SAO, But the Writing Isn’t Garbage – SAO Alternative: GGO

Reki Kawahara is a bad writer and because– oh, um uhh Sorry to all of the people who complain whenever I compare something to SAO. I know that I do that a lot, but since this is *specifically* about a new SAO spin-off it would be hard not to compare the two series. So… yeah, here we are, I hope you guys can forgive me. Reki Kawahara is a bad writer and because of that it can be difficult to parse what, exactly, his stories are all about. I think he did -try- to build SAO and Accel World around coherent themes He’s just really really bad at it. Not only are his attempts at playing to the themes of his works ham-fisted at the best of times, but he gets so caught up in indulging his own pandering escapist fantasies that sometimes the meaning he’s trying to convey gets lost entirely or in the worst cases is straight-up contradicted by his own story. As far as you can say that SAO is about anything, SAO is about the idea that what we do in the virtual world is as valuable and significant as what we do in real life. That is, in itself, kind of a pandering core theme to run with for a show targeted at gamers But it’s an interesting position that presents a lot of fertile ground to explore Kawahara plays with the theme in a few ways Firstly, most obviously, he introduces the threat of real death as a consequence for virtual failure which adds a layer of Inherent meaning to each character’s in-game actions, as long as you don’t realize that he’ll never actually kill off any one of real importance. Secondly, he makes it so that all of Kirito’s most significant and meaningful relationships from Klein to Asuna to Sinon are ones that he’s forged in game. Even Suguha, his real-life sister, can’t form a proper familial relationship with him until they’ve played games together which helps her to better understand who he is and what he’s been through. Although that is kind of undercut by the fact that after they become closer as a family she still has the same unhealthy feelings for him Actually, I don’t know if Kawahara is capable of writing a friendship where one of the parties involved doesn’t want to have sex with the other and that’s, uh, concerning to me but anyway SAO Alternative: Gun Gale Online is fascinating because it presents an opportunity for a much, much better writer to use the same setting and core concepts to explore the same themes in a much more subtle and effective manner and while it’s easy to point to the lack of Kirito and sanded down edge and say that those are the main reasons this spin-off is so much better than the original, I think that does a disservice to Keiichi Sigsawa’s efforts to turn SAO into something more watchable without sacrificing the soul of the story, but while still doing what Sigsawa does best, namely empowering female characters with guns. Now at first glance I can see why someone would think that SAO Alternative isn’t all that true to what SAO is about It substitutes the horror fantasy vibe of the original for a tone more reminiscent of a slice-of-life sports show and it has no romance elements to speak of; at least not so far. Also, all of the female characters outfits are designed as, you know, actual clothing that a human being would wear rather than lingerie Which isn’t very SAO at all. Like Len’s outfit contains three times as much fabric as Sinon’s even though she’s half her height and yes that discrepancy does technically break the established aesthetic of GGO’s character models But if you’re capable of enjoying SAO’s story your suspension of disbelief is probably sturdy enough that a minor inconsistency like that won’t take you out of the show anyway SAO Alternative is definitely a different kind of show from the original SAO but that’s kind of the point of a spin-off and if you can look past all of those surface level SAO elements that are missing you’ll find that the spirit of the series is very much intact Instead of online romance, GGO focuses on online friendships and rivalries and while that is admittedly a bit less satisfying for those who are coming to the series for wish-fulfillment purposes, I’d argue that it can be just as interesting and satisfying if it’s written well Which it is in this case but more on that in a sec. In place of the absent life-or-death stakes, GGO examines more grounded and realistic reasons why a video game might be personally important to someone Len aka Karen initially gets into the game because she has a complex about being six feet tall and GGO allows her to be the cute small girl that she’s always wanted to be out of that she discovers something that she’s genuinely good at and enjoys for other reasons GGO becomes initially a place for her to escape then eventually a source of self-confidence that she couldn’t find in the real world which produces tangible results when the girls from her school who she initially couldn’t work up the courage to approach come to talk to her instead She makes new friends with a whole big group at once something that she spent her whole life being too scared to do as a direct result of playing the game and it turns out that one of those girls is using GGO to cope with her own complex about being overly short and girly Likewise Len’s Squad Jam teammate M role plays a stoic badass when it’s apparent that in real life He’s a bit of a whiny nerdy loser and Pito also implies that she’s using GGO to get away from her own real-life problems Whatever those might be although it’s not helping with the much much bigger problem that she’s, at least according to M, Totally batshit crazy all of the characters in GGO are written around different takes on the core idea of escapism Some playing the game for healthy self affirming reasons that positively affect their lives While others indulge in what seems to be a very unhealthy kind of escapism that borders on totally breaking from reality This is what it looks like when a writer really explores a theme with their story instead of just using it as window dressing and it has a lot of benefits Firstly it gives viewers or readers something to think about and talk about in relation to the story beyond “Wow, I can’t believe that plot twist” or “Did you see that fight? It was awesome!” It also makes it easier for the audience to relate to what’s going on because the plot and character motivations directly connect to a real-world concept that may have had some tangible impact on their own lives. We’re probably not going to play a VR MMO like Gun Gale Online anytime soon and most of us aren’t six foot tall Japanese girls with body image issues But I think a lot of people out there who play games can relate to wanting to play them to get away from their own real-life problems even if it’s just for a bit Likewise, no one well, hopefully no one, has experienced fictional characters being brought to life on the whims of homicidal Hatsune Miku fan art but a lot of people can relate to the struggle to find meaning in a world that seems to be devoid of it and how artistic creativity can help with that struggle Man, I really got to finish my “Philosophy of Re:CREATORS” video, but I digress Lastly and most importantly, in terms of narrative structure, building all of the characters around that core theme creates a meaningful connection between all of them and a reason for them to interact with each other beyond those interactions being needed to drive the plot forward. It makes the cast of the show feel like a cohesive group rather than a scattered selection of random strangers this kind of focused thematic character writing is a big part of why another big show this season My Hero Academia works so well Every major character in the series has their own answer to the question What is a hero? and usually a more specific opinion on All Might that positions them either in alliance with or opposition to Deku. Bakugo is a pretty typical bully in a lot of ways But he and Deku have the same role model in All Might although they admire him for very different things which gives them a reason to start as friends and drift apart over time Stain could just be some serial killer who loves murdering heroes for the challenge of it or something but instead he idolizes all might to the point of extremism, which makes his Relationship with Deku, All Might’s protege, much more nuanced and interesting In opposition to that, Shigaraki’s not just some evil asshole who can make people not feel so good with a bad touch. He has a fundamental philosophical disagreement with the very concept of the symbol of peace thinking that it makes the world a less safe place because people wait for heroes to solve problems for them instead of doing it themselves The reassuring smile that Deku sees as a virtue Shigaraki sees as a crutch for humanity They’re perfect foils for each other and I could keep going down the list of hero aca characters all the way down into the obscure side characters and still keep finding connections like this Because when Horikoshi writes new characters he always asks the question “How can this person help in saying what I want this story to say?” Without that connection the whole series would just be a jumble of random people with random superpowers punching other people with superpowers because shounen jump needs to pay their heating bills this month Contrast that with the original SAO which is chock full of characters who get significant screen time and just do not matter in the grand scheme of things and I’m not just talking about side characters who create pointless diversions from the main plot like Eugene and those random fairy queen girls who flirted with Kirito or everyone involved with that complicated fake out murder mystery thing even a lot of main characters like Agil and Lisbeth have little to nothing in common with Kirito and contribute nothing to the overarching themes of the story or the progression of the plot for that matter They just exist to fill archetypal roles in the cast. Hell the first arc’s main villain, Kayaba Akihiko, *literally* doesn’t have a reason for kidnapping and trying to murder 10,000 people with a videogame He just does it because otherwise the plot of SAO wouldn’t happen There’s nothing about his personality or motivations that make conflict between him and Kirito necessary or Interesting except that he’s an obstacle in the way of a happy ending. The story would instantly be stronger if he had any motivation at all But it would be so easy to make it thematically relevant as well At the end he could just say “I wanted to make a virtual world that felt as real to the people in it as reality” and then Kirito could fire back “I was in the beta and it already felt that real to me it’s the people and their experiences that make a world real not the threat of death” and then Akihiko could see the error of his ways and he’d start crying and– whoa, ah, sorry I don’t want to turn this into another 40 minute fixing sao video Although I could definitely do something with phantom bullet and now that I say that I’m willing to bet that Sigsawa thought exactly the same thing before writing this spin-off and if he did, well, he was right There’s a lot to recommend about SAO Alternative over the series it’s spun off from it has a lot of genuinely funny comedic moments and fourth wall breaks and the girls are all cute without being overly sexualized well Except for the tutorial lady but she’s an NPC in a shooter so you can’t really say that’s not true to life and also I would totally let her step on me in order to learn how guns work or just because sorry, where was I? The action set-pieces are well animated and actually choreographed with a real sense of strategy and positional awareness Studio 3Hz are carving out a niche for themselves and creating compelling female led action series And I’m sure that I’ll have something substantial to say about at least one shoot out from this show in a future Animelee, which is a heck of a lot more than I can say about any of the fights in SAO but to me It’s the fact that Keiichi Sigsawa has managed to write an SAO story that’s actually you know about something, and not just something but specifically the same thing that SAO tries and fails to be about that makes the experience of watching SAO Alternative feel so much more rewarding than, Well, the alternative and who knows if we’re really lucky Maybe we’ll see Reki Kawahara pick up some pointers from the guy who’s writing his story better than he is I’m Geoff Thew, professional shitbag, signing out from my mother’s basement

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