“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 devastated 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 pedantic, 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.