Many people among the Toonami Faithful have gotten quite the reputation as kings of dissent for Sword Art Online, given their razing criticisms about the show and why the staff that run the site don’t like it.
But I can understand the criticisms. After all, how dare people voice their own opinions on a show they don’t like?!
All sarcasm aside, I have been quite vocal on ideas as to how to make Sword Art Online better, because there is (was?) potential. I make efforts to find the good in everything, and a show I don’t like is no exception. A couple of the following ideas are ones I have voiced on the podcast, and at least one has been borrowed from podcast co-creator Jose Argumedo.
Idea #1: Kirito’s PTSD Struggles
This was something I voiced the last time we had Alex von David on the show, and this was the idea I have adopted from Jose. The chance to explore Kirito’s PTSD after being trapped in SAO for two years was a tragic and borderline criminal missed opportunity, to say the least.
I was not a fan of how they handled it. To have Kirito go right back into a virtual world without even missing a beat to save Asuna was puzzling. Even more infuriating was how they teased it in the first episode (I think) of the Fairy Dance arc, when Kirito faces off with Suguha in a kendo match. They didn’t go anywhere with it, only briefly elaborating on Kirito’s condition during the Death Gun story arc. And even then, it felt sort of forced, what with Kirito somehow knowing Death Gun was from the Laughing Coffin guild in SAO, but that’s a mess I don’t want to get into.
There might be cultural differences that could have kept this idea from happening as Japan is a country that has formally renounced war, but I think it would have made a powerful statement. It would not have made for the best television, but it certainly would have turned Kirito from a generic blank slate character into one that has substance and an actual character arc. It might have turned Sword Art Online into Sword Arthouse Online, but I would have accepted that, especially considering all the anime I’ve watched in my time on this planet.
But how does one write it?
Well, it’s sort of simple. Kirito, ever the likable, but soft-spoken dweeb, starts acting in a much different way than his friends at school remember him. He has panic attacks. He confronts problems in ways he normally wouldn’t, sometimes with violence. He acknowledges he has killed people. He knows he has the capacity to do so. After all, he lived a game where it literally was kill or be killed. He also failed to save Sachi and the guild he joined up with, so have that failure stick with him for a really long time.
In short, this turns into a character tragedy. So how does Kirito overcome? By making his purpose to find Asuna. In Asuna, he has an emotional center. He truly loves her, and when he does find her, Kirito finds he can finally proceed with his life.
As for Asuna, she has many of the same problems, but we see more of her in therapy and trying to overcome in her own way. But she still sees Kirito as that emotional center. And because they are able to play off each other so well emotionally, that’s what makes the Kirito-Asuna relationship work. It’s a symbiotic relationship, not too unlike Shinji and Misato in Evangelion. They need each other in different ways. This story arc also allows us more of a peek into Kirito and Asuna’s brains, and it would allow for a hopeful ending.
Idea #2: Ensemble Cast in Aincrad
A problem I have often voiced with Sword Art is that the stakes were always really high in Aincrad. However, since the players escaped from Sword Art Online, the stakes are no more. The constant threat of death is gone, and there’s no reason to fear for these characters since they can just respawn. So how would the story get around it, without feeling artificial?
You focus on all the other characters that Kirito has met.
When the viewer thinks about it, a lot of these people that Kirito has met are a lot more interesting than him. Asuna was definitely interesting before she got hit with the Waifu Ray, Lisbeth could have been explored a lot better, and Patrick Seitz—I mean—Agil, could’ve been highlighted for at least ONE episode. Don’t even get me started on how fantastic an arc about Klein would have been. You could have dedicated most of this show to Klein! Let’s also not forget a ton of other minor characters, or making one-off episodes about the strike team and their progress in clearing floors, or just life in general in Aincrad. There’s a wealth of ideas here that went unexplored that would have kept the world of Aincrad fresh, and get the viewer intimately familiar with it.
Another thing that could have worked, while not technically in Aincrad, would have answered one of the most fundamental questions the show raised: how long did these 10,000 people who were playing SAO have to live, even when kept alive by machines? How did they get to the hospital? What about more specifics about how the NerveGear works? Also, give me more of the political fallout from this. Give me the manhunt for Kayaba. You could practically have Sword Art Online meets 24 with all the content that was left out. All it would need is a Jack Bauer expy.
Would this have been the panacea that Sword Art needed? We may never know, but it would have offered the viewer a chance to stay in Aincrad for a bit longer.
Idea #3: More SAO Fallout
In a way, this could be counted as an extension of the first two ideas, but hear me out. I’d like to see more of the aftermath of what happens when people come out of Sword Art Online. Again, the purpose of this is expanding the focus of the story beyond Kirito. Be warned, this could get dark.
What happens to those who survived? Did any PK’ers survive? Are they tried as criminals?
What about those who weren’t PK’s and survived? Do they try to find their friends in the real world, or do they just withdraw from society? Are they able to overcome (Hint: not everyone does)? Maybe they band together like the survivors of the Hillsborough Disaster in England.
Most importantly of all, how is the Sword Art Online incident remembered? Whose heads roll politically? How does the media see it? Is it a national tragedy, or just something that is kicked aside and forgotten?
The dark side of me says that all of the negatives happen, because that’s what happens in society. Many SAO survivors commit suicide, unable to live with their survivor’s guilt. Others die from muscular atrophy, unable to recover from not being active for two years. Maybe some die of natural chronic illnesses they had like cystic fibrosis, asthma, and other debilitating conditions (they used the game as an escape), and they were unable to receive their needed medication because they weren’t conscious enough from the NerveGear to take it.
The Sword Art Online incident is forgotten in time. And due to the ever-expanding influence of technology on our lives, it is forgotten even faster than many tragedies. The survivors are forgotten, marginalized, told to get over it.
And yet, there’s a part of me that wants some good to come out of this. SAO survivors dedicate their lives to creating strict gaming regulations on virtual reality and augmented reality gear. They rally and urge people to never forget the incident. The SAO survivors become a community, becoming pillars of strength for each other. In short, there IS good that comes out of it, and the characters, despite their future, are able to find something to live for, day by day.
But hey, I’m just a regular jabroni with a keyboard and opinions. What could I possibly know?
—Jim Nelson, Mr. Toonami Faithful Podcast