September 18, 2012

Sword Art Online

From one of the more uninspiring series concepts in an uninspiring season comes...a surprise!



Its the year 2022, and a new MMORPG is coming online. This one has the latest in interface technology. namely a VR headset that operates through direct neural stimulation. The game is from a well regarded developer and highly anticipated. Our hero, who goes by the online handle of Kirito was one of the games Beta Testers. He logs on and mucks about for a bit, gives pointers to a new player and then tries to help the new player log out...but he can't.
There is no log-out option.
Enter the godlike online Avatar of the games developer who informs the 10,000 odd players that this is by design, and that he is informing the world of his deed. Oh....and if they die in-game their interface helmets will fry their brains. If anyone tries to unhook them, the helmets fail safe will kill them (which happens immediately to over 200 players as frantic loved ones watching his broadcast fail to heed his warning).

Now about 9800 people are stuck in a virtual Tolkienesque world. before he logs himself out, the madman leaves them with one tenuous hope...his assurance that they can escape if they clear all 100 levels.
***********
OK let's say right up front that the premise of this show does not inspire confidence.

Sword Art Online greatly exceeded my expectations however, and at 11 episodes in, I'm going to recommend it.

This show has exceptional character development, not only of the male lead but also of Asuna, the heroine, who is smart, tough and genuinely heroic. Although she's not present for a good portion of the show she is surprisingly well realized and has grown noticeably as a person during the course of the series. Asuna  is one of the best female action leads in years.

Kirito, the male lead, is the main focus of the story early on and develops noticeably in the first few episodes. He is run through the ringer, but Kirito, while far from perfect learns from his mistakes and does evolve as a person.  His development is actually quite believable. Kirito is also smart which is always a pleasant surprise in these shows.

The show can be grim. The premise means that there will be a body count, but it is not gory and there is an optimism that runs through the whole thing.  The show  touches on things like ostracization, survivors guilt, ethics, love, the definition of happiness, and the difference between bravado and courage far better than one has any business to expect from a cartoon...let alone one about being stuck in a video game.

I am astonished to be so thoroughly enjoying this show. I just hope that they don't completely bollox it toward the end, as is the fate of so many initially good shows.

However, with much of the staff of Moretsu Pirates involved, I'm allowing myself a bit of optimism here.

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at 03:25 PM | Comments (16) | Add Comment
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1 I've held that the strength of this story is not in a concept that we've seen before, but in the psychology of the players.  From the fate of the Black Cats, to murder mystery, to the relationship between Asuna and Kirito -- the characters are the strength of the story. 

With the latest episode, they've gone into uncharted waters with an anime original plot.  I'd expected this much earlier, but they raced through the two  years to get Asuna back into the story, I guess. 

Posted by: ubu at Tue Sep 18 16:43:54 2012 (e9h6K)

2 Thanks for the recommendation - I'll try to make time to watch it..

As I recall, Hack//Sign also had a player who could not log-out of the game world (just one), but the story never really went anywhere, at least not in the anime...

Posted by: Siergen at Tue Sep 18 19:19:46 2012 (Bv5ty)

3 I didn't think this latest one was anime-original; people on a number of forums were waiting for her to show up. Or did they make significant changes to her story?

-j

Posted by: J Greely at Tue Sep 18 19:26:51 2012 (fpXGN)

4 I'm judiciously avoiding spoilerses...of course it seems that there are only 2 eps left which I find worrisome from a plot/pacing standpoint.


@ Seirgen: Yes. The "stuck in a video game" plot has been a very reliable indicator of fail. On the other hand this show doesn't have the sumptuous art direction and Yuki Kaijiura score...but it tells engaging stories and has characters I give a damn about...so advantage SAO.

@ No One in Particular
 

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at Tue Sep 18 19:57:40 2012 (e9h6K)

5 It's not a 13-episode series. AT-X has episode 17 airing on 10/30 on their calendar, and ANN thinks it will be 25.

(and if that length has you worried about the pacing, well, I've read a few spoilers that make it sound reasonable)


-j

Posted by: J Greely at Tue Sep 18 20:53:12 2012 (fpXGN)

6 Oh...it wasn't in any of the fall previews.... Cool!

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at Tue Sep 18 21:34:26 2012 (e9h6K)

7

Hack//Sign ended where the first game began. It was a prequel to the game. That's why nothing important was resolved.

This sounds strange coming from someone who is a big fan of Strike Witches, I know, but I just can't get past the stupidity of the concept for this series. I can't take it seriously. For one thing, I'm having a hard time believing that people in the outside world haven't figured out how to get people out of the game safely in two years of elapsed time. Don't they have access to the servers? Access to all the design notes? Access to the whole development team? Even if the lead guy is keeping his mouth shut, a project like this has to have included dozens or hundreds of other engineers and I don't buy that all of them are so dedicated to this plot that none of them are willing to cooperate with authorities on trying to shut it down.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at Tue Sep 18 21:38:28 2012 (+rSRq)

8 By the way, any engineer who refuses to cooperate can be prosecuted for capital murder. That threat isn't going to shake anyone loose? I don't believe it.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at Tue Sep 18 21:40:59 2012 (+rSRq)

9 Steven, how about a disgruntled programmer embedding hidden code just before the final compile, then deleting his source code before going into hiding and/or faking his own death?  Or an external group hitting the game severs with a subtle virus that attacks a flaw in the low-level hardware?

Also, if any of the trapped players are relatives of powerful politicians, you can bet that any attempts to interfere with the game servers will be met with tons of government oversight, legislative committee meetings, and associated red tape.

If those arguments don't sway you, suppose the game is hosted on the same "cloud" as the software which is used to design next-generation strike witch boots?  Surely we can't risk any action that might imperil the war effort...

Posted by: Siergen at Tue Sep 18 21:56:12 2012 (Bv5ty)

10

Siergen, you obviously haven't  been involved in any major software development efforts lately.

All large development projects use source control systems. That means that when you want to make a change, you have to check out the source module, make your alteration, and then check it back in. There's an audit trail, and every change is tracked. Furthermore, the source control system permits the development group to retreat to any point during the entire development process if need be.

RCS is ancient at this point but it's an example of such things. Modern source control systems are far more elaborate and capable.

In other words, it isn't possible for someone to "sneak in a change" and then sneak it back out again with no way for anyone else to know it happened.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at Tue Sep 18 22:02:02 2012 (+rSRq)

11 The premise is quite dumb. More to the point, how does the device determine you've lost your connection to the server? How does it distinguish that from lag? Two seconds is plenty long to cut a couple cables, but it's -nothing- in lag terms.

I think it also suffers from rushing things a little. We go straight from "here is Kirito and a handful of other beta testers, and the great unwashed of regular players in mostly starting gear" to "here is Kirito the loner, and also several hostile self-organized guilds". Exactly how you go from A to B would have been pretty interesting; instead we get convenient comic-book-cutout villains when the plot calls for them (and they even look like ugly villains, despite the conceit that everyone is playing characters that look like themselves.)

Even saying all that, though, it still turned out pretty well. Kirito's got his stuff together, generally speaking - he'd make a good harem lead (by Steven's criteria) if it was that kind of show. It's not a great show - there's still some highly-selective stupidity when it's convenient for the plot - but it'll do, it'll do.

If I were going to write this plot (and I'm not expecting it to come out like this!), I'd set it up such that the fry-your-brain thing wasn't correct, and that casualties don't actually die, but that players are told that to keep them engaged (and families compensated handsomely to keep them agreeable). The big question is "why", but I don't want to place a guess that's too close to what might be actually happening in the show...

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at Tue Sep 18 22:02:47 2012 (pWQz4)

12

Damn it. RCS

Plus... the whole development environment gets backed up nightly to off-line storage. 

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at Tue Sep 18 22:03:16 2012 (+rSRq)

13 I work on software development for the US Navy.  In theory, we have strict code reviews, source/version controls, nightly backups, disaster recovery plans, etc.  And one of these years, we may actually attempt to put that theory into practice...

Posted by: Siergen at Tue Sep 18 22:16:28 2012 (Bv5ty)

14 I heartily grant you that the premise is dubious. However,  there are a couple of reasons that the government might not be able to get the people out.

1: Perhaps he pulled an Ozymandias and killed his whole development team. (The man is a psychopath after all). design notes and such might have been purged...obviously he had 2 sets anyway, one without the crazy for government and public consumption.

2: the fact that the first run of helmets sell out after only 10,000 copies and sell out in less than a day. Presumably the full run would have been in the millions, yet this special first edition was limited to 10,000. Why? Hype officially but a short run with no shelf time might give him a better opportunity to add nasties and booby-traps undetected by the Japanese equivalent of UL...who had presumably checked the prototypes and any safe helmets he provided them. This is 2022 so the manufacturing process may well be 3-D printing meaning that
    A: he could have surreptitiously installed his own modifications.
   B: The helmets are unitary designs even less tinker friendly than my iMac.

3: 200 or so people died when relatives tried to pull them out. It is likely that more died later when the government did. If the helmets are booby trapped (and they are explicitly stated to have backup battery supplies in the helmet )ANY tampering will set it off. Given that the remaining people are physically OK a  risk adverse administration might just put everyone in a hospital with IV feed and try to negotiate with the terrorist.

4: Hacking the system might involve similar risks..if the system crashes or tampering is detected everyone will likely be fried.

5: Finally, there might be a social stigma against gaming otaku sufficient to inhibit efforts. After all these 'losers' got them selves into this. This is unlikely but possible.

So it doesn't beggar belief that the people could be trapped.

The same cannot be said for an interface so amazing that ones cooking skill is important because the food you eat in game to keep your stats gives the same sensations as eating....
...but out of respect to the catgirls I'll speak no more of that.

This show not hard Sci-Fi, it's fantasy and it's about relationships and charachter development rather than Verneian extrapolation.




Posted by: The Brickmuppet at Tue Sep 18 23:00:18 2012 (e9h6K)

15 If I were involved, I would have gone techno-magic and said a wizard did it.

Posted by: Mitch H. at Wed Sep 19 09:24:09 2012 (jwKxK)

16 One of my coworkers has been specializing in software forensics.  She's seen a case where it was claimed that a developer had injected malware into the product before being terminated.  All the review mechanisms Steven talked about were performed, and nothing was found.  It was eventually discovered (after LOTS of headscratching) that they were using open source version control and build systems, and the rogue developer had simply compiled his own rogue versions of those tools and put them into the development environments, giving him the ability to inject code that didn't appear in the source files anywhere.  Clever, hard to detect, and once detected, you still don't have the source available for analysis.

Posted by: David at Wed Sep 19 12:43:40 2012 (+yn5x)

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