Sword Art Online — Levels Are Just Numbers

Ever since I watched .hack//SIGN over a decade ago, I have been in love with the idea of setting stories in the context of MMORPGs. I think it’s the coexistence of two worlds, of the real and the digital one, that immediately gives layers to every character, a bit of mystery and secrecy of the person behind the computer screen. Too, the way the “rules” of the online world are tangible and exact things, how they’re presented as a sort of setting-building that makes no apologies or excuses. Or maybe it’s just because it legitimizes a passion for video games in a tale of rousing adventure.

But there’s never really been much like .hack since, leaving the entire concept a lonely and untapped genre. It’s especially conspicuous when you consider that MMO games are exponentially more relevant than they were in the early 2000s. So when I first heard about Sword Art Online, I was determined to watch it. The hook alone is pretty arresting, with thousands of so-called VRMMO players not just trapped within the game, but faced with the stark reality that dying in the virtual world also means death in the real one! Still, I had a few reservations. On the surface, SAO had the makings of yet another teenage male wish-fulfillment story, the kind where a normal geeky guy’s skill at video games makes him a hero and nets him the girl. I was prepared for that being pretty much all I got out of the show, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Dual Wield That’s because SAO is dedicated making the game world more than just window dressing. While its collection of rules and concepts are not always objectively sound if presented in a “real” MMORPG, Sword Art Online weaves its unique brand of video game logic through every layer of the narrative. Whether it’s the ebb and flow of its gorgeously animated, adrenaline-pumping battles and PvP duels, the fulfillment of quest lines and their requisite rare drops, or an entire episode devoted to a murder mystery wherein the culprit seemingly breaks the laws of SAO’s reality, the show never lets you forget that the world of Aincrad is part of a game. Even the protagonist, Kirito, has much of his golden-boy power and plot invulnerability explained by his previous experience as a beta tester. It’s great fun, and this exploration of the game itself is a piece of the puzzle .hack//SIGN glossed over in its version of the stuck in a video game tale.

But for all its mechanics and RPG trappings, the first arc of SAO is as much about relationships as it is the crossing of swords. While it is a love story, describing it as just another teenage romance sells it short. It’s about forging friendships and family, coping with death and loss, and finding a way to exist in the violent digital world that has become reality for the thousands of players trapped in Aincrad.

(12) And Asuna, the show’s requisite waifu for Kirito, far exceeds such a label. That’s because Asuna is more than a damsel backdrop for Kirito to show off his mettle. If anything, Asuna carries the show. While Kirito has his beta test experience and a few convenient plot abilities to fall back on, Asuna’s aptitude at the game was tempered in the game itself. She is on the front-lines despite not knowing the road ahead, and it is through her own conviction and power that the day is saved at critical moments throughout the show’s first story arc.

But it’s for all these reasons SAO’s second story arc “Fairy Dance” seems to fall short. The game that was so intrinsically tied to the narrative has become more of an afterthought, relegated to the weak PvP structure of Alfheim Online and a few beats dedicated to the new flying mechanics. Asuna, for all her agency in the first arc, has become little more than a princess to rescue. And with Kirito logging into a new MMO where the “you die in the game, you die in real life” hook is gone, most of the dramatic tension evaporates.

Overfly That’s not to say the second arc is bad. It’s perfectly watchable, and despite fan outrage that I largely chalk up to “She’s not Asuna,” Sugaha/Leafa is cute and likeable. It just doesn’t deliver on the promise exhibited in the earlier episodes, instead falling hook, line, and sinker into the mire of expectations it so expertly cast off before.

Sword Art Online and OVA

It’s easy to look at a show like SAO and want to apply a traditional level-based system to it and recreate the countless mechanical minutia that make up the VRMMO—but such granularity is rarely warranted. The mechanics are more of a narrative device than anything any character concretely follows. For example, Kirito’s passive regen ability is mentioned for exactly one sequence and never acknowledged again. Representing that Ability, if you really wanted to, can be treated as Armored, Barrier, or one of many other Abilities, since its only effect was to prevent receiving damage from his would-be PKers.


Unsurprisingly, level too can be treated with much broader strokes. Instead of incrementing a multi-digit number one-by-one, characters instead receive a much more abstract Level Bonus, ranging from +0 (for the newbie rif-raff) to +5 (for the top tier, maxed out heroes of the story.) This Bonus applies to every action the character does. However in contested rolls, characters’ Level Bonuses will cancel each other out. Should a Level Bonus +3 character attempt to attack a Level Bonus +2 character, the effective bonus is only +1. And so on.



One of the more unique mechanics presented in Sword Art Online is the “Switch” technique that all characters have access to. Despite being the core strategy for winning a handful of seemingly unwinnable battles, it is never really fully explained (and seems to behave entirely differently in the video games based on the anime.) Yet, it inspired me to at least give my impression of how it would work in OVA.

In addition to the usual complications in OVA, campaigns based on Sword Art Online feature another: the Flinch complication. As the name would suggest, the state is short and fleeting, not lasting until the opponent’s next turn but existing only in the brief moment in time it is inflicted. The exact effect differs depending on the opponent. Some enemies with seeming impenetrable armor will briefly reveal weaknesses, losing their Armored bonus. Others will let down their guard, eliminating their Defense Roll. Whatever the circumstances, there is revealed a brief window of opportunity.

(341) This Flinch complication is inflicted in one of two ways: One is by dealing any other combat complication, which will also inflict the Flinched status. The other is reserved for enemies with large, heavy-hitting weapons or attacks. If they should ever attack a character but deal no damage, they are immediately put into the Flinched state.

To take advantage of the Flinched complication, characters mustSwitch with an ally. By giving up their next action, the ally character may act immediately, garnering what benefits are to be had from their briefly Flinching opponent. Once two characters switch, neither character may do so again until their next active turn. But in this way, even the toughest enemies may fall!


So, readers, if you were to find yourself unable to log out of an online game, which one would you want it to be? Or for a more realistic question, what online video game do you really wish there were a tabletop RPG version of?

4 thoughts on “Sword Art Online — Levels Are Just Numbers”

    1. I only saw a few episodes before getting busy with some client work and somehow never made my way back. I’d like to finish the series—and maybe make another overview about it here! Would be interesting to see how it contrasts with SAO.

  1. Q. So, readers, if you were to find yourself unable to log out of an online game, which one would you want it to be?

    A. I’m a coward so nothing with deadly combat. Probably something from the Test Drive franchise. Ideally that would allow me to cruise around Monaco etc. while listening to my custom playlist. Of course, if this was an anime (or an OVA campaign) things would get very competitive and very dramatic very fast.

    1. Ever since I watched Ex-Driver, I’ve always wanted to toy around with representing that kind of over-the-top driving action in RPG form. Maybe I should revisit that series on the blog at some point!

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