Well, I’ve been putting it off enough. I think you’re old enough to know.
There’s this anime called Sword Art Online.
Sword Art Online is an anime based on the light novels by Reki Kawahara, published in who cares, turned into an anime in again, who cares. Sword Art Online is a story of immense media presence, with a manga adaptation, an anime with two seasons, a movie, then another new season, then a third season, then a second movie, then a third movie, a live action Netflix series, six videogames, and then a positive plague of spinoffs, with every series getting extensions and game adaptations. It’s an anime whose central premise is a full-body VR MMORPG where you put on a headset and go into a wholly real-feeling fantasy world.
Basically, if you’re familiar with the trend of ‘Virtual Reality MMORPG Isekai,’ where someone gets stuck in a videogame, but their real life is somehow still there in a way that can affect the story, then you’re looking at stuff that probably grew out of the particularly gnarled bush of the Sword Art Online root.
Now one might imagine that I have an opinion of Sword Art Online, since it’s an anime, and it’s about games, and that’s an area of specific study for me, as a person. The author has said he wants to represent videogames differently and not as a form of escapism or a thing that endangers you, which is why the first story Sword Art Online shows is a story about people being trapped in a videogame that will kill them, and which characters are in to escape their real lives.
So yeah, I have an opinion but it’s mostly ‘man, this thing looks like it sucks.’ I haven’t engaged with Sword Art Online as a whole. It doesn’t look interesting to me! It looks like the game sucks, it looks like the setting sucks and it looks like it’s mostly going to focus on a single character who is the awful venn diagram overlap of exactly interesting enough to remain the main character of over two hundred episodes of anime that constantly reset. Who wants to sink a month of watching into a franchise that doesn’t have any interesting reason to engage with it?
Oh wait, there’s a spinoff series, and it’s written by the writer of Kino’s Journey and Beat You To Death Angel Dokuro-Chan?
In Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online oh no that can’t possibly be the actual name of the series can it be oh no it absolutely is and oh no, the story is set in the same universe as Sword Art Online. Not the same game — it’s not following the ‘main’ continuity like those stories are relevant to it at all. Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Story oh jeeze is instead about a person who exists in the real world, and who has a problem that a friend suggests they address by trying out the Sword Art Online style of game. From that, she gets into the game, and we learn about the game as she learns about the game. Eventually, she gets involved in the tournament scenes in the game, makes friends outside the game and there is a little bit of a weirdo escalation towards the end of the series, but it’s after the characters have engaged with the game and one another.
It is, simply put, the kind of story I would personally have expected you’d get out of an anime that was about a character who got into an MMO and cared about it a lot. A chance to show fantastic scenes in the MMO and a chance to show how the real world differed from the MMO for the character. No need for impractical nonsense like a microwave in the headset that can kill you (gosh, Sword Art Online sounds stupid).
Where this show shines and what makes me love it, is the way it relates to the game. See, in the world of Sword Art Online, a thriving industry of VR MMORPGs exist that do not let you customise your character. At all. No matter what. Despite the fact that character customisation is something almost every MMORPG offers, to the extent that not allowing it is notable, in this universe, you can buy a game, sign up to play it, then be immediately presented, before you engage with the game, with a situation that makes the game unplayable for you. Bonus, this lack of customisation is because the VR MMO generates an avatar for you based off you.
Our heroine, in this case, is interested in these VR MMOs because her problem is that she’s very tall. Six feet tall. She does not like being six feet tall. She would like to be shorter. She would like to be little and cute. And therefore, when she dials into a game and gets made into a pointy-eared elf giantess? She is out. And she tries another game and another game and another game, randomising every time, trying out game after game until she hits the first game that doesn’t make her tall.
The game that she gets into is a run-and-gun FPS shooter game called Gun Gale Online. Is she interested in these games? No! Hell no! She just wants to be little and cute, though, so! This game lets her be little and cute, so she goes into the tutorial and endures this game for which she has no taste, just wandering around in a virtual space where she gets to be the way she wants to be. The book even underscores this: She spends three months in this game, not engaging with its mechanics at all, just being in the space as a small girl, like she’s always wanted to be. It’s because this space is where she can be what she wants that she winds up even taking part in the game systems, which sets her on the path to becoming one of the game’s top players.
And this is how this game starts. It takes the idea from Sword Art Online which is dumb and sucks, and then shows how a player might react to that bad system, and the unforseen consequences that come from that. I love when a story uses its world building to inform its characters and it’s even better when it’s using a story decision someone else made to tell an interesting thing about its own story.
I wasn’t really prepared for how when put to the edge of it, Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online, sigh, is an anime that considers its source material, puts it in a meaningful context, and then, somehow manages to completely drop the knee on it. This is an anime made by the same people, it’s overseen by the same author and yet in this story, the characters who loved Sword Art Online, the game in their universe, which is the same name as the series in our universe, are awful. They’re emotionally constricted, desperately dangerous to themselves and others, manipulative and cruel. Our delightful hero straight up says the game they care about sucks.
I wish I could be more gung-ho about how this feels rather than what it is. Because it feels to me like this anime I am enjoying seems to think the same thing I do about its original source material, that it’s a crap thing with problems that need addressing. But it might not think it’s bad. I mean it almost certainly doesn’t think it’s bad, I don’t think Keiichi Sigsawa was locked in a cell being forced to write for Sword Art Online spinoff books, and if he was, well, dang.
But the fiction that appeals to me is an author I like, an author you see, who makes good things I like, got given a pile of money to make something for a thing I dislike, and then as a result wrote what I wanted him to write. He wrote a thing I enjoyed and that thing I enjoyed made fun of the thing he was getting paid to do. That’s a nice story. That’s satisfying.
It’s so obviously not true though right? Like that isn’t a thing that happens very often and when it does it tends to happen in industries with a lot less layers of control and constriction around them than anime production. You might see it in an indie band’s second album for a big publisher like Chumbawumba forced through with The Boy Bands Have Won, or a Troubled Production movie that bounced from studio to studio after a messy contract dissolution. This is a light novel that went through editors then that light novel went through scriptwriters and then that script went through production and at no point did someone go ‘hey! He’s callin’ our franchise shit!’ in any way that stopped things.
So I am balanced on the precarious edge of knowing there’s a satisfying, clever story here that I like, and also knowing that it is almost certainly, entirely in my head. It’s not like it’s likely to be true, but also it doesn’t hurt anything if it is true. It could be that Reki Kawahara was the person saying ‘yeah, you can beat up on my earlier work, it’s bad,’ and that made it happen. Maybe? I don’t know. And I can’t know.
I like the show a lot. I like the show so much that it feels bad that the main thing I can point to in the show for people is how much of the mistakes of its genre it doesn’t replicate. How many times the world-building of how this virtual world would intersect with the real world and the author gives an entirely sensible response. How many times it’d bring up something that other Sword Art Online media has said or implied is true and then pointed out that no, of course it doesn’t work that way, that’s dumb.
Uhhh hey, Talen, you may notice, this is Pride Month. This is a Pride Month story pile. What, as it were, is the deal? What kind of queer media shell game you trying to pull here? If this is a big ole queer show, why are you dancing around it, hmmm? HMMMMM? What, exactly, are you getting at?
And I get it. I get where you’re coming from and I get why you’re annoyed. Because the thing I’m talking about, which contextualises the whole show really differently once you see it, is something very gay in the last…. minute? Of the show. Literally. The last minute. This whole series is building up to that one minute that makes everything else in it make a lot more sense.
And it’s queer.
It’s definitely the queerness of a relationship starting, not the queerness of a relationship lasting! It’s not an anime about long term relationships or nothing! But it’s an anime where the crescendo of the narrative is about the healing power of gay kissing.