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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Initial Thoughts: Sword Art Online II

Sinon takes center stage, as she should.
Spoilers for the first two episodes of Sword Art Online II. All name spellings taken from Wikipedia.
One year after the SAO incident, Kirito is approached by Seijiro Kikuoka from Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Department "VR Division" with a rather peculiar request. That was an investigation on the "Death Gun" incident that occurred in the gun and steel filled VRMMO called Gun Gale Online (GGO)...Failing to turn down Kikuoka's bizarre request, Kirito logs in to GGO even though he is not completely convinced that the virtual world could physically affect the real world. (Source: Crunchyroll)
I know, I stubbornly blogged through the entirety of season one of Sword Art Online when it aired on Toonami. I should have done the same for SAO II, but time got away from me, so that by the time I was actually ready to watch it, over ten episodes had accumulated on my DVR. I am so bad at this, you guys! (I don't even want to think about all of the Kill La Kill episodes I never wrote about. Yikes. Sorry.)
The funny part is that I've been looking forward to watching the second season of SAO, based on online hype and what friends have told me. I've been promised a really great handful of arcs, including Asuna-centric storylines, which is always a plus for me. Unfortunately, two episodes into the Gun Gale Online arc that opens up season two, I haven't seen much to get excited about but I remain hopelessly optimistic.

Sword Art Online II's first episode, "World of Guns", seems like a lackluster opening compared to how its previous season opened. The first scene of SAO II opens with a long dry interview between professional gamers talking about stats and stamina while fellow players in a bar watch, occasionally booing to signal how much they care about "AGI" numbers. It seems silly at first that these grown men would be so personally insulted by the loudmouth player Zexceed on the television who is obviously full of hot air about stats but once we learn these men play GGO for real money, it makes more sense (more on the monetary value of GGO later!).
The arrival of the cartoonish cloak-swishing antagonist, helpfully named Death Gun, adds a much needed shot of immediacy to this scene but Death Gun's cliche-filled speech don't add any flavor to his villainy. Of course, when Death Gun fires at the screen where his target Zekceed is still talking, everyone laughs at the foolish man who thinks he can shoot another player from a distance—until, of course, Zekceed spasms violently and logs out. We as the outside audience of this melodrama know all too well from Aincrad that it was a forced log out and that Zekceed's player in the real world had just logged out of life.
Nice entrance but Kayaba still has you beat, rookie.
Like that, we are plunged back into a world where virtual death equals real death, which means Kirito can't be far away. We then spend a considerable amount of time with our VRMMORPG veteran hero, who is either waxing poetic on reality with his girlfriend Asuna or having an aggravated parfait date with an employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs' Virtual Division, who apparently has never developed an inside voice or the need for discretion with regards to sensitive details of ongoing investigations. The show makes it seem like we should know Seijiro already, but when I try to recall his face from SAO I, my brain blanks so I imagine he was retconned into the story to make his current plea for help more plausible.
To Kirito's credit, he doesn't right away fall for Seijiro's plea for help investigating Death Gun and his now rising list of virtual/real life kills. A lot of Seijiro's logic is pretty faulty; he says Kirito wouldn't be much of a target in GGO since he would be a low level, but if GGO is based on the same servers as Aincard and Alfheim then he would be able to recall a lot of his old stat information and become a high level player in no time. Plus, hasn't Kirito been through enough video game-based trauma by now? He only went into Alfheim to save Asuna; he doesn't have any personal investment in Gun Gale. Appealing to his inner sense of justice can only go so far.
Kirito spends episode two brooding over his inevitable decision unseen in the background while SAO refocuses on a new character: actual GGO player Sinon, a blue haired young woman who according to her group mates is the top sniper of Gun Gale. The majority of the second episode is watching Sinon in action as she first battles a monster then acts as support for her group during a raid, only to take a more hands-on role when she realizes the other squadron has a secret weapon that could wipe all of them out. As a temporary fake out, the secret weapon looks a lot like Death Gun in their first appearance, but the bodyguard Behemoth turns out to be a much different beast and, although skilled in battle, ultimately falls to Sinon's sniper skills and overall refusal to give up in the face of certain death.
Sinon, breaking the rules of physics like a boss.
Sinon is obviously on the same skill level as Kirito, if not more because her mastery is of guns and projectile weapons while Kirito is a close combatant and sword user. Her levels in GGO and her profile stats are probably phenomenal to look at. It's a shame that the visuals of Sinon outside of open battle pan over her body like a pin-up model in Playboy. The camera at one point lingers on her bosom for a good five seconds as one of her group mates tries to hit her up for an IRL date (but he is soon shut down by a Sinon who doesn't give a single feck). Later, as Sinon is lining up her sniper gear for a perfect shot, the camera scans across her body in a sexualized gaze that made me feel uncomfortable to watch. Jesus, SAO, she's on the field of battle in her combat gear, not posing on a beach in a swimsuit.
The whole thing is gross and unnecessary. Sinon is a top sniper and professional player in GGO. Once the fight gets going, the camera work focuses on her agility, gun work and ability at playing the game. She dodges Behemoth's gunfire in several sequences of beautiful, fluid motion. But the pre-fight T&A show temporarily turns her into just a pretty face with a prettier body. I shouldn't be surprised by SAO at this point—later in the episode, we see one of Kirito's old VRMMORPG friends attacked by a plant monster's tentacles which slither up her skirt in a very not-work friendly way - but after the sexist bullshit of Asuna's story arc in the Alfheim plot, I would only wish they'd learn from their mistakes.
Luckily for Sword Art Online, Gun Gale seems like a rather interesting place to spend a few hours. It breaks tradition from its fellow games by being centered on guns and projectile weapons, and is populated by professional gamers. Why? Because players who are really good make some serious cash off of it. Gun Gale pays real money to people for in game success, which must mean that in 2025 virtual reality games have not only recovered from the Aincra disaster but is actually a viable moneymaking industry that can support its user base without losing money in the process.
I hear his Periscope playthroughs of Alfheim Online get him five thousand hits a day.
Considering the light novels of SAO were written years before, did Kawahara realize that gaming with an audience and companies created to take advantage of it, like Twitch, would make millions and revolutionalize how we as a society interact with video games? Maybe not, but Gun Gale Online's success and the huge paychecks its heavy users make on a weekly basis might be a marker of how our own reality will embrace playing as a profession.
At least SAO takes the time to show that being a professional gamer, logging in for days at a time and letting their physical world fall to ruin as they succeed online, is not as glamorous as Silicon Valley would have us believe it can be. Of course, our hero Kirito gets to overcome all of these issues from his forced multi-year training stint in Aincrad, which means he doesn't need to log 24 hour days in other games to be a top player. He will never have to worry about neglecting his physical body since he has Suguha around to take care of him (the victims of GGO so far have been loners without any visible support systems IRL).
I imagine Kirito's takeover of the player list at GGO won't take too long. And yes, I know he eventually says yes to the Ministry to be their mole and investigate Death Gun's victims, because Kirito is the hero of VRMMORPGs and he can't not take up the mantle again if people are dying and he can help them. His martyr complex, so lovingly crafted while fighting for survival against Kayaba's machinations, will certainly push him through the front door of Gun Gale, in the company of sniper Sinon, and in the scope of Death Gun, who will soon see Kirito as yet another threat that needs a bullet to the brain.
"Hey kid, wanna be fodder so the government can hunt down a video game obsessed killer?"
Y'know, Kirito, if shit gets real, you have a basis upon which to sue the Ministry...
The second episode ends with Kirito in yet another virtual world, this time Alfheim Online which has become a safe space for him and his friends. He is about to tell Asuna something important, likely the fact that he's been approached to investigate Death Gun and possibly put his life on the line yet again in a video game. They've spent this season so far navel gazing on the difference between reality and fantasy while cuddling (much to the chagrin of Kirito's lady harem), with Kirito confessing he wants to create video games as a profession. Honestly, their conversations so far could deserve a blog post all of their own.
Maybe this has all been set up so that when Kirito says he's going into GGO, Asuna says she approves of it – or even follow him into the game. However, the show suggests that lone players do best in the game and, as Sinon readily illustrated, a top player can rise above their fellow player and take down a difficult antagonist without support. But if Kirito is looking for approval of his charging into yet another situation to save people's lives, he will certainly find it in the heart of a woman who was recently a captive of a video game and saved by Kirito himself. If anyone understands this situation the best, it is Kirito and Asuna. It's a shame that it'll take three whole episodes for them to get there.
PS: I already know that Kirito picks up a female avatar for GGO and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that getting to see femme!Kirito has been my main driving force for continuing this season.
Sword Art Online II is currently airing in English on Toonami. The anime is available for home release via Aniplex, and is streaming subbed on Hulu and Crunchyroll.