My Problem With Video Game Stories (And Why I Like Accel World More Than Sword Art Online)

The comparison is not as farfetched as it sounds. Sword Art Online and Accel World share the same author, Reki Kawahara, and they’re both about virtual-reality MMOs. That’s where most of the similarity ends, though, and why I’m liking one more than the other.

A shot of Lime Bell's hot legs obscured by a tacky lobby screen.

Accel World is about a guy playing a MMO action/fighting game with his friends. Haruyuki is a bullied youth, who’s escaped into the world of video games, where he is a winner instead of the loser that he is in real life. Getting roped into playing Accel World is a life-changing experience, for the gamut of friendships he makes are forged through the game. As a MMO, the anime has a lot of player drama, which takes place both inside and outside the game.

I love this. I’ve played my share of MMORPGs, and it’s fascinating how they bring people close together. Or rip them apart, if they’re not careful! Haruyuki is very relatable to people who grew up on video games, and Accel World addresses interpersonal gaming relationships very well. I also love how the game empowers Haruyuki to become a better person–far too much ink has been spilled on video games negatively influencing people’s lives!

A shot of Haruyuki and PRINCESS SNOW BLACK talking in the cafeteria. Yeah, we don't know her true name, and all caps makes it more hilarious.

Make no mistake: Accel World is a pretty serious game. There are stakes, and you can be kicked out of the game permanently. But the show never forgets that it’s about game. That, for me, is more than enough.

* * *

A shot of Kirito throwing a stone with cool effects thrown in.

In contrast, Sword Art Online is about a guy playing a MMORPG, which stops being a game (which people play for fun, “fun” being the operative word here) and becomes a struggle for survival instead. The only way to escape the titular game is to finish it, by clearing 100 floors and defeating the boss at the top. Oh, and player death is permanent and fatal IRL.

I really like the concept of the game. Motion-captured skills? Cool swords? I love swords. Shame that I really detest the premise. The “trapped in the game where you win or you die” trope is so stupid (and overdone). What’s wrong with just playing a game? Why can’t SAO remain a game, where players devise weird ways to kill boars and grief their fellow players? The trope implies that player drama is boring, therefore the game must be made real so that the drama becomes real. It’s like writers can’t think of a scenario where gaming is exciting to read or watch, when there are lots. Also, e-sports!

Does it really have to be serious business? My problem with video game fiction is that it forgets the “game” part. Video games are something people play for fun, and turning them into life-threatening situations is forgetting that core fact. It’s 2012, people. Video games are totally mainstream now. This premise isn’t cool anymore.

A shot of Kirito following through a thrust attack against a wolf.

There are ways to create stakes for a video game that aren’t super-serious like IF YOU DIE IN THE GAME, YOU DIE FOR REAL. Accel World has shown us that. Also, if no one important really dies I’ll be soooooooo mad.

This is why I never got into .hack (that other major MMORPG-based IP) either. .hack is overly fond of making players stuck in the game (or comatose because of it), which are real serious issues that sap the mirth out of fictional world that I’d rather be explored as is, and not as a vehicle for mystery. It wasn’t so much about having fun and making friends in The World as much as finding out what really happened to someone. I heard the latest one with Kana Hanazawa is immune to that bullshit, though.

Also, this shit that the SAO creator pulled off is the very first thing that QA would sniff out in any software worth its salt. But eh, light novels.

Disclaimer: I’ve only read a few chapters of the first volume at the beginning, then skipped near the end, discovering the squicky web novel-only chapter in the process. So I’m watching the anime with “surprise me!” attitude in mind.

A shot of a guy bewildered at another guy's (wearing female clothing) real sex.

PS: I liked that part in SAO episode 1 with the mirror where everyone reverts from their player-customized faces to their IRL faces. That said, roleplaying as a girl is fun, as long as you don’t do it to gain favors!

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12 Responses to My Problem With Video Game Stories (And Why I Like Accel World More Than Sword Art Online)

  1. Mushyrulez says:

    A counter-point to make is that it’s hard to get people to care about a person merely playing a game compared to a person playing a game with the risk of losing their lives. Accel World may have executed that well, but through all game-related anime, there’s always a major risk involved that makes them more exciting.

    P.S. It’d be interesting to see more anime actually about the game and not about the person playing the game, à la Ragnarok Online.

    P.P.S. Also interesting is Yureka, a manga that started out as being people playing a normal game, but eventually added life-related risks. I think that wasn’t planned out from the beginning, in which case maybe it’s just a plot device?

    • schneider says:

      But the risk of losing one’s life in a game is so ridiculous and drastic!

      I hope you’re not talking about the Ragnarok anime. That one is utterly unwatchable.

      Yureka huh? I’ll check that.

  2. ToastCrust says:

    It’s a girly manga with tons of hilariously overwrought player-player DO RA MA but 1/2 Prince sounds right up your alley.

  3. I’m still awaiting a story about a jobless MMO addict cruelly trapped in meatspace by a compulsory government work placement programme. In employment he’s forced to grind repetitive tasks for meaningless motivational rewards and promotions within a ranking system which ultimately affects nothing. Also: it turns out that if you die in the real world, you die for real.

  4. Turambar says:

    Sword Art Online: Because there hasn’t been a .hack series in awhile.

  5. I don’t agree. SAO is the first show I have gotten overly excited about in a while. I hated the character design of Accel world, Haruyuki was an awesome character (don’t get me wrong I loved Accel world I was glued to my computer screen as I watched it) but his character design was just weird, add to the fact that his avatar was a pig… really. I liked the prospect of the game becoming real. Its something that most people wish for, that games were real. And the overall story, Kirito and Asuna’s relationship is probably the best I’ve seen since Eureka and Renton’s. SAO is not a this really dark story like this guy is saying. It’s a love story, and a damn good one at that. .hack is different then both of this shows. Inside a video game isn’t a new thing, Tron is older then all the shows we’re talking about it was inside a game. How many SciFi movies and shows talk about VR. Star Trek had VR, You see characters in Video games go into VR. VR simulators are in a lot of SciFi media as well. To say that someone stole this idea is ridiculous. Back to anime, SAO’s character design, character development and story are better then a lot of show’s today. Everyone has their opinion I disagree with the above article on several points. Realism helps the audience relate with the story. It adds to the overall story, most writers understand this. Accel World is amazing but saying its better then SAO I don’t see it. Also for me to get hooked to a show about being in a video game like SAO and Accel World is insane cause I wasn’t to thrilled about .hack. I’ve always been the Gundam Wing type of guy.

    • Also my talk of VR in SciFi is based off of people always commented about .hack, it doesn’t necessarily pertain to your article, just thought I would add that in. Also even though I disagree with your opinion at least I can see where your coming from. Most people come up with the stupidest reasons why one show is better then the other. At least you gave and acceptable excuse. I commend you for that.

      • schneider says:

        “Video game becoming reality” stories have been around since Tron, as you’ve said, but it’s 2012 and video games have come a long way from that time. It’s no longer mainly in the realm of science fiction, where people get googly-eyed at lifelike graphics or deep immersion. Hence SAO doesn’t have a big effect on me, because it’s another one of them stories. I would like stories involving video games to steer away from Tron’s tradition and try to aim for new ground, as much could be written about the empowering, positive effect that video games could impart to people. That, or the negative, if we want to be cynical about it.

        About Kirito and Asuna, I respectfully disagree. Asuna never felt like a strong character to me, because her motivations would revolve around Kirito. The show made a mockery of her by treating her as a prize and a damsel in distress (especially in the next arc, I’m told). I also dislike the harem-ish setup where almost every female character desires Kirito romantically… To a certain extent Accel World suffers from this, too, but not as bad as SAO does it.

        Thanks for the interesting comments!

        • Harem-ish? I find that statement odd. Kirito is 16 correct, he has only 2 girls in the show he could have had any sort of romantic feelings for. The other two were characters who were added, if for anything, for comic relief. The blacksmith made him his sword but that’s it. One episode for most of those secondary characters. Asuna is there through the whole series. Completely different contrast, the story seem appropriate for their age group. The Author wrote the other characters in just to add depth to Kirito. It is refreshing to see innocence in a story, as a writer myself I like to see a legitimate relationship that two young adults would have. Also you said damsel correct? Last I checked she saved him multiple times and at the end of the SAO Arc “died” saving him. Yeah video games have come a long way, but since when have you been able to be completely immersed into a game? Feeling, seeing, smelling and experiencing daily life as if you’ve been teleported to another world, not into a game. Imagine walking outside right know, feeling the air, seeing that tree across the street, that realism in a game is impossible with current technology. You look at to much the game aspect, the point the story was trying to make was comparisons to real life through the game.(Hence why they made the characters look like their real world selves) This prompted some characters to want to live in the game. I mean why not the game was as real as the world they left. Imagine if they used that technology for medical purposes. Say that you can never walk again, or you have gone into a coma, you could be hooked up to a computer and transferred into another world to live out the rest of your days as if you weren’t hurt. Of course this would probably cost a fortune but if you think about it, it’s amazing. The closest thing we have to VR tech is the Oculus Rift headset, and that’s new and really expensive. Truth is this form of tech won’t mainstream until 30 years down the line if then. Accel world I like the social media aspect to it, and how a culture was built around the technology. It would be cool to be inter graded into the internet at all times. Very creative and well thought out. Well in the end both show are outstanding, I think SAO’s character design and overall story put it over the top compared to Accel world. Considering both take place in the same universe and are written by the same author it’s surprising that they are so different. But their is a considerable time period between the shows so its understandable. I would like to thank you for replying to my comment, I appreciate it. Having an intelligent conversation is always a great time.

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