After a dormant period of three years on the television front, things are heating up for Sword Art Online. There won’t be just a third season of the show, but now also a spin-off set in a science fiction MMO shooter. My interests lie more in the spin-off.
To summarize, Gun Gale Online was the VR game introduced during the first half of SAO’s second season—the Phantom Bullet arc—trading in its usual fantasy RPG trappings for Borderlands-style ravaged wastelands. Funnily enough, given the PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds-dominated 2017 gaming environment, the centerpiece of the whole arc was even a battle royale-themed tournament, in there named Bullet of Bullets.
As I’ve always been more into sci-fi than fantasy, this all sounded right up my alley. The game itself, in turn, also looked killer to play. As someone who liked Sword Art Online, flaws and all, I quite looked forward to what was coming up.
A good game concept did not fully translate wholesale into quality television, however. As has been customary of SAO as a whole, Phantom Bullet was a severely mixed bag. On the plus side, beyond the novel game world setting, it introduced new narrative tools to the series’ arsenal—legit thematic exploration, a massive step up in characterization even bordering character study—that expanded what SAO could be.
In fact, I’d argue that the seeds of almost everything that contributed to the second season’s other half, the Mother’s Rosario arc, being so great could be traced back to the groundwork laid out by Phantom Bullet. In that sense, it’s somewhat like the Destiny to the other’s Destiny 2.
But true to analogy, Phantom Bullet’s merits existed in tandem alongside a plethora of major flaws: Glacial pacing issues, a stupid-ass resolution to the central mystery underpinning the action, last-episode demeaning and gross-as-fuck treatment of a prominent female character (sound familiar?)—the works. Plus, the depiction of Gun Gale Online as a game was rather thin, as I didn’t feel like they gave a full cross-section representing the whole game.
Phantom Bullet could have been a good arc elevated to something great by its compelling narrative choices. What came about instead, however, was something messy that got redeemed by its character and thematic merits into a net worthwhile watch. That is the conflicted legacy with which the upcoming Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online (btw holy shit this fucking title) will have to contend.
So, with the only anime footage available so far being a slideshow of character art, and considering my lack of series knowledge from not having read the Gun Gale Online light novels, how am I feeling about this upcoming project? Well, character art says about just about nothing what to substantively expect of the series, but for what it’s worth, the art design remains good. Getting into the more speculative stuff, however, that can be broken down into a few threads.
Part of me is excited that we get to revisit Gun Gale Online in a dedicated series. With how unfleshed-out the game was after its feature in Sword Art Online season two, I am hoping that this will give more of a chance to expand what it is all about. The fact that this appears to be, by all accounts, a Kirito-free affair bodes even better for that, as that means there may not be an unreasonably gifted player breaking all the rules out of plot convenience.
On the flipside, part of me is a bit sad that it looks like there also will be no focus on Sinon. SAO was not particularly renowned for having strong characters at the start, especially for main role; she was the first one to buck that trend, and in turn the single best part of the original Phantom Bullet arc, hands-down. She deserves having far more stories told about her! New protagonist LLENN has some major shoes to fill with Sinon’s absence.
That said, I do find it an encouraging start that someone female still gets to keep that role. Additionally, the summaries coming out mention that she is a college student. As everyone else in the protagonist role has been a high school student, that means the series will be treading new—and, in my view, more fertile—ground with her in the driver’s seat, and I hope they make an effort to explore full-dive VR from such a vantage point.
Finally, part of me is cautiously optimistic over the narrative potential for Gun Gale Online. The reason is a matter of authorship, something that I found out literally only a few days ago with the anime announcement, and would have caught my utmost attention far earlier had I only been fully aware.
Sword Art Online author Reki Kawahara does not write the Gun Gale Online light novels, only serving in a supervising role. The author of GGO, instead, is Keiichi Sigsawa. That name on its own did not mean a thing to me when hearing about the light novels nearly a year ago, but the news about the newly announced anime adaptation made me realize that his past body of work does mean a hell of a lot.
Specifically, how he is the writer responsible for Kino’s Journey.
That right there makes me about five times more interested in the prospect of this spin-off than I initially was. For full disclosure, once again, I have not read the Kino’s Journey light novel series. However, the 2003 series is basically one of my favorite anime ever, as well as one of the most unique I’ve ever experienced. It is also worlds away from much of what has defined Sword Art Online.
(on a side note, shout-out to the new series that starts this Friday!!)
Where SAO is an often intense and bombastic affair, Kino’s Journey is far quieter and more subdued. Kino’s Journey lacks most of the animation highs imbued to SAO, but steeps itself in philosophical and moral quandaries to Twilight Zone-like extents that almost no other series has ever matched, and revels in uncomfortable ambiguity while doing so.
All of which is to say, it’s a series for haunting one’s thoughts. Plus, the titular Kino is one of the best protagonists out there, courtesy of how she views and engages with the world around her.
I have zero clue how such a skill set is going to apply to a Sword Art Online offshoot, but I am mightily interested in seeing what the results could be. At the very least, maybe it bodes well for how LLENN will shape up as a character? Her outfit even somewhat looks similar to Kino’s getup!
And what if this ends up going even farther than just that? There is one lesson that I hope it steals from Mother’s Rosario, Sword Art Online’s best arc. One of the most fundamental reasons why it eclipses everything else in the series is because it is the one story out of the whole pack centered around the act of playing video games, and what compels players to do so. Based on his work with Kino’s Journey, that seems like a thematic strain upon which Keiichi Sigsawa might be amply qualified to seize.
Granted, let’s not forget the obvious counterpoint to such hopes: Dude, it’s still Sword Goddamn Art Online, temper your expectations accordingly. And...fine, fair enough.
Ultimately, however, time will eventually tell. And this foolish, stubborn SAO fan plans to find that all out for myself.