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.
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!
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.
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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.
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.
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!