By Mitchell Lineham.
After the global success of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, virtual reality is back in style, but in the anime world, it never really went away. While Spielberg’s movie appeals to fans for its deep-seated references to pop culture, Japanese animation offers plenty of virtual reality stories that resonate more with today’s gamers.
Sword Art Online kicked off a Japanese renaissance in alternate universe stories, thanks to its excellent world-building and understanding of MMO mechanics. Starting life as a web series before becoming a light novel, Sword Art Online has taken fans through the worlds of several fictional games which would be amazing to play such as the titular title where 10,000 players were trapped in a traditional fantasy MMORPG experience, which was only sullied by its creators attempts to trap and kill the game’s players. Set in the year 2022, Sword Art Online locked its players inside the game – if you wanted to leave, you had to fight your way through a hundred-storey tower in-game. But if your character died in the attempt, you died in real life.
This was because the VR headset, Nerve Gear, would emit microwaves with enough power to fry the player’s brain. Very grim,and hopefully something that future players in the real world won’t have to worry about… although sometimes it can get hot even in benign real-world headgear.
Since the woes of Sword Art Online, hero Kirito and friends have found themselves in less life-threatening games such the fairy-fantasy world of ALFheim Online where each player can freely fly, and the series’ first military shooter with Gun Gale Online, currently being further explored in the Sword Art Online books. The characters get to enter tournaments to put their skills to the rest, join guilds and participate in friendly battles against rival guilds, or simply enjoy the game world by tackling story quests and meeting developed NPCs. But the wish fulfilment in Gun Gale Online doesn’t just come from the games it depicts, but from the acceptance gamers receive — one characters doubting mother dons a headset, and suddenly comes to understand why her daughter loves it so much.
Sword Art Online is just one of many innovative anime takes on the gaming lifestyle, including Recovery of an MMO Junkie, which depicts the humdrum existence of an office lady who seeks to escape into a computer game, and Overlord, which asks what happens in a game world that has lost all its players. Far from regarding themselves as “trapped” in a game world, the characters in the anime Log Horizon enthusiastically make preparations to stay, while the protagonist in Re: Zero treats his game-world incarnation as a form of Groundhog Day, eternally dying and respawning as he tries to work out a perfect route through his new life.
But if you’re an old-school fan, rolling your eyes and proclaiming that .hack had been there and done that years before, let’s not forget that the first anime to feature a gamer trapped in a game is over thirty years old. Running Boy was a straight-to-video title from 1986, sneaked out into movie theatres during the summer vacation on a double bill with Game King, a live-action 29-minute short that showed the confrontation between Star Soldier players Masami Takahashi and Mamoru Masato. It’s odd to imagine that cinema-goers in 1986 would stand in line in theatres to watch two button-mashers go five rounds on a platform game, but audiences were more easily pleased back then.
Such delights are unlikely to form part of the action in the forthcoming live-action Netflix adaptation of Sword Art Online, although it remains to be seen how the film-makers choose to approach the game’s rich and varied world-building. There is certainly a place for virtual reality exploring death-defying escapes from the grips of a world unlike our own, but the true joy might be found in how virtual reality can enhance our gaming experiences and how it can be used to simply whisk us away to another world for a few hours, delights and all.
Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale is released in the UK by Anime Limited.