Better Gaming Through Anime

Exactly what you'd expect to hear on a vulnerable raid, right?

Exactly what you’d expect to hear when a boss is vulnerable during a raid, right?

Plenty of you have read of my recent character builds, many inspired in part through two anime programs: Sword Art Online (SAO) and Log Horizon (LH). Both shows are now airing a second season.

These two programs, based on light novels, aren’t quite like the usual fantasy, supernatural, mecha or other anime plot themes. Both are heavily influenced by MMO gaming design and concepts, including monsters, character classes, terminology, strategy and relationships to current technology.

Both second seasons have illustrated gameplay in ways that, I think, would be a great primer to people who are new to the multi-multiplayer online format, and new to Dungeons & Dragons game design in particular.

How these characters play is critical if DDO ever implements the concept of the mythic raid/quest. We can talk about the idea, but these game-inspired anime series already live the idea–and show how desperately they fight despite cohesive teamwork.

What makes both shows interesting is that the players aren’t sitting behind a computer screen while at play. Either they are connected into the game by a special brain wave interface that makes the Oculus Rift seem like a 1970’s Atari console joystick (SAO), or for reasons unknown, the game has turned life inside out, and they live as their avatars (LH) within this alternative reality.

Both series (their 2013 first seasons and their 2014 current second seasons) are available to watch, free, at the Crunchyroll web site, with a slower release on Hulu Plus. Mind you, the LH season 2 English subtitles are atrociously poor on Hulu, wrought with typos and gross mis-translation, so I’d recommend Crunchyroll for your viewing.

Character Classes

Sword Art Online character classes, in the original death game story arc, were generally based on your preferred weapon training. The original game world, Aincrad, was a magic-less world where weapon skills formed your character. There were no archers or mages or magic in general; you could use daggers, spears, axes, and swords of all kinds. Save for the protagonist, Kirito, no one could dual-wield swords (and the protagonist received that ability through no action of his own). Character levels were less D&D based and were more exponential as seen in games such as World of Warcraft.

By the second arc, “Fairy Dance,” a new game world based on the SAO game engine introduced flight as well as magic. Characters could choose a fairy-like elven race, each with specific specialties, such as elemental, healing, shadow arts, summoning, gadgeteering, beast taming and the like. Unlike the first SAO, character levels mattered less; rather, mastery of magic and weapon skills as levels were emphasized.

As the SAO engine became a de facto open-sourced game engine, many games developed, even overlapping and allowing import or transfer of character data with in-common information between games. Imagine being able to move a WoW character to DDO or Lord of the Rings Online and back. Game items would not transfer, but your basic stats and skills would move with your core character.

Shiroe, the main character in LH, is a master strategist, watching ahead while watching all player stats. Wish DDO has a closer analogue.

Shiroe, the main character in LH, is a master strategist, watching ahead while watching all player stats. Wish DDO has a closer analogue.

Log Horizon, in contrast, is much more heavy throughout its program on character classes. In fact, the game that’s become a new reality, the fictitious Elder Tale, is a DnD-like game world, set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, half the size of the actual one.

The players, pulled into this reality as living avatars after a major game update, still interact with the world’s game mechanics (levels, spells, weapons) through a diegetic interface (as do the digital avatars in SAO). The light novel’s author has acknowledged the book’s inspiration from DnD and other games.

LH has four class-type categories with 90 subclasses that can supplement fighting or non-combat or tactical prowess.

  • Warrior:
    • Guardian: A high HP Fighter-style shield-and-sword tank with Intimidate aggro-controlling and damage-mitigation
    • Samurai: A high HP shield-less fighter that sacrifices some defenses for greater attack combinations.
    • Monk: A high HP unarmed fighter that works remarkably similar to the DDO version, with many attacks with very short cooldowns.
  • Weapon-type:
    • Assassin: Abilities very similar to the Rogue Assassin with high sneak-attack and very high weapon damage at the expense of defense and a required element of surprise. Depending on the subclass training, can use stealth tactics to move and travel and teleport short distances soundlessly.
    • Swashbuckler: A dual-wielding fighter, with average defenses. Their swift attacks can damage enemy stats and saves to weaken them. Can use light weapons or swords with many variations.
    • Bard: Very comparable to the DDO Bard. Uses song magic to buff and augment allies and weaken and charm enemies. Can use a limited weapon set or no weapons at all. Types almost match the pre-Update 19 prestige enhancements.
  • Healer:
    • Cleric: Very similar to the current DDO implementations. Highly regarded in the LH world as healing options appear strictly limited to this and other healing classes. All other classes have to focus on evading or mitigating damage and cannot battle-heal.
    • Druid: Very similar to DDO versions. Has (destructive) animal companions, rooting and dismissal spells and is a strong healing class.
    • Kannagi/Shrine Priest: Less comparable to the Favored Soul, this class is designed to block damage to allies before it happens, including buffs, with some weak attack spells and some healing options.
  • Mage:
    • Enchanter: A wizard-type class that specializes in magic to greatly augment allied attacks, root or bind enemies and debuff them, with a few weak direct attacks. The central protagonist, Shiroe, is this class. Combined with his knowledge of the game and mastery of calculating enemy and allied combat data ahead of time, he is highly-regarded by his friends as a master strategist that can take a small force and wield it as if it were a raiding party against a superior force.
    • Summoner: Creates summoned beasts or spirits creatures to battle for them.
    • Sorcerer: Highest offensive magic user, at the natural sacrifice to HP and defense. Combined with a Bard, a Sorcerer’s attacks can be augmented substantially.

Combat

Both programs show elements found in many MMOs.

Safe-zones

In both universes, player-versus-player combat has restrictions. In the original SAO, you can’t be killed in towns but combat creates a terrifying knockdown and fatigue effect. SAO variations with territorial/racial boundaries would allow races of a territory to kill those of other races who are present in their towns, with the foreign race unable to defend or fight.

In LH, player combat is expressly prohibited, where NPC town guardians will appear and kill even the strongest adventurers for infractions. LH players exploit this in many ways without violating the combat rule, including handholds, kidnapping and limb locks, as well as even sexual assault (in the light novels anyway; the anime tones this element down for broadcast concerns).

Wilderness areas

Respawns occurred slowly in the SAO worlds. A single boss commanded access to the next floor of the castle-like world, each with unique environments and skies. In the original arc, the game’s creator trapped nearly 10,000 players in the game, unable to log out or be removed from the game from the outside. You had one life, and if you died in the game, you died in the real world. Save the towns, death was possible anywhere.

Later story arcs in the SAO series removed the death-game premise but cleverly adds a real-world consequence of some sort from game objectives that promotes a compelling story line in each arc.

In LH, respawns are part of the natural game mechanic and explained as a magical and natural function that makes enemies essentially immortal. That’s counterbalanced by the player as the Adventurer, who also are immortal and resurrect on death (though not without a price).

Character attack

SAO sword attacks had cooldowns where players had to defend or escape before attacking again. LH attacks, spells or weapons, also had cooldowns that varied based on class. As you might expect, the more powerful or useful the attack or defensive action, the slower the cooldown.

The original SAO story arc had less emphasis on tanks, with no healers available. As the story arcs and new worlds evolved, the general tanker/damage/healer teams became more prevalent and helpful.

LH has always stuck to roles in combat. Teamwork is critical, no matter how small. Episode 2 of season 1 illustrates how good teamwork needn’t have a full party–just a smart one.

Raids

Here is where both shows could really teach a few DDO players on how things are done.

In the original SAO, a raiding party consisted of 49 people, seven groups into seven teams. LH raiding parties were four teams of 6 people for 24 players–twice that in a DDO raid.

While SAO episodes would only generalize the raid functions as front-line fighter and healer/mage support (if any existed), LH made exacting differentiated group roles: tanks, DPS, healers and support.

Where Sword Art Online’s writing emphasizes the character story at the expense of explaining game mechanics except for critical plot points, Log Horizon is superior at turning game mechanics into high drama. The show illustrates specific actions, such as attacks by name, cooldown limits, common MMO issues such as limited ammo, magic points, or weapon wear-and-tear, combined with enemy and boss attacks, their patterns, timing and ramifications for the Adventurers fighting them. Never has a party wipe seemed so realistically portrayed on-screen than in Log Horizon 2.

The episodes say and show what characters know and act, reach their highs and limits, with their communication to others virtually identical to what we’d see in party chat.

Three raid bosses, no escape, total surprise. Party wipe.

Three raid bosses, no escape, total surprise. Party wipe.

It’s the scope of organization that’s interesting to watch in LH season 2. The protagonist, Shiroe, is well-known for his strategist planning for battles large and small.

But even he finds a dreadful surprise when something very unexpected occurs in one raid battle that, in DDO, could only be classified as a game admin taking over a boss NPC and wielding it’s powers manually. In short, the boss goes off-script and adapts to the party attack. He calls in fellow raid bosses from other locations to kill the party. Imagine Aaretreikos from “The Shroud” calling in the Truthful One and the Stormreaver during part 5 of that raid, without notice.

The closest actual problem like this in DDO would be if a GM began to control the boss manually.

Both shows would be boring as hell if they portrayed their gaming as DDO does. We shouldn’t expect our raid bosses to throw something totally new at us each time we entered. But good drama allows these shows to work that premise into story with more than thrilling results.

Teamwork is the Key

Both game-based anime shows do a fine job of bringing a game world to life and keeping true to the MMO vocabularies and monsters such as kobolds or demons.

While SAO is ultimately a story about a male protagonist and a growing base of female players he has helped and who adore him, LH is a story about gaming, since the Adventurer’s lives are literally and fully immersed in the new game reality.

As one might expect, some LH and original SAO players decide never to fight,  since it’s still a very scary experience to battle in first-person. In SAO story arc 1, the death-game, some opt never to play, and others go literally insane, forming a murder guild, one that player-kills for sport in a game where death is real.

But both shows emphasize teamwork and communication. Unlike DDO, tackling a raid boss alone is completely impossible (although SAO’s Kirito managed it a couple of times , once by overleveling and once with a special skill and sheer luck).

There are plenty of threads on the DDO forums where players complain that the game is “too easy.” To resolve that, I’d propose that the game difficulty be able as a “impossible” setting. No matter what the enemy is, they will be 5 times the level of the party’s strongest character. They’d have weapons that could slay you in a handful of hits, or even a single hit if you are not wary. No matter what weapons and gear you have, no matter your level, no matter your magic, only strategy and a full party give you a chance, period.

Your party can’t simply hack and slash at it. It might have a series of party-deadly attacks, even one-hit kills. Your team will have to watch the boss and his minions very carefully.

And, to make things interesting, the quests would have randomized weapon powers, effects, immunities and number of bosses. Some may intentionally target and prioritize killing your healers or tanks. Your team can’t simply stand out in the open.

And raid parties become much larger, say 24. And some might say that’s not enough.

Zergs would be impossible. Soloing would be impossible. Winning would be improbable.

The idea isn’t new, of course. Talk of “mythic” raids and quests are bandied about of late.

The players would be forced to see why Dungeons & Dragons is the most popular game design. It’s not the gear, or the class, or the levels or the versatility. It’s teamwork. It’s always been about teamwork.

As the anime shows illustrate well, solid MMO play is ultimately in perfecting a team. Not everyone can or should be the “ultimate fighter.”

Want an illustrated example? Go to Crunchyroll and see LH season 2, episode 3, “The Abysmal Shaft,” to see how a raid party has to deal with a very, very complex raid boss–the first of many for them.

Off Topic: “Log Horizon”

Log Horizon: A "kinder, gentler" trapped-in-game experience...but no less entertaining.

Log Horizon: A “kinder, gentler” trapped-in-game experience…but no less entertaining.

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?

Kawara, a Monk in the West Wind Brigade guild.

Kawara, a Monk in the West Wind Brigade guild.

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.

Off Topic: “Sword Art Online”

The cover of the manga of “Sword Art Online”

With all the drama involving MyDDO’s passing, I thought it would be fun to talk about gaming from a different perspective.

I’m been on an anime-watching kick for some time now. One show caught my eye and then my rapt attention.

Pretend it’s about 10 years from now. There’s still PC gaming, but the interfaces have changed.

You might have heard of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality gaming interface, in development today,  that fits over your face, giving you an immersive stereoscopic display.

In this near-future, you can place a helmet on your head, which immerses your consciousness into a 3D environment where you don’t move an avatar–you are the avatar.

This device, the NerveGear, is the heart of virtual multiplayer online gaming, and the premise of the anime adaptation of the manga called “Sword Art Online.”

“SAO” is a hot new game, and one player, who goes by the name of “Kirito” during his participation in the game’s beta test, is one of the first 10,000 players in the newly released game.

The world of Aincrad, the game’s setting, is a massive floating castle-like structure with lands divided into 100 levels. The goal of the game is the beat the floor’s boss and ascend to the next, beating the game at the 100th level.

All seems well for Kirito and a new player he befriends, Klein, when their avatars (and all 9,998 other players) are suddenly transported to the town square on Floor 1. There, the game’s creator appears, larger than life as a skyscraper-sized, faceless, robed spectre, to tell all the players that they cannot log out. They must stay in the game and complete it to leave. Further–if you die in the game, you die for real, as the NerveGear will zap your brain on your failure. Others on the outside can’t remove that helmet, or it will kill you as well.

It’s a perma-death game in more ways than one.

I haven’t read the book series (but I will once I can find it) but the anime adaptation is said to be quite acceptable. Whoever wrote this story had a good knowledge of gaming lore and skill. “SAO” is a world where swordplay is the norm: magic does not exist as an offensive force (although a later story introduces another gaming world where the reverse is true and magic is dominant). There are hints that unarmed fighting is possible, but sadly, I didn’t see any ninjas.

As such, it’s a tough world to fight within.

By the start of episode 2, you learn that over 2,000 of the 10,000 players have died in a single month. A group of players, with Kirito and his sole party member, a girl named Asuna, tackle the first boss.

This was where I laughed my butt off: It was a ginormous kobold boss, complete with lieutenants that were essentially paragon kobold fighters (as seen in “The Shroud” or “Enter the Kobold”)

SAO_E02Kobolds! And those things were kicking the ass out of this raid party of at least thirty players!

But that’s what you and I would expect, right? Kobolds aren’t particularly powerful unless you aren’t.

There’s much in the way of gaming lore and in-jokes, but the drama of watching a player move up the ranks to be what we all dream of being; the one player that saves the day–it’s exciting, humorous and extraordinarily dramatic.

There are two gaming worlds that Kirito and friends visit in the anime storyline–and you’ll wish you could grab a copy of the game and log in yourself.

Well, discussing this show any more would totally spoil it for you. You can watch all the episodes of “Sword Art Online” –free–on the anime web site Crunchyroll, or, if you have Hulu Plus, you can find it there.