To be fair, the typical consequences of dying in an MMO are already horrendous enough. Loss of hard-won equipment, or experience, perhaps even being parted from the shiny, shiny gold you love so much—many a veteran player has to fight down a fearful shiver and an instinct to triple-check their money pouch at the mere thought. But what if it was worse—more terrible than you could have ever dreamed. What if I told you…there was a game…where the consequence for losing…
Well, more than likely, you wouldn’t be inclined to give that much of a damn. Why? Because the premise has been explored to Hell and back already, that’s why; And as such, the concept has lost a great deal of its ability to strike fear into the hearts of viewers. So, in the end, new ‘Deadliest MMO’ anime Sword Art Online likely isn’t going to win any awards simply for the decision to throw gamer nerds headfirst into a pit of (admittedly, somewhat frightening) level-1 boars. But even amidst the masses, SAO seems poised to stand out from the pack by driving home one crucial fact:
Sword Art Online’s players are entirely mortal, to an extreme degree—and caught up in a game designed to make them feel just the opposite.
Like most successful MMOs, Sword Art Online practically smacks its players with a sense of satisfaction every damn time they accomplish something—even in ways we can only dream of, with the advent of gaming-helmet-system-thing NerveGear. Thanks to the technology of ‘some tomorrow in the middle-distant future’, players are capable of directing their character’s every movement with their mind alone, and to experience their every success in the most immersive way imaginable. Throw in one last little bit of realism by making every single avatar take on the appearance of their player, and you have yourself a world tailor-made to make every single player feel like a bigger badass than they would have ever imagined themselves being.
The ones who don’t end up dead, that is.
And it’s the mortality of each and every one of the players that Sword Art Online focuses on, with flash scenes of grieving family, portraits of players already dead, and even a (rather well-animated) look at Kirito’s bleeding papercut. The anime makes it as clear to its viewers as dastardly DM antagonist Kayaba Akihiko makes it to the players: death in Sword Art Online means death in the real world. What’s more, while we’re given occasional glimpses of the real world in the anime (and likely will be in future episodes), the players have access to nothing of the sort. They’re trapped inside the world of Aincrad, with the potential for escape quite a ways away—trapped inside a game literally designed to make them feel empowered. Untouchable, even. But all the same, they’re trapped inside a world where their own mortality is all too apparent.
And for the moment, they’re terrified. Having just had their plight laid out before them, each and every player is more frighteningly aware of the possibility of his or her own death than they likely ever have been before. But consider what they have to experience in order to escape alive: they have to fight to become strong enough to overcome all one hundred floors of the game world. How many floors did Kirito make it through in one whole month?
A whopping eight.
Granted, he comments that it likely won’t take as long the second time around. But even then—Hell, even ignoring the fact that nine-tenths of the players don’t have the same experience he does with the game—we’re likely still looking at more than half a year of nonstop play time. Six months of being cut off from your past life, and reality as a whole. Six months of being completely immersed in a fantasy world. Six months—maybe even more!—of fighting and growing stronger in a world crafted with the direct purpose of empowering you. How easy is it going to be to forget your own mortality after so much time in a world like that?
We’ll never be given the chance to forget, though. With one eye always on the outside world—which is constantly portrayed as bleak and gray, to ironically contrast the bright, beautiful, and deadly world of Aincrad—the anime is always going to keep us aware of the extreme mortality of its characters. We’re always going to be aware of how much time is passed, and we’ll be able to experience all the terror on the faces of the people watching it all unfold in the real world.
Makes me wonder if it’s at all immoral to make a spectator sport out of the people watching a spectator sport. Especially one as deadly as Sword Art Online.