Welcome to the next installment of Beneath the Tangles Light Novel Club! I will be leading the discussion this time around for a series that quickly caught my interest once I started reading it: Infinite Dendrogram! Available digitally from J-Novel Club, this is one of several light novel series about a VRMMO (a Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online game, usually an RPG). Popularized by titles like Sword Art Online and Log Horizon, they are popular for tapping into many otaku’s love of video games, as well as providing a bit of that isekai flavor of being immersed in another world. But how does Infinite Dendrogram approach the subject? That is what we will be talking about this time!
As a reminder, here is the synopsis of Volume 1 according to J-Novel Club:
In the year 2043, Infinite Dendrogram, the world’s first successful full-dive VRMMO was released. In addition to its ability to perfectly simulate the five senses, along with its many other amazing features, the game promised to offer players a world full of infinite possibilities. Nearly two years later, soon-to-be college freshman, Reiji Mukudori, is finally able to buy a copy of the game and start playing. With some help from his experienced older brother, Shu, and his partner Embryo, Reiji embarks on an adventure into the world of Infinite Dendrogram. Just what will he discover and encounter in this game world known for its incredible realism and infinite possibilities?
Joining me today are TWWK, Annalyn, and Samuru! As a disclaimer, Samuru has only been able to read some of the manga adaptation, which covered only about 60% of the story in the first light novel volume. As for myself, I have read through volume 3, but I will be approaching questions based on my thoughts from when I first finished volume 1 to the best of my ability. Well, no need to bear with the long intro any longer; let’s dive in!
1. What is your general impression of the novel? How much did you overall enjoy (or not enjoy) it?
TWWK: I was totally engrossed in it. I don’t have a lot of RPG experience, so while a lot of the action and explanations went over my head, the story was so well laid out that I still enjoyed it tremendously.
Annalyn: There are some things different from what I’ve seen in this story genre before, and I like it—the acknowledgment of the popularity of VRMMOs as a subject in anime, manga, and games in the 2000s and 2010s, for example. The quick “history” of VRMMOs and the game Infinite Dendrogram got my attention, as did the beginning customization process. There are pieces of it that I know aren’t that different from what I’ve seen in various anime, but somehow it interested me more in this LN. I found myself wanting to go through the process and customize my own avatar for the game. Maybe I just like the written word.
I just finished the book, and I NEED MORE. The last chapter got exciting, and we’re not even close to the war that I know has to happen at some point in the series. The story itself might not be the most elaborate, and the characters range from annoyingly cliché to typical-but-fun-enough, BUT 1) the action is fun; 2) there are a lot of Alice in Wonderland references, starting with the name of of the creator, “Lewis Carroll”; 3) while there’s the normal OP protagonist thing going on, they give interesting, rather believable explanations for it; 4) I keep seeing connections between this and RPGs I’ve played, even though I’m honestly not much of a gamer—it’s just so relatable, whether you’ve played a lot of RPGs or just a Pokemon game or two; 5) I’ve had my suspicions about this game from the get-go, because there was no technological reason given for why the VR works so well, which means something more than scientific is likely involved, and I want to know more.
Basically, I like action. And I like seeing how Infinite Dendrogram works within the LN expectations (ex: of course the anthropomorphic Embryos we’ve seen so far are cute girls), the isekai/VRMMO genre mechanics, the “infinite possibilities” of the game itself, and, of course, the connections to Alice in Wonderland. I now need to (a) reread Alice in Wonderland and (b) read the next volume of Infinite Dendrogram, not necessarily in that order. I mean, come on. The author, Kaidou Sakon, is paying respects to what is essentially one of the first person-in-a-strange-world (isekai) stories. That’s cool. And it tells me that things are likely to get weirder.
Samuru: Ok so I’ve read all 6 chapters and it left me wanting more! I think I will end up getting the novel and finish reading it. The manga was great, well drawn. The story wasn’t that great to be honest, as so far the only motivation the main hero has is to lead on the ranking boards, and join in the upcoming war for the city. Ray and Nemesis’ relationship is what keeps me going though, as I find them pretty funny and real. I could deifnitely see all of that playing out in real life. I do hope they become a couple but of course it’s a video game so that’s just odd…..
stardf29: I felt that it is a very engrossing book. There’s a lot of interesting elements and the author does a good job of presenting several of them to create a good setting to start things off with, while hinting at several other elements to make me want to keep reading to learn more. Of course, being a general fan of video games and RPGs helped me stay interested in all of the game-y stuff, too.
Annalyn: Just read TWWK‘s earlier answer to Q1. I don’t think of myself as having a lot of RPG experience, but very little went over my head—just a couple of the stats, and those only temporarily. So I guess my occasional dabbling in free MMORPGs and Pokemon—along with my anime consumption—has added up. I could completely picture the various elements in game form, and I kept comparing various moves and rebuffs to Pokemon abilities.
Reading Samuru‘s answers… hah, it’s interesting how we can have such different reactions. I don’t want any of these characters to couple up or be romantic. I’m pretty sure that would just lead to more annoying jealousy and huffiness from Nemesis or whatever other girl is involved, and mushy-gushy stuff from Ray or whatever guy involved. Meh. Let’s focus on becoming stronger and defeating various monsters and people, please. And on world politics and mysterious game mechanics. You know, the fun stuff. … and I don’t find Nemesis the least bit endearing. But I find that’s often the case with these “lovable” female characters in LNs/manga/anime. Others find them cute and lovable, while I just get annoyed and nearly speed-read their parts.
Samuru: You touched on several things I forgot to mention. I do enjoy the battles as well! Its one of the best parts of the manga, especially since I can see the actual fights which is nice. And yeah, the characters are cliche but as you said at least Ray is not some overpowered character like in the anime Overlord or SAO. He has to work for it! Figaro seems like an interesting character also, he looks real cool.
Oh and I think I know why bear hides his face. Japanese has this thing with not wanting to show their real face while playing online. Most people don’t, but they especially don’t like to. Maybe its because of being shy or not revealing who they are in case a co-worker sees them or something. Same thing happened in Recovery of an MMO anime which is where I learned that.
Annalyn: Yes, that’s true about the hiding real face, but Ray was saying it was especially true for his brother, like there was an extra reason to hide his ID.
TWWK: What’s really taken me in this volume is that it’s both fun and smart. You’ve got all the usual anime tropes that we love (or don’t, as in AnnalynAlexis and Nemesis’ jealousy bit), some exciting moments (the author somehow makes RPG stats thrilling), and very visual writing—it’s easy for me to picture this book as an anime. At the same time, the setup intriguing, as referred to by Annalyn. Little drops here and there of things that will show up again later combined with foreshadowing of war and brief appearances by some of the characters has me excited to read more as a fan of books, not just a fan of anime.
2. What do you think of the characters? Any favorites?
TWWK: I feel like I’m still slowly getting to know the characters…besides our protagonist, I don’t get a real beat on anyone yet, even Nemesis. But all the characters are interesting enough that I want to get to know them more, including Rook and Ray’s bear brother. I guess I might actually like Rook best. I like that innocent, cute male archetype.
Samuru: My favorite character is Nemesis as she’s very real and endearing. Though she’s a weapon basically, she acts very human so it gets hard to remember that Ray is playing a game and this isnt’ really happening. His “bro” the bear is cool, but more information on him would have been nice. Where did they meet? Why is he so strong? etc. I do really like that the game highlights a lot of video game references like HP, PKing, character stats, armor, magic, skills, leveling up, etc. I know @Charles (TWWK) said it’s a little difficult for him since he’s not heavy into gaming but for me this made me smile I understood everything they were talking about and I felt like I was reading a video game instead of playing one! So yeah, when I read/watch something like this (for example, Anime-Gataris or New Game) it’s awesome.
Annalyn: I don’t particularly care for any of the characters. They’re just… typical. Meh. Like I mentioned above, their traits, so far at least, range from annoyingly cliché to fun cliché. Some of Nemesis’s little traits, like occasional huffiness and jealousy, fall in the “annoyingly cliché” category. I do want to know why it would be especially bad for Big Bro Bear’s real face to be seen, so there’s some intrigue there. And of course I’m interested in Ray’s growing abilities and those of Figaro.
stardf29: Overall I would agree with TWWK that the characters are fun enough in the “they have amusing quirks” sense, but that at the moment we do not really know much about them yet. I also agree that the volume does make me want to know more about these various people more, especially as it makes it clear that the people playing these games all have offline lives, so I’m interested in what the offline lives of people like Rook are like.
Rook and Shu are probably my favorites as of this first volume, because they have some notable quirks about them that make them more immediately interesting.
3. What do you think of the world of Infinite Dendrogram? What parts about how the game is designed interest you the most?
TWWK: To me, the first volume is all about the embryo system. It’s so critical to the game (and novel) that it’s the the primary piece that we need to learn about, perhaps at sacrifice of other world building. There’s nothing special to this world yet other than the embryo system, and I don’t get a special sense of the VRness of the world, though it could be that’s just something that’s hard to explain in a medium where we’ve taken it so for granted.
Samuru: I agree with TWWK the world is barely touched upon in the six chapters. It looks like a plain old RPG world. A forest, monsters, magic, fighters, swords, and towns from like the 1600s or something. The embryo system is interesting and different but it needs more clarification as to what it is: for example, why did Ray got such a unique embryo (luck or “cause he’s the main character”)? Many questions to be answered…
TWWK: As a reader, I want more world building. But if I’m in place of our protagonist, and I’m this story I think we’re supposed to feel that way, I’m all about the embryo system, especially if you receive a special one that has human form. The intimate bond you develop there is like nothing else a human could experience.
Think about it—Nemesis is always reading Ray’s mind. Other than God, what other being can have that intimate if a relationship with us? Imagine if you’re dating or engaged or married—how would your partner feel if you had a “relationship” of that level, one she couldn’t compete with? And would you even feel the need for a RL partner if your digital one could be that fulfilling?
Annalyn: Okay, there are sort of two worlds that are built in the LN Infinite Dendrogram: the imaginary future 2040s “real world” and the “game world”—which is, really, a subset. So I’ll look at them kind of separately…
For the “Real World”: I appreciate the way they build the timeline, the development of games and technology, etc.
For the Game World: I find the world of the game Infinite Dendrogram pretty easy to envision, especially with the monster names and levels listed above their heads, just like in RPGs I’ve played. I like this aspect. For me, the most interesting part—other than the Alice in Wonderland connections—is how national and international politics work, and how the game design and players tie into that. We’ve barely scratched the surface, of course. But the very fact that players can so influence war and and the story of the game world has my attention.
Oh, I also find it cool how players can decide how to see the game world: realistic, 3-D graphics, anime-like graphics.
stardf29: While the Embryo system is definitely quite interesting, the worldbuilding element that stuck out to me from the first volume was how the “tians” (the non-player-controlled characters) are programmed into the game and how they interact with the “Masters” (the players). The fact that the game has an explanation for why Masters “log out” means the interaction between the two groups is a core part of the game, and it provides for an interesting question as for what kind of role these characters can play in our lives. Which leads into my next question…
4. One notable aspect of Ray’s character is that he takes the lives of “tians” (a.k.a the non-player-controlled game characters) as if they were real people. What do you think about this aspect of him? Do you think his outlook is healthy or reasonable? (Feel free to tie this in to some of the previous discussion about a possible relationship between him and Nemesis.)
TWWK: One of the great strengths of volume one, and a piece that I found unique, was how Ray thought so often about tians and how that subtly caused me to think about the value of life and what life is. We can make all sorts of distinctions here between the tians and real people, and even between Nemesis and Ray, but I kind of preferred that “blurred” line because it causes me to think about my actions, to think about who I am and who I wish to be. Tians, in a sense, are “practice people,” and how a player treats them may symbolize how they care about real people and what value they assign to life (in many cases, not all I admit); as players interact with them, I think there’s potential there to GROW as a person, to grow in compassion as one shows care and grace toward tians, or the opposite as they treat them poorly.
Annalyn: I see no harm so far in how Ray takes the tians’ lives seriously. From a more callous perspective, these characters are pieces of art within art, and it makes sense to want them to stay around. From a more relational perspective, these tians look like real people because of Ray’s settings, and they act fairly real as well, overdramatic quest-related lines aside. It would require a possibly unhealthy disconnect to happen in Ray’s mind to treat their lives as less-than when they look the way they do. In addition, I do not yet trust the developer or the game world, so I’m keeping an open mind as to the true nature of the tians. Because of that, I feel Ray’s approach is the safest.
If something more romantic seemed to spark between Ray and Nemesis, her NPC status would concern me, and I would want Ray to remember what she really is.
Samuru: I guess it shows Ray’s kind heart towards others. On the other hand, again as I mentioned before, it gets hard to remind myself (as it does with most anime like this) that it’s not REAL and it’s a game. If it was set in a non-fictional setting I get it, but it’s not. So being kind, even to computer generated AI (tians) is a good thing.
TWWK: Falling in love with Nemesis May be a foregone conclusion, but I agree it may be a troubling one, not only because of her character status, but because she’s partially Ray himself. There’s all sorts of weird things to unwind there—narcissism but perhaps even more difficult is the expectation that sets in a real life relationship, where you might want a partner to anticipate your thoughts and meet your needs, and also to agree with you, which makes it challenging to grow.
Annalyn: Is she partly Ray, though? I know she is made/developed supposedly in direct response to him and his choices. But I’ve noticed that—likely in order to fabricate relational conflict—she’s not immediately or always as in tune with his personality and the meaning behind his words as I’d expect, or as I’d want in real life. It seems like she anticipates and meets his thoughts and needs in battle, sure, but there are definite points of difference at other times. But I agree that she’s in tune enough with him that it could set a not-completely-good-or-realistic expectation if he moves from that to a relationship outside of the game would.
stardf29: I think that, for Ray’s part, it’s at least very understandable. The idea of feeling particularly connected to fictional characters is already something we know exists to an extent, and when a VR game amplifies it to the extent that Infinite Dendrogram does, I can definitely see how Ray would get to the point where he starts caring for these people like real people. As for his relationship with Nemesis and the possibility of romance there, I think that’s an interesting enough direction to explore that I’m definitely curious as to how it will play out later in the story. There might be many problems with such a relationship but as this is ultimately a fictional story I think it can be worthwhile to explore what such a relationship might be like.
5. The story features a number of “antagonist players”: player killers, the Superior Killer, players from Dryfe trying to bring down the kingdom of Altar, and the like. Given that these are all human players playing a game, what do you think of their actions and their role in the story?
TWWK: I enjoyed how voice was given to the player killers in many cases—that group that was brought down by [insert name—I can’t remember what his character name is!] was a lot of fun to read about it. Not only did we get out of Ray’s voice and into their leaders’, we got a chance to see them as humans. I think the leader was characterized a bit as a typical bumbling bad guy at first, but as the chapter progressed, he felt more real to me and I could understand his motivations. I enjoyed that! And I’m definitely intrigued, also, by the Superior Killer. There are colors here to the bad guys, not always true in similar series.
Annalyn: I can see the appeal of role playing as these “antagonist players” are, honestly. If I were playing this game, I had all the time in the world, and I had the visuals set to one of the less realistic settings, I might be tempted to see what I could do. I’d be more interested in trying to bring down a kingdom, though, with the intention of taking over. Oooh, that would be fun. But I’m pretty sure empathy for the players would stop me from actually doing much killing, or helping others do much killing. It seems clear to me than many of these antagonist players have a more cruel streak, rather than a simply curious and fun-loving streak.
Whatever their motives, these players have an interesting part in the story, and I hope to read on and learn more about some of them.
Samuru: PKers are in every MMORPG in real life. That’s nothing new, it’s part of the game and I think it’s fine. Sure, the anime makes it super dramatic and cool because….anime. But in reality, once again, it’s a GAME. If the game let’s you go around conquering other nations because your that powerful, then awesome, do it! Nobody is really “dying” or getting slaughtered. Again, it’s a mindset that you have to have. I am one that, when I am watching anime, movies, TV, except video games (hold that thought) I understand that it’s fake and not really happening. They are actors, nobody got shot, the person in the coffin is acting and there are cameras around, etc. When I play a video game though, I would hesitate to go around PKing because I know how hard it is to take your time developing a character and just getting snuffed out in a moment because it was “fun” and “stupid n00bs” and all that.
So personally, I wouldn’t PK, but people will do it, and that’s just life.
stardf29: I find the role of these “antagonists” interesting because they approach the game very differently from how Ray does, which will inevitably lead to opposition, but in a way that does not outright condemns them for their actions. At the same time, they are portrayed in a way that makes you want to cheer for those fighting against them. In a way they are kind of like opponents in a sports anime; you respect them to some degree, and you know they are not “evil”, but you still want to see them go down. It will definitely be interesting to see what happens in their future conflicts with Ray!
6. Compared to other anime/manga/light novels about virtual reality games you’ve seen, what do you like, or perhaps didn’t like, about Infinite Dendrogram‘s take on the subject?
Annalyn: I’ve only watched anime about VR games—SAO, Log Horizon, Accel World, the “Greed Island” arc from HxH, and others. I like how Infinite Dendrogram allows users to choose from different visual settings—that’s a different feature. I also appreciate much of the explanation given for how/why Ray is well on his way to being an over-powered protagonist. It’s nice to have a VR-game story that doesn’t actually trap characters in-world, too—it’s a change from what I’ve seen in a couple of popular anime. Oh, and certain aspects about the tians and the in-game culture and politics reminded me of Log Horizon in a good way, even if it’s not as complex as LH at this point. Other than that, I haven’t found myself making very many comparisons to anime of this genre, positive or negative.
Samuru: Like Annalyn said, it’s nice to have an anime where the character isn’t trapped. They can leave whenever they want, though from the manga I read he only left when he died so he basically likes to be there. I like that the story is more relaxed and more about the in-game aspects than something crazy like people in comas (SAO). I would like to see more of how his life is outside the “digital world” (Digimon), as it’s good to see the comparison. between real life and virtual. If they make more of the manga translated, I hope to see more of the game mechanics like the power ups, stats, weapons, and all that. As a gamer, those little things I appreciate more because it shows that the maker of the anime actually cares about those aspects.
TWWK: The two that immediately jump to mind are SAO and Grimgar. In those two series, the stakes are higher because the players are trapped and because death occurs, and its meaningful. I love how Dendrogram is slowly building up the stakes even though you don’t (yet) have that “trapped in a game” setup. By dwelling on NPCs, making an intimate connection between Ray and Nemesis, and focusing on player killing in the first novel, the author is able to deal with the problem of the reader knowing that even in this fictional world, this isn’t “real.” And I love that this particular aspect isn’t being shied away from, as player killing and its penalty is dwelled upon in detail. I’m also reminded of Summer Wars and the Our War Game Digimon movie, both directed by Hosoda (the earlier really feeling like a completed version of the latter). Summer Wars isn’t about VR, but the OZ portions of the film are meant to look and feel like VR and the emotions the real life characters feels are akin to being in a deep dive like that rather than looking at a computer screen. In Digimon, Yamato and Taichi are in a digital reality that feels like a virtual environment. There’s some superficial similarities between these pieces and Dendogram, but still, I like them—the avatars in Summer Wars seem to me what the anime versions in the Dendrogram game might look like (Kazma’s animal look reminds me of what the bear suit might resemble in the anime layover) and the connection between the leads and their Digimon in Our War Game is incredibly personal and emotional, which is what I think the author is trying to convey with the bond between Ray and Nemesis.
stardf29: I don’t have much to add here since I’m only familiar with Sword Art Online and Log Horizon (and a bit of Overlord), which have already been mentioned here, but I did look into the history of VR in science fiction in general through the videos mentioned in the Kindling post, and the video brings up how anime has taken up an angle of how truly immersive VR might be too great of a technology to handle, as evidenced by the various “trapped in the game” stories in anime. In contrast, Infinite Dendrogram seems to, on the surface, be less “dangerous”, since at least so far players’ real lives are not at stake in any major way, but it does explore a different angle: could bringing VR to hyper-realistic levels make some people treat the VR world too much like reality? Could we actually see people forming relationships with VR characters, or getting depressed when such characters die? It’s an interesting angle this story takes, in contrast to SAO which focuses more on inter-player relationships, and by not trapping the characters like in other stories, the contrast with the real world still exists.
7. If Infinite Dendrogram became a real game, would you want to play it? If you did play it, what do you think your Embryo would be?
TWWK: I absolutely would want to! Like honest to goodness virtual reality is the goal, right? Something amazing and as real as possible, but beyond reality as well! As for what kind, I think I would end up with a guardian type. My standard self is pretty timid and a guardian seems to fit the embryo type that would match that, something to defend me. A wolf-type creature? Something bigger? Something hideous?
stardf29: I’d definitely be interested in trying it out, though I probably would be less interested in trying to get too involved in battles and high rankings and more interested in just exploring the world, so I would probably stay away from Dryfe and Altar… My embryo would probably be a Castle-type; none have been shown in-story so far, but the idea of a kind of house to shelter myself and other players sounds like an interesting type of embryo to have.
We’d love to hear your thoughts! Let us know what you think in the comments below, and be sure to continue joining along in our light novel club!