It is launch day for the world’s most highly anticipated virtual role-playing game: Sword Art Online. Japanese teenager Kirito (voiced by Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) plugs in and leaves glum, grey reality behind for the pastel-shaded fantasy realm of Aincrad. Whilst practicing his monster slaying skills, Kirito and other players discover they cannot log out of the game. Suddenly the game’s visionary designer appears in the form of an enormous wizard floating in the sky and casually announces they are trapped inside Sword Art Online. Should anyone from the outside world attempt to interfere, all players will be instantly killed. Their one chance to escape is to complete the game by fighting their way up the various levels. However, players who lose their “hit points” in the virtual world, die for real!
Some months later, the players have begun forming literal online communities as they attempt to survive this world of magic and monsters. Kirito, having revealed himself to be a far more formidable player than anyone else suspected, forms an alliance with Asuna (Haruka Tomatsu), a sexy kick-ass warrior babe whose abilities equal his own. While other players form their own groups or look out for themselves, these two set out to protect those weaker than themselves and fight their way to freedom.
Admittedly the virtual reality goes haywire scenario has been done many times before. To its credit however, Sword Art Online attempts something intriguingly offbeat with the familiar concept. What could have easily been a routine, beat-'em-up sword and sorcery romp instead proves genuinely thought-provoking and ambitious. It is not uncommon for players of online role-playing games to fantasise about what life would be like if such virtual worlds were real. Sword Art Online poses the question of how would people function if that were actually the case. How would we cope if our daily existence depended on being able to hack-and-slash your way through armies of monsters for a handful of experience points? What kind of society would gamers construct in a world like this? What would its laws be? Does killing non-player characters constitute murder? These are a few of the provocative ideas raised by the narrative as Kirito and Asuna adventure across Aincrad.
Whilst Kirito and Asuna cling onto their own chivalric code, other characters react to their new environment in wildly different ways. Our heroes encounter cute pigtailed little Silica (Rina Hidaka) who shares an uncommonly close bond with her virtual pet dragon, a man who murders his own wife because she grows more confident and outspoken in the fantasy realm while his own cowardice is exposed, and - in a particularly affecting episode - a party of high school gamers who are wiped out before Kirito’s horrified eyes. Whereupon their leader, an idealist who shares his experience points with weaker players, commits suicide. Yet whilst the drama is uncompromising, things are not all doom and gloom. Much like the outstanding Summer Wars (2009), Sword Art Online emphasises the positive aspects of social networking. In the real world, both Kirito and Asuna are similarly shy and reserved and awkward in social encounters. Working together in the virtual realm, they not only form an invincible fighting team but also a meaningful relationship, learning the value of trust and cooperation. Their shared experiences teach them how to lead more fulfilling and outgoing lives in the real world. It is a riposte to those who would argue computer games encourage people to lead isolated lives.
Fusing pseudo-medieval fantasy with science fiction, the anime is only the latest manifestation of a Japanese multimedia phenomenon encompassing books, manga and, yes, computer games. Tomohiko Ito gets the look and tone of online fantasy gaming absolutely right and includes some amusingly observant humorous asides. In one hilarious scene, the system transforms players from their gaming avatars into their real selves. A suave, debonair type is mortified to discover the cute girl he has been romancing is actually a nerdy guy, whilst he stands unmasked as a sweaty fat geek. Shingo Adachi’s character designs are appealing and the screenplay establishes Kirito and Asuna as likeable, multifaceted characters.