I’m a big fan of “Sword Art Online.” It’s an anime adaptation of a very popular manga series of an excellent gamer that is among the first to use a virtual reality MMO where you are the avatar, within the digital world, a’la The Matrix, and interact completely as a three-dimensional being.
SAO has some critics, as all things do.
Its first story dealt with being trapped in such a world as a death game. Players were forced to complete the game, or die trying permanently–both in-game and their body dying in the real world.
There’s much fridge horror and nightmare fuel for viewers of this show when you consider that, of the 10,000 players trapped in that game by the first story, there were only around 6,000 that survive. SAO’s drama, even when later games that the main characters play aren’t filled with death stakes, still have a sharp edge of gloom and doom.
There have been other manga/anime where you can exist (somewhat) in a virtual reality, but now, riding on SAO’s success and catching up fast is a less-dark but no less dramatic take on the trapped-in-a-video-game concept.
“Log Horizon” centers itself not on a swordmaster like SAO’s Kirito but a spellcaster, a college-age man by the name of Shiroe. He’s a rather introverted sort but has Chessmaster-like thinking.
The game that Shiroe plays, “Elder Tale,” is a 2-D fantasy game set in a long post-apocalyptic Japan, with elements of classes and gameplay like DDO or similarly-themed MMORPGs that’s had a long prosperous life. Shiroe’s been playing for eight years of the game’s 20 year life and knows it well. He even plays it as we play DDO now, at a desk with a display and keyboard and mouse.
He’s logged in at the time as a new update of the game is being applied when something happens.
Suddenly he’s inside the game as his Shiroe character, as are some thirty thousand others on the Japan server that hosts his game. Later you learn that there are many other linked servers that form a worldwide virtual world with many players also mysteriously trapped.
But this is where Log Horizon plays things differently. There isn’t any malevolent entity that explains what the players can or should do. They’re just now inside this world with no instruction and no information about why, what to do or how to leave it.
Most of the players panic but also are quite genre savvy (a poke at SAO), realizing that death in this new world might mean that they might die in the real world, or that the game mechanics for resurrection are still present, where death means revival in a cathedral in town, with no real harm. They thankfully and quickly learn the latter, resurrection, is still true.
Like in SAO, the characters have a virtual floating interface of controls (with a log-out button that fails to work) but they soon learn that the controls aren’t how to play. They need to feel, not think, and eventually have to learn to fight all over again, not by “clicking” buttons but calling out their attacks and behaving as they should as their character (think of the many animations and gestures that we see our MMO characters do after we command them and you get the idea).
Mostly out of fear but for power for some, the guilds in this world start to consolidate players while people figure out what’s going on.
Needs such as food are readily available, but while food looks appealing, almost everything tastes like wet soggy crackers. Shelter is also handy, and there are monsters to kill to earn a little living.
Most interestingly, the NPCs, from shopkeepers to villagers, are now as interactive and alive as you are, although they lack immortality and are a bit suspicious of you.
But now what? What’s an immortal and increasingly bored adventurer to do?
“Log Horizon” is a fascinating deconstruction on the trapped-in-a-game concept. As with other people in the chaos, Shiroe meets up with an old friend, Naotsugu, a guardian (tanking fighter) and Akatsuki, a female assassin that thinks of herself as a ninja, with very strong tracking, sneak and invisibility skills. (You know by now who’s my favorite character.)
From a game mechanics standpoint, these three players fight extremely well–and without any healer in their party. That’s Shiroe’s art. His spells aren’t great offensively but he likes his class, the enchanter, because it allows great party support. Those friends in the past, like Naotsugu, are tuned in to Shiroe’s style and can beat a larger force through cunning and intimidation.
Like SAO’s Kirito, Shiroe is also reticent at joining a guild, even with “The Apocalypse,” (what players call the event that threw them all into the game) but not because people don’t understand him, but because his game knowledge is so vast that people bugged him constantly for game tips. For quite a while until maybe a year or so before the Apocalypse, Shiroe was once part of a mega-party calling themselves the “Debauchery Tea Party,” which were able to complete high level raids and adventures that challenged more organized guilds. The story takes us forward and back in Shiroe’s time with this group, and these three characters soon ally themselves with a few former members of the since-disbanded Tea Party during their adventures.
Log Horizon isn’t like SAO in that, as Shiroe says, this is their reality, not a game. While this world is inspired by the Elder Tales game, its inhabitants that defined the game’s quests no longer behave as they once did. Serious problems involves plots such as kidnapping and slavery, the rights of non-adventurers, establishing a purpose in this world and interacting with the former NPCs, the “People of the Land.” If Shiroe’s new world were merely a game, the People of the Land would be handing out quests to complete, but that’s no longer the case, with ramifications that build up because of this change. In short, for those familiar with SAO, imagine a game world filled with not NPCs but characters like Yui–interactive and very much alive.
To give you one hint without spoiling things terribly, take “The Reaver’s Fate,” the raid and concluding story for the Heroic Gianthold story arc in DDO. In this raid, the Stormreaver has returned and decided that the giants and Eberron itself are not fit to survive. He’s switched on a doomsday device and players have 20 minutes to end the Stormreaver (after he activates several game mechanisms) and turn off the doomsday device. If you fail, Eberron explodes.
Of course, in your reality, with you, the player, sitting in front of your keyboard, only your party dies should you fail, and you can try again, Eberron and Xen’drik none the worse for wear.
But what happens if you have game events like these in progress in this new reality, whether you the adventurer or the People of the Land know or care of them, with obvious epic and disastrous consequences that could destroy the world?
Log Horizon has many characters, all with interesting stories. Among the many things I like is that there are Monks in this world. I’ve seen an evil Monk and a good Monk in battle, and they behave very much like their DDO counterparts.
Lovers of Bards and Wizards and Fighters and Druids and Rogues will find something to associate with as well.
I won’t spoil things further. If you’ve enjoyed SAO, “Log Horizon” will appeal to you with its humor and very unique take on the game world inverted as a true reality. You can watch the show on Hulu Plus or for free (with more episodes available) on the Crunchyroll website.