2022 AD: thousands of players around the world flock to log onto Sword Art Online, a cutting edge Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. They soon discover the VRMMORPG has features that even beta-testers like Kirito had no inkling of, the most obvious of which is the total absence of any way to log out of the game.
The lack of a log-out option is no bug: as designer Akihito Kayaba explains to the players once they begin to grasp their situation, the only way to exit the game is to defeat all 100 levels of the floating castle Aincrad. To make sure players take his game seriously, he provided an undocumented feature in the NerveGear rig players wear to access SAO that will microwave-fry the brain of anyone who is killed in the game. The brain death feature will also be triggered by any attempt to remove the NerveGear1.
By the time Akihito finishes his first villainous monolog, over two hundred players have died proving that he is not bluffing. Unless someone in the real world can disable the booby-traps designed by a SUPERGENIUS, thousands of people world wide are trapped in Aincrad until the final boss is defeated or they are killed by one of the local monsters2.
Although many of the other players decide to team up together, Kirito decides that his safest course of action is to be a loner, in part because he does not want to take responsibility for protecting weaker players. In a rather cold-hearted scene he abandons his friend Klein because Klein is determined to protect the rest of his team and strikes out on his own.
Two years pass. Four thousand players die. Six thousand are still trapped and 25 floors of the castle remain unmapped. Players find various strategies for survival: Kirito’s way worked for him, enabling him to become of the highest ranked characters, but Klein’s way worked as well, as did other schemes.
Kirito has a meet-cute with Asuna, a sub-leader of the Knights of the Blood player’s guild, who for no sane reason Kirito can see has bought up her cooking skills in-game and so can take advantage of a delectable food-stuff Kirito got his hands on. As one of the small number of women in the game and thanks to the fact avatars are based on the actual appearance of the players, one of the even tinier number of attractive women in the game, Asuna is adored by thousands but for some reason Kirito is the fighter for whom she sets her cap.
Various adventures follow: courting Asuna makes Kirito a target for all the other boys obsessed with her, some of whom are total head-cases, and Kirito’s skills make him a potentially valuable recruit for Asuna’s boss, Heathcliff the Paladin. The lethality of the game’s monsters and traps takes a sudden leap upwards and as Kirito himself comes to realize, he has personally come to the attention of the game’s megalomaniacal designer.
Light novels are short, generally aimed at younger readers and typically fairly straight-forward in their prose; this was no exception. Sword Art Online: Aincrad was a first novel, although it did not win the contest it was intended for, the Dengeki Novel Prize, because the author went over-length and ended up publishing online. The series is popular, with fifteen volumes to date as well as manga and anime adaptions.
I regret to admit I started off with great hopes for this but became increasingly aware I was not the target market as the plot developed. I can see how a 14-year-old gamer might like some elements of this but the manner in which the supposedly capable Asuna is treated as a prize to be traded between men grated, as did her tendency to need to be rescued surprisingly frequently for one of the top fighters. I also came to suspect I’d have liked this better if Klein or Asuna had been the lead, rather than Kirito.
In Kirito’s defense, he’s a poorly-socialized 14 when he walks away from Klein and just 16 when he hooks up with Asuna, which I suspect not only explains why he is reluctant to take the weight of keeping others alive on his shoulders but also how the romance manages to go from “want to have dinner?3” “You are my one true love” in as few pages as it does.
It’s probably best not to reflect on how many of the four thousand fatalities were people even younger than Kirito or the effects on the younger survivors of having been trapped in SAO for two years.
As it happens, I have another book by this author handy and I will give it a try to see if I like it more than I did this one. After all, this was a first novel.
- Yes, NerveGear has powerful batteries.
- Or they die from the effects of being kept immobilized in a bed for years on end.
- Well, more “want to cook me dinner?”