A Second Look at Sword Art Online and Where Will It Go from Here?

SAO

Note: Spoilers from SAO to SAO II of the anime

I know I don’t really show it but when Sword Art Online was first adapted into an anime from a series of light novels way back in 2012, I loved it, I really loved it. While the premise was something I had already seen (predominantly in .hack video game series), it was still an interesting premise as far as anime goes. Even while it aired, I loved it. All the thrills, excitement and anxiety were heartfelt. Sure enough, it has it fair share of problems. The sub-arcs in between the first arc-the Aincrad arc, which, timeline-wise in the novels, weren’t even supposed to be there makes the story and characterization at times disjointed. But overall, I think I can say without doubt I loved the SAO arc.

SAO7

This will be a recurring point in this post, but one of the main problems with Sword Art Online as a franchise-it originally wasn’t supposed to be so long in the first place. I’m not sure where I read this before, but I saw from somewhere the novel was at first originally intended to be a one-shot. This is the reason why the first VRMMORPG was called “Sword Art Online”, the same name the franchise is called, while subsequent VRMMORPGs seem to derail itself away from the franchise’s name hilariously. The Aincrad arc also has a premise and setting which genuinely instills thrills-10,000 players were trapped inside a virtual game world, and the players’ real life counterparts die in conjunction with their characters’ deaths. There is a goal in the Aincrad arc-to escape from this virtual prison, and while achieving his goal, Kirito, who was originally a lone wolf, formed bonds. Relationships is also another focus in Sword Art Online and I would say Kirito’s was resolved by the first arc, even if developments, if any, were a bit rocky at best.

This is the problem. Because Sword Art Online as a franchise was originally intended to just be a one-shot, anything more just seems like a poor addition. After Aincrad arc ended, the Fairy Dance arc emerged from out of nowhere, and this is where everything goes wrong. Even the premise of Fairy Dance arc seems like a poor excuse to expand a story which was supposed to have ended-by having a portion of the SAO players not waking up from their coma, and having Kirito entering another new VRMMORPG called Alfheim Online. Although even with the introduction of a new VRMMORPG, there was less conflict and objective; players were no longer trapped and can log out anytime they want. Technically speaking, the Fairy Dance arc is paced slightly better, but there is just not much of a reason for it to exist. Just as soon as the first arc ended, everyone could had woken up from the coma, including Asuna and they could be happy ever after; there was no need to expand the story way beyond that.

Also, Asuna transformed into a damsel-in-distress.

Also, Asuna transformed into a damsel in distress.

Sword Art Online II, which started airing sometime last year featured the Phantom Bullet and other sub-arcs. The Phantom Bullet arc, which was, timeline-wise, the third major arc in the series, was where Kirito ended up in another VRMMORPG, the Gun Gale Online. While it was better than the Fairy Dance arc, there was once again, not much reason for it to exist. Everything can be traced back all the way from the first Aincrad arc-character relationships, story, developments, everything was resolved in that arc. As evidenced, in order to create the same thrilling experience, Phantom Bullet arc had to very blatantly relate some plot points back to SAO-apparently, Kirito had killed two Laughing Coffin members way back in the first arc, which I could had sworn was never mentioned once. Despite that, the Phantom Bullet arc definitely has better writing and direction than the first season, the only problem is the foundation of it’s premise. Maybe this is why most people don’t feel much strongly about this arc, despite it being objectively better than the previous season.

The Calibur arc after that is a major example of having an unfocused narrative. By far, it feels dull, bland, forgettable and most of all, unnecessary-an example, an embodiment of Sword Art Online’s flaws. Fortunately, it redeemed itself in Mother’s Rosario, which is definitely the better arc as far as SAO II’s sub-arcs go. Mother’s Rosario represents everything I would love to see. The length was just perfect and it had an actual focus-resulting in a satisfying, and much needed character development. Most important of all, it is a strong independent arc which doesn’t rely heavily on previous major arcs for developments. Additionally, staying away from Kirito’s perspective is a very helpful change of pace.

[HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online II - 24 [720p].mkv_snapshot_11.03_[2014.12.27_16.04.57]

In order to create some sort of purpose on subsequent arcs, Reki Kawahara needs to relate it in some way to the very first arc. Otherwise, it will just simply be watching a more slice-of-life orientated anime with people playing MMORPGs, only, with virtual. If it’s just that, I believe Log Horizon even did a better job than Sword Art Online. The main issue with Sword Art Online as a franchise is that after the first arc ended, from then on, it had lost it’s main flair-the sense of conflict and dread from it’s promising premise. No matter how good the new story arcs are, it will still from one way or the other, drags itself back to the very first arc to recreate that atmosphere.

Sinon is furious.

Sinon is furious.

Furthermore, since relationships were already resolved, any new heroines who might seemingly be in Kirto’s harem, get the short end of the stick (get your mind out of the gutter, no sexual innuendo intended) since Kirito already has his canon girlfriend-Asuna. Yet, these heroines I assume will never develop any romantic interests for other male characters too. Poor Klein is poor.

However, Mother’s Rosario as aforementioned, is a rare exception that it was able to not stay overly dependent on SAO for plot progression and proved itself to be a worthwhile sub-arc. I haven’t read the light novels yet, but if future arcs were somewhat of this caliber, there may still be hope yet.

asuna yuuki

Sword Art Online is a concept-driven anime, and while I’m the type who concept alone is enough for me to like a series, Sword Art Online is a rare exception, especially since it derailed itself away from it’s own original concept, losing it’s focus in the process. All good things must come to an end, and Sword Art Online is a clear example of expanding unnecessarily beyond it’s original scope. Despite that, if it will ever has a third season, it will still be interesting to see where it will go from here, as proved by Mother’s Rosario.

What do you think of the Sword Art Online as a franchise so far?

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This entry was posted by Kai.

13 thoughts on “A Second Look at Sword Art Online and Where Will It Go from Here?

  1. I also noticed how stretched the anime seemed after the first arc. While the story mechanics improved, the story itself (with the exception of Mother’s Rosario) dithered. However, SAO’s theme on how digital relationships are still relationships is interesting. SAO has to potential to explore some deep ideas about technology similar to how Ghost in the Shell does. SAO touched on this with the first arc. Mother’s Rosario developed the theme of digital relationships even more. Kirito trying to pull Yui into the physical world also has potential. However, I don’t see SAO going into the deep exploration of technology and its impact on human relationships as GiTS did.

    • I actually like SAO’s way of thematic exploration. They are subtle, and not anything like GitS, but it works naturally in a way different from GitS (also one of the reason why I dislike the ALO arc, since, if I recall, this particular theme was taken down from the narrative). I agree that Kirito trying to pull Yui into the physical world has potential, guess we’ll see in possible upcoming seasons.

  2. I’m personally going to write my own review of SAO II but I thought I’d share my preliminary thoughts here.
    SAO seems a lot like the author figuring out what he wants to do with the series. As you stated, SAO Aincrad arc was the original plan. But when more was demanded, I don’t think he knew where to take the series. Aincrad is like a fan-fic to be honest. Here is an interesting idea. Here is a typical “awesome” character. Go! But once the adventure is finished, a character like old Kirito can barely stand. Where do you go from there?

    ALO attempts to breath life into the mannequin that is Kirito with his love interest. A damsel in distress is cliche, but it’s a clear motivator. Remember him assaulting that invisible wall to try to get to the world tree? That’s a face of rage, of desperation. That’s one I won’t forget.
    GGO does some weird stuff with Kirito and the PTSD, but it’s important as the first step for SAO to a new genre. Whereas Aincrad and Alfheim are more action oriented, GGO shifts towards drama. Sinon and Kirito interact in meaningful ways. The author tests the waters on a more “drama” focused series and it pays dividends.

    SAO II finishes well with Mother’s Rosario as it embraces being a “drama.” The virtual vs real motif comes to the forefront. Kirito takes a backseat, but he’s still a badass. Kirito had his turn for development, so let the other characters flesh out. I personally think the whole “harem” thing was a childish thing for the start that will soon be very much swept under the rug if the series continues. There’ll be some romantic teasing from the other characters, but Asuna x Kirito is so certain that the series can now focus on other more interesting things.

    I think Mother’s Rosario is the start of SAO, not the end. I gladly await a season three.

    • Yea, a fanfic. When I just finished watching the first season of Swort Art Online, I always see the second half as very “fanfic-esque” as well too, which kinda says something, obviously.

      I’m afraid I don’t really remember, lol. Think it happened in the corner of the mind, but don’t think I can remember the details much. To me, the ALO arc is pretty forgettable by far. At this point, I was also beginning to have a skewed mindset with LNs in general and wasn’t able to take LN narratives seriously (this is actually one of my future post I’m working with, which will be done in due time, I hope), and SAO’s second half is definitely one of them.

      I do agree with SAO second season shifting more towards drama, and instead of the “drama” in season one, it’s definitely better written.

      Note that Mother’s Rosario is a sub-arc, however. I’m not sure if future main arcs would be of similar style. I would assume that it will be much more easier to focus on the themes in sub-arcs, since they don’t really need to be “overly-ambitious” like they do with the main arcs, and it works. But from what I read in wiki, I think the next main arc will indeed be pretty drama-orientated.

      • ALO arc is definitely the weakest. Pretty forgettable for me too except for the fact that I read that arc in a manga when I went to a comic store pretty recently. :P

        SAO just needs a good balance of drama and action to be really good. It was too much action Season 1 and it’s a bit too much drama Season 2; I distinctly remember certain scenes when I was pretty bored or thought the battles were lackluster.

        • No wonder you can remember it so well :p

          I actually like the concept in GGO. It’s unlike SAO and ALO where it’s more action-orientated and seem more psychology-orientated, but too bad it’s potential was never realized, it seems.. D:

  3. I’m not a big fan of the SAO-series but I certainly agree with you that the first arc, the GGO-arc and Mother’s Rosario are the highlights of the series so far. The series is too much of a power/wish-fulfilment-thingwith how it treats Kirito’s character. Especially the Fairy-Dance-stuff felt like the series was struggling to find a purpose beyond creating reasons for why Kirito’s the most awesome guy ever. It was a wise decision, though, to reduce the relevant cast of characters in the GGO-arc as that allowed the story to focus more on Kirito himself. And Mother’s Rosaria does the same thing but with Asuna, I feel like. Whenever the series tries to juggle a big number of characters the whole cast devolves into tiresome stereotypes. The more personal moments of the series always arise from situations where the scene isn’t about fighting or a bunch of people trying to have a rapport, it’s the moments where the characters have the chance to deliver more than just some boring quips at each other. And the best arcs of this series have those moments whereas the rest doesn’t really or at least not in a way that’s interesting.

    One aspect of this series should be mentioned: How the series treats the virtual world in relation to the real world. What’s strange about this is how the series talks about striking a balance between the two but that isn’t actually what the series is showing. The actual role of the virtual world is that of an ideal, BETTER world. It’s when all the characters submerge themselves in the experience of playing those VR-MMOs that they find happiness. On the other hand most of the conflicts present in the virtual world essentially are intrusions of reality. Stuff like adding death to the ideal world of those games, the way Death Gun killed players and what forced Yuki in Mother’s Rosario to stop playing – all that is just real-world-stuff ruining the ideal of the games’ virtual reality. Sword Art Online is more interested in turning the fictional world of the VR-MMOs into an acceptable reality than trying to show the real world and how it’s influenced by those MMOs.

    • I’m not too big on SAO either, but I certainly don’t hate it however :p The power fantasy/wish-fulfiment of SAO can sometimes get pretty blatant, yea, lol. As for the Fairy Dance arc, it’s more like struggling to find a purpose and failing hard, at that. But it gets better from there, fortunately, and SAO 2 definitely has better writing and direction, and yea, I agree that the focus on a smaller cast of characters certainly help. LN titles are always big on their archetypes, but in SAO where the focus is divided into a large cast, yea, they can get really stereotypical due to the lack of focus. I think this is one reason why Sinon is by far my favorite heroine in SAO (not Best Girl overall in anime of cause, just within SAO), because Sinon is a character designed after those flaws of the series are fixed.

      “where the scene isn’t about fighting or a bunch of people trying to have a rapport”
      Pretty much the whole Calibur arc, lol.

      Very nice point there. I think that’s also one of the reason why sometimes it’s difficult for me to treat SAO seriously, since it’s hard to agree to such views. I do agree with your examples, though I’m curious if you can draw that back to the Aincrad arc. It’s unlike Death Gun’s “makeshift” method in GGO, people were dying for real there when their own characters die, I would hesitate to call that an ideal world myself. Perhaps the series is actually developing this very mindset, to develop the virtual world into a better place.

  4. “I do agree with your examples, though I’m curious if you can draw that back to the Aincrad arc.”

    The Aincrad arc is different for sure… but in a curious way. If the rest of the series is all about idealizing the virtual world while being threatened by the real world, the Aincrad-arc, the first arc of the series, is all about pushing that confrontation to the extreme limit. In the Aincrad arc the real world isn’t an intruder but instead the virtual world is sullied by bringing it closer to the real world in the form of introducing the concept of death. Normally you would expect something like that as an endpoint of a series instead of a starting-point. I guess, this would again point to something you’ve said in the post: that SAO wasn’t meant to be a series and that this first LN wasn’t meant to have any sequels.

    “Perhaps the series is actually developing this very mindset, to develop the virtual world into a better place.”

    That’s an interesting idea for what this series is going for: All the struggles of Kirito happen in order to make the virtual world a better place. Something like a law-enforcement-position (I mean, the government did hire him to take care of a “virtual-world-problem” in the GGO-arc) where he’s supposed to play Sheriff for the virtual world. Of course, this still makes the virtual world look more important that the real world in the context of this series.

    • Yea, in Aincrad arc, both the virtual world and the real world are pretty interconnected with each other to me. The moment you die, your brain will get fried by the NerveGear. Incidentally, I had also been running some simulations for the GGO arcs (thanks to our discussion), and from Death Gun’s makeshift method, the characters would still be alive even if their real life counterparts die, since Death Gun’s method didn’t completely involve the brain, if I recall, and I read from somewhere even after deaths, the brains of humans will stay active. This will be a great introduction to the consciousness/soul theme, even if subtle, though it seems like the 4th main arc (which haven’t been adapted atm) will cover this from what I read in wiki… maybe I need to stop reading wiki.

      • “Incidentally, I had also been running some simulations for the GGO arcs (thanks to our discussion), and from Death Gun’s makeshift method, the characters would still be alive even if their real life counterparts die, since Death Gun’s method didn’t completely involve the brain, if I recall, and I read from somewhere even after deaths, the brains of humans will stay active.”

        But the point was to kill players by killing their physical bodies and depending on the stuff they used to kill the players, maybe the players’ brain would remain alive for some time. But that’s an interesting idea you could do with that situation: Can a human mind exist in a virtual space without a physical body? I mean Kirito’s and Asuna’s “daughter” would prove that, right? Although she’s, of course, more a sign of a singularity-event. All she needs is an Austrian accent and she can be Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator. The idea of people who play virtual games having no need of their physical bodies anymore sounds more like Transhumanism, though. And in addition to that you would have the utopia-theme as virtual worlds become a place to live in instead of one where you just have fun. I don’t believe SAO is ambitious enough for such an endeavour.

        But the 4th main-arc may cover this…? Well, I guess, you need to heighten the stakes in some way…

        • Yea, you know what..? This is actually kinda brilliant, lol. And indeed, too bad SAO will never expand on it’s settings to such a degree.

          But not to such an extent of cause. (minor spoilers from here onwards) http://puu.sh/eZ6RR/7e319d8bd2.png

          The fourth full dive which is still yet to be seen in the anime, connect via not through the brain, but through the soul or consciousness, which on paper, seems pretty interesting. From the summary of the Alicization Arc from wiki (http://swordartonline.wikia.com/wiki/Alicization_Arc), it looks like the narrative is going to be straightforward, however, so we definitely won’t see the degree of thematic exploration we’re expecting, lol. Still pretty interesting though.

          • “Yea, you know what..? This is actually kinda brilliant, lol. And indeed, too bad SAO will never expand on it’s settings to such a degree.”

            Well, the best example I can think of where you have a “real world” and a “fictional world” and where those topics are addressed in an interesting and entertaining manner is the “Caine-series” from Matthew Woodring Stover (starting with the novel Heroes Die). In that series, you have characters who struggle with an antagonistic relationship between the “real world” and the “fictional one”. And it actually becomes a question of identity if the main-character is the person in the real world or whether the persona he expresses in the “fictional one” is his actual personality. The series isn’t about gaming but it comes close to that and it certainly is deeper than SAO while sharing similar ambitions. It also helps that the main-character of the Caine-novel-series is a bit of a badass.

            I mean, it’s not like you can directly compare SAO with that novel-series but Matthew Woodring Stover’s take on identity while confronted with two realities is certainly more interesting than what SAO has been delivering so far in the anime.

            “The fourth full dive which is still yet to be seen in the anime, connect via not through the brain, but through the soul or consciousness, which on paper, seems pretty interesting.”

            Yeah, that summary has once again a lot of interesting ideas. It really does seem to go into this direction of turning the virtual world into something that is indeed better than the real world. And it does that in this 4th arc by adding this supernatural sense of order. The real world is chaotic and people do stupid shit all the time but the virtual world is controlled by laws and more than that, the virtual world has supernatural tools to deal with real-life problems. Maybe that arc will go into that direction of saying that the real world is just holding humanity back by not being as awesome as the virtual world.

            I really feel like that author has been getting better with each new LN. He still isn’t a great writer but he IS getting better. Maybe his publisher will allow him to meander long enough to find greatness – unless he ceases to be popular before then, of course. You really shouldn’t get the spotlight when you’re still trying to figure out what’s what. But with Shaft going all the way with the Monogatari-adaptation-thing, I guess, A-1 will probably want to do the same with SAO.

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