While it’s only been a week since our first expedition into the MMO-world of Sword Art Online, a whole month has already passed in-game—and one Helluva lot of stuff has happened while we’ve been away. To kick things off, the total casualty count has hit two thousand players, meaning that a full fifth of the players have already managed to get themselves killed off. While we weren’t around to see them all fall, these deaths are the ones easiest to chalk up to ‘thinning the herd’; it was more-or-less a given that the game was going to lose a lot of its players in the newbie stages of the game. From the first minutes of the episode, however, we can see that we’ve jumped back in right when things are about to pick up: a group of players, Kirito and his new companion Asuna included, are preparing to storm the hold of the First Floor’s boss, and show all the players in the world of Aincrad that they can achieve victory.
Of course, with a show as thematic as Sword Art Online, our heroes wouldn’t just be allowed to skip town before introducing us to a new bit of exposition—and the one tasked with delivering it is Asuna, pulling double-duty by introducing us to her character at the same time. She makes it clear just how much she would rather be cut down in battle than waste away, sitting on her hands. In doing so, she expresses an incredibly strong desire to remain true to her identity—true to the person she was in the real world, surrounded by other real people. That’s something that is ultimately going to be crucial to every single player who wants to survive the game; regardless of the fact that they’re currently trapped inside a virtual world, they are, for all intents and purposes, still surrounded by real people. Being aware of that fact, and remembering the identity you built up in the world back home, is a feat that gives players an incredible edge against the system. No matter how intensely realistic the game world is, it will never be able to replicate life in its entirety—a limitation that the players, in their own way, are stripped of.
And here’s where we reintroduce the concepts mentioned in last week’s post: the idea of the game’s ‘artificial power’, nothing but numbers and names, tempting each and every player with desire. As real as that power might seem to the players of Sword Art Online, it’s not—it’s just as restrained in its existence as the world of Aincrad itself. No matter how glorious the in-game power the players achieve may seem, it isn’t actually going to help them all that much in their fight to survive. The real strength they need to overcome the challenges being thrown at them, one after another, comes from a much different source: as mentioned before, it comes from reality. Moreover, it comes from the identities they created there, the lives they can cling to and use to empower them, and the emotions and motivations that connect each and every player in Sword Art Online seeking escape from its fantasy world.
Through most of the second episode, there was no character in the anime who better embodied that ‘real power’ than Diabel. He was the one who brought all the players in the group together, who reminded them of their connection to one another. He led them all straight to the top, and made it clear to everyone involved that they were doing it with the intent of providing hope to all eight thousand people left in the game. But, sadly enough, he was also the one who really drove home the corruption that is the game’s artificial power. He strayed from the plan, literally separated himself from the comrades that empowered him, and made himself vulnerable and extremely mortal—all in the pursuit of artificial strength. In his last moments of life, Diabel begs Kirito to defeat the boss, and to do so for everyone else. He ultimately becomes aware of his error, his weakness—and while he realizes it too late to save himself, with his last breath, he still strives to aid his fellow players.
In the game world of Sword Art Online, an incredible number of people were likely doomed to meet the same fate as Diabel; far too many players were fated to chase after that manufactured strength until it killed them. That desire was going to be the death of several thousand people—it was going to be. Now, however, they have a chance of opposing that—why? Not because they learned from Diabel’s mistake, but because there now exists in infamy the mysterious player known only as ‘the Beater.’ Because Kirito took up that mantle—in the literal form of a rare cloak that can easily be described as dark and villainous—and now serves as a symbol to each and every player of Sword Art Online of the sort of person you become when you achieve that in-game power. People hate him—and, more importantly, they don’t want to be him. It won’t be enough to save everyone with a strong desire for power; nevertheless, it’s a start.
While we can already credit Kirito with doing a lot to help the general populace of Aincrad, he isn’t quite in the clear in terms of personal conflict just yet. Thus far in the series, Kirito hasn’t really shown any signs of giving in to that lust for power—but neither has he expressed an incredible amount of strength with regards to his own identity or connections with the other players. He’s just gone through the game solo up till now, grinding away, and while he’s managed to survive, he hasn’t really come into a power of his own yet. He’s still keeping his distance from all the other people in the game, in a big way. While his decision to take the in-game lead and become the antagonistic symbol for all the other players may have helped them a great deal, he has a long way to go before he’s really ready to overcome every obstacle in his path.
Of course, that, more than many things, is going to make the rest of the series exciting to watch. All the players of Sword Art Online still have a tremendous journey in front of them. Only four-fifths of the players remain, and ninety-nine percent of the game has yet to be cleared. While we can expect the pace to pick up at least a bit from here on out, the estimated amount of time they’re going to be stuck in game is still only growing. And though we can hope for the survival of as many people as possible, we can definitely also enjoy the fact that the smaller the herd gets, the more the badasses start to shine.