sWarning this post will assume you have seen SAO since its only one of the biggest successes in anime history. So there will be plenty of spoilers because we are going in-depth for this.
This particular post will only cover the Aincrad arc because if I tried to do all three major arcs at once I’d end up with 28 pages (single spaced mind you) of things to say. That wasn’t a joke by the way, that actually happened once. But anyway on with the shit show.
Sword Art Online has the alluring beauty of a trainwreck, it looks cool but everything about it is broken. In all honesty I’m not sure I have ever come across a show with as many problems SAO. Now before you leave, keep in mind I’m not attacking anyone who likes the show, nor am I questioning their ability to enjoy it. I’m just breaking down all of the technical problems that this show has, because visuals aside it gets almost everything wrong. Let’s start with the premise and why SAO fails to deliver. Now the initial premise of the series was a death game set in a futuristic MMO. If perchance you have read my earlier post, “Understanding the MMO“, you will already know that Aincrad is not a true MMO. For those who haven’t read the above post here’s a quick run-down. Aincrad lacks many essential MMO mechanics and has very few mechanics in general, it makes no sense for Kirito be as strong as he is given an MMO setting, and the players often display behavior that is not at all reflective of MMO gamers and because of these reasons SAO fails to build a believable MMO setting. So right from the start our premise runs into the problem of having a poor setting but whatever, as long as the death game is handled well the setting details won’t matter too much. Unfortunately SAO literally gives up on the death game premise by episode 3 or 4 depending on your judgment. SAO starts pretty well actually, the first episode has a lot of exposition but it did its job. The second episode had a great fight, far and away the best fight of the series, and things looked good. And then episodes 3 and 4 happened and suddenly, SAO abandons the death game premise so we can watch Kirito make a harem. Even if we give episode 3 the benefit of the doubt and leave it alone, by episode 4 Kirito is officially no longer fighting his way through a death game. In order for a death game to work we the audience need to feel that our heroes are at risk. The entire point of something like a death game is to build suspense and tension because we never know who will die next. But in episode 4 Kirito, who should have some plot armor, takes on like 10 guys at once and just stands there letting them whale on him because he regenerates faster than they deal damage. Sorry death, Kirito’s plot armor is already so thick you can’t scratch him, it’s time to throw in the towel. Seriously after that scene there is never any tension anymore. How can anyone be expected to take a death game seriously if our MC is already, as in two episodes after a dangerous fight, so powerful that nothing in the game compares to his outrageous level. And after episode 4 things only get worse as Kirito moves further away from the death game by solving murder mysteries, romancing Asuna and getting more harem members. So now that SAO has killed its own premise, let’s take a look at how poorly constructed the plot structure is.
SAO was doomed, from a critical standpoint, before it ever really began. Not because it abandoned its own premise pretty quickly, though that certainly didn’t help, but because of how it was adapted. In the light novels, Kirito fights his way through the entire death game in book 1 while book 2 was just an anthology of short stories that filled in the time gaps. A-1 decided to adapt both in chronological order, which sounds reasonable on paper but fails miserably in practice. The problem is that the two books are at odds with each other. Book 1 is narrative driven story with a simple, linear structure that supports its straightforward premise. Book 2 is an episodic adventure story, it has essentially no structure, it’s just a bunch of stories featuring the same character strung together willy-nilly. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with either type of structure, however they do not mix well and mixing them is exactly what A-1 did. So the show jumps back and forth between narrative driven death game episodes and what is essentially fluff material in the downtime. This ruins the pacing because Kirito has no anchor in the story. He just drifts from one adventure to the next without any clear coherent story binding them together. The death game premise falls apart largely because of the way that the show is adapted, because it’s hard to build tension and suspense when Kirito spends a lot of his time hanging around floors way below his level where no enemies are even close to a challenge for him. And while I’m on pacing issues, the time skips… they are bad. Time skips are incredibly hard to use well, it forces the audience to fill in a lot of blanks and the last thing we need to do while trying to understand an ongoing story is to play catch-up while we are it. In SAO’s case specifically the time skips contribute to the fall of the death game. After each time skip, we see that a bunch more players have died. Now ignoring the fact that all these frequent deaths are unrealistic, see “Understanding the MMO” for details, the time skips make all the deaths meaningless because we never see any of them. The only death that really gets any attention is Saki’s which is why it was one of the better episodes of the show. But for the rest its more *shrugs* “eh more noobs died huh?”. That’s not how you want your death game to feel. Likewise the time skips are part of the reason the pacing and story are in shambles, all the temporal disconnects make it more or less impossible to string the episodes together in some semblance of a coherent fashion. Ok so by now the premise is toast and the story itself has turned out be structurally fractured. But hey if the characters are decent we might still be ok.
SAO has some of the most basic, one note and all around terrible characters I’ve ever come across. I’m pretty sure I know the reason why too. In various interviews Kawahara has admitted that he doesn’t plan out the story and characters ahead of time but makes them up as he goes. Now I have nothing against a stream of consciousness style of writing, but I have found that it’s better for making first drafts than finished stories. It makes sense that if Kawahara is literally making up his characters on the fly that they would be very basic in their construction. Almost all of the characters can be defined by one or two traits. Here we go: Lizbeth, loves Kirito, is bland as fuck. Silica, loves Kirito, gets groped by tentacle plants a lot. Klein, Kirito’s bro, can’t get a date. Agil, is black, usually says something funny. Now Kirito and Asuna don’t have this problem but don’t worry they have issues of their own, and I’ll get to them later. Much like these simple characters, the players who inhabit Aincrad are oversimplified to the point of feeling artificial. Guild members all wear the same outfits and no one ever seems to change gear aside from Kirito, people don’t do that in real MMOs. Most people have no personalities at all and those who do basically have very extreme personalities in one direction, be it happy to be fishing or laughing while murdering people. Also there seems to a near-universal hatred of beta testers and so called beaters, even though there is no logical reason for that to be a thing. Look I understand that people do not behave rationally in a crisis, but I can’t fathom a mind that says “I’m trapped in an MMO by a crazed game developer/scientist, it’s clearly all the beta testers’ fault!”. I’m sorry but that kind of insane leap of logic just doesn’t fly with me especially since the beta testers really ought to be sought after by guilds for their experience and knowledge. Time to wrap up the characters.
The villain is about as bland and boring as you can possibly be. Kayaba, the game’s creator and the madman who trapped everyone inside his death game, is for lack of a better description, nothing more than a hollow shell. He doesn’t even remember why he trapped all these poor people in his death game, like come on man if you’re gonna be a monster you can’t be this half-assed about it, you owe it to all those dead kids to remember why you got them killed. I’m assuming he isn’t given a reason because writing a compelling one would be hard, instead we get vague lines about how he wanted to see a real world with a floating castle like the ones he read in his fantasy books… Yea let’s just stop here, I mean if the main villain is gonna be all half-assed why can’t I? Oddly enough Kirito and Asuna don’t treat Kayaba as the monster he is but look to him almost like some kind of mentor figure, if your brow is now furrowed in confusion congratulations you have officially put more thought into this scenario than Kawahara. On to Asuna. Asuna is hands down the best written character in SAO. I have some personal issues with her because I don’t like characters who are overly perfect and I have very hard time believing that Asuna, who hated to waste a single second in Aincrad before learning to settle down with Kirito, had time to master cooking unless she secretly wanted to be Kirito’s waifu all along. Because she really does master cooking before she falls for Kirito even though her persona at the time was basically, “we have to get out of this game ASAP”. The real problem with Asuna is not actually an Asuna problem, it’s the things the show does to Asuna in the name of worshiping Kirito. There are several instances where Asuna is basically sidelined so Kirito can shine, often in ways that insult Asuna. Take for example the duel with Kuradeel. Asuna is a strong female lead and she could easily wipe the floor with Kuradeel. But no she has to hide behind Kirito like she’s a little girl waiting for her big strong man to save her… No, fucking no. I don’t even like Asuna that much and I think that’s an offense to her character. The other big issue is the romance between Kirito and Asuna.
Initially the romance between Kirito and Asuna is great. They make good progress and they complement each other well both in action and at rest. However we run into a snag, a snag made possible because of all those stupid one off adventures Kirito had. See by the time Kirito has chosen Asuna as his waifu, he already has a harem. Now in a normal harem show, when the man chooses his best girl, the show’s over and the harem disbands. But in SAO Kirito’s harem persists even after Asuna clearly is his girlfriend. That may not sound like a big deal on paper, but in practice it means that Kirito has to have scenes where panders to each harem member while Asuna watches on. Basically the fact that he has harem and girlfriend at the same time means that the good romance Kirito and Asuna initially had gets sidelined for harem pandering and it goes to shit. If there’s anything I can appreciate from SAO it’s how the show excels at destroying its own strengths. Now onto the last boss, our MC Kirito.
Kirito is hardly a character at all. He’s a brooding emotionally distant teenager who just happens to be a gamer. If you think that sounds like it be could anyone congratulations you are correct. Kirito is basically designed to be a self-insert character for 15 year old boys. No really take a look at his traits and see if you can find a pattern. Kirito wears all black, Kirito gets to be the hero of the story, Kirito gets to be a lone wolf “badass”, Kirito is the only one who can dual wield, Kirito can act like a total dick to friends and strangers alike with no consequences, in fact Kirito can do whatever he likes because he never gets punished for his actions, and of course Kirito gets all the bitches. I think it’s pretty clear that SAO is just power fantasy for young boys and Kirito was made with the intent for fans to put themselves in his shoes. That’s a pretty smart decision insofar as it clearly worked, a ton of guys want to be Kirito and love SAO because of that, but it means that he isn’t truly a character at all, just a shell of character that has really appealing traits. Sadly it only gets worse from there. Everything about Kirito is a mess. He’s the lone hero in an MMO, even though MMOs are about group play and coordination. If SAO had followed a major guild that Kirito either led or was a part of, that would be cool, but it focuses on him as a lone warrior which doesn’t really work in an MMO setting because soloing in an MMO is way less efficient than guild play. The fact that a story which should be about the community is instead focused on a single dude already kind of fucks the story but things only get messier the deeper you look. Kirito is broken, he is overpowered for every fight he participates in (except for the first one), he gains new skills whenever the plot demands it (like how he was able to save Yui using the GM console), and he is at the center of some baffling plot holes. Kirito is apparently able to dispel negative status effects with sheer willpower. He shrugs off paralysis once, which was stupid because willpower has nothing to do with anything in a virtual world. Seriously the game engine controls the fights not willpower. And then the second time he comes back from the dead using what I call Goldeneye Mode. The Goldeneye Mode pops up several times in the show and every time it does it fucks logic up the ass, thus giving birth to a plot hole. I have no idea why Kawahara wrote a scenario where Kirito died and then came back to life but it’s the single stupidest thing to happen in the Aincrad arc. There is no logical way to explain it, it makes no sense and it clearly violates a bunch of rules of the games internal universe. It makes for a terrible conclusion is what I’m saying.
Anyway I think that’s good for part one (you can find part two here) hope you enjoyed it or at least learned something from it. And if you’re interested you can see how SAO could have been good in this post here. Hopefully I will see you in the next one.