Imagine a world where people who play massive, multiplayer online games don’t just sit at their computer eating Cheetos and guzzling Mountain Dew Code Red, but enter into the mind of their character, guiding his every action because technology is magic. Also, because watching a bunch of nerds play World of Warcraft for hours isn’t particularly compelling, they’re unable to logout until they beat the last boss in this game and (because technology is magic) if they die in the game, they die in real life.
Welcome to the first 20 or so minutes of the Japanese anime Sword Art Online, and to this point in the series I was very intrigued. Our hero had a Herculean task to perform, our villain, the man who trapped all the players in the MMO, had some unique motivations to explain, and the adventure had the potential to raise some interesting questions about life, reality, and most of all relationships.
So, if you’re the creator of this show, what do you do next?
If you thought the obvious answer was “skip around, not really telling most of this story and keeping the focus solidly on the everyday routines of the characters while barely showing any clips of the actual adventure and halfway through, just screw it all and move the characters to a new world in which death has no consequences and there are no stakes. Ooh ooh! And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the established, interesting villain, having him fade away into nothing with no explanation as to who he was, why he would do this, or how he was able to do this, instead replacing him with the anime version of Snidely Whiplash” well… You must actually be the creator of this show.
The sudden shift in narrative, only halfway into the show’s first season, is one of the biggest letdowns I’ve experienced in terms of storytelling. This story had potential, and it felt clear after the first episode that the creators were onto something that could be very compelling. And then, for no clear reason, they just stopped telling that story and replaced it with a show where we watch nerds play World of Warcraft for hours. But while this didn’t manage to be compelling at all, it was enough fun that I could say it was not the worst decision the show’s creators made.
The worst decision the show’s creators made was making the main character a classic Gary Stu. He’s the best MMO player in the world and no one else is worthy to go on quests with him. He achieves a god-like status almost instantly, to the point that by the fourth episode he wins a fight by standing still while seven other players wail on him until they realize they aren’t doing any damage and just give up. By the time he does lose a fight, 10 episodes in, the only conclusion you can come to as a viewer is that his opponent cheated… which turns out to be true.
Oh, and there’s also the fact that every girl in the show falls in love with him. That’s not an exaggeration, even the girl who thinks of him as her big brother, and who he says reminds him of his sister (who’s actually his cousin) falls in love with him. Oh, and also his cousin falls in love with him. Okay, as a loyal and devoted friend, I’m obligated not to object to that. From a moral standpoint. But from a storytelling standpoint? Even in a world where people can get locked inside of a video game thanks to absurd pseudoscience, this strained my suspension of disbelief and, worse yet, makes for a very uninteresting story.
That said, it’s not as though this show is unlikable. More than anything else, the love story that develops between the two main characters is enough to make you keep watching, and this really became the core of the show. These two characters have never actually met, but, through risking their lives together again and again, come to mean a lot to each other. But at the same time they have to deal with the fact that if they even make it back to the real world, they already have established lives and relationships there. Trying to incorporate a new person into those lives… gets messy. And of course there’s the ever-present question if the experiences they are sharing actually mean anything, since none of them are technically “real.” It’s a surprisingly complex idea and completely belies the simplicity of other parts of the story. On top of that it’s very well paced and the main characters are very likable.
And, most importantly, unlike the show’s main arc, the creators actually told the love story they set out to tell in the beginning.
I come back to this because, well, every aspect of this show comes back to this simple disappointment for me. Anything else that can be said about this show, positive or negative, is all wrapped up in this one, big “What if?” What if the creators had not changed the setting of this show? What if they had stuck to their original plan? How much more interesting could the story have been? How much more compelling would it be if there were more tangible stakes?
My big complaint about VGHS was that it didn’t have a clear idea of what story it wanted to tell, but that’s not the case with SAO. It had a very clear idea of what its story would be, but, for whatever reason, decided to tell a less compelling version instead.
Maybe they thought could they could save money by adopting a simpler animation style. Maybe less ambitious stories are just inherently easier to tell. But whatever the reason, it took what should have been a fun, intriguing idea and made it thoroughly unsatisfying.
The creators had a clear idea of the story they wanted to tell. But if you want to tell a great story, that’s not enough. If you want to tell a great story, you have to actually tell it.