The debate over accessibility once again comes to a head with the release of the tragic death game.
After only a month of service, Sword Art Online, the world’s first full-dive virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game developed by Argus for the NerveGear, has wrought a death toll exceeding 2,000 victims and counting. The humanitarian crisis has invited sharp criticism of video games and VR technology at large, but it has also amassed a staunch, unexpected minority of dissidents who find merit in Akihiko Kayaba’s—the death game’s mastermind—gruesome vision.
Due to Kayaba sealing off communications between SAO players and the outside world, news outlets and intelligence agencies have little to go on and even less to share about what is currently happening inside Aincrad, but video game experts and investigators have pieced together a few harrowing conclusions based on firsthand accounts of SAO’s beta test, interviews with friends and family members of the deceased, and public knowledge of the NerveGear’s hardware specifications.
In spite of Argus campaigning SAO as the NerveGear’s flagship title to welcome newcomers and veterans alike to the alleged future of gaming, beta testers reported SAO to be a treacherously difficult MMORPG, and many speculate Kayaba increased the game’s difficulty before its official launch. This theory is corroborated by estimates that put the death rate for ex-beta testers who migrated to SAO around an astonishing 40%. This minority of players who should have had the greatest advantage likely ran into changes made after the beta and were taken by surprise. As for the general player base, what authorities quickly discovered is that the bulk of the game’s early victims were individuals who had never played an MMORPG before; in fact, many had never played a video game at all and had been lured by the wonder of full-dive technology.
Sword Art Online: Progressive, Vol. 2 Ch. 6.5
Aberrations in the NerveGear’s performance jeopardize disabled SAO players even further via Full-dive Nonconformities, or FNCs. Because the NerveGear directly interfaces with the brain’s sensory regions through microwave signals, many in the disabled community initially saw full-dive technology as a revolution in video game accessibility. VR seemed poised to yield fresh, transformative experiences that surpassed the physical. The opportunity to immerse oneself in bodies different from one’s own piqued the interests of disabled and non-disabled players alike. Instead, Argus dashed these hopes with the beta’s release, and the technology once thought to be limitless turned out less advanced than previously anticipated.
Avatars generated in SAO by the NerveGear are strictly of an able-bodied mold. Rather than accommodate disabled players, many faced synchronization issues that prevented them from logging in at all—these connectivity malfunctions define an FNC. Those who squeaked past synchronization hiccups awoke in the virtual world to find their real-life conditions translated onto their in-game bodies, and some players, through manufacturing defects in the NerveGear, even gained a disability in full dive due to an FNC. These players now find themselves disadvantaged in a hostile environment, particularly those with FNCs related to eyesight and hearing.
Sword Art Online Progressive, Vol. 3 Ch. 14
SAO’s one-month death toll paints a grim picture of the massacre occurring inside the game world. Not only are players being killed in droves, but the game seems to be targeting its most vulnerable populations. Authorities, survivors of the deceased, and the world at large question whether Kayaba intended for SAO’s notorious difficulty curve to weed out these individuals. In his announcement to players and the world, which has since been removed from social media and video playback websites, Kayaba claimed to have sabotaged SAO and taken players hostage in order “to create a world and to intervene in it.” Leading criminal psychologists estimate a god complex underlying Kayaba’s heinous actions but stress that nothing can be certain until he is apprehended. Kayaba’s motives remain unclear, and the search for his hideout remains ongoing.
Though many onlookers of SAO’s VR nightmare are satisfied with gross conjecture of Kayaba’s reasoning, others—particularly family members and close relations of the victims—are deeply tormented. If a man wished to play creator to another reality, then why would he make a world that punished its most at-risk players instead of taking them into its fold and giving them a fighting chance? Is it an act of revenge against the mainstream culture’s disdain for otaku? Does he simply want to feel powerful? A growing contingent of online forum users and beta testers who missed SAO’s official launch argue that Kayaba, while ultimately delusional, isn’t lashing out against society or new players but is operating on ideological—and perhaps artistic—principles.
“I’m not a f——— megalomaniac or anything, but if I was going to make my own fantasy realm, I get why he’d opt for perma-death,” states one ex-beta tester who chooses to remain anonymous. “After seeing the beta with my own eyes, I can’t help but feel that Kayaba wants to prove his world is as good or ‘real’ as any other. If you think about it, meatspace is just as unfair, and we don’t get to respawn here either.”
When asked about FNCs and the skill gap killing waves of players, our interviewee had this to say.
“He [Kayaba] probably could have flattened the early-game death curve with features like an easy mode, a deeper tutorial, or cheats like aim-assist or auto-battle among other things, but again, to my earlier point, if I’m going to run a world built entirely around my ego, then everybody’s going to play the game my way. Kayaba’s a sick b———, but there’s something admirable about a creator sticking to their guns, you know? And if you read the things people are saying online, it’s crazy. They fantasize about stealing confiscated NerveGears and hacking into SAO to join the game late—some freaks even talk about becoming player killers. The players on the inside have no way of knowing if the death game is legit or not, so everyone knows there are already player killers in SAO. Every MMORPG has them, but no one wants to talk about it.”
The likelihood of player killers, individuals who derive enjoyment from attacking fellow players, raises further questions about Kayaba’s intent. Assuming SAO follows in its beta’s footsteps, those who engage in player-killing will find themselves marked and punished by the game’s systems, but not severely enough to ward off the activity altogether. Another note of interest: unlike other MMORPGs that railroad players into forming parties to clear content, those who progressed farthest in the beta test were, shockingly enough, solo players. Ludologists and sociologists expect the majority of SAO’s remaining survivors have most likely holed up at the game’s starting point, The Town of Beginnings, where they are, assuming no changes from the beta, safe from monster attacks and player killers, and hopefully, Kayaba will remain content to let them stay there. Lastly, SAO’s impressive Cardinal system, the futuristic engine that regulates the game independent of human moderators, auto-generates new quests by analyzing myths and historical literature scavenged from the internet, so players always have new content to brave that, by and large, Kayaba isn’t fully aware of as a designer. All of these items imply that Kayaba wants each of his players to experience SAO in their own way, which makes the game’s unforgiving nature all the more baffling.
Sword Art Online II, Ep. 16
As our anonymous ex-beta tester suspects, perhaps it is true that some misguided individuals would voluntarily endeavor the death game if given the choice. Many players are thrill-seekers ravenous for extreme challenges. In a regular video game, the existence of one playstyle doesn’t negate or threaten the existence of another, though. Just as a work of film inspires subjective interpretations, no two persons can play a game in exactly the same way or perfectly follow the paved road laid by the creator. Games have always been a sandbox medium in which creators lead the charge and players embrace, rebuke, or surprise developers, sometimes all at once. SAO, of course, is not a regular game. Its creator has authored a broken contract between himself and his player base. He has birthed Japan’s deadliest catastrophe in recent history.
Still, Kayaba’s sympathizers maintain that SAO would lose its verisimilitude and integrity were it to show kindness to struggling players. According to these defenders, by sheer virtue of its severity, SAO has overcome the dissonance between gameplay and narrative that purportedly undercuts traditional games in its genre. From loose observation, it’s hard to agree with the claims that SAO radically differs from the structure of its predecessors or contemporaries.
SAO’s Cardinal system is certainly a stunning feat of AI in its capacity to endlessly mass-produce recognizable storylines, but its confinement to the artifice of the video game quest structure and its lack of a truly sentient AI populace denies SAO any true escape from convention. Players still follow prepackaged story arcs with branching paths. Forcing players to live inside the game takes the notion of a player-driven narrative to the extreme, but video games have always interwoven player choice and community interaction into their storytelling by varying degrees. There is also an inherent tension between wanting players to write their own stories and wanting players to experience a reality. Though people tend to understand their lives as a continuous narrative, that is a retrospective process. Everyday reality is too chaotic to function in narrative terms.
No matter how rich Aincrad’s environmental storytelling, it’s nothing that far more compassionate games haven’t already achieved on a smaller scale—and without killing anyone. Besides, it is hard to imagine players inside SAO putting aside their revulsion toward their virtual prison long enough to engross themselves in the game’s lore. However gargantuan, sublime, and well-crafted Aincrad might be, it doesn’t bring anything new to storytelling in video games. Rather than unify its dramatic and ludic elements, SAO’s terrifying stakes have accomplished the opposite. They have draped the veil of a superficial fantasy adventure over a slaughterhouse. By turning SAO into an instrument of violence, Kayaba has doomed his greatest labor to universal condemnation.
Although SAO pioneers full-dive technology and delivers an open world at a scale we’ve never seen before, the mechanics of its game design are largely derivative of a sprawling action-RPG and MMO lineage. Players increase their stats by defeating enemies and repeated use of in-game skills. They form parties to raid dungeons and work together to defeat floor bosses so they can advance the game. They are rewarded for cooperation and calculated risks. When out of the fray, they take part in communal recreation and amenities provided by players and non-player characters alike, such as shopping, live music, dining, and so on. MMORPGs have always drawn in players with their breadth of features; all of this is standard fare. Even SAO’s iconic sword skills are traceable to rhythm and fitness games on motion-tracking consoles as ancient as the Wii. Good design isn’t necessarily original, but the insistence that SAO is unique as to make it artistically distinct from other games and therefore exempt from criticism speaks to a lack of familiarity with video game history. Games have always found ways to satisfy and challenge audiences while offering a variety of accessibility features. Most importantly, they’ve done it without butchering 2,000 innocents.
It would be easy to dismiss the strange cult of worship around Akihiko Kayaba and SAO as a fringe horde of insensitive, overly online, pearl-clutching reprobates. Ultimately, I think these individuals are an example of what happens when one allows artistic sensibility to overtake empathy, the latter of which is a far better quality to cultivate. If we hold the view of art from a craft perspective, and we take it that video games are art, then it is absolutely true that every single element of a game, its ruthlessness included—every variable, pixel, and line of code down to the ones and zeroes—are choices culminating in a singular expression that is, by virtue of its advent, worth existing. All philosophies, however, surely have their limits. Kayaba’s “expression” is mowing down scores of people, and people hold a greater right to exist than any imaginative object.
One month ago, SAO players logged into the game desiring nothing more than to wholeheartedly lose themselves in the grandeur of Aincrad. Like Kayaba, they too dreamed of that enthralling castle in the sky, yet Kayaba—developer, artist, architect, fellow human—abandoned them, and he continues to wash his hands of their blood.