Quan Zhi Gao Shou, or the King’s Avatar in English, is one of three perfect avenues to explore just why SAO is a pile of shit and just how it could have been done better. The other avenues are of course Log Horzion, previously discussed here and here, and the subject of my previous post – SAO Alternative: Gun Gale Online. With the 3 ONAs released this season now over I figured it was time to explore this third avenue into the construction of video game-centric anime, specifically because it shines where SAO fails the most – the OP main character. There will be spoilers.
One of the main reasons Kritio is so hard to buy into unless you wish to project onto him is that it’s not clear why he is good. I mean the fact that he’s 15 isn’t much help if you’ve got a few years on him, but one of the most obvious features of SAO is that Kirito is stupidly powerful and crushes almost anyone he bothers to fight. What’s not so obvious is why. Ignoring the ‘because he’s the main character’ reason – which for the record is a bad reason when used just by itself – there’s no real explanation given. It is implied that Kirito is the best because he was the best of the beta testers and that presumably the beta testers are better than the new players. Borrowing a bit from Digibro’s epic 1 hr takedown of SAO season 1, if we assume that all the beta testers made it into the first 10,000 players who are trapped in Aincrad then Kirito is in the top 10 percentile of players if we assume the beta testers are automatically better than everyone else. Building on that if he’s the best beta tester, he’s the best player. But is it really that simple?
Keep in mind that being a beta tester is no indication of a player’s baseline skill, you could have been selected because you were chosen from the people who rushed to get the beta even if you’d never played an MMO before. You could even be ill suited to MMO’s, like me, and not do terribly well even if you were interested enough to try and get in the beta – though logically you probably wouldn’t do that shit. And where does talent come into this? People learn games at different speeds, is it really implausible for a new player to, after getting a hang of things, outstrip the beta testers? Especially since it’s explicitly stated that some things have changed since the beta. In that regard relying on beta knowledge could actually be a weakness – there’s this apt line in Kingdom where a military genius explains that in a clash between two opponents who know each other, if the weaker one is slightly better than the better one believes him to be, then the rug could get pulled out from under the better one because the better one came in with the wrong expectations. The beta testers could deal with something similar and while this is not spelled that it does seem like a good explanation as to why Diabel, the blue haired guy who dies fighting the first boss, ends up losing despite his knowledge of the game’s mechanics and his status as a beta tester.
There’s an even bigger problem looming behind all of this though. How do you even measure things which make a player better? In The King’s Avatar the players are not trapped in a game, they are playing a wildly popular MMO/MOBA hybrid which has just hit it’s tenth anniversary. Though we experience much of the story through the game world and the players’s avatars, we also experience it through the people on the keyboards, but more on that later. In The King’s Avatar there are clear ways to demonstrate one’s skill at the game, one the most basic being a player’s Actions per Minute or APM rate. Relative noobs can crush more established players if the difference in their respective APMs is too great. The greatest counterbalance to APM though is game knowledge, experienced players will not only know more advanced tactics and have a better feel for the controls, they can gain clear advantages by memorizing ability cooldown times and the hit boxes of spells and attacks. In simple terms if a high APM noob can unleash far more attacks than the knowledgeable veteran, then the veteran can use their knowledge to evade or even counter their faster opponent with less effort.
SAO has nothing like what I just described. It’s combat is vague, the mechanics are not spelled out very often or very well and no one even attempts to justify how the VR tech measures the differences between people. For example Kirito gets the dual wielding ability because he has the best reaction time of anyone in the game. But that begs the question, how is the VR tech measuring or calculating his reaction time? Is it how quick his brain processes information and forms a clear response? If so how does that work in the VR? In real life there are different speeds at which people can mental or physically process and react to information, so how is Kirito the one with best reaction time? Is he like that Japanese guy who’s anticipatory reflexes are so good he can cut airsoft pellets in half with a sword – seriously google that shit, I’m not making it up, there a videos of the guy doing it – or is something else in play? The answer is a titanic shrug because Reki Kawahara either never even bothered to ask such questions when designing his setting or handwaved them when he wasn’t able to find or create a satisfactory explanation.
Right so what SAO gives us is an OP teenager who is OP because plot and then sets out to tell a story centered on this kid’s adventures – which it does badly as I explained in depth here, here and here. The King’s Avatar starts in a very different position. It opens with an explanation that over the first ten years of its run Glory has become an international smash hit, with it’s most famous and beloved pro player being Ye Qiu, the main character. Then it cuts away from the game to discuss real life events messing with Ye Qie, namely that his team’s success has been slowing down and the manager basically forces him to quit and sign a contract saying he won’t compete until next year. This is significant because Ye Qiu is 25, old as pro gamers go, and already considered to be in his over-the-hill phase by his manager and jealous teammates. This contract is seen as his resignation from Glory’s pro-scene for good by everyone, except of course Ye Qiu. Ye Qiu accepts the underhanded blow with as much grace as you could hope for, then he finds a job at an internet cafe and immediately starts playing with a new account on Glory’s newest server.
One of the major differences in the very earliest stages of the two shows is that SAO dropped us into the game and then dropped the dramatic hammer meant to hook the audience, the players are trapped and if they die in the game, they die for real. The focus was not on Kirito per se, he’s just the lens we experienced the story through – though after the first two episodes SAO was basically a show about Kirito and his adventures despite the fact almost no time was spent developing Kirito as a character. This was a massive mistake as it was the hook, the WOW meets the Matrix setup everyone immediately grabbed onto that held the keys to the show’s success. We only care about Kirito in sense that he could die, and once that was removed the show deflated into a shit pile.
By contrast, after briefly giving us enough context to know what game we’ll be looking at and how Ye Qiu is related to this game, the King’s Avatar immediately focuses on Ye Qiu and his life. We follow his adventures because, ideally at least, we are interested in HIM, not the game – and at the very least the way he gets screwed so hard right when we meet him is a great way to to get us to root for him from the outset. We all want to see him stick it to the man and give these assholes the bird. But the game is central to this story because it is the means by which he will rise to the challenge thrust upon him. This is a flexible introduction to the game as, if we start rooting for Ye Qiu for personal and moral reasons as the show is intending, the game could be anything. You could pick any kind of high level competitive sport, or in this case esport, and this setup would work for it. If we’re hooked on the idea of Ye Qiu fighting to get back at the people who screwed him then the creators can put whatever rules into the game that they want – we won’t care so long as we get to know the rules and see Ye Qiu abide by them, we are good to go.
In this way The King’s Avatar manages to get away with not explaining every last detail about the game and how it’s played where SAO suffers massively from how vague the information on it’s mechanics are. In fact if you take a cold clinical look at Glory it’s overall design is very basic – a class based MMO inspired by D & D and WOW, with a strong competitive MOBA scene alongside it – and the show doesn’t explain what each class can do in the same exhaustive detail as Log Horizon would. But the basics of how it functions are extremely intuitive and the show provides extra detail when it needs to. It even manages to do the ‘”classless” character better than SAO. In SAO nobody had any classes, you just got better at what you did Skyrim-style and that was that. By comparison The King’s Avatar explains that while Unspecialized is a class anyone can play, and it has a great deal of flexibility as that’s it’s main selling point, it’s generally not used much and it’s never used in professional play because it doesn’t have any of the clear bonuses that a more focused character class comes with at higher levels.
Ye Qiu of course starts smurfing, for lack of a better term, as an Unspecialized immediately once he gets a new account, but unlike Kirito he does this deliberately. There’s a flashback of him and a teammate making a custom transforming weapon, which he retrieves and uses, showing this has been on his mind for some time. But unlike Kirito, who again is good because plot, Ye Qiu makes this unviable class work because he’s a master of the game. He’s been it’s top player for years and he’s been playing since the game first came out. Assuming he’s a pro all 10 years, the intro doesn’t spell that out but it’s kind of implied, he has top tier game knowledge – at this point he probably knows more about this game and how the classes function than the creators do. He knows all the skills and how they interplay and because he’s Unspecialized he can pick and choose whatever skills he wants. Combine that priceless experience and knowledge with a weapon tailor-made for an Unspecialized player and Ye Qiu is able to quite handily turn the unviable class into a weapon far greater than anyone else can imagine.
But it’s not just extensive game knowledge and years of experience of the highest level of play Ye Qiu brings to the table, it’s the APM required to maintain his pro status for all of those years. APM is given a big focus throughout The King’s Avatar, from Ye Qiu being kicked because his team expects his APM to slow down to unacceptable levels based on his age to the APM of promising noobs catching Ye Qiu’s eye so that he starts bringing them under his wing, his low key preparations for his planned return to the pro-scene at the head of a brand new team full of talent. There’s also an interesting pro player who Ye Qiu knows and plays against later in the series, and Ye Qiu states that it would be unfair if this guy had great APM, set to footage cutting between their in-game battle and the noticeable difference in speed of the players’ hands at the keyboard. This shows that this particular pro would be even better than Ye Qiu if he had the technical capabilities to match Ye Qiu’s APM because his game knowledge is so formidable. Which of course brings us back to game knowledge.
Throughout The King’s Avatar it is repeatedly shown that what makes Ye Qiu the best is not his high APM or his extensive game knowledge but that fact that he has both at his disposal. He fights people with superior APM and people with superior game knowledge, but thus far no one who has such high levels of both, and so Ye Qiu comes out on top with relatively little effort in most of his battles, just like Kirito. But again, unlike Kirito who is good for no reason, we know that Ye Qiu has acquired the things which make him so good over years of high level play. What The King’s Avatar gets away with is nothing short of brilliant, it straight up tells us Ye Qiu is the best and then shows us how this came to be – without even using loads of flashbacks or exposition dumps – with such clarity that it convinces us that he is indeed the best in a way that gives the character gravitas rather than diminishes the stakes of his battles. He’s the Isaac Netero of his story, the goal which all other pros seek to reach, and his struggle is as much a battle against his aging body as it is a clash against powerful foes.
This is also the reason The King’s Avatar takes a such a different approach to Ye Qiu’s companions than SAO does to Kirito’s. Let’s not beat around the bush, Kirito’s companions are either waifus for his harem or a couple of bros which he can compare himself to and seem vastly superior to. His only companion of real note is Asuna because of the depth of their relationship in the Aincrad and Alfheim arcs – but after that SAO spends so much time away from Asuna that this doesn’t matter in the long run. By comparison, with the exception of Che Guo – the internet cafe manager – Ye Qiu’s companions are young players he sees potential in. These include a couple of players like Tang Rou, inexperienced players with great APM, and lower level pros who are struggling to break into the tops ranks of their team or struggling to fit into their team entirely. Ye Qiu uses his game knowledge to mentor these budding talents, a style of storytelling and gameplay which acknowledges his status as the best player but one where the dramatic stakes lie not in Ye Qiu’s inevitable victories in battle but whether or not his pupils are able to learn from him and grow as he would like them to.
Ye Qiu is basically a combination of Kirito from SAO and Shiroe from Log Horizon, melding the best parts of both of their characters. He has the same experience, game knowledge and strategic capacity which makes Shiroe so dangerous in team fights and so good at teaching new players, while having a strength similar to Kirito’s as a solo combatant. And through a strong understanding about what makes pro players good at computer games, careful use of storytelling and strong attention to detail – the King’s Avatar manages to tell a story you can really get invested in despite the fact it’s protagonist is about as OP as a gamer can be. And that’s an achievement worth celebrating. Hope y’all enjoyed this post and I’ll see you in the next one.