Kirito is a loner gamer and former beta-tester on newly released MMO Sword Art Online. It’s the first of a new type of MMO one that requires use of a device called the NerveGear. This then allows a fully immersive experience of the RPG world; sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing. On the launch day Kirito logs in and soon finds neither he nor any of the other users is able to log out. Far from being a design flaw, it transpires this was the very point of the game. The Architect of Sword Art Online has trapped the players inside his virtual world to force them to complete the hundred levels that make up the fictional world of Aincrad and get to the top of the computer generated castle. If they die in the game, the NerveGear will fry their brains. If someone external forcibly tries to remove it or disassemble it; same thing. There’s a grace period for power-cuts and network disconnects, but otherwise the only way out is to get to the very top level of the world and defeat the final boss. Suddenly Sword Art Online‘s fantasy world is truly dangerous.
Sword Art Online began life as a competition entry that exceeded the set page count and was ineligible for submission. The author was subsequently published the novel online for free. He would later win the same competition years later with Accel World which takes place in the same universe as Sword Art Online some decades later (and with occasional allusions back to it). The popularity of both anime adaptations have led to the light-novels across to the West and so here we are. I’m also noting that somehow Ben-To has made it over here in anime form, so I may yet get a shot at that light novel. For now, this.
My most prominent memory of the first Sword Art Online anime was watching the series through with Kim last year. What started as an interesting twist on a familiar plot (The Matrix, .hack//Sign, newer entrants like Log Horizon and so on) rapidly revealed itself to be less about coping with a fantasy world made real for the participants and more of a clumsily disguised harem scenario. And by the mid-way mark Kim was shouting “F**ck you, Asuna” every few minutes. It’s not hard to sympathise with the sentiment. Asuna starts as a marvellous character but soon degenerates into a damsel in distress for Kirito to rescue. There’s not so much of it here, but neither is this Asuna’s moment of glory (a whole plot arc in which Kirito barely features? That’s ages off though…).
For those familiar with the anime, this first light novel concentrates on part of the Aincrad portion of the first Sword Art Online anime (episodes one to fourteen) – namely the very first episode for scene-setting, and then most of everything from Asuna cooking the rare food for Kirito to the end of the series (skipping over Yui entirely – with no allusions to it either. She seems very much a later creation). Most of the short early plots are skipped outright at this stage (to be alluded to/handled in later entrants). To Kim’s dismay this means no Liz the Blacksmith; we should at least catch up to her in one of the next volumes (for all the good going anywhere near Kirito will do her). In a more troubling aspect of the novel (though at least this is understandable to try and fit into the original page-constraints, but not so much in published form) the story begins, sets the scene and then skips over two years of characterization, first meetings, deaths, developments and only allude to what scraps of plot existed within that time. This is something of a problem. It might well be other people are less concerned; I’m familiar with the anime so I know most of the specific details missing here, but quite why the proper publication could not see a more thorough re-ordering of events – as in the anime – is confusing.
It also leads more directly into the chief objections to Sword Art Online in any form; Asuna. Both book and anime introduce her early on. In the anime we meet her at the same time Kirito does. We’re well aware she’s important since she’s in the intro/on the cover, but the how and why weren’t clear. In the book, Kirito and Asuna already know each other to some extent/are familiar with each other when Asuna first appears. There’s a frustrating disconnect here that exacerbates the lacklustre nature of rest of the novel’s plot given it is primarily concerned with Kirito and Asuna’s burgeoning and frankly tedious relationship. All the while not knowing much about Asuna – not really. It’s a difference of perspective for the same net result; she loses almost all the interesting aspects of her character in both instances. In the anime she is dedicated, motivated, deputy in the most successful guild in the game world, spurns any all interest from male (or potentially female but that seems to escape mention) characters and is a fantastic fighter. She is set up for this in the novel as well (and as far as I understand it the later novels handle the missing two years and restores this aspect of her character. To still ultimately remove it as seen here), but from the moment she decides to spend time with Kirito her individuality and resourcefulness begins to get sucked away – not that we really knew her prior to this. She is soon set her on the path to being the damsel in distress she finds herself as later on. Asuna’s existence and plot begins to revolve around Kirito. And she tolerates behaviours from others she should have smacked someone over.
Early on the guild bodyguard and generally creepy guy Kuradeel balks at Asuna’s decision to flit off alone with Kirito for the day; he is apparently following orders to keep her safe (supposedly all the guild’s high ranking people get this, but he’s the only instance we see). He challenges Kirito to a duel over her on the pretext of proving Kirito can’t keep her safe. That Asuna the Flash – as her nickname has her – the absurdly skilled rapier user is sitting idly by to allow the men to fight over her is galling enough once, but it happens again later on with the guild leader as she tries to take a leave of absence. Yes, there are several other factors for the second duel, but it’s really troubling to have her keep stepping back (despite half-hearted protests) to let the men fight over who gets to spend time with her/tell her what to do. This is despite her goals and what she wants to do are not especially ambiguous; wanting to quest with Kirito/wanting a leave of absence from her guild. Quite why she never simply quits the guild is unclear – sure very bad for PR given they’re leading the charge to reach the last level and get everyone out of the game, but it is baffling she accepts this despite being unhappy. It might be supposed to tie into much later novel/anime reveals of Asuna’s home-life, but what seemed to be a huge part of her time in Sword Art Online is taking the opportunity to reinvent herself in the virtual world, so that she would succumb to this kind of thing is annoying.
So Kirito fights two people over Asuna’s decisions of what she does with her life and time. Wonderful. The second of these leads directly to some player-induced nastiness which does at least get Asuna her time off with Kirito. And oh that this didn’t happen though. From dungeon-crawling, fighting fantasy we move onto romance and in-game marriage. Yes, in the midst of a game that can never be put down, and with your lives permanently on the line, the story focuses on playing house with Kirito and Asuna (in addition implying but never outright stating they are sleeping together. Turns out this is plausible in context since Asuna found the option to allow intimate contact between players hidden in the config options. Normally the system prevents this kind of thing/intimate touching from strangers) – in an idyllic lower level forest. Until the plot dictates they be drawn back into the scramble to keep ascending and leave their happy home and random fishing side-quests. This last narrative portion – dealing with the boss on level seventy-five – is impossible to talk about without spoiling things, but I want to note it involves so much casual or “well-meaning” stripping of Asuna’s agency (both by the narrative and Kirito himself) it becomes a very frustrating to read. That and the novel cheats three or four times to engineer an overly dramatic final confrontation, play at Romeo & Juliet (or at least tragic sacrifice) and flout its own very simple and lethal rules to leave the option open for continuing story-threads (leading directly into the Alfheim Online plotline).
I will admit that the idea of finding love and settling down in the game is not out of the question, but Kirito and Asuna go from acquaintances to sleeping together/married at such a pace and their relationship is treated something like a Princes Bride level of all-consuming true love. Which is fine in something like The Princess Bride which had a lot of fun with its cast and plot (if you never have go read the book/watch the film right now). Again, not to say it can’t happen, just not convinced with these two/certainly very annoyed by the power of love over-coming the system’s programming when convenient it seems (more of this somewhat distressingly later as well). There is something to be said for the risk they suffer urging them to seek companionship as quickly as they can; one recurring plot-thread in Sword Art Online is the lack of communication with the outside world. There is no way to corroborate the risks for disconnection for the inhabitants, and the novel never specifies but does imply that in the event of network or power failure, the player will still be stuck within the game, or at least not able to communicate (no whispers of the person who woke up briefly and was able to talk as they were ferried to a hospital or anything) even with that. There are those who believe an in-game death will simply disconnect you and leave you free to go. The fact that everyone is left plugged in is sufficient indication that it’s not that easy, and the later episodes/novel will reveal that a good chunk of the player-base dies before anyone wakes up. So yes, love and companionship in a cruel world where one slip up can kill you – I can see that.
The tech is somewhat problematic for those who know much about computers. I’ll spare you most of the techno-babble, but it’s revealed that all log files from the SAO servers wind up purged (since the world has player-induced death, the records of this should be saught for to charge the virtual murderers. Neither does it seem possible for anyone to see anything of what happened inside excepting the players own related experiences. Those who have committed murders will prove to be troublesome to Kirito in later arcs) and that being able to see where the devices have connected to is impossible. But the NerveGear itself is so annoying. The light novel fairs a little better than the anime in making clear why the interface cannot simply be removed – the series implied some hidden component (oh how did that get through beta-testing?) while the novel makes it clear that it’s the specific interference the device has with the subject’s brain-waves that will cause the brain-death. Still, it is hard to believe there was no successful reverse engineering or disassembly of an unused device to figure out how to power the things down without killing someone. This carries on as well; the successor technology to the NerveGear is less risky to use it will turn out, but still has many of the original’s flaws. For both there is no way to access any functions of the device while in the-game (dealing with crashing is somewhat vague) and later it becomes explicitly clear that shaking someone or yelling in their ear really are the best modes of external communication while in-use. No way to splice in another signal, no way to send a message in, no way to, say, push an external button and flash a message up in the game. No; all totally immersive and uninterruptable (without power-down). It’s one of the many aspects where the author’s accounting for eventualities falls short of how something like this would work in the real-world.
Sword Art Online itself is also somewhat odd. It is very clearly gameified and many aspects are recognisable if you have dabbled in any MMO of recent years, but the depicted mechanics are beyond anything possible at present (as expected; this is sci-fi). The idea of an immersive RPG like this is intriguing and somewhat compelling and boasts a vastly more mature player-base than many you would see at the moment. No one streaks through the capital cities for example. Though that kind of feeds into some of the other niggles with how the novel handles thing. Or rather has left details missing. After the dramatic reveal of being trapped, the creator asks the players to look in their inventory. Each finds a magic mirror that triggers and changes their in-game character into an avatar based on their real life appearance. So far, so slightly odd. The depth of this scan the NerveGear performed is somewhat invasive since a less than plot-pivotal scene has a gratuitously described Asuna undressing to spend the night with Kirito (thanks to a moment of total miscommunication). We are lead to believe her in-game depiction is pretty exacting replica of her real-world body (the novel also takes the additional effort of illustrating this moment twice; once in the glossy colour inserts at the start of the light novel and once in black and white at the relevant point of the book). But it is never revealed if anyone did not use the mirror and thus retained their chosen character design thereby divorcing themselves at least a little from the in-game events as real.
As a game there is a sense of nothing more than an endless grinding slog through increasingly tough enemies as you work upwards. It might be this is totally acceptable and indeed interesting as the first full-immersion game of its type, but it seems unlikely that it could last too long without getting somewhat dull. It’s like a constant striving towards raids in WoW with nothing but trash mobs in between. The follow-up series explicitly does have quests (generated by the controlling AI. Maybe it was switched off here…). There is an odd quirk with the portrayal and it seems to suggest that the person who trapped them in the world did most of the work himself (or at least everyone else working on the game is only vaguely alluded to) which is absurd given the scale of world and detail. And that no one caught the implications/worries of whatever omitted the log-out prompt or that the NerveGear could scramble someone’s mind.
Sword Art Online in the end, shoots for familiar territory but with additional effort in a bid to try and head-off the logical issues with this kind of plot. In that sense it succeeds pretty well despite the remaining stumbles and aspects that don’t fit or quite make sense from a technological point of view (Accel World is frustrating for these and other reasons). And maybe it’s unfair to take such exception to Asuna’s portrayal given a lot of that stems from knowing aspects of her not specified in-novel. However; it is still a succession of terrible ideals applied to Asuna. We are told enough to know she is skilled and respected in-game, so why does she fall apart on Kirito so easily? Why is she so willing to step back and let two duels happen over what she does with her time? Why is it so impossible to quit the organisation that dictates her time like this as it could be done without penalty?
I haven’t mentioned much about Kirito as there is little to say. As our narrator he is technically the most important character but there is so little to him. He wants to escape, sure, but he likes to work alone unless he needs to quest/fight with others (especially after relating his brief recuitment into a small guild resulted in every single other member dying). He has no particular opinion on Asuna until she decides she will spend time with him seemingly on a whim. He’s skilled, right 99% of the time and special – gifted with an additional skill he has no idea how and why he got it (this is explained later, but not really in any way other than he’s a special player, and even then…). But still, he’s written to be our contact with the world, and for the most part does not impress much of a personality onto events. Kirito is of little interest.
In the end, the harem-nature of the series is not clear at this stage given the focus on Asuna. And kind of weird as Kirito/Asuna continues into the other novels despite the harem getting bigger/each member wanting to spend time with Kirito despite his faithfulness to Asuna. As it stands, this is half a novel; skipping past a lot of detail to head straight to the grand romance and end of the world. It’s very close to the anime and that inherited most of the positives and negatives as a result (though the anime suffers from a desire for fan-service and at some points cramming the plot into very short episode arcs). The novel is possibly a little better given less need to rush to fit a specific run-time (though the chosen illustrations leave a lot to be desired).
Sword Art Online is neither wholely original nor that compellingly written – not least when Kirito explains the NerveGear as part of the narrative and then a few pages later, relates most of the same information to the Klein; a member of the secondary cast and totally one of Kirito’s harem. Possibly this is a result of its online origins, but again something that should have been corrected on publication. It is entertaining enough, but Asuna’s downward character arc into mother/wife territory (the second time she cooks for Kirito she heads to the kitchen alone after suggesting he simply read the newspaper) at the cost (and I do mean cost. She gets the odd moment of combat prowess as she once did, the odd moment of fiery passion and total command of herself and what she wants, but these are few and far between) of every other aspect (her personality quietens and calms too; it’s a very overly romantic view of how she and Kirito fit together – very galling when she takes on a mage/healer type role for much of a later arc) make for uncomfortable reading and underscore a severe wasted opportunity in promoting Kirito over the potential of Asuna and how she lets events that affect her deeply occur without much in the way of objection/the negation of her agency in favour of what Kirito wants. Still; it’s still massively better than the GGO arc that comprised much of the second anime series, or the ALO sequences for the other half of the first anime series. Though don’t expect the architect of the world to explain why he thought this was a good idea at all; even he can’t remember why this stunt was a good idea.
The translation is very good from what I can tell; few awkward sentences and very easy to read.
Next up: Seventy years into the future its time to hack your brain with Accel World.
is available from amazon.co.uk