By Andy Hanley.
It is the year 2022, and virtual reality has become the new must-have accessory for gamers everywhere. But this isn’t the kind of technology familiar from our own present. Rather than simply a headset designed to place a virtual world in front of your eyes, this is the real deal – a system that can create an entire new world not just through your eyes and ears, but through every sense in your body, including touch, taste and smell.
As a loner with a fascination with such video games, 14 year-old Kazuto Kirigaya is at the cutting edge of this technology, having landed himself a spot as a beta tester for Sword Art Online, a virtual reality role-playing game. SAO deploys the latest version of NerveGear, a brand-new VR headset which uses FullDive technology to completely immerse the player in the game world.
When Sword Art Online launches fully, Kazuto (under his online moniker of Kirito) is amongst the 10,000 players lucky enough to pick up a copy of the limited edition and join the game on its opening day – although that luck very quickly runs out, as Kirito and the rest of the game’s players find themselves unable to log out and return to normality.
Although it’s initially assumed that the problem is just a particularly egregious bug in the game’s software, this mere inconvenience soon turns into a nightmare as all 10,000 players are summoned by Sword Art Online’s creator, Akihiko Kayaba. Rather than appearing to explain this glitch, Kayaba is on hand to explain that it is, in fact, a feature – there is no escape from Sword Art Online until its players clear all 100 floors of Aincrad, the world in which the game is set, and what’s more, death within the confines of the game or any other attempts to disconnect will see the user’s brain literally microwaved by their NerveGear headset, ending their life.
In a world that is suddenly terrifying and filled with danger around every corner, the result is absolute chaos – two thousand players die within the first month, before a makeshift society of towns and guilds begin to form around the survivors. Some seek the safety of areas where they’re free from monster attacks (or, even more worryingly, the phenomenon of “player-killing”, where some murder their fellow players, aware that they will die in the real world) while others seek to clear Aincrad’s game world and thus bring the nightmare to an end as quickly as possible.
Kirito, however, remains determined to stick to his guns as a solo player. This decision is cemented by a brief foray with a guild which ends with his precious new-found friends cut down before his very eyes, and further bolstered by the growing distrust and outright hatred many harbour towards the game’s beta testers, or “beaters” as they disparagingly come to be known.
Kirito’s plans change once he meets the beautiful yet deadly “Lightning Flash” Asuna. Although he initially butts heads with this vice commander of Aincrad’s biggest, most powerful guild, a mutual respect soon grows, before turning into friendship and, ultimately, love. As their relationship deepens, furthered by the pair’s “adoption” of an Artificial Intelligence named Yui as their own virtual daughter, so it causes more issues with the Knights of the Blood Oath of which Asuna is such a vital component. For her part, she wants to quit the guild, but some guild members want to remove Kirito’s interference in their vice commander’s life. Others seek to leverage Kirito’s substantial skills by adding to their ranks.
Heading up the drive to recruit Kirito is none other than the guild’s commander, Heathcliff, who incites the battle to decide Kirito’s future. Defeated, he has no option but to join the guild and do their bidding, which ultimately takes us to Aincrad’s 75th floor and a shocking revelation – that Heathcliif is, in fact, Akihiko Kayaba himself. In the vicious showdown which follows, Kirito cheats death to defeat Sword Art Online’s creator, thus freeing his fellow players from their virtual prison of two years while Asuna somehow also avoids her deadly fate as Aincrad crumbles and Kabaya vanishes without a trace.
From Aincrad to ALfheim Online
Two months after the end of the Sword Art Online incident, normality is restored to most of those who survived their two-year ordeal – most, that is, aside from a number of people who remain comatose despite the fall of Aincrad, Asuna included.
The reason for Asuna’s state remains unknown, but Kirito gains access to photographic evidence which shows her alive and well – albeit locked away in a cage. Foul play is clearly involved, as confirmed by the announcement that the head of research for the group which now controls Sword Art Online’s servers, Nobuyuki Sugou, is engaged to be married to the unconscious Asuna in just one week. Given that Asuna’s father is the CEO of the group, it seems that Kirito has no way of fighting this decision – at least, not in the real world…
The truth of Asuna’s condition resides within one of the online virtual reality games that have sprung up in the wake of Sword Art Online, using the same basic NerveGear technology but with the deadly lock-in safely removed. The image of an imprisoned Asuna seems to come from an online world known as ALfheim Online, which means that it’s time for Kirito to once again immerse himself in a virtual reality, albeit with only one life seemingly at stake within its confines.
It may not offer the prospect of actual, real-world death to its players, but ALfheim has challenges of its own for Kirito to grasp, not least the ability of players to fly at will and game mechanics which encourage killing other players as a valid means of advancing in-game skills. Luckily for him, a chance meeting with a fellow player named Leafa allows him to get to grips with the game and its world, including the World Tree that makes up the centrepiece – an architectural giant which dominates the world, the traversal of which serves as the main goal of the game.
It’s at the top of this World Tree that Asuna is held captive, and given that Kirito can’t simply fly up there even with the powers at his character’s disposal, it instead takes all of his skill and ability to find another way to reach his incarcerated girlfriend. With Leafa and her friend Recon offering their own skills and knowledge in spite of Kirito’s continued desire to work alone, our protagonist unexpectedly finds himself with a small party to work with him towards his goal.
What proves even more unexpected for Kirito is Leafa’s true identity – she is, in fact, Suguha, his own cousin, and sister in all but name since his adoption by her parents. Having been left distraught by Kazuto’s “disappearance” into Sword Art Online, Suguha had a friend guide her into the world of ALfheim, in which she quickly became immersed.
The route to enter the World Tree is filled with quests and obstructions to be overcome, slowing Kirito’s progress, while Asuna herself isn’t entirely passive in her situation as her attempts to escape lead to the realisation that the 300 players still unconscious from the end of the Sword Art Online incident are being used for mind control experiments by the new owners of the servers, and more importantly by Nobuyuki Sugou himself.
It’s Nobuyuki who ultimately serves as the “final boss” in the battle to rescue Asuna, using the powers at his disposal given his position as “Oberon” within ALfheim Online. However, Kirito has some powers of his own, provided by Akihiko Kayaba himself. These powers removed the limits on pain felt within the world and gives Oberon a taste of what it really means to fight.
Kirito’s victory grants him possession of “The Seed”, the starting point of Sword Art Online’s virtual world, but Asuna’s real body remains in danger despite his victory in ALfheim, leaving our hero with one final skirmish with Nobuyuki in the real world before the travails of Sword Art Online can truly be put to rest, and new worlds born from the World Seed now at his disposal.
With virtual reality gaming provided with a new golden age as a result, there are umpteen new virtual worlds to explore and tales to tell – a fact which brings us neatly to the beginning of Sword Art Online II…