Yo! In my admittedly limited experience, Sword Art Online seems to be one the most polarizing anime around. People are either “We hates it, Precious!” or “It’s awesome!” Nobody ever says “Sword Art Online? What’s that?” Well, after the original light novel became a series (one which is up to twenty-two volumes now), author Reki Kawahara decided to rewrite the original Aincrad arc, floor by floor. That’s what Sword Art Online Progressive is. While it differs in various ways from vol. 1 of the main series, elements of it incorporated into both the anime and later volumes of the main series mean it is “canonical.” Anyway, hopefully that’s a clear enough intro to help you understand how Progressive relates to the SAO you know and love/hate.
What are you overall impressions of the volume?
stardf29: So full disclaimer: I’m not a fan of Sword Art Online. I never finished the Golden Gun Online arc of the anime, and had some major issues with each of the major arcs beforehand; while I hear that the arcs that follow are much better… well, I’ll get to that later.
Anyway, for all my issues with the series, I don’t hate it either, and there are aspects of the series I do like. And reading this volume definitely affirmed that. It was an enjoyable volume that makes good use of its gaming aspect, which was the main thing I enjoyed about the series. Also, if I felt that Kirito and Asuna were perhaps not the most interesting characters in the anime, I definitely don’t have that issue here, as both are well-written and fun and even have some nice development within this volume. Also, at least for this volume, I appreciate this floor-by-floor retelling of the story, allowing for a deeper and more deliberate look at life in this death game. Granted, I’m not sure I’d want another 70+ floors worth of this, but I guess that’s what the main series is for…
One other thing I appreciate is how much the story leans into the whole aspect of how real death is, and how that affects everyone playing the game. At the same time, I think this also leads into the other reason I’m not an SAO fan: I’ve always felt that this was a very dark series. And while I don’t mind some depressing stuff in my stories, it feels very pervasive here and it’s ultimately not really the sort of thing I would read with any sort of quick pace.
Still, I did enjoy the novel and can appreciate it as a well-written story. It’s not enough to convert me into an SAO fan, but I wouldn’t mind continuing on with the story at some point.
jeskaiangel: I’m a big fan of SAO, but… The original vol. 1 of the main SAO series is…not great. It has some interesting ideas and potential that the series built on later, but is marred by a really rushed execution that skips over two years and jumps from Floor 1 to Floor 75, leaving little chance for character or relationship development or world-building. SAOP is a vastly superior retcon. I picked this volume for us to read because while SAO vol. 1 is bad, SAO is a significant enough presence in anime/light novels that I felt it would be worthwhile for the LNC to discuss at least one volume. Another benefit of reading SAOP (versus the main series) is that it contains a lot more unique material that an anime viewer wouldn’t have encountered before (whereas the reading the original vol. 1 just feels like an inferior rehashing of the anime).
As an aside, I’m fascinated by the thought that someone else finds a series I love too dark. I often find myself rejecting series (anime and/or light novels) that others like because they’re too dark for me, but I haven’t often been on the side, where someone doesn’t care for a series I like because it’s too dark. I always find it interesting to see how our tastes overlap and diverge.
Finally, “Golden Gun” is hilariously incorrect, because it sounds like a James Bond reference; you might also remember the “golden gun” if you played the old GoldenEye 007 game for the Nintendo 64. The actual name of the game within the SAO’s story is “Gun Gale Online.”
What are your thoughts on the characters?
stardf29: So as I said, Kirito and Asuna get some good characterization and development here. It’s interesting to see how Kirito transitions from keeping people at some distance, even going so far as to purposely put himself in a bad light to take the heat off of other beta testers, to actually caring about Asuna in the final battle. Likewise, Asuna is obviously trying to cope with finding herself in a death game, and from the nihilistic person in the start, she moves towards having some hope and being able to move forward with more purpose. And the two of them play off each other quite well throughout, which was fun to read.
I’m also glad that the author chose for this spinoff to have the two meet and partner with each other right from the first floor. It really shows how relationships are what help people manage difficult situations like being stuck in a death game.
jeskaiangel: One thing I appreciate about the SAO light novels (and especially SAOP) is that we get more chances to see how endearingly dorky Kirito really is. He has tsundere moments (e.g., “I only saved you for your map data, baka!”). He actually refers to “the cactus-headed man” in his narration. The exchange with the ninjas was hilarious, as is the way he panics when Asuna notes that his “story I heard about a guy” sounds suspiciously personal. And he makes puns, from the failed attempt to link shortcake and shortstop to being “oxhausted”!
I also find interesting how clearly dishonest with himself Kirito is. At various points says things that, even if he believes them, are shown to be patently untrue in other ways (e.g., claiming he doesn’t mind being alone).
What stood out to me about Asuna was how educated / intelligent she seems to be. Not that Kirito’s an idiot, but Asuna had several moments that really screamed “academic overachiever.” I loved when she complains that SAO failed to include an English-to-Japanese dictionary. I mean, how many light novel heroes have you seen wish for a dictionary? There’s also the scene where she uses G’s (of gravity!) to describe her emotional state, which is totally nerdy (albeit in a different way than Kirito).
stardf29: Aside from the two leads, there are a number of other characters that appear throughout. Argo in particular comes up a lot and she’s definitely an interesting “informant” who has found a way of doing her own thing in this world. I hope we see more of her in this series.
The first floor arc features a lot of fellow gamers, with perhaps Diavel the most notable. He’s charismatic and has quickly settled into a leadership role, but he also went out of his way to try to keep Kirito from getting the LA so he could get it himself, supposedly to improve his own survivability as a leader. I personally feel that was a really awkward way to do things, but I’ve never played an MMO, much less a death game, so I’ll hold off on being too judgmental on him. It’s just too bad that it all ended for him on that first floor boss.
The “star” of the second floor is Nezha, who has quite a lot going on with him, actually, from his unfortunate “full dive incompatibility” giving him the VRMMO equivalent of a physical disability, to getting caught up in a defrauding scheme, and then finally finding a way to help out in the floor boss battle. All that said, I can’t really think of anything too notable to say here; he’s just a good example of how a reasonable person, under dire circumstances, can end up doing some unsavory things, and how he can then be brought out of that. It was just an overall great little character story to read, and I’m glad he still has a place in the game and with his party.
jeskaiangel: Of the other characters, one who stood out to me never actually appears “on screen” in this volume: Black Poncho, the person who incited Nezha and crew to become scammers. He reminds me of the villain Hercule Poirot faced in Curtain, a person who doesn’t personally kill anyone but repeatedly manipulates others into committing murder.
Argo’s prominent presence in SAOP is interesting because aside from getting namedropped a couple times in vol. 2, she doesn’t appear in the main novel series at all…until vol. 21, when she unexpectedly shows up.
Diavel, Lind, and Kibaou are the sort of would-be authority figures that arise when people are thrown into a “wild west” scenario with none of the familiar institutions of law and government. Beyond the whole death game bit, just being trapped in this world without usual social structures poses a challenge. Diavel is an opportunist, but at least he has enough charisma to hold the front-liners together. After his death, the leadership vacuum is inadequately filled by the “bickering partners” dynamic Lind and Kibaou have going.
How do you feel about the volume’s presentation of the video game-y side of SAO?
stardf29: As I said, I think it does a great job of explaining all the game stuff and getting me immersed in the setting, even as someone not personally familiar with MMOs. And with an MMORPG story, that is certainly a good thing.
That said, allow me to give one major gripe I have with the Aincrad setting of SAO. I’m sorry, but I need some magic in my RPGs. Or at least some long-range options. A game completely based around close-range combat like Sword Art Online just doesn’t interest me as much. It’s one reason why, putting its biggest issues aside, I like the Alfheim setting and even the Fairy Dance arc more than the Aincrad arc.
jeskaiangel: I think this volume did a strong job of weaving the video game aspects into the story without being overbearing. Not all stories manage to strike this balance. SAOP keeps us conscious of the video game-y side without breaking the narrative and beating us over the head with overly detailed stat pages or ability descriptions. At the same time, it explains enough about the game that I was never left wondering “What does that skill do again? Should I remember it from somewhere?”
Your point about the lack of magic is interesting, and I think I agree about preferring in my RPGs. That said, while SAOP still doesn’t have a full magic system that players can use, subsequent volumes do start to include a few more traditional fantasy elements (elves!). I know this sounds ridiculous, but in this area I tend to see SAO in kind of a similar light to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth unquestionably contains supernatural elements, but out and out “magic” is relatively rare, and the line between magical and mundane is usually pretty fuzzy. Likewise, while SAO lacks spell-slinging sorcerers, it does contain phenomena that go beyond the world as we know it.
If you’ve read the main SAO light novel series or seen the anime, how does Progressive vol. 1 compare to them?
stardf29: So I haven’t read the original novel series, and it’s been ages since I watched the anime so my memories of that are a bit fuzzy, but as I’ve mentioned before, SAOP was definitely an improvement over what I remember of the anime. Better characterization, more time spent on details rather than jumping up a bunch of floors all of a sudden, having Asuna partner up with Kirito right from the start… yeah, I definitely liked SAOP more.
jeskaiangel: I’ve already kind of touched on this one, but in summary, SAOP is a retcon of the Aincrad arc that, at least so far, is vastly superior to the original novel. IIRC, the anime incorporated a few aspects of SAOP, but most of what you’ll find in SAOP is not in the anime, either. Interestingly, later volumes of the main series (and likewise, the anime) do incorporate more details from SAOP, further affirming its retcon status.
What do you make of Kirito’s choice to embrace the role of
Glamdring “beater” to deflect hostility from other beta testers?
stardf29: On the one hand, I do appreciate how thoughtful of a move it was. He obviously wants to take off the heat that the other beta testers had felt up to that point, and at least from my perspective that’s a good thing, especially with many of them being nowhere near as much of “hardcore gamer” as he is. At the same time, it very much is a move that further goes into his surface-level desire to be alone, which goes against his deeper desire for companionship; thankfully, Asuna is there to help with the latter part.
The interesting thing is that, in the end, it didn’t completely work as he thought it would, and people didn’t hate him nearly as much as he thought they would. Part of it is that, being in a death game and such, others had to accept that whatever they thought of him personally, they had to have his help if they wanted any chance to survive and beat the game. It does make me wonder how easy it is to think that people like us less than they really do.
jeskaiangel: I find something mildly messianic in Kirito’s decision to, as it were, bear the guilt of all the other beta testers. And, well, I’m pretty sure resembling Jesus is just about always a positive thing. On the other hand, I agree that this move is part of his inner conflict and self-deception relating to loneliness vs. the desire for relationships. Maybe I’d say that claiming the “beater” mantle was a good deed in a vacuum, but Kirito’s personal motives for doing so (which include pushing his lie to himself that he doesn’t mind being alone) were not all good.
What did you think of how the volume explores or challenges the distinctions between “reality” and “virtual reality”?
stardf29: Ooh, now this is a fun question that’s come up both here and in other VRMMO series. To me, I keep in mind that our perception of the world around us is ultimately a product of our brain interpreting the various sensations from the world. In that sense, if the brain could somehow be “tricked” into experiencing those same perceptions in a virtual form, at least for that sensation, I don’t see it as any more “fake” than the real thing. The only “fakeness” is in how imperfect the simulation of those perceptions are.
That said, if something in the world affects our body outside of our brain, that adds an extra layer of complication. For example, with food, there’s both the sensation of taste, which a theoretical full-dive VR system can simulate, and the actual nourishment said food provides to the body, which it cannot. So that’s an additional element that should be considered.
I think what SAOP shows, though, is that at least as far as our perception is concerned, just because the virtual is not quite “real” doesn’t change the perception itself, and perhaps the automatic assumption that “not real” = “bad” can be questioned. Even in the real world, sometimes, because of some quirks of the brain, our perceptions of things in the world are not actually 100% “accurate” to what we’re perceiving. So maybe thinking of things as “real” or not isn’t always the most helpful thing, especially in a death game that you can’t escape out of anyway.
(The next logical step to this question is “could relationships with virtual beings be considered real”, which SAOP doesn’t quite get into yet, but has come up in some other novels we’ve discussed…)
jeskaiangel: Asuna has a line about a feeling being real even if the world is illusory, and I think that points to a larger truth: there’s a sense in which our emotions are real, regardless of where or why we experience them. More specifically, the feeling Asuna was thinking about at the time pertained to her relationship with Kirito, and again I think that has significance: our interactions with other people are real, regardless, whether carried out in-person, via snail mail, over the internet, or within a VR world.
To frame another way, is it possible to have a relationship with someone if you’ve never interacted with them in person? Whether it’s the Lord Jesus or stardf29, the lack of physical “reality” to our interactions doesn’t keep those relationships from being real.
Well, that wraps up our September discussion of Sword Art Online Progressive, vol. 1. Thanks for reading, and please join us over on Discord to talk about this month’s reading, Rascal Does Not Dream vol. 2!