The Infinite Zenith

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Category Archives: Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online: Review and Reflections at the Halfway Point

“What do you say we tell these Squad Jam people to fuck themselves, then we can go home, find a couch and a TV, then sit back and watch Pitohui burn to the goddamned ground?” –Domingo Chavez, Tom Clancy’s Locked On

Karen Kohiruimaki is a Hokkaido native who moves to Tokyo in pursuit of her post secondary studies. Because of her height, she is insecure and finds herself wishing that she were shorter. Her best friend, Miyu Shinohara, suggests that Karen take up a VR game, where she may customise an avatar to her heart’s content, and after iterating through multiple games, Karen encounters Gun Gale Online (GGO for brevity), which provides her with a diminutive character that she takes an immediate liking to. She takes on the screen name Llenn, and after exploring the game world with her new avatar, Karen begins playing the PvE components and earns enough currency to upgrade her weapons and gear. One day, while breaking from her travels, she is ambushed by other players and manages to take them out. Rumours begin speaking about the “Pink Devil”, and this attracts the attention of a fellow player, Pitohui. She introduces Karen to the “Squad Jam” battle royale competition and asks her to compete alongside fellow player “M”. M covers a range of techniques and gear for the battle royale mode, bringing Karen up to speed, and after out-manoeuvring a team of military-trained players, Karen’s confidence increases. She and M manage to fight off an assault from another team that had commandeered airboats, but when moving to engage the final remaining team, M breaks down, fearing for his life should he lose. He admits to Karen that Pitohui would kill him in reality should they lose, and befuddled, Karen decides to leave him behind and engage the final team on her own. She is overwhelmed, but M reappears to provide sniper fire, allowing Karen to finish off the remaining team’s leader.

Emboldened by her experiences, Karen cuts her hair short to signify a new beginning, and runs into the team’s real-world players: rhythm athletics club members who are in high school. Spending time with her new friends, Karen also runs into Gōshi Asōgi, who plays M in GGO. Gōshi reveals that he knows and is in love with Pitohui, but fears Pitohui will commit suicide should she lose in GGO. Perplexed, Karen decides to help him out nonetheless and asks Miyu to join up wiht them. This is where we are in Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online (Alternative from here on out, as spelling the entire thing out is too lengthy): immediately, my impressions of this Sword Art Online spin-off is that it is very enjoyable. Kirito’s absence is a significant one, and I contend that the series proceeds smoothly without his presence. I’ve long found his character to be implausible, and his attitude insufferable. By comparison, Karen is a very plausible character who finds escape in video games, and while she may enjoy unnatural performance in GGO, her real-world struggles and desire to escape to a fictional space are something that gamers can strongly relate to. I personally play shooters because it’s fun to both explore new worlds and test the limit of my skills in a space where performance is not relevant: reality requires that put in an honest effort into what I do, so I escape this in video games and play where how I do is unimportant. Karen’s newfound sense of confidence from playing GGO is also refreshing to watch. At the halfway point, however, Alternative also reintroduces the old death-related themes that characterised Sword Art Online. Here, it is not a forced component, and Alternative explores a darker side of gaming, as well. While perhaps overtly dramatic, I am curious to see how Karen will play a role in helping Gōshi with Pitohui.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • By Alternative‘s halfway point, audiences know that Llenn is Karen and M is Gōshi, so I’m going to refer to them by their real-world names rather than their in-game names. While engaging, half of Alternative is set in a desert akin to Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds‘s Miramar map. Here, the two are playing sniper-spotter, where Gōshi decides against engaging another group of enemies. The first episode drops viewers straight into things and ends with Karen beating up a group made up of either Special Units (Japan’s equivalent of SWAT) or JDSF’s Special Forces members.

  • Karen Kohiruimaki stands at 183 centimeters and is voiced by Tomori Kusunoki (who’d played minor roles in Eromanga SenseiGirls’ Last Tour and Slow Start, but also has recently played more major roles in Märchen Mädchen). Uncomfortable with her height, Karen is disinterested in fashion, prefers reading and is quite introverted. By the time of Alternative, Karen is a second-year university student in an undisclosed major and does not appear to have a part-time job, so going on a limb and recalling my own experiences, I would also conclude that Karen’s a reasonably capable student if she can find the time to game and keep up with her studies.

  • I say this because in my second year, I nearly fell below the 3.3 GPA required to stay in my honours program because I was ineffective in managing my time. After my third year, however, things turned around. Here, Karen is talking with Miyu, her best friend and a gamer who puts me to shame in terms of hours spent gaming. There are really all sorts of people out there – while I count myself a gamer of moderate skill, there are some people who spend more time playing games than I spent working. I am always baffled by some folks who have a hundred service stars for their gas grenades in Battlefield 1, for instance.

  • Karen initially struggles to find a game with a proper avatar for her, and this is something I cannot relate to. For games where I can customise how I look, I usually choose something that isn’t too ugly and then pop straight into the game. This moment also highlights an interesting safety feature of the new VR headsets in Alternative: if the user’s vitals reach unsafe points, the system will automatically disengage. I certainly would not mind seeing more fanservice moments of Karen in Alternative, but for the present, this has been very limited.

  • Karen eventually lands on a tiny female avatar that is the epitome of Japanese standards for kawaii: a petite frame, round face, large eyes and a squeaky voice. Kusunoki does a solid job with voices in Alternative, presenting Llenn’s voice as squeaky as one is wont to hearing in shows like Kiniro Mosaic or Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu Ka?, switching over to a deeper, quieter and more mature voice when playing Karen. This avatar is precisely what Karen’s been looking for, and she prances about in celebration. Soon after creating her avatar and enjoying it, Karen decides to actually go into the world of GGO and see what it’s about.

  • Initially participating in PvE against monsters to collect the resources needed to buy better gear, Karen’s experience in GGO is not too dissimilar to that of games like Destiny or The Division. In fact, The Division encourages players to reach level thirty, wherein the entire array of skills, talents and perks unlock. In MMO terms, The Division allows one to unlock all branches of a skill tree at the level cap, and then forces players to pick the combination of skills, talents and perks that best suit their play-style. It is at level thirty when things get real interesting in The Division.

  • Unlike Karen and GGO, I’m completely optimised for PvE combat in The Division, and I get my ass kicked if I should run into any rogue agents. After some time in GGO, Karen has earned enough currency to customise her looks somewhat, and while she enjoys a beverage here, her choice of pink gear allows her to blend in to the fiery desert sunset. This is where she has her first PvP encounter: while some folks find Llenn’s design to be overpowered, her high speed and puny hitbox is offset by a low durability. While the size of female hitboxes are apparently the subject of no small debate, the best games out there with variably-sized hitboxes will always balance things out so that characters that are harder to hit are also more fragile.

  • Karen eventually meets one Pitohui in GGO: a highly skilled player, Pitohui teams up with Karen on PvE missions. Pitohui’s identity is no mystery to me, and she’s voiced by Yōko Hikasa (Mio Akiyama of K-On!, Houki Shinonono from Infinite Stratos and New Game‘s Kō Yagami). I’ve long enjoyed Hikasa’s performances: she’s able to project a sense of maturity and sexiness in her characters, and her singing voice is also quite good. The music of K-On! with Mio on leading vocals, and Mio’s character songs are the best place to hear Hikasa’s performances.

  • Pitohui plays GGO the same way I play many shooters: with different guns on almost every mission. It’s always fun to experience shooters with a diverse range of weapons, and things get old real fast if I were to run through every mission or match with the “best” or “easy” guns. This is why I will occasionally mix it up in things like battlefield, where I run with weapons I am unfamiliar with for the thrill of the challenge. Of course, if I get salty, I will switch back over to the “tryhard” guns. Karen, on the other hand, prefers to run with her FN P90, a space age-looking personal defense weapon with a 50-round capacity, fires at 900 RPM and shoots 5.7×28mm ammunition. Its design makes it highly manoeuvrable, and in Battlefield 3, I found the P90 a fine gun when outfitted with a laser sight, suppressor and Kobra RDS.

  • In Battlefield 4, I’ve unlocked the P90 but have yet to use it extensively for my engineer: the UMP-45 is my most used PDW. Battlefield 1 has changed the way gunplay works, and I’ve not touched earlier Battlefield titles for some time, but I am tempted to come back and try Karen’s loadout, which is a stock P90-only setup I would call “hipfire scrub”. Like all gamers who want to get the most bang for their buck, Karen occasionally consults online guides to better improve her strategy, although there are occasions when she gets in touch with Miyu, as well.

  • With all of the formalities out of the way now, the Squad Jam event begins. My main reason for not playing current battle royale titles like Fortnite or PUBG is that I am an impatient gamer. I am at my best running around, killing people and then dying, respawning and doing the same. As a result of my styles, I have a very high number of deaths in Battlefield games, but I also contribute greatly to my team’s performances. In other games, where staying alive is important, I tend to play more cautiously. Here, Karen is seen with Gōshi: as M, Gōshi rolls with the M14 EBR and the HK45. In order to approximate his loadout, I would run with support class with the M39 EMR and the Compact 45.

  • I’ve opted to leave out most of the combat scenes in Alternative because they’re meant to be watched in motion, not as individual stills. After taking down a team of players with real-world training and a team with airboats, Gōshi and Karen evade a third team. Gōshi reveals a plot to kill Karen so he can stand down without dying, leading to the most hilarious moment of Alternative that leaves Karen’s Llenn with what I’ve come to call funny faces. The presence of these funny faces show that Alternative is not taking itself as seriously as its predecessors, which I greatly welcome.

  • Against a team of deadly-looking female players, Karen finds herself outgunned, but clever use of plasma grenades that look a great deal like the seeker mines of The Division and support from Gōshi, who’s regained his composure, allows Karen to escape defeat and fight another day. As Llenn, Karen’s playstyle is absolutely brutal and sexy: she makes use of Llenn’s small size, speed, game mechanics and her environment to devastate her enemies in ways that I’ve not seen from the YouTubers that I follow, even sacrificing her P90 to stop the enemy’s bullets for the sake of victory.

  • In a one-on-one, Karen manages to best the remaining group’s leader with a knife, bringing an end to her first-ever Squad Jam competition. Despite the first five episodes being focused around Squad Jam, Alternative never becomes boring at all, and I am very fond of Karen/Llenn’s characterisation. Lacking the things that made Kirito a dull protagonist at best (and an insufferable one at worse), I feel that Sword Art Online would have done better to have Kirito encounter a larger number of male players, doing away with the group of female admirers he accumulated in favour of people who are there to share his experiences and challenges. Back in Alternative, Karen’s win brings to mind how Jeremy defeats DeathStriker6666 in Pure Pwnage by means of a knife in the “Lanageddon” episode.

  • In the real world, Karen meets up with the high school students whom she’d played against in the Squad Jam tournament and finds in them a new group of friends who are impressed with her play-style. Having long envied them for their short stature, Karen had no idea they were equally envious of her figure, and it is with the confidence of victory from GGO that Karen finally is able to break the ice with this group of high school students. She’s cut her hair short to signify the turning over of a new leaf.

  • I’ve been called a scrub before for using PDWs like the P90 in Battlefield 3, and in Battlefield 1, players who use the Automatico M1918 Trench are similarly disparaged. High RPM weapons, or “spray-and-pray” weapons require very little skill to use in single combat: because they fire quickly, they have a higher DPS as well. In this sense, Karen is a scrub for favouring PDWs and speed: her approach is one of my favourite ways to roll, although since Battlefield 1 introduced the sweet spot mechanic and increased muzzle velocity to make sniping easier, I’ve taken to using bolt action rifles more frequently. At present, I can make use of any rifle outside of their sweet spot and be modestly effective with them.

  • Introducing everyone on the rhythm athletics club members will be an exercise for another day, but their story is another example of how video games can be helpful. Initially, this group of girls lacked team spirit, so their coach encouraged them to work on this in a virtual space, where faces and names do not matter. After becoming hooked on GGO, the girls have seen an improved performance in their club activities and also have another hobby from which to bond over. They seek Karen’s counsel in trying to improve, since the thrill of Squad Jam has left a considerable impression on them.

  • Karen travels home while on break, and upon returning to Tokyo, finds herself face to face with Gōshi. She’s visibly shocked at meeting Gōshi in person, sufficiently so that she has another funny face moment. I note here that if my readers are interested in meeting me in person, there’d better be a bloody good reason for it.

  • Gōshi explains a bit of his story with Pitohui to Karen and details Pitohui’s obsession with death in a story that is chilling as befitting of Sword Art Online. Thrill-seekers such as these are rare in reality, and Gōshi’s devotion to Pitohui foreshadows at what is to happen next. The second half of Alternative will follow another Squad Jam battle where the stakes are much higher, and if executed well, this will certainly be a blast to watch.

  • I will conclude this Alternative post with a fanservice image of Miyu for your amusement, and explain the page quote: it’s sourced from Tom Clancy’s Locked On, and is a reasonable approximation of how Karen might feel about things concerning Gōshi and Pitohui. Instead of backing down, however, she recruits game expert Miyu to help out, and I’m curious to see what Miyu brings to the table. Since we’re dealing with games, The Division‘s Onslaught global event begins tomorrow, and Wednesday will see the reveal trailer to Battlefield V.

It is therefore appropriate to say that, despite its simpler showing insofar, Alternative has nonetheless done a fantastic job of conveying what a VR battle royale shooter looks like, and for illustrating the postive impact that video games may have on folk like Karen. Sword Art Online had always excelled in having strong background and world-building, as well as for inclusion of game mechanics in its narrative. I understand that presently, battle royale games are all the rage, especially with the likes of Fortnite and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, so Alternative is also relevant to the period. While I’m adamantly against playing battle royale games because they involve more running than shooting, I also accept that the unpredictability and the attendant thrill adds to the genre’s appeal. Seeing terminology and mechanics from first person shooters make their way into GGO, with a game type that has surged in popularity was therefore highly entertaining. GGO is especially attractive for me because I’ve played enough shooters to know how they work from a technical level (I presently don’t play MMOs). By comparison, Sword Art Online‘s thematic elements and characterisation have traditionally been weaker. While themes of death slowly begin to return with a host of individuals with uncommon backgrounds, Alternative has remained reasonably grounded and relatable. One would therefore hope that this trend continues; at the risk of treading on toes, Kirito’s absence and all of the romance-related turmoil makes Alternative all the stronger, and one would hope that Karen’s story in GGO is unfettered by unnecessary romance, allowing Alternative to focus purely on video games and their potential positive impact on one’s mental health.

Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale- On The Portrayal of Augmented Reality in Popular Fiction and a Movie Review

“A significant portion of the population… will have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day.” –Tim Cook

The recent surge of virtual reality and augmented reality technologies has come about as a consequence of increasingly efficient graphics hardware and portable display devices; my graduate thesis demonstrated the flexibility of my eukaryotic cell simulations in being able to run on platforms as diverse as the Oculus Rift headset and Cave Augmented Virtual Environment (CAVE), both of which offered a unique environment in which to explore a virtual cell. My models were later adapted to run on Microsoft’s HoloLens, an augmented reality platform. Compared to virtual reality, which immerses users in a virtual space, augmented reality projects virtual elements into real space. In my thesis, I concluded that these visualisation technologies would be powerful tools for education, making what was once possibly only in science fiction one step closer to reality. With this being said, these developments remain very much in the experimental stage at present, but in the realm of fiction, technological advancement is much greater in order to facilitate the narrative. Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale is one such work of fiction – a film that premièred in February this year, it follows Kirito and Asuna as they investigate a mysterious phenomenon of memory loss amongst players when they begin encountering SAO bosses in Ordinal Scale, which has seen a rise in popularity after multiple incidents involving VR technologies. It turns out that Tetsuhiro Shigemura, the Augma’s developer, implemented the system in order to collect players for memories related to his late daughter, who lost her life in SAO years previously. Intending to make use of machine learning techniques, Shigemura aims to resurrect his daughter as an AI construct.

Like its predecessors before it, Ordinal Scale‘s strengths lie within its depiction of how a technology might be used within a society: depictions of how ordinary users are drawn to game events in Ordinal Scale mirror phenomenon seen with last year’s Pokémon Go fad, and subtle elements, such as playing AR games and collecting points that can be redeemed for real-world rewards lie within the realm of reality, showing the technology as being one that is quite familiar despite the novel modes of interaction and presentation. Ordinal Scale thus suggests that technologies capable of great popularity and amassing large numbers of users can potentially be harmful for these users if their developers have a malicious or misguided intent – Shigemura had meant for his technology to resurrect his daughter’s consciousness digitally by mining data from the userbase’s collective memories even if it meant killing the users. While not quite as dramatic in reality, programs with a large user count invariably will produce a great quantity of data relating to the user’s habits. The risk that this information can similarly be abused is non-trivial; it gives a great deal of insight as to our interests, intents and desires, and in the present age, it is not surprising that our data can be considered of greater importance than the hardware storing the data. As such, Ordinal Scale illustrates of the risks associated with an increasingly connected world and (albeit in a fanciful manner) what ends large organisations might have for data they collect from their users.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • The storyline in Ordinal Scale ends up being something that I felt that I would enjoy more so than the light novel’s Alicization arc; whereas Alicization would have been more or less the same thing in Sword Art Online, really being just a high-stakes version where Kirito is poisoned, the Augma and AR in Ordinal Scale is novel, reflective of the public interest in AR to keep up with current trends. For this review, I will feature thirty screenshots.

  • One aspect about Ordinal Scale that I enjoyed was the fact that AR was so interwoven into social interactions; things such as customer loyalty programmes take advantage of the Ordinal Scale to encourage and reward interaction with their services. Kirito is less-than-enthusiastic about AR at the film’s beginning, feeling that immersion into a completely virtual space is more effective than enhancing real spaces digitally. For clarity’s sake, Ordinal Scale in italics refers to the film itself, while Ordinal Scale in standard formatting refers to the game.

  • Yuuna is presented as an AI construct in the Augma, arriving on battlefields to cheer on participants and perform. While seemingly sophisticated to the point where she is said to be able to pass the Turing Test, I remark that mimicking human behaviours is actually not too far off, especially with the pace that machine learning is advancing. Chat bots using machine learning can simulate surprisingly real conversations, and sentiment analysis algorithms can allow these bots to now respond appropriately based on what a human user is typing in. Coupled with advances in voice recognition and generation, personal digital assistants like Siri and Cortana could begin rivaling Yuuna in complexity within the next ten years.

  • One of the reasons why Kirito is not fond of AR is that for all of his capabilities in virtual spaces, his physicality in the real world is low, and in this battle, his performance is not quite what he is expecting owing to the fact that swinging a weapon around for long periods requires great stamina. While I lift weights, run and do martial arts, it seems that I’ve somewhat pigeon-holed myself for short bursts of power rather than longer endurance events, making me less effective in an AR combat game: bench pressing 120 percent body weight isn’t quite the same as what amounts to running around on a soccer field for half an hour.

  • During the first battle, a mysterious player ranked number two arrives and provides enough assistance to help Asuna eliminate the event boss. This player is Eiji, who works on behalf of Tetsuhiro, and as a SAO player, he regrets not being able to save Yuuna, hence his involvement with the project. His presence in the film is one of its weaker points, being spurred on only by his sense of regret and a personality that certainly won’t lead audiences to symapthise with his motivations. Formerly a member of Blood Oath, Eiji has also sought out other SAO players and enjoys harming them out of a desire to remind players that AR and VR are quite separate.

  • One aspect of Sword Art Online that the critics have frequently discussed is Kirito’s nigh-invulnerability in games and uncommonly quick learning in reality, which leads him to be an asset for government officials looking to investigate the different incidents surrounding AR and VR games. Kirito is a highly competent character with limited flaws; he is similar to Jack Ryan Senior in Tom Clancy’s novels. Tom Clancy further shares strong female partner for the protagonist with Sword Art Online (Cathy Ryan in Tom Clancy novels, and Asuna in Sword Art Online), and Tom Clancy avoids the trap of such hyper-competent protagonists by shifting focus in the narrative to other characters, such as John Clark.

  • Sword Art Online is at its strongest when focus switches between Kirito and the other characters, especially Asuna, whose role and experiences are worth depicting. In a series where the focus is on contemporary technology and their impact on society, I’m actually a little surprised that the only discussions out there about the movie are on this particular frame, specifically how the BD edition has certain advantages over the theatrical releases in that they show Asuna’s Papilla mammaria.

  • Kirito runs into a Yuuna look-alike here, who points him in a direction of interest. With the previous screenshot in mind, I admittedly would prefer folks discuss those elements than attempt their hand at talking about neural networks, a topic that is sufficiently complex that in order for me to adequately write about it, I would likely need to return to university and do a PhD on the topic. One element about some parts of the anime community I’ve never been too fond of is that some discussions fixate on technical details, and the lack of talk on artificial neural networks in discussions surrounding Ordinal Scale suggests that folks who affectedly display their technical knowledge have limits.

  • I bet that an anime fan admitting that they don’t know something at Tango-victor-tango would be a foreign concept. With this in mind, I have sat through some lectures on artificial neural networks (ANN), and while I have no background with the implementation, I can say that ANN are made up of what are conceptually called layers. Information from the input are passed to these layers, and if a particular score is reached, the information is passed to the next layer, similar to how stimuli propagate in biological neurons. Information that reaches the end is subsequently classified. Back in Ordinal Scale, Yuuna and Eiji share a moment in a virtual version of what one of our readers has identified to be the Fairmont Hot Springs in British Columbia.

  • ANN are highly useful for classification functions, and with Tetsuhiro’s goal being the acquisition of memories pertaining to Yuuna from a vast data set, it is appropriate to use ANN for finding these memories and using them to re-create Yuuna’s personality digitally. Ordinal Scale only refers to this as deep learning, of which ANN are one particular approach; the movie wisely chooses to be very general with its descriptions, so it doesn’t misrepresent machine learning as a whole. While waiting for an event to start, Silica grows irritated with Lizbeth and elbows her, causing a minor loss of health.

  • The visual effects in Ordinal Scale are absolutely stunning: like the preceding installments of Sword Art Online, the film is produced by A-1 pictures and is afforded exceptional quality in both artwork and animation. While real-world locations and AR UI elements are fantastic, the film really shines whenever Augma events begin. The reappearance of SAO bosses is described as significant, and during this battle, Asuna is defeated in combat and loses her memories of SAO in the process.

  • Ordinal Scale‘s soundtrack is composed by Yuki Kajiura; I know her best for composing Puella Magi Madoka Magica‘s soundtrack, and a closer listen of her compositions find that they share motifs and aural elements. In her best pieces, Kajiuramakes extensive use of choral elements in her songs to create a cold, distant sound that conveys a sense of mystique about a setting or disconnect that characters experience from those around them. Yuuna’s songs are particularly well-written, sounding like vocal versions of Kajiura’s instrumental pieces.

  • The realm of neurological sciences is well outside my discipline, although I can say with reasonable confidence that the technology to artificially manipulate or alter our memories is not an impossibility. Recent studies have found that external information can affect neuron connections and modify how we recall an event, while straight-up suppression or erasing of memories has been somewhat successful in highly controlled experimental settings. We are nowhere near having the medical knowledge or technological implements to selectively remove all memories related to one particular element, however.

  • Kirito is devasatated when Asuna loses her SAO memories, and after deducing that SAO events are somehow related to Asuna’s memory loss, he posts warnings onto forums, asking other players to stay away from SAO bosses. His findings are met with skepticism, and Kirito turns to his old standby of levelling up far enough to investigate what’s going on. He runs into Sinon, who agrees to help him out. Sinon had one of the best stories in Sword Art Online and is also quick to accept Kirito’s relationship with Asuna.

  • The ghostly form of Yuuna appears once again, prompting Kirito to chase down this apparition and ask for answers – the apparition clarifies the location that Kirito is to visit. One of the remarks I have about this review is that I was not inclined to include too many moments with Eiji. He befriended Yuuna in SAO and regrets not being strong enough to save her from death; his motivations have the same depth as that of a puddle formed from a light rainfall, and his enjoyment of causing physical harm to other participants in is petty revenge for having felt so powerless in SAO.

  • When Kirito asks Yui to map out the location the ghostly Yuuna presents, he brings up a map worthy of Tom Clancy’s The Division, a game whose UI is highly unique, being modelled after AR elements. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed the beta to the extent that I did, and after the beta, I decided that the game would be worth playing if there was enough to do from a single-player perspective, without the need to party up with other players. After the game’s release, the amount of content for solo players, coupled with the price tag, dissuaded me from buying it. However, it’s seen a ten dollar drop in price now, and records indicate that it will go for 28 CAD during a Steam Sale.

  • Kirito’s meeting with Tetsuhiro proves unfruitful; Tetsuhiro refuses to answer any questions about the Augma, and only allows Kirito to know that his daughter died in SAO. Kirito later visits Asuna and promises to retrieve her memories. Ever since the second season, Sword Art Online made it clear that Kirito and Asuna are meant to be, and the other girls amongst Kirito’s group of friends have accepted this. Once this particular aspect was established, Sword Art Online was free to pursue more worthwhile stories, and Ordinal Scale is illustrating just how much there is that can be explored once Sword Art Online dispensed with the whole love tesseract concept.

  • Yuuna is voiced by Sayaka Kanda, an actress and singer whose roles in live action films far outnumber her appearances in animated film. Eiji is voiced by Yoshio Inoue. There is a pronounced difference in the Yuuna that performs during events and the one that Eiji speaks with, compared to the Yuuna that appears in front of Kirito when he’s investigating the mystery behind Ordinal Scale. In a one-on-one duel against Eiji later on, Kirito learns the truth behind Eiji’s role in things and Tetsuhiro’s intents. While initially outmatched by Eiji’s superior physicality, Kirito notices a power supply on Eiji’s collar. He disables it and manages to overpower Eiji, suggesting that Eiji’s martial arts capability was only possible because he was hooked up to a powered exoskeleton.

  • I found that the idea of the drones generating enough energy to fry the human brain and kill individuals being scanned was tacked on to the film in an attempt to elevate the stakes for Kirito to overcome – having spent most of the film reinforcing the notion that the Augma was orders of magnitude safer than any VR hardware, this revelation comes out of the blue. While perhaps necessary to convey a sense of urgency, it would have been more effective to suggest that the scanning technology involved energy levels sufficient to damage the brain much earlier on, such as when Asuna lost her memories of SAO. Knowledge of this threat would therefore lead audiences to appreciate what Kirito stands to lose if he should fail in advance of his fight with Eiji.

  • With Eiji neutralised, Kirito rejoins the others as they engage hordes of SAO monsters. In order to stop the data transfer, Kirito is returned into the virtual reality environment and with his friends, prepare to do battle with SAO’s ultimate boss, which never made it into the original game. Despite being outmatched initially, Yui accesses Kirito and company’s old save files, allowing them to fight on even footing with the boss.

  • Ordinal Scale could not count itself as an instalment in Sword Art Online without the main cast returning to their SAO gear for at least one battle in Aincrad. One of my friends wondered, in his words, “how a franchise about internet fighting can go on so long”; Sword Art Online‘s popularity is often attributed to likeable characters and emotional impact, but I personally found these aspects to be passable. For me, technical excellence and social relevance ends up being the reasons why I continue to watch this anime: while the characters are not particularly noteworthy, the world they inhabit and the aural-visual strengths make this a series that I enjoy.

  • While all of the battles in Ordinal Scale were exceptionally well-choreographed and written, the final battle exceeds even those. Unrestricted by the physical laws of the real world, each of the characters have their moment in the limelight as they help defeat the new devilry that is the boss to the 100th floor. One would imagine that by the events of Sword Art Online, each of SAO, ALO and GGO use the same game engine, backend and share assets if players can freely import their profiles from one game into another.

  • In the years since Sword Art Online became popular, technologies such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have arrived on the market, bringing us one step closer to the immersion seen in Sword Art Online; during my attendance of the 2016 Laval Virtual Conference last year, attendees mentioned this fact, although we agreed that the biggest factor that presently precludes widespread adoption of VR headsets is the fact that they still remain quite cumbersome to set up and wield: when I tried the HTC Vive, it took another individual to help me gear up.

  • There’s also a cost factor – the HTC Vive costs 600 USD, but having a PC powerful enough to provide a satisfactory experience is also necessary. By comparison, conventional gaming is much more affordable and convenient: playing Battlefield 1 and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus entails turning on a computer and double-clicking on the play button. Sword Art Online is able to have widespread VR adoption precisely because the headsets are more convenient to use.

  • While I’m not one to play that particular game, if and when I’m asked, Suguha/Leafa is my favourite character of the Sword Art Online franchise; she’s strong-willed and driven despite her internal challenges, and moreover, is able to eventually accept Kirito and Asuna’s relationship. While her story in Sword Art Online‘s ALO narrative is counted as the weakest, there’s an appeal about Suguha’s character that sets her apart from the other characters, and her design ultimately is why I managed to finish the ALO arc.

  • While a solid film, Ordinal Scale is not for all viewers: folks will need to have seen the first and second seasons in order to understand all of the mechanics and characters: Yuuki makes a short return during the final boss fight to boost Asuna’s attack power. A member of the Sleeping Knights, Yuuki was a bed-ridden patient with HIV; she befriended Asuna in Mother’s Rosario, one of Sword Art Online‘s best arcs, and passed away peacefully.

  • Apparently, Kirito’s fondness for swords is a callback to author Reki Kawahara’s own fondness for Halo‘s energy sword; he cites it as being the best weapon in Halo, but I disagree – the M6D pistol, BR-55 Battle Rifle and M329 DMR are the best weapons on account of their versatility. While the energy sword is exceptionally powerful, it is useless at longer ranges. Conversely, the weapons I prefer, the MLG weapons, are useful at all ranges. One of the aspects I’ve not included in this Sword Art Online talk, or any previous talks, are frames where Kirito’s facial features distort as he moves in for a killing blow. I’ve never been too fond of these moments where Kirito appears inhuman.

  • Kirito et al. ultimately succeed in defeating the floor boss and share a conversation with Yuuna, who cancels execution of Tetsuhiro’s program and restores the attendees’ lost SAO memories, including those of Asuna’s. Tetsuhiro is taken in for questioning, and is later recruited by government officials to work on another programme, which will likely form the basis for Alicization. Given the success of Sword Art Online, I imagine that this arc will see an animated form at some point in the future, and with the series continuing, there is certainly not a shortage of materials to adapt.

  • I’m unlikely to ever pick up the Sword Art Online light novels: the writing style in most light novels has never been to my liking because of the limitations of a first person narrative, which precludes insights into other characters’ minds and perspectives. As readers are limited to what the protagonist can see, and their own thoughts, authors must rely on what the protagonist perceives in order to depict the world around them. In the case of light novels, constraints with translating metaphors and other narrative devices into English mean that characters like The Melancholy of Suzumiya‘s Kyon come across as being unnecessarily pendantic, or else, like Kirito, describe things in very a roundabout fashion.

  • I admit that I’ve been spoiled by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and Tom Clancy as far as fiction goes, so while I won’t enjoy light novels, I won’t hold it against folks who do enjoy them. Asuna and Kirito share in a meteor shower as per Kirito’s promise in the film’s final moments. This also brings my take on Ordinal Scale to an end, and overall, I must admit that my initial expectations for the film were not particularly great, but after seeing the film in full, I did enjoy it. With this post over, I’m not too sure what November’s schedule looks like, save the fact that I will definitely be writing about Yūki Yūna is a Hero: Hero Chapter once that lands on November 17.

From a narrative perspective, Ordinal Scale inherits all of the strengths and weaknesses of Sword Art Online; Kirito’s improbable ability to uncover what investigative groups could not and his uncommon talent for overcoming almost any challenge by means of brute force come into play within Ordinal Scale. There’s no point in the film where he is presented as vulnerable, giving audiences no suspense in wondering if Kirito will figure out a clever solution to his situation and no sense of elation when such a moment does occur. Similarly, villains with exceptionally thin motivations also dominate the film – while one sympathises with Shigemura’s situation, it is dubious that the Augma could have been approved for sales without the input of regulatory bodies. Eiji’s reason for working with Shigemura is similarly shallow, reducing his role to that of a mere puppet despite the threat that the movie attempts to portray him as presenting to the protagonists. While characterisation in Sword Art Online has always been lacking, Ordinal Scale does address some of the weaknesses its predecessors possessed. Kirito’s interactions with the others in the film, especially Asuna, were executed to a satisfactory extent. Further to this, the audio-visual aspects of Ordinal Scale are of a superb quality. The sound effects for combat, especially the sword-play, are as visceral as Star Wars’ seismic charges (which is high praise), and Yuki Kajiura’s soundtrack is phenomenal. Overall, Ordinal Scale earns a weak recommendation: it’s certainly not a bad film and will be enjoyable for fans of Sword Art Online, but audiences will have to accept that while it does exceptionally well what it does well, Ordinal Scale continues to share the same shortcomings as earlier instalments.

Sword Art Online II- Final Reflections

“It’s okay. I’ll see you on the other side.” —Will Irons

The Mother’s Rosario arc began a little more than a month ago, and what was originally a quest to figure out more about Zekken turned into an emotionally-charged arc dealing with Yuuki’s AIDS and how Asuna’s involvement in all of this leads her to help Yuuki and the Sleeping Knights on their quest to do one final thing in ALO before their time passed. Through this process, Asuna and Yuuki’s friendship allows the two to help one another out: Asuna helps Yuuki experience and understand what life is, while Yuuki helps Asuna figure out what the latter wants for her future. Though the future and life itself is constantly uncertain, both Asuna and Yuuki discover much through talking with one another and find the strength to continue on, and the impact of Yuuki’s presence is ultimately one that brings people together, showing that her continued existence was more than merely a drain on resources and was capable of bringing people’s hearts together.

  • Yuuki Konno (right) is introduced as Zekken, a player whose skill surpasses even Kirito’s. Asuna challenges her early on and befriends her; Yuuki asks her to help defeating the 27th floor boss with her guild the “Sleeping Knights”. Later on, Yuuki is revealed to be afflicted with HIV/AIDS and the Sleeping Knights members are terminally-ill patients. Yuuki’s condition deteriorates as time passes on, and after she entrusts her sword skill “Mother’s Rosario” to Asuna she dies peacefully in ALO, surrounded by over 1000 players from every tribe in the game, including her guild members, Asuna and her friends.

  • I imagine that for the most part, spoilers won’t matter, as the readers coming in are probably looking for a talk on what they’ve finished watching. Here, the Sleeping Knights take on a boss with the hopes of defeating it and getting their name Monument of Swordsmen to commemorate their friendship and time spent together; their illness means that their time together is short, hence their desire to make the most of things.

  • Aside from Yuuki, the Sleeping Knights also consists of Jun, Nori, Siune, Talken and Tecchi. Becuase I had a rough idea of what the Mother’s Rosario arc entailed, the major revelations did not come as too much of a surprise. As such, even through the more emotional moments of the Mother’s Rosario arc, I never teared up once. With that being said, such moments were remarkably well done and captured all of the tenor that such moments evoke.

  • Why do people do things? Because we wish to leave a positive impression of ourselves upon the world. This motivation is what drives the Sleeping Knights, who wish to do one final swan song before their time together concludes. Despite being pressured by other guilds, Kirito manages to buy the Sleeping Knights enough time for one more attempt after their initial efforts fall short.

  • After knowing who the Sleeping Knights really are, their victory and Asuna’s role in helping everyone out becomes all the more significant. The topics dealt with in Sword Art Online predominantly deal with the significance of death in a virtual environment, and through Kirito’s dialogue, Reki Kawahara appears to be reinforcing the idea that as the technology improves, the line between reality and virtual reality becomes less well-defined, making it difficult to tell what’s real and what isn’t. However, whereas Kawahara leaves the implications of this process undefined, The Matrix suggests that people will eventually become complacent if such systems ever became a reality.

  • Admittedly, I was quite surprised to learn that no other blog or discussion out there that was ready to talk about the implications of deploying something like the Medicuboid from a medical or technological perspective. After watching the twenty-second episode, I was wondering if I should do a talk there, but decided against it because I didn’t have enough content to make a proper discussion happen.

  • As such, the main body of this final reflections post will deal predominantly with what my personal thoughts on the Medicuboid are within the context of Sword Art Online and how it may ostensibly tie in with medical technology in reality. While I’m now dealing with computer science and software development, a long time ago, I was an aspiring medical doctor, and though my interests shifted, I still read through some books on medical ethics in preparation for the interviews. Reading through the book made me realise that medicine was something that I might not have been cut out for.

  • While I have chosen a different path, I do not particularly regret having applied for medicine or have taken the MCAT two years ago. I do not write the passages here to enforce a particular outlook on anime, but rather, the passages are intended at presenting a novel viewpoint (mine) on a particular anime. Thus, while Sword Art Online might not be about medical ethics, I personally find that its depiction within the anime does merit a talk.

  • The environment within the Medicuboid is one that’s desolate, but the fact that Yuuki can interact with people in the real world leads Asuna to make a request for Kirito: to build an interface that would allow Yuuki to view the world through a camera and experience the sounds through a microphone. Making use of a specialised camera and microphone, Kirito manages to configure the camera, allowing Asuna to give Yuuki a glimpse into what life is like at a high school.

  • In the future, broadband internet will probably be so ubiquitous that it would be possible to stream 4K or above video feeds with sound without too much difficulty. In places like Japan, wireless internet is already widespread, although back here in the Wild West, ubiquitous wireless internet is still very much a novelty and requires a small bit of setup in order to use properly

Aside from the trickier topics about life and death, the Mother’s Rosario arc leads to an interesting questions that are worth mentioning, although curiously enough, the this is not covered by any blogger or forum discussion anywhere. This topic relates to medical ethics, specifically, concerning whether or not devices such as the Medicuboid will be realistically fielded as actual means of relieving pain and helping medical professionals interact with their patients in a different means. As an experimental method, the patient and/or the patient’s family must make a choice as to whether or not the situation merits chancing the patient’s life on this technology or treatment. In Sword Art Online, the technology is explicitly mentioned to be not a treatment, but a method of improving the patient’s quality of life by cutting off their pain, restoring their senses in a virtual world and a limited degree of autonomy. Thus, by the Principle of Beneficence, the medical doctors in Sword Art Online are helping Yuuki by making use of the Medicuboid to cut off her pain. Moreover, even if they are unable to treat her AIDS, they are doing their best to improve her quality of life. This is what stands to be gained by taking a chance on the Medicuboid. However, use of such a technology must first be approved, and the ethics for that is more challenging. Assuming that medical professionals hold their duties to the highest ethical standards, and that they will do everything 1) within their power and 2) within reason of keeping the patients free of harm, there is a possibility that Medicuboid-like technologies would be something the public might push for. The medical professionals themselves may digress, as the technology would represent a placebo that does nothing to treat their patients’ diseases, and moreover, medicine is a conservative field, so introducing something like the Medicuboid will succeed only if it can be decisively shown that the technology is able to allow medical professionals to uphold their obligations and responsibilities to their patients. While such a technology was adapted in Sword Art Online, it is reasonable to anticipate more resistance in reality, and anything resembling the Medicuboid may not even make it past ethics approval for clinical trials on human patients unless their advocates propose compelling reasons to make use of these technologies.

  • The reason why I do not consider anime such as Sword Art Online to be “though-provoking” or “deep” (that is to say, insufficient to change my world-view) is because original light novel and anime were not written with the intent of speculating on or providing a commentary on the dangers of virtual reality technology. Instead, the technology is used as a catalyst to facilitate an adventure, and the light novel covered a sufficiently diverse array of topics such that individuals have provide prompts for conversation.

  • Here, Asuna convinces her mother to listen to the former’s side of things and resolves to tell the latter her true feelings concerning the future. From a strictly personal side of things, I’ve been encouraged to find a balance between the idealistic “follow my heart” route and the pragmatic “occupation must be able to help you raise a family and retire”: my dream job is to be involved in mobile software development and eventually, managing the development of these projects.

  • It turns out that Kyouko Yuuki came from a modest family and managed to excel in what appears to be economics or commerce. Desiring Asuna to grow up with privilege, she expected nothing short of the best from and for Asuna, but after a tearful moment, Kyouko concedes that her main wish is for Asuna to be happy, and agrees to let the latter pursue the career and life paths she chooses.

  • Kyouko’s approach appears similar to that of the tiger mother, someone who pushes their children to high levels of achievement using methods regarded as typical of child-rearing in East Asia. Though the children eventually might succeed in obtaining a financially successful occupation, it often results in individuals who lack emotional fulfillment, and is unsurprisingly depicted as a negative concept in anime (such as in Girls und Panzer). Here’s an interesting aside: compared to the Asian students at my old high school who had strict parents, I managed to perform to the same level that they did (sans the volunteer hours and bewilderingly large array of extra-curricular activity) anyways.

  • Yuuki’s final moments in the world are in Asuna’s arms, under the same tree where the two had first met. The page quote from above comes from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and has two meanings. The first meaning is “see you when the mission’s done”. It originates from the Apollo 8 mission, when Gerry Carr speaks with Lovell right before the lunar capsule entered the dark side of the moon, severing all contact. For the next 34 minutes, Apollo 8 would become the most alone that humans had ever been. This mission was a success and paved the way for the later Apollo missions. The other meaning, when Will is speaking to Mitchell for the last time, refers to the other side of death itself.

  • Here, the anime does a better job than the light novel: having full access to visuals, A-1 Pictures is able to portray emotional tenor far more effectively than the visual novels could. The Mother’s Rosario arc is characterised by these tender, moving moments that add a sense of immersion, that the characters are human and governed by the same laws despite being exceptional MMORPG players. I think now is a good time as any to note, while Mother’s Rosario certainly does tend to play with the heartstrings, using the impertinent ‘feels’ meme to describe things is hardly appropriate or necessary.

  • Yuuki’s story is spread, and soon, thousands of other ALO players arrive to watch Yuuki’s final moments. This phenomenon is not a fictional one and players in MMORPGs do gather to hold vigils for players who pass on.

  • An Si-eun (Siune in-game) is a member of the Sleeping Knights who was afflicted with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells. Treatments are most effective if the cancer is detected early on, although An experienced a relapse in her symptoms. Shortly after Yuuki’s passing, she recovers and is discharged from hospital, meeting Asuna for the first time.

  • Thus, the Mother’s Rosario arc comes to an end, leading to the question of what happens next in Sword Art Online. There was a two-year gap between the first and second season, so I imagine that Sword Art Online III will come out in 2016, dealing with the Alicization story. This story is the darkest of any of the arcs seen thus far, and will probably require a full cour to adequately explore. However, the Early and Late arc precedes Alicization, and one might reasonably expect this to be a long OVA of 45 minutes.

  • Kirito and Asuna share a conversation during a picnic with their friends, and this post comes to an end. At this point in time, I should mention that I encountered some difficulty with the Tari Tari special and as such, will be writing about that after the New Year arrives. I’m going on hiatus for the next few weeks on a much-needed and well-earned breaks, so regular programming will resume once the calendar reads 2015.

With Mother’s Rosario now over, Sword Art Online II comes to a close, and immediately, I see a series that was much better than its predecessor. Sword Art Online II has solid execution as far as plot and character development goes. The progression of events and development of backstories is sufficiently explored so the audience can relate to the characters at some level, or sympathise with them: instead of crudely-wrought backgrounds, Sword Art Online II takes the time to emphasise that these characters are human, worth showing concern for. As such, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Sword Art Online II, and the recommended audience for Sword Art Online II (aside from the die-hard fans of Sword Art Online) would be anyone who’s looking for something dealing with virtual reality, MMOs and fights with a remarkable choreography. Additional praise must be given where it is due, as Sword Art Online II also manages to raise questions about what could happen as things like virtual reality become more and more possible. While Sword Art Online II is far from being revolutionary, it is well-executed, managing to tell a story that is both moving and direct and kept me looking forwards to new episodes every week, which alone is sufficient for me to say that this is an anime that’s worth watching.

Sword Art Online II- Excalibur Arc Reflection

“I started looking at small companies that were running a sort of virtual reality cottage industry: I had imagined that I would just put on a helmet and be somewhere else. That’s your dream of what it’s going to be.” —Thomas Dolby

It’s not often I step in to do short talks on a series-in-progress, but the Excalibur Arc bears mentioning because it represents a point in the story where the stakes are quite as high as they’d been in previous arcs. No one’s lives are in immediate danger, and as such, events take on a much more casual pacing as Kirito, Asuna, Suguha and the others take on a quest to clear the Þrymheimr dungeon and restore Jötunheimr its former state. After three episodes of combat, Kirito’s company succeeds and, with Sinon’s help, retrieves the legendary Excalibur Sword. Over the space of three episodes, elements of RPG return to Sword Art Online II, and while I was initially wondering if the second half would deal with the Alicisation Arc; in the light novels, this sees Johnny Black poison Kirito by an unknown means and setting off Kirito’s quest to escape the Soul Translator virtual reality environment. Admittedly, this arc sounds a little intimidating in tone relative to what has been seen so far. However, it seems like the Mother’s Rosario arc will be covered from here on out, and if the light novels are to be believed, this arc could be quite moving if executed properly.

  • Before we get into the more serious tone on the Mother’s Rosario arc, the Excalibur Arc offers a brief respite and showcases the protagonists doing what MMORPG players enjoy doing most: talking about rare in-game items and planning their next major raid. I haven’t played an MMORPG proper before: the when I played World of Warcraft and Ragnarok Online, both of those were private servers a friend was hosting.

  • Here is this post’s obligatory fan-service shot. While I don’t particularly do MMORPGs, I can get along just fine with RPGs like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. I’ve got a paltry forty hours in the game right now and are level 24; I’m going to try and finish the main story before continuing to explore Skyrim in its entirety.

  • Leafa and Asuna return from their preparations for a major procedurally-generated quest-line that involves Norse mythology. I am not familiar with Norse mythology to any real details, save some of the more well-known aspects (and any references to it in the Halo universe).

  • Strangely enough, the weapons in Skyrim don’t have a durability statistic and as such, can last forever. In World of Warcraft, weapons and clothing had to be repaired, otherwise they’d degrade in performance or even be rendered unusable. With this said, Skyrim is emphasises the dragons and exploration above subtle elements of realism, so this isn’t too big of a deal. Mine eye might be deceiving me, but Lizbeth appears to have taken after several design elements that Kyoto Animation is known for.

  • Although Alfheim Online possesses a much more diverse colour palette than did Gun Gale Online, Kirito and company travels into one of the sections of the game characterised by desolate, icy wastelands. They had previously assisted “Tonkii”, a squid-like being, in its fight against humanoid demons and unlocked the condition that allows them to utilise Tonkii as transportation.

  • En route to Thrymheimr, Urðr, the Goddess of the Past and eldest of the Norn Goddesses, appears and explains to Kirito’s party that, should they fail this quest, Alfheim Online stands to enter Ragnarok and be utterly destroyed. Most games typically trigger a game over condition should this ever happen, but the Cardinal System, more advanced than even what researchers are investigating, appears to be capable of permanently altering a game state. Such features might be touted in future games should they be implemented, and one would imagine that the game would probably remain playable even in this state if it is to ever retain its player base.

  • The only Minotaurs I’ve encountered in gaming is in DOOM (no one calling themselves a first-person shooter can do so without having played the classic DOOM); known as the Barons of Hell in DOOM, they were actually reasonably straightforwards to fight despite having incredible endurance and being capable of dealing massive damage. In the mod Brutal Doom, Barons of Hell will tear the player in half (the long way) if one is too close to them.

  • If I were to be a player in Alfheim Online, I would probably focus on magic-based capabilities or archery, as I prefer ranged combat in RPGs to other forms of combat. Ironically, in first person shooters, I excel at close quarters and usually try to close the distance between myself and the opposing team’s members in order to damage them from up close. Players tend to panic when engaged at close range, and their shot placement tends to go all over the place: by maintaining a calm manner, it is then straightforward to either track them and fire with a weapon (Battlefield 3), or use melee attacks (Halo 2) to finish them off.

  • Freyja (or Freya) is the Norse Goddess of Love and appears as an NPC en route to Thrym’s chambers. A part of Alfheim Online’s UI is shown here, bringing to mind the 3D feel of all the user elements seen in Sword Art Online. Games like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and the upcoming title, Tom Clancy’s The Division are shifting towards holographic HUDs that give these elements a non-intrusive feeling.

  • Despite protests from the others that it’s probably a trap, Klein decides to help Freyja and frees her from her icy prison. There are games where making some decisions to save people are rewarded, and as Klein will shortly discover, his decision will end up being the correct one.

While I largely found the Excalibur arc to be a laid back adventure, one thing did strike me as unusual: the Cardinal Engine powering Alfheim Online was said to procedurally generate quests based on information retrieved from repositories of folklore. This system continues to update the game world’s state as events occur, and it turns out that if Kirito and company had failed to complete their quest, Ragnarok would have triggered, destroying Alfheim Online. While a solid plot element that adds urgency to the quest, it is unlikely that game developers would intentionally give their game engine enough power to permanently alter the game world to render the game unplayable. Assuming Alfheim Online is an MMORPG that follows the subscriber model (similar to World of Warcraft), customers would be most dissatisfied to know that their in-game progress was lost because a small group of players had failed a quest. Modern game engines are reasonably powerful: the ones I’m most familiar with are tailored towards small-scale environments (such as detailed destruction effects in shooters). As far as role-playing games go,most of my experience is with Skyrim, which featured a combination of scripted and procedurally generated quests. While I’m not far enough into the game to differentiate between the two, I understand that the technology is still limited. Procedurally generated quests, dialogue and contexts is one of the aspects that role playing games have yet to tackle, but properly implemented, these quests could make a game with a truly infinite play-time. Of course, developers would have to carefully consider the consequences of giving the game engine full reign over the world: a logical choice would probably be to design a system that can do everything short of destroying the game. As technology continues advancing, one might expect such games to be present by the 2020s, which is when Sword Art Online is set.

  • Lizbeth gazes upon the piles of treasure in the dungeon’s final level. In almost all existing RPG games with a loot system, vast treasure troves cannot be looted from because they’re a part of the scenery, although by the time of Sword Art Online, graphical processing capabilities could have reached a level where it is possible to have millions of interactive physics objects in a game world: such innovation will probably be allowed by a combination of clever game optimisation (such as only loading what players see in a virtual environment relative to their surroundings) and improved hardware: it’s been just a year and a half since I built my computer, and the NVIDIA GTX line has already released the 980, which surpasses even the GTX Titan, the best card around when my computer was built, so GPUs will definitely continue improving and may reach a similar levle to that of Sword Art Online by 2020.

  • Þrymr (Thrym)  was king of the jotnar and was known for stealing Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, to extort the other gods into giving him Freyja as his wife. This story is reproduced in the quest, although there is the classical twist of allowing anime characters to enter the myth and play their own part in it.

  • Freyja and Thor are the one and the same in the Sword Art Online arc, and Klein’s decision to save Freyja winds up providing their party with a member who is capable of overhealing them. When Freyja comes into contact with Mjölnir, she transforms into Thor, giving Kirito’s company a powerful ally in the battle and making it much easier.

  • Sinon recovers the Excalibur after Kirito discards it in order to make a jump. She returns it to Kirito on the condition that he thinks of her every time he uses it, leading Silica, Leafa, Asuna and Lizbeth to give him a death glare. This is about the maximum extent of Sinon’s feelings for Kirito, and admittedly, this aspect was particularly well-handled. There is no drama, just a subtle action.

  • With Excalibur extricated from the base of the castle, Þrymheimr crumbles and Jötunheimr is restored to its former state as Yggdrasil is once again able to access its water supply. The cold wastelands give way to a more temperate, hospitable climate, and sunlight pours through the sky. Moments such as these make games particularly rewarding: yes, some games are violent, but for positive, moral actions one takes in some games, sometimes, players are treated to incredible cinematics that make it worth the effort.

  • Excalibur would probably be classified as an artifact or legendary item in a modern MMORPG, although its precise stats are never given-in game. Many RPG games have items ranked by their rarity, with poor (grey), common (white) and uncommon (green) items occupying lower tiers, rare (blue) and epic (purple) occupying the middle tiers, and legendary (orange) or greater being of the greatest rarity. Such items take numerous raids to attain or craft, and in some cases, only drop for players out of sheer luck.

  • For their efforts and success, the three Norns, Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld appear before Kirito’s party to thank them for their actions. Kirito is officially given the Excalibur here, closing off the arc. If memory serves, Kirito and company complete this quest on New Year’s Eve. In previous years, I typically did not game on New Year’s Eve and instead, spent most of the day watching anime or tinkering with electronics.

  • The Excalibur Arc of Sword Art Online marks the first time I’ve seen Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld in an anime setting: the last time was with Ah! My Goddess‘ Urd, Belldandy and Skuld. Whereas the latter seem to have been stylised, the Norn’s appearances in Sword Art Online would probably be more consistent with how they would have appeared in Norse mythology.

  • Kirito is seen working on a “mechatronics” project that makes use of cameras and sensors to allow Yui to interact with the others in reality. At this point in time, I wonder how many viewers of Sword Art Online are involved with development of virtual reality technologies; after discussions with my supervisor, my graduate thesis project has finally been fleshed out and curiously enough, will make extensive use of contemporary virtual reality technologies.

  • By the New Year, I’ll hopefully have learnt enough Maya to begin making the graphics elements, and the first few months of 2015 will probably be spent tuning the graphical assets and interactions. I imagine that March-April 2015 will see the real work on the VR components take off in earnest. Returning back to Sword Art Online, the episode closes off on a high note, with everyone sharing lunch together. The next talk will be on Battlefield 3: it’s been a year since I purchased the game, and a year’s worth of experiences can be shared. As well, I’ll aim to get a talk on Hyouka out: I’ve finally watched it, which means it’s time share what I thought of the series. As well, I’ve gotten a request from a friend to watch Psycho-Pass, and one of my readers have requested that I check out Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou: I’ll begin watching the latter in a day or two, and anticipate having a post out before mid-December. Psycho-Pass has two seasons, one of which has finished: I anticipate finishing that somewhere in January to February 2015 and should have a talk on both seasons once they’re finished.

As Sword Art Online is set a “mere” six years from now, it raises the question of just how prevalent virtual reality and augmented reality technologies will be six years from the present. Back when Sword Art Online first aired, the research lab I work for had implemented an early form of augmented reality for our anatomy software: this program made use of QR codes to automatically bring the program to an appropriate anatomical model. During this period, the lab had also focused on Natural User Interfaces to provide a more intuitive means of interfacing with the software, and the Oculus Rift had only begun development. With a consumer model set to release somewhere in 2015, virtual reality is looking more and more to be a part of life, rather than merely a distant science-fiction construct. These are exciting times, and as both virtual and augmented reality technologies advances, they’ll soon find their way onto the consumer market: rather than acting as experimental technologies that might be used in biology visualisation lab, things like the AmuSphere may very well become a reality. The social implications of such technology are non-trivial, but this will remain a discussion for another time.

Sword Art Online II- First Arc Reflection

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvellously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

With the Gun Gale Online (GGO) arc now over in Sword Art Online II, it seems appropriate to take a step back and look back on how the first half has fared thus far. The impressions for the GGO arc are positive; this arc manages to keep things exciting throughout its run through a fine balance between combat and exposition. After the setup we’ve seen in Sword Art Online II‘s first half, the second half concerns the Battle of Bullets tournament. Sinon and Kirito form a tentative alliance to stop Death Gun, and as the tournament progresses, Kirito deduces how Death Gun is committing the murders, as well as recalling which Laughing Coffin members might have been the perpetrators. Kirito and Sinon open up to one another, and after formulating a meticulous plan, move to engage Death Gun. The confrontation between Death Gun and Kirito is a thrilling one; despite initially having an edge, Kirito manages to overcome him, although Death Gun, or “Sterben” (derived from Old High German “sterban”, “to lose force; lose sensibility, become numb; be dead, be motionless”), claims that their fight is far from over. Even so, with Death Gun temprorarily defeated, Kirito helps Sinon come to terms with her past, learning that she saved the postal worker, who happened to be pregnant with her daughter at the time.

  • In keeping with tradition, I will have twenty images here and a figure caption that deals with the themes in the first arc. Besides exploration of the difference between a virtual and the real world, Sword Art Online also aims to depict individuals as drawing strength from knowing what they need to do, and that different individuals will choose different ways to face fears from their past.

  • Kirito finds himself getting hit on by the other players prior to the Battle of Bullets tournament, much to Sinon’s irritation. What do I make of virtual reality and reality? This has been an ancient discussion I’ve been interested in since The Matrix, and my beliefs are quite simple. Because reality might be considered to be what our brains interpret to be real, our only obligations is to make the most of our main reality and do better for this main reality.

  • In this context, I define main reality to be the perceived root level where we can no longer positively identify whether or not our perceptions are imagined or not. In other words, Gun Gale Online, Alfheim Online and Sword Art Online are at the children level, since the inhabitants know that their world is a simulation. In The Matrix, perception makes it difficult for the Matrix’s inhabitants to know whether their world is real or not, and as such, the Matrix is seen to be at the root level. The Red Pills realise that the Matrix is not real, and as a result, are able to perform suprehuman feats within that world.

  • In our current context, it is impossible to determine whether our entire existence is not some simulation fabricated by some higher power, or if our world is genuinely real. Even if humanity could attain the power to ascertain our existence’s “realness”, it is quite possible that we existed in an infinitely nested simulation. A part of my interest in computer modelling and simulations lie in building rules for virtual worlds, as well as seeing whether or not artificial worlds (specifically, biological systems) can mimic real-world systems even if they are simply defined by interaction rules, rather than differential equations.

  • Death Gun’s sidearm is the Type 54 “Black Star” pistol, the Chinese copy of the Soviet Tokarev TT-33. Produced after the Korean War, the weapons is chambered for the 7.62x25mm caliber and is no longer common amongst the PLA, but in Japan, it’s a popular weapon criminals use. The selection of a Chinese weapon for the antagonist may have subtle implications, but that requires reading between the lines, and the fact that the weapon is widely used by the Yakuza is probably why it was chosen to be Death Gun’s signature sidearm.

  • Kirito’s skill with a lightsabre is not dissimilar to those of Jedi Swordmasters. Kirito’s skill at cutting down bullets as a self-defense technique is similar to Form III, or Soresu. For combat with another swordsman, Kirito generally makes use of Shii-Cho, or Form I; this form is characterised by broad, sweeping motions. Jedi prefer to use this as a fallback technique and to disarm their opponents, but Kirito capitalises on the form’s unpredictability to overcome his opponents.

  • While trying to narrow down the number of active players that could be Death Gun, Kirito encounters an attractive sniper (inspect the image closely and wonder if GGO simulates air temperature) and promptly defeats her. While some viewers wonder why such a character would only have a few seconds of screentime, the logical answer is to give someone who Kirito will immediately identify as not being Death Gun.

  • After eleven episodes’ worth of progress, Sinon finally begins to trust Kirito and promises to help him end Death Gun’s serial murders. Their specialties occupy opposite niches, with Kirito excelling at close quarters combat and Sinon having unmatched skill at extremely long ranges. This diversity allows the two to do what no other GGO player has done.

  • Sinon’s Hecate II is equipped with a 40x ballistic scope and bipod, allowing her to place headshots on targets as far away as a kilometer. The gun customisation options are not explored fully in GGO, but one images that for balance, players only have modification options for their optics, barrel and auxillary, meaning that Sinon won’t be able to equip both a bipod and straight-pull bolt simultaneously.

  • During the confrontation with Death Gun, Sinon’s optics are destroyed, leaving her with just her rifle’s iron sights. Despite having augmentations for long-range engagements, Sinon finds that she cannot do much more without her rifle in top condition, and must watch as Kirito does battle with Death Gun.

If Sword Art Online excelled with its first arc and was overall stymied by its weak second half, Sword Art Online II has, like its predecessor, impressed with the GGO Arc. The pacing of the episodes stand out, building anticipation and leaving the audience with a strong inclination to watch the next episode. In particular, what stood out was how Kirito was able to deduce Death Gun’s modus operandi just from watching his actions in-game. The cloak Death Gun carries is used to obtain players’ real world information (recall an earlier episode when Sinon informs Kirito that players must use their information if they wish to earn money in-game), and Death Gun’s signals can be captured by cameras, which would signal to an accomplice in the real world to inject the victim with a drug. Careful timing subsequently gives the illusion that Death Gun can kill players from in-game. While the anime does not explicitly mention the name of the compound used, the light novels identify the drug as succinylcholine. Typically used as a muscle relaxant to induce paralysis, a sufficient dose succinylcholine stops the heart. Succinylcholine is better known for its usage as an untraceable agent The Campus used to assassinate high value targets in Tom Clancy’s Teeth of the Tiger, the Sword Art Online variant probably was also intended to be broken down by esterases into acetylcholine, making it difficult to prove the drug was used as a murder weapon. In reality, succinylcholine decomposition would produce distinct, detectable products (and the fact that the drug is difficult to obtain); this is of little object for The Campus, and in Sword Art Online, it appears to be of little consequence and is the likely agent the murderers used. This sort of detail, though subtle, does add to the sense of urgency in Kirito’s mission.

  • The stress of engaging Death Gun causes Kirito’s heartrate to jump. Fearful of what could happen to Kirito, Asuna decides to visit the hospital where Kirito is held. Given that Kirito’s theory is true, he is in no danger of dying both in game and real life, as there are staff on hand to keep an eye on him. Players who were “killed” by Death Gun were those who lived alone, with poorly-secured apartment rooms: if virtual reality technology ever becomes a reality in the near future, I imagine there will be tight regulations to ensure that players cannot be trapped in-game or killed by their devices’ emissions.

  • Channeling the sort of willpower we’ve seen in Kirito in the original Sword Art Online, Kirito manages to bisect Death Gun’s avatar to defeat him. Obi-Wan defeats Darth Maul in a similar manner in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, being the first Jedi to fight against and best a Sith lord for over a thousand years. However, the expanded universe takes things a little too far, resurrecting Darth Maul.

  • As the last two surviving Battle of Bullets participants, Sinon decides to end the game by a draw. She’s clearly warmed up to Kirito at this point, and embraces him happily before her grenade goes off to end the match.

  • Back in the real world, relief at having finished the Battle of Bullets tournament soon gives way to horror when Kyōji reveals himself to be a part of the Death Gun murders and attempts to force himself upon Sinon. These moments were unsettling, and one must wonder what’s going through Kyōji’s mind as all of this is happening. Despite Kirito arriving to try and help her, he is temporarily dispatched, but Sinon manages to overcome her fear and winds up saving Kirito.

  • Sinon expertly handles her bullies without resorting to force. Although she’s visibly shaken afterwards, she manages to contain her fear and calmly defuses the situation without escalating it.

  • In a meeting with Kikuoka Seijirō, Kirito and Sinon learn more about Death Gun. Sinon’s comments here are sympathetic to Kyōji’s situation, and unlike another, more high-profile talk out there, I’m of the same mind. While there is no doubting that Kyōji’s actions are horrifying, it appears that stress has induced mental problems in him, leaving him unable to differentiate between reality and fantasy. These situations do occur in reality, and by the time things like murders happen, intervention is already too late. Such individuals in reality should be tried fairly, with their mental conditions assessed to determine if they could stand trial. As a preventative measure, perhaps people in general ought to look out for their friends and family to help them out when all the lights go out.

  • One thing I’ve not mentioned yet was how expertly character dynamics were handled here: it’s clear that Sinon holds a small crush on Kirito, but the matter is not pressed any further, as her other challenges are explored with the most detail. Without any additional romances to bog things down, the GGO arc is able to make the most of its time to build solid background for everything that happens.

  • It turns out that, in accidentally taking a life, Sinon manages to save two: that of an employee’s and her unborn daughter. Earlier in the series, viewers only get a glimpse of what happens at the post office, and the woman only makes an appearance for a split second; we consider that people we are not familiar with “are someone else”, but, as per Calvin and Hobbes, “we’re all someone else to someone else”.

  • Sinon finds herself overwhelmed with emotion after learning of the impacts her actions had, and again, I find myself disagreeing with the sentiments expressed at the aforementioned blog, which state that this scene was merely an afterthought: this moment was well-placed as the ending to the GGO arc, illustrating that Sinon’s actions wound up saving someone and that no one really supported her until now, helping her become aware of saving someone. Coupled with her handling of the bullies from earlier, Sinon has made considerable progress since the GGO Arc began.

  • Thus ends another post, written with a Thanksgiving dinner in me, which included turkey, ham, large prawns, steamed vegetables and a fully-loaded baked potato. I’ve still a day off tomorrow on account of it being the Thanksgiving long weekend, and will spend the time doing some review of data mining concepts (clustering and distances). This weekend has been quite productive thus far: I’ve mostly finished the data mining assignment, grading my TA section’s assignments, prepared a bit of the poster for my research methodologies course, prepared my lesson plan for this week’s only tutorial and have a working, rudimentary algorithm for random motion of molecules in a cellular environment.

Shōichi and Kyōji, the two known participants in Death Gun, are institutionalised, after Kirito defeats them in GGO. The story behind their motives is tragic, reflecting on the sort of outcome that may arise from a family with high expectations. Shōichi was physically weak and was a member of Laughing Coffin, while Kyōji, already burdened with entering medical school, saw Shōichi as a hero and no longer wished to be a part of the real world. These sorts of backstories add a bit of realism to the antagonists; while their actions are despicable, it’s not difficult to imagine individuals succumbing to academic and career expectations, especially in a culture as driven as Japan’s. Thus, when all of the parts come together, Sword Art Online II‘s GGO arc winds up being an excellent watch that brings back memories of everything that was well-executed in Sword Art Online. The second half is set to begin in less than a week (this week was a recap episode), and it is with anticipation that I look forwards to seeing what will happen next in what is expected to be the UnderWorld Arc, the latest instalment in Sword Art Online.