The Arcs of Sword Art Online
I just finished watching the second season of Sword Art Online. This is an anime about virtual reality and MMORPG worlds. There are a few series out there that explore this theme, but Sword Art stood out to me by how it explores a wide range of issues in relation the emerging virtual reality. It also provides enough explanation for it to be believable (I actually think something like this could be possible one day.) The characters are likeable too. Each season is divided into story arcs. I found it jarring when I first switched arcs as they changed many of the rules I had become accustomed to. The problem with setting stories in a virtual world is that they lack risk which can remove some of your engagement. Sword Art reveals a number of ways in which being in such a world could be dangerous to the player however. It covers some benefits of virtual reality as well, providing a balanced feel on the subject. The soundtrack is also excellent. It’ll be brief, but there will still be some minor spoilers ahead. I recommend giving this anime a try if you like MMORPGs (I watched the first season on Netflix.)
Season 1 – Aincrad Arc
The first arc is still my favourite. The log out functionality is removed, trapping the players within the game. Dying will also result in their death in real life. The only way to get out safely is to beat it. This arc carries the most tension due to the higher stakes. It also explores the mechanics of the game more thoroughly than the others. I enjoyed seeing how things could possibly work within virtual reality. Although perhaps the game resembles our current games a little too closely, suggesting that design hasn’t really evolved from what we have now. They still have various skills to level up and there are dungeons with bosses to overcome. The boss fights were exciting. In some they lost the ability to teleport out, making the choice to take on a boss on all the more difficult to make. There are moments throughout Sword Art that are actually quite heart breaking due to the dangers imposed on the characters.
Season 1 – Fairy Dance Arc
After the excitement of the first arc I was a little disheartened by the sudden change. I didn’t take to the new game right away as the themes were less appealing to me… or perhaps I had a viewer’s version of Stockholm syndrome for the previous world. I was disappointed to have the last arc cut short because I think the world could have been developed even further. It’s also a shame not to make the most out of an already developbed world. I felt less attachment to the world and the new characters, but it did bring up some really interesting issues in relation to our safety while logged into such games. It doesn’t matter that it’s not real, we can still be reached through our minds. What can happen to us within virtual reality can hurt us. By the end the season had managed to capture my engagement again.
Season 2 – Phantom Bullet Arc
I wasn’t expecting to like this arc as much as I did. It focusses on a new skill based game about guns. That sort of thing doesn’t usually appeal to me, but I like that it introduced new mechanics to virtual reality that we hadn’t yet seen. It also brought some of the tension back into the story by introducing a new risk. This arc has a stronger focus on the main character Kirito. I preferred him in this because his character felt like it had more depth and he was no longer considered to be one of the best players. In the Aincrad Arc he had been a Beta tester and had a much stronger character as a result. I’m not a fan of characters developed in this way as I feel like they need to have more room to grow. It was odd that Kirito could still compete with other players that had been practising for much longer, although I liked that he adapted his knowledge from other games. Perhaps his use of unexpected strategies gave him his edge. Less characters are introduced from this game, although the new one is very well developed. Fans of the other characters might be disappointed as they show up less frequently. There are times during Sword Art where I feel like the characters are brushed over and don’t react convincingly. Although some might prefer that the story doesn’t get caught up with character’s emotions. Kirito spends some time exploring feelings of guilt, but it doesn’t weigh the story down and is resolved in a satisfying way.
Season 2 – Calibur Arc
This is a short arc set back in ALO (the game from season 1.) It follows all of the characters as they complete a quest together. I wish there had been more of those team work moments throughout season 2. There isn’t as much development between character interaction as I would have liked (the romance between Kirito and Asuna isn’t taken any further.) I also feel less attachment to this world now and would like to see more development on it. This arc is less engaging than all of the others, but it’s a fun break between heavier storylines.
Season 2 – Mother’s Rosario
This arc focusses on Asuna. It’s different in style to all of the others and carries more emotional weight. The first part maintains your interest through the introduction of some new characters that are obviously carrying a heavy burden. Once you learn the back story to them there is little else left to reveal and the story continues in the direction you’d expect. This is probably my least favourite arc for this reason. I took the ending in a bitter sweet way. It was upsetting, but had a positive message behind it. After all of the problems faced by virtual reality in previous arcs, this one wanted to show how it could be used to bring hope. I do think the story could have still maintained its message while being resolved in a more satisfying way however. I would have liked more closure, although it seemed to be setting itself up for a third season.
Overall I prefer season 1, but the second season is worth a watch and contains some thought provoking moments.