Understanding the MMO: SAO, Log Horizon & Overlord

With the massive success of Sword Art Online a few years ago, it’s hardly surprising that other creative individuals saw promise in the “trapped in an MMO” setting.  However as several shows with MMO settings have come out, long after the .Hack franchise kicked it all off, there is a clear divide between them.  There are many ways to separate the three titular series but the one which I find most useful is how well the creators appear to understand and use the MMO setting in their stories.  So let’s compare starting with SAO.

Even if I limit my analysis of Sword Art Online’s understanding of MMOs to just Aincrad, the world of the most popular and well received arc of the show thus far, there are plenty of problems to go around.  Perhaps most blatant, the game lacks mechanics.  The only mechanics that are ever mentioned is the basic use of skills, Sword Skills, shared inventory for married couples and Switching.  The basic skill usage in Aincrad resembles that of an Elder Scrolls game as opposed to an MMO, there are no classes and you level up whatever skills and weapons you use.  The fact that there are no classes might seem like no big deal, but think about how raids and boss fights work.  Group combat in MMOs is centered around knowing the strengths and weaknesses of all the classes in your party and understanding how well the classes interplay with each other.  But if there are no classes everyone just charges ahead swords swinging and the fight devolves into a confused mess.  Switching also seems like less of a mechanic and more just a simple tactic.  All we ever see it do is have one teammate knock aside an enemy’s weapon  so their friend can hit said enemy.  If there was some kind of clear targeting system then Switching makes sense as a mechanic but because there are no classes and no aggro as far as I can tell, the Switching just plays out as a simple 2v1 fighting strategy not a real mechanic.  Even though the other 2 mechanics are fine, the fact that the game has so few mechanics already counts against it for a number of reasons.  It’s hard to believe in an MMO setting if the MMO has no mechanics to mark it out as such.  Another issue in a similar vein is how there are so few competent players in Aincrad.  MMOs are not my cup of tea when it comes to gaming but even I learned my way around pretty quickly.  In Aincrad, people are dying in droves throughout the series, when if you think about it, they should only be dying in isolated events such as traps, instances of poor decision making and boss fights.  I simply don’t buy into an MMO where everyone outside of 3-4 guilds and Kirito are totally incompetent at a game when their lives are on the line.  I’m not saying nobody should die, but the staggering number of deaths and the regularity with which they occur is nothing short of absurd.  The final issue that really proves to me SAO doesn’t get MMOs is Kirito himself.  Kirito out-levels everyone in the game and is able to overpower everyone in the game.  Why?  He spends a lot of time on floors well below his level, fights almost exclusively solo and by his own admission he is leveling inefficiently.  So why is he better than everyone?  Well because he’s the main character obviously.  But in the logic of the story’s universe there is no reason why he should be as strong as he is, in fact he should by rights be weaker than dedicated front-liners like Asuna.  But he isn’t because the story is so Kirito-centric, and frankly the fact that the story is heavily focused on a single player in a big MMO sort of reflects the author’s lack of understanding as to what an MMO’s strength’s are.  Which is where Log Horizon comes in.

Log Horizon does understand MMOs, and it makes this fact apparent at every turn.  The game has clear-cut classes and sub-classes.  Respawns, experience and other major gameplay elements are central to the story.  The entire narrative is inextricably linked to the MMO mechanics that the world is built on and functions around.  But even more impressive is the series’ understanding of the gaming population.  We have characters like Akatsuki and Tetra who played against their gender, hardcore role-players like Nyanta and players who take advantage of the situation to be dicks like Demikas and the Hamelin guild.  But in direct opposition to SAO, Log Horizon is a show where basically everyone matters in one way or another.  The cast of important characters is staggering in its size.  Likewise, even though Shiroe is Log Horizon’s most important character he is only ever more important/powerful than any given individual, not everybody combined.  Kirito on the other hand does far more by himself than literally everyone else in the game, which isn’t how MMOs work, its much more reflective of an Elder Scrolls game where our lone hero becomes Archmage, Grand Champion, and Hero of Kvatch, and so.  Another thing we see in Log Horizon that is mostly absent from SAO is gamers and their attitudes towards gear.  In SAO all guild members dressed the same and rarely did anyone get new gear.  In Log Horizon you have new players cheering over their first raid drops and veteran players who keep special raid gear stored away for the only toughest fights while they move about everyday in solid but worse gear.  These sort of things are what actual gamers do and the fact that SAO had almost none of this does it no favors.  I could go on and on about all the things Log Horizon gets right but I think you guys get the idea.  This is a series that truly understands all aspects of MMOs and had the fortune to be created by someone who knew how to use that understanding to its fullest potential.

So now we look to the future with Overlord and perhaps surprisingly I think it is a bright one.  At the time of this writing, post episode 4, the series leans much more on the Log Horizon side of spectrum.  True it focuses on a single player but in this case it actually makes sense to do so, because this is a game whose servers went down at the beginning, not a major hit everyone wanted to play.  It makes sense for almost no one to be playing a game that is shutting down.  Also if the Opening is anything to go by I think we will meet other human players soon.  As for the MMO mechanics, they are in abundance.  For example in episode 2 Momonga, our titular overlord, can’t equip swords because he is a sorcerer.  He has to summon special armor to wield weapons effectively.  The NPCs’ behavior is dictated by the text of the people who created them back when the world was just a game, though it seems as though our characters have been transported to world that is actually different from the game but clearly related in some way.  Perhaps most interesting, Momonga still retains his human mind and conscience but his perception of the world is twisted because he has taken on the traits of his undead avatar.  It may be too early to tell but based on the information we have so far there is a clear and consistent understanding of MMO mechanics at work in the storytelling.  Now there are some more distinctly SAO type traits to the show like a focus on a single character, a bunch of chicks all going for the same guy and a MC that leans toward overpowered.  But in each case there are at least plausible reasons as to why, which is why I can buy into the world and story that Overlord is presenting me.  I’m also a pretty big fan of having a Lich and a bunch of demons as our main characters, that’s a nice little touch.  I have pretty high hopes for Overlord and based on what it’s done so far I feel reasonably confident that my hopes are not misplaced.  Overlord may not be the next Log Horizon, but at least it is looking to be a solid showing for the up and coming “trapped in an MMO” sub-genre.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you enjoyed it and that you will enjoy further posts to come.


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