It’s important to note in the first 30 seconds of this anime, before the title even shows, we get a few good looks at the NerveGear helmet. It’s not a close up view as we’ll get later on, but it does show how the device fits around the head of an individual. This is crucial to the plot, so bear with me here.
It is also funny to note how dated this anime may seem when it comes to lining up for release day. Even today in 2016, physical game media is still a thing. However, we are moving beyond it to digital downloads. Of course, the entire reason behind a “physical copy only” launch was to limit the amount of people in the game to 10,000 for the sake of Akihiko Kayaba’s experiment. Still, it’s a funny thing to note as time rolls by. The announcer claims waiting in line for up to three days is “what a real gamer would do”, but honestly such a short time hardly merits praise. People have waited up to a week for the launch of an iPhone.
Another important note is given in the background as the protagonist Kirito’s sister is calling out to him. It is stated that the NerveGear, the wonderful helmet that enables virtual reality, is in fact not an entirely new device. It has been at market for some time, though how much isn’t stated. This means the public has had time with it, to pop it open and see just what it’s capable of. Again, keep this in mind for when it becomes relevant later on.
We’re formally introduced to our “hero” Kirito by way of Klein, a random player who sees him running through the streets of the Town of Beginnings and immediately figures Kirito knows what he’s doing. This conveniently turns out to be the case but I won’t fault the anime for this one. We need a way to introduce characters, and Kirito as a character doesn’t lend himself well to any other kind of introduction.
In order to establish how the rules of SAO function, we start by having poor Klein get his balls caved in by a boar enemy out in the field. While any man would lament such a happening, Kirito condescendingly reminds Klein that there is no pain in SAO. No pain in SAO. Remember that. Kirito then explains how the game system functions to both Klein and the viewer. This has little bearing on the plot in general, but it is a nice bit of “world building” if one can call it that. After all, we don’t have a real world equivalent to compare this anime to. Yet.
Kirito also informs us that SAO is a swords & sorcery RPG that lacks the sorcery component. Taking note from the original novel, this is justified to keep the focus of the game on sword fighting. The anime spends another couple minutes driving home the point that there were only 10,000 copies sold, and that demand for the game was high. Keep this in mind. We also hear from Klein that Kirito was in the beta test for the game, and therefore has firsthand knowledge of the earliest parts of the game. Another plot critical point, which will also be hammered into us as the show progresses.
This line is also oddly important. Kirito claims the virtual world of SAO is more real than reality itself. This can be handwaved right now, as the novelty of the game world is still intact. But we have to remember this line for much further down the line; it honestly comes back to haunt him and the series itself. In a good way, mind you.
We also see how distrusting Kirito is of new people, as he immediately shoots down Klein when offered the chance to team with his friends. I get not wanting to be the new guy in an established group of friends, but considering this is an MMO, the social aspect of the game is important. I’m not saying it’s impossible to solo an MMO, but the genre typically isn’t designed that way. Kirito’s distrusting nature from the get-go is odd, as the anime has yet to blur the line between reality and fantasy. Basically, it makes no sense for an established gamer such as Kirito to be antisocial in regards to an activity he’s no stranger to. In fact, such a tendency would better fit Klein, who is new to the genre and would probably stick to his real life mates instead. But we have to hammer in that Kirito is a loner from episode one. We can’t have a character develop in response to stimuli, can we?
It’s here that we finally get a taste of the core conflict of the series. As well as one of the major fallacies of the in-universe logic. Klein attempts to log out of the game, only to find that the LOG OUT command isn’t available. Klein isn’t too worried at first, figuring bugs to be the norm for a launch day title, especially the first virtual reality MMO. Even when Klein attempts to contact a GM for support, nothing happens. It’s here that Kirito establishes the only way to leave SAO- the virtual world- is through the LOG OUT command.
Now, we can already begin to pick apart this whole concept. The fact that one can only log out of this virtual world through a menu is quite frankly silly and unlikely in real life. One would not be limited to menu commands in such a world; after all, we can look at it as Star Trek does. Voice commands should be viable, so that a player could bypass something as archaic as menu commands altogether. Barring that, there would also be some sort of emergency log out option, or manual override.
The fact that they claim no such option is also highly unlikely. Again, all this has to be accepted by we the viewer in order for the main scenario to even get off the ground. A technology that immerses people in such a way as the NerveGear would not be without its million and one failsafes to prevent anything from going wrong. This isn’t just a control pad one holds in their hands, or a pair of 3D glasses at IMAX. This thing wraps around your entire skull and directly messes with your brain. Failsafes of some kind had to be put into place. So already I’m finding it difficult to accept the notion that they’re trapped in a game world like this.
Kirito again points out that the NerveGear prevents anyone from moving their real bodies. Such a feat would immediately be followed up with a means to bypass this feature built into the device itself. Again: failsafes. Consumers do not want to feel trapped by a helmet, and they will want a way to remove it at any time. Klein further drives this point home, as he claims to live alone. In case of some malfunction, how would someone without another person nearby be able to safely remove themselves from the virtual space? These are rudimentary questions anyone would ask during the development phase of the device.
We also get a rather disgusting and creepy scene where Klein gets grabby when Kirito mentions he has a sister. Such conduct is unbecoming of anyone but the most shameless. Or one-dimensional douchebags. Congrats, Klein. You’re a creepy asshole.
Klein gets a knee to the balls for his creepiness, which brings up yet another concern. We can safely assume virtual reality is still in its infancy. However, the idea of using such a device for lewd behavior is still at the forefront of everyone’s mind. You cannot tell me someone on the development team of the NerveGear didn’t question what should happen if two people in a virtual space began fondling each other. Or worse. Even if their senses aren’t the same as the real world, bodies still have more or less accurate anatomy. Where’s the failsafe for bad contact? What if a female avatar is being molested? Would the system allow it? Wouldn’t it forcibly eject a person’s mind from the system? The author actually plays with this in another work of his, Accel World. The fact that such a feature isn’t even mentioned here is oddly convenient to keeping the characters trapped in the virtual world.
It’s at this point where a system wide event forces all 10,000 players back to the plaza of the Town of Beginnings. This is so we can finally get the slapped with the “reality” of the game world of SAO. We’ll take this one step by step as Akihiko Kayaba throws them at us.
The missing LOG OUT button not being a defect is of course intentional, but I must nevertheless point it out. Kayaba wasn’t the only person working on this massive project. There was simply no feasible way he could have orchestrated the removal of such a feature without SOMEONE noticing. And I highly doubt anyone else would have been on board with the project if they knew his intentions from the beginning. Not only would they be accessories to a crime, they would have ratted him out to the authorities on the spot. So already we can’t buy this scenario.
This is the big one. Attempted removal of the NerveGear helmet will cause an overdose of “microwaves” and destroy the player’s brain. Let’s break this one down bit by bit:
ONE: Kirito points out that the helmet does indeed use microwaves to transmit data to and from the brain. Whether or not this is possible or merely fantasy for the sake of the plot is irrelevant. Kirito also points out that by removing the safety on the helmet, such waves could in fact kill. That the safety can even be removed is grossly unrealistic given what the COMMERCIALLY AVAILABLE helmet is meant to do. I’m not saying it’s impossible to remove the safety; I’m saying it wouldn’t be allowed for such a removal to be done from within a program. At BEST such a feature could only be done away with manually. Otherwise, this would have leaked to the media and forced a recall of the NerveGear altogether.
TWO: Assuming this safety can be shut off and the microwaves can fry a person’s brain, what’s to stop anyone from simply pulling the helmet off a person? Kayaba points out that attempting to do this would cause the overload and kill the person. But how?
Take a look at the helmet here. While it can be strapped into place, it is no different than any other real world helmet. We see Kirito slip it on easily enough. Any person could remove it from a player in a swift motion. Assuming the NerveGear COULD detect a lost connection to the mind of the player, it would only THEN shoot out the deadly microwaves that kill. By then, it would be off the head of the individual and unable to inflict any kind of harm on anyone! There is nothing stopping people from doing this. Even the claim that unplugging the device would cause the overload means nothing compared to this knowledge.
THREE: We don’t know what side effects (if any) occur if a person removes the helmet while they’re in a full dive. Since it isn’t elaborated on, we’ll draw information from the author’s other series, Accel World. There, forceful ejection only carries with it a momentary, mild sense of disorientation no different than suddenly waking up from a dream. Therefore there shouldn’t be ANY risk whatsoever to removing the helmet manually.
But of course, if we took this into account there’d be no way to keep the players plugged into the game for the sake of the plot. But just remember how many leaps and bounds we have to make just to accept this scenario.
Kayaba then goes on to point out the death of 213 players already because of this brain-frying device. Never mind that as soon as word of this broke out they’d have raided the ARGUS studio HQ to demand they shut down the game. Even if the anime’s claim that removing the helmet is fatal proved true, programmers still work at ARGUS. They can reinstate the LOG OUT command. You cannot tell me such a feat is impossible. Still this scenario proves implausible.
With this in mind, Kayaba drops the bomb that death in the game means death in the real world. I find it difficult to be scared by this when we’re proving just how easy it is to escape the helmet. Still, Kayaba continues with the point of the game being to clear all 100 floors of the castle. You know, because it’s a game!
The last kicker which exists solely for… a reason I can’t fathom. Kayaba forces all players to visually appear as they would in real life. Why such a change? I don’t know. It serves no real purpose other than shock value, and only drives home the real life joke that most gamers are middle aged men. It also inadvertently makes the fact that Kirito meets a number of cute girls during his journey unlikely and horribly fake.
Some context: Log Horizon is another anime that does something similar. Characters transported into a game world. In there, characters also gain features similar to their real world counterparts. But it isn’t set in stone, as demonstrated by the character Akatsuki who played a male in the game but was female in real life. She was born into the “game becomes real” scenario with her male body, and became a minor plot point as a result. It was addressed, and provided much-needed grounding for the viewer in how that world was established.
Point is: forcing the SAO population to be who they are in reality achieves nothing in the grand scheme of things. Be they men playing women, men playing men, or women playing either gender; the result is the same. They’re all trapped in the game regardless. In fact, removing this would have made the inclusion of pretty girls less glaring as it would have been addressed as “people role playing opposite genders”. Would even have been a cool plot point to have a character upset with the fact they were not their normal gender! Oh wait… Log Horizon did that already.
The ultimate reason for Kayaba’s whole plan isn’t given in full on the first episode. He claims it to be a means to play god with their lives, but that honestly feels like a one-dimensional villain’s excuse. I’m evil because I can be. I’m not saying it should be explained in the first episode, but if you don’t plan to explain it in any meaningful light don’t bring it up, either. It reeks of weak writing. Especially when we can pick apart every attempt at keeping the players where he wants them. Put simply: the whole set up is utter bullshit and doesn’t hold water unless you desperately want it to. And by that I mean turn off your brain in the process.
We get a scene of panic to follow, and Kirito leading Klein away from the mayhem.
This is where the anime loses all sort of credibility. Kirito claims the resources in an MMO are finite, which is dead wrong. They cannot be limited in any sense of the word. Because it goes against the entire concept of an MMO. You can’t have limited money, EXP or anything really because the game is designed to allow EVERYONE to experience the same thing. Otherwise, your MMO would not work. Plain and simple. Even if we were to assume this was the case for SAO, given Kayaba’s intention, Kirito would not know this himself. No one would until days, weeks into the game proper. If the game was like this from the beta, then it would be public knowledge. People talk. Blogs exist. Reports happen. This wouldn’t be something new to everyone. And most importantly, it would have been mentioned before this crazy scenario even got off the ground.
Kirito asks Klein to tag along, but Klein turns him down in favor of his friends. See, he isn’t an asshole loner like Kirito, so I almost respect him more than our protagonist. Especially when Kirito tells Klein to fuck off because he wanted to stick with his friends. Kirito has this hard on for not working with large groups of people that has no explanation or reasoning, again given his history as a gamer. I’m against other gamers in a community setting but within a game people in general are helpful towards one another. Not counting this incident, there would be no reason to distrust each other yet. And Kirito distrusts like it’s all he knows how to do.
Of course Klein throws away all the respect he’s earned by once again being creepy and possibly homosexual here. If you roll that way that’s fine, but you don’t hit on another man out of the blue like this. Especially one much younger than you, which Kirito is. And there’s no excuse for not knowing ages when they look like their real world selves now. Kirito clearly has the face of a child.
“That’s my type.” Klein’s into underage boys it seems.
We end the episode with Kirito running across the fields of the first floor looking determined.