in distress, nearly totally removed from the plot altogether.

Sword Art Online had seemingly lost what to do after the characters made it out of the game. So much so that they decided to replace the main heroine (who was one of the driving forces of the anime) with the main characters cousin (now adoptive sister) who is also incestuously in love with him. It was quite a surprise to find out the new romantic focus for this half of the series is the main characters own cousin. This was an extremely audacious move by the author –but not uncommon in anime to be perfectly honest.

Moving past season 1, more mature and strange plots began to emerge in the series. One of the strangest arcs to appear was the sexual assault of characters, mainly as a plot device or to show how evil a character is. It’s quite the shocking, visceral, even traumatic thing to watch and Sword Art Online using it as plot device for no considerable reason is arguably just an abuse of it’s audiences sensitivities and emotions.

In written and visual media the act of sexual assault can be used in an effective matter to express to the audience how damaged a character is or how horrible the person committing the act is. But as sensitive and deeply unsettling it is to see or read about, it needs to be handled and executed in a manner that does not turn away the audience.

But now Sword Art Online has used this device in season 1, season 2, and even in the newest iteration the Alicization series in what was perhaps the most shocking and disgusting scene depicting the act yet; making one of the main heroes watch his two friends get assaulted by two men. I have found that the author Reki Kawahara just likes to use this strategy too much and for almost no benefit to advancing plot or character development forward, aside from creating tragic backstories. In researching why he really does use sexual assault in his series I found an article on Anime News Network by Kim Moressy about a recent apology he made in 2018 concerning one of the latest episodes of Alicization; yes the one with the graphic scene of sexual assault.

From the article: In a later tweet, Kawahara expressed further ambivalence about the episode’s content and offered an explanation for why the series contains multiple instances of sexual assault:

“This may be a bit late, but if you’re wondering why SAO has so many of those scenes, a considerable number of light novels (although they weren’t called light novels back then), epic sagas, and adventure stories I read back in middle school contained those plot elements. I would cite Ōgun Hakusha (Gold Spur) as a representative title. My writing was bound to that as if it were under a spell.”

So we know now the author (like many authors) decides to incorporate elements from other stories to help create plots and generate ideas. It is unfortunate though, that he choose one of the worst elements to use for a plot. He even turned this strong character of Asuna, who is an integral main character to the plot of escaping Aincrad, and freeing everyone trapped in the game into a literal bird in a cage; a damsel in distress.

For as much time and effort as Kuwahara spent creating the framework for an amazing story he seems to have seriously dropped the ball in the second act of season 1 and leaves a permanent bad taste in the mouth of some fans. These days even taking about Sword Art Online will get most anime fans feelings in a twist, many calling it “trash”.

The fundamental fact of Sword Art Online is that the series is now majorly screwed up and flawed. I’ve already pointed out the far more disturbing repeat of the helpless hero watching a female character be sexually assaulted, as well as the generally bad writing, so I have taken it upon myself to offer a small synopsis of what I believe could have been a better continuation of the series.

My idea of a continuing plot would have been the main character trying to find his friends and girlfriend from the game in real life and maybe investigating further Kyaba’s NerveGear technology. Perhaps he uncovers a hidden secret about how this technology was able to slip by undetected, causing so much harm. With this plot line, we could have still had the main villain be Suguo as an evil corporate business leader using the NerveGear to test mind altering technology on the players in his new game. Kirito, together with Asuna and his other friends, taking down a corrupt businessman and stopping more innocent players from being manipulated would have made for a compelling and interesting plot. I would also take out the all the unnecessary molestation scenes and the side plot of Suguo trying to ‘NTR’ Asuna with mind-control. The story would also have more focus on the characters integrating back into society and trying to stop what happened to them from ever occurring again.

So to conclude, what made Sword Art Online bad? Throwing away the potential for a great conclusive ending, diverting from the central premise of the show, creating plots only for shock value, and abandoning one of the integral leads of the series by transforming them from a character into a goal. All of these points stem from what I believe really made the series bad: a general loss in direction for the plot.

I seriously argue, and will always argue, that if Sword Art Online was only a one season anime and if it took place entirely in the world of Aincrad, it may have been great and offered something innovative and new.

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