The concept of being trapped in an MMORPG isn’t a new thing, believe it or not. With recent anime titles like Sword Art Online, one might think it was a new concept but it’s dated back much further than that. The oldest example I’m going to give here is Otherland, which was a brilliant four book series by Tad William. Some of the ideas in it are outdated but others are surprisingly spot on, and enough so that the books were recently turned into an actual MMORPG.
Moving past that, however, what is it about being trapped in an MMO that appeals to so many people? If you’re new to the concept let me explain it to you. In this scenario, an individual would use a VR headset to connect to an MMO, and in the process they would lose the ability to log out. Now this can be achieved in a number of different manners, one of the most common being a neural interface that intercepts the signals sent from the brain to the body. It sounds horrifying on the surface, but how much fun would it be to find yourself stuck in World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2?
Okay, those are bad examples; they would get more than a little repetitive wouldn’t they? What if it was a fully functioning MMO like Black Desert Online with a fun crafting system and an extensive world to explore? The thing about an MMORPG is that you tend to have an actual idea of where you’re going, unlike in real life. There are defined stats, there is an objective, and most importantly, it’s not real life. So what if it became reality? What if you were forced to live out a portion of your life trapped in an MMO? We might not be quite ready for that plunge just yet, and there probably isn’t a good reason for it to happen, but we can definitely fantasize about it all we want. There are several books and shows that explore that possibility and we’re going to discuss three of them here today.
.hack//Sign and .hack//Roots - The First 'Trapped in an MMO' Experience
The first thing I want to say is that the way the Japanese portray virtual worlds is freaking weird. There, I said it. .hack//sign and Roots are absolutely no exception as they portray a heavily instanced world that would even drive the most hardcore Guild Wars 1 players insane. There are a few quests, but for the most part the game is a dungeon crawler with each dungeon placed in an instanced field.
Leveling is done through grinding and gaining exp in dungeons so it’s all pretty straightforward. The one thing I DID love about this world was the PvP – that was insane. The game was said to have a level cap of 99 with players learning new ways to play their class as soon as they hit that cap. In any case, the anime depicts the world I mentioned above and this isn’t a typical ‘trapped’ story. Instead it’s more of a case of a few people being trapped in an MMO while the rest of the world moves on.
The story covers several different characters but the most interesting thing is that it doesn’t conclude at the end of the series. Instead, you’re intended to play through a series of PlayStation 2 games that wrap up the story and introduce you to several OVAs, which detail what’s happening in the real world. Spoiler: The real world is pretty boring.
Now if you want to dive into these 'trapped in an MMO' titles you’re going to have a bit of trouble. First of all, PS2’s are dropping off the face of the earth quickly, and secondly, the games themselves were never in good supply. You’re probably going to end up paying just as much for them now as you would have paid on release, if not more. For some of the later games you could pay up to $250 depending on the seller. Still, if you’re dedicated and you have the money, it’s a great story to get lost in.
Sword Art Online
You’ve already heard of this one, and unlike other MMO Anime themes, it actually gives you a logical explanation for why they become trapped inside the game. In this case, it’s a VR headset that connects with the neural pathways and intercepts signals from the brain so that it feels as if you’re actually moving around rather than interacting with a controller. It’s a good idea in theory, but in the story, the creator removed the logout button and informed them that he created this world just so he could meddle in it. He also told them that if they wanted out, they would literally have to clear the game, or in other words, defeat all of the raid bosses.I’m not going to tell you how it ended, but I am going to say that this is literally one of the most twisted and angering anime series I’ve ever watched.
*Spoiler*: I was actually so happy to see the antagonist ‘die’ that I let out a scream of joy. There’s a lot of hate for this series out there, I’ve seen quite a bit, but to be perfectly honest I couldn’t find much wrong with it. When an anime actually brings out a real emotional response, you know it’s good.
It's worth mentioning that just like .Hack, SAO has other media, this time a series of light novels on which the series is based. The anime series incorporates the light novels along with several side stories that make the overall narrative a little more complete. Now we just need a good SAO game and we’ll be good to go. Additionally, fans will now be able to look forward to a live action American television series based on SAO, and while there are many who aren’t entirely thrilled with the concept, I’m curious to see what comes out of it.
Now the one thing I found more than a little odd about the world in question was the setup. Rather than an open world, Aincrad was presented as a 100 level castle that the players had to clear before the game would end and they would be able to wake up. I could understand a raid progression, but I don’t know if I’ve ever actually seen a game set up like that, other than dungeon crawlers, or TES: Battlespire, which certainly wasn’t an MMO. Did I miss something? Tell me in the comments!
Finally, we come to Log Horizon. There are a lot of mixed reviews for this one with some people saying it’s better than SAO while others say it’s far too generic for a 'trapped in an MMO' scenario. I personally get a little confused watching it because it appears to be a somewhat medieval society with modern infrastructure, but that’s neither here nor there. This show does have some very interesting aspects, the first being that NPC’s seem to take on a life of their own once the players become trapped within the game, and secondly, players are forced to learn cooking.
During a good chunk of the series, the players spend some time complaining about how the food they make from the menu just doesn’t taste right, but they come to realize that if an individual has the chef skill they are able to cook food manually. This discovery resulted in an interesting plot line where a small group of players were able to seize control of a capital city and ultimately drive out a group of player killers. The one thing that sets this one apart from the previous two is the lack of perma-death. Dying in this world does not equal death in the real world, though there are many arguments that could be made for .Hack. Quite frankly, in .Hack, the 'trapped in an MMO' and perma death scenario all depended on whether or not the game felt like it.
There are a few others out there but these represent the best of the best when it comes to the whole ‘we’re trapped in an MMO anime genre.' With MMORPGs becoming more and more popular as of late, we can probably expect more of this and hopefully more original live action concepts. Technically speaking, we’re probably several decades away from actually becoming trapped in a game ourselves but it’s definitely nice to fantasize about what we’ll be doing once technology reaches that point and how the world will react to it.
Even if we don’t find ourselves in an SAO scenario, MMORPGs are definitely becoming more interactive and the introduction of at-home virtual reality equipment will most definitely make the VR world more pleasant to spend time in. I’m not saying I’ll be first in line for an SAO like experience (though getting away from my life and grinding some serious experience would definitely do me some good), but hey, your kids will probably deal with it at some point and that’s just magical to think about!