Mücke's Musings on MMORPG Making

"Die Spieler machen das Spiel."

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I can be contacted as hobold at this domain name.


#48. Detour: Sword Art Online

This blog has fallen to neglect since quite a while. That was because my real life was in a bit of disarray. As much as I could have used the escape to some virtual world, my mind just wasn't free to make the commitment. Playing didn't feel good, and so I quit for a while.

As I write this, I notice that my experience makes for an unusual data point in the old debate about gaming addiction. Interesting! But that thought will have to wait for another day, for another blog entry.

A few months ago, I was made aware of an anime (a Japanese cartoon TV series) named "Sword Art Online". I was late to the party, so the internet was already full of criticism and praise. And I could absorb the whole first season in just a few days of "binge viewing". :-)

I didn't have high hopes. All treatments of virtual worlds in popular culture, with the exception of "True Names", share a number of serious flaws that keep irritating me again and again when the next clueless author reverts to those same cliches.

And boy does Sword Art Online deliver on those hated qualities! As usual, so this is not really a spoiler, the protagonists get locked into the virtual world, with the threat of real world death looming over them. I would have turned off that instant, if the pilot episode hadn't already presented quite a few little nuggets of wisdom that struck me as unusually insightful about virtual worlds.

I don't want to spoil the show. I consider it well worth watching, as modern TV enternainment, as an opportunity for players to look at virtual words from a different angle, and especially for game designers to see the difference between making a living with a virtual world, and living in a virtual world.

So I will just quote some philosophical ideas mentioned sometime in the series, without any story context, and in no particular order.

"Nothing is more boring than watching other people play."
This is obviously wrong, because e-sports does in fact exist. And yet it is so very right. One of the main attractions of a virtual world is the player's freedom to make choices. Watching other people from the sidelines just doesn't cut it. Nonetheless, I found the protagonists' choices very much worth watching. SAO is not a game.

"The fact that our actions in the virtual are without consequences in reality does not make them meaningless. It means we have to try extra hard to make our lives here meaningful."
Words still fail me for commenting that particular scene. SAO follows a few key protagonists who strive for a life with meaning.

"You cannot just equip another player like you can equip a sword."
I bet every single player of any virtual world has seen examples of this particular ignorance. The hard part is seeing examples of that particular ignorance in oneself.

I could write more about Sword Art Online. All its flaws could fill a page. But somehow the makers of this show magically turned them into strengths. For example the main story arc is shallow and contrived, almost more so than a typical story of a typical MMORPG. But that only makes the players' own story more significant and rewarding.

In closing: SAO has big ideas that floored me, but it was the little things that hooked me. Ten out of ten from this one viewer.


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