VRMMORPGs and Modern Escapism
Recently, while critiquing a story where the main character gets trapped in a video game, I mentioned in passing that it seemed a bit like a modern interpretation of the Narnia narrative. That idea kept coming back to me and I realized I wanted to examine this trend a bit more, specifically in contemporary Japanese anime. That’s right, friends, this is going to get a little dorky.
And note that I am only using Narnia as a jumping off point; the halls of literature (YA lit in particular) are chock full of escapes into fantasy worlds; Narnia is just possibly the most influential, the most archetypal, to our modern sensibilities. Others off the top of my head that do something similar include Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Spirited Away, Peter Pan, Gulliver’s Travels, etc, etc.
The two animes I would like to look at here are Sword Art Online (SAO) and Log Horizon. Both of these were mangas before being adapted into television series, but I’m already out of my element here, so I’ll just be talking about the shows, which are quite popular.
So the plots of these shows are very similar. Under mysterious circumstances, every player of the shows’ respective games is sucked into the game. There are some differences, for example in SAO the players’ goal is immediately made clear (i.e., beat the game, you go free), while the characters in Log Horizon are given very little explanation or guidance. Also, dying in SAO kills the player in real life, while dying in Elder tales (the title of the game of Log Horizon) removes some fraction of the players’ memory of the real world. But essentially, they operate within the same conceit: what if thousands of people were trapped in a VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games)?
|Load screen from SAO|
Part of what has changed is the introduction/popularization of MMORPGS, wherein thousands or millions of players are playing together. And so this advancement changes what it means to be trapped in a video game – it is no longer a singular experience, but one dependent on interaction. When Jeff Bridges is sucked into Tron, the primary reaction is that he is immediately alienated by his surroundings; when the characters of these shows are sucked in, they are getting sucked into a world that they are intimately familiar with, perhaps more so than the real world.
But why is this trapped-in-a-videogame trope so popular? Well I think that it is a relevant take on the old trapped-in-fantasy-world narrative. But I think, in this case, it is also worth examining the main characters; in both shows, the main characters are both prodigal gamers of almost legendary renown. So on the surface, part of the show seems to be wish fulfillment – everyone around them has their lives narrowed down to the same point that the main characters have narrowed their own lives: the game.
But on the other hand, the shows actually address what has become a real (and increasingly acknowledged) issue in Japan; agoraphobic adolescent shut-ins, or hikikomori, that close themselves off from any real human contact and many dedicate themselves to gaming instead. The Japanese government estimates that there are anywhere between 500,000 and 2 million afflicted individuals. These shows force these characters to interact, allow the protagonists to escape modern life, but in a way that allows them to actually become more adjusted to dealing with it. A method of distancing (the video game) becomes the very mode of forcing the characters to form relationships.
As an aside, this is actually one place that the shows lose their momentum. The shows become so much about these characters finally experiencing normal (super mushy and over idealized and sentimental) relationships that it ceases to be about the game. In fact, despite the excellent and relevant subject, the shows are honestly pretty bad and struggle heavily with pacing. But I’m not really analyzing these in terms of their technical merit. (Actually, part of what is impressive is how popular they are despite being rather bad.)
One difference between these shows and the older renditions is that Narnia is located within an old piece of furniture. That may sound a bit frivolous but I think it does have some merit in noting the difference: Narnia is located within an antique while these new series are technological fantasies. The worlds may be fantasy worlds (swords and spells, dungeons and dragons, etc.) based on medieval pastoral ideals, but unlike Narnia, they arise out of modern (futuristic) technology. The shows are about reconciling isolation with community, futuristic technology with a traditional pastoral ideal (characterized by magic, something inherently inexplicable, at odds with the rigidity and logic of technology, but in a sense equated with it all the less in these narratives).
And these are just two examples of what an admittedly not super in touch nerd has found, cursory research has turned up a few other similar works (No Game No Life, Btooom!). And I’m not saying this is a large scale movement, but it is interesting to see how modern cultures absorb traditional narrative patterns and motifs.