It’s been a while since these two franchises have aired and I’ve seen the fans of the shows pitting both shows on the game of ‘Which Anime/Novel portrays the MMOs better’. Depending on what you enjoy from an ontological aspect of online gaming, there’s going to be one show that will resonate better.
For those who watched the subs of Log Horizon, some of you might have caught the term “Pioneers of Novasphere” as the name of the expansion pack that caused the players in Elder Tale to get trapped in the game. Well that was an incorrect translation of what the expansion pack was really about. The translation should actually be “Homesteading the Noosphere”. It makes a lot more sense what Log Horizon’s focus is if you know the meaning of “Noosphere“.
In contrast, Sword Art Online’s first volume’s title is “Aincrad”. While most of those who watched the anime might probably be familiar only with the “floating castle” – if you have read the later novels on Calibur, Aincrad actually comes from the phrase “An Incarnating Radius”. So there you go, keywords: Incarnation and Noosphere. Got it?
It’s all starting to go wrong. This town… This world… Who’s at fault? No, to a greater or lesser degree, everyone is. Including me, since I’m not doing anything. – Shiroe
What I am trying to say is that both franchises actually deal with the idea of existence and reality, which are topics under the umbrella of “the nature of being”. Log Horizon focuses more on the mind, while SAO deals with the flesh/matter.
Log Horizon’s take on consciousness is seen on the decision-making process of Shiroe and Round Table in challenging the current predicament of Akihabara/Yamato Server and the existing system that supported the Elder Tale, from before it was a “game”. Meanwhile, SAO’s take on reality is seen more on the survival aspect of the game, along with the very apparent concept of virtual reality. The degree of focus can actually be distinguished by the fact that when you get killed in SAO, you’re dead in real life, but in Log Horizon, it’s only the loss of memories that counts as the death penalty.
“….The differences between the real world and the virtual world… what are they….?” “Just the quantity of information.” – SAO Vol. 5
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Log Horizon and SAO do not touch other aspects besides their focus. There are actually a lot of times when they intersect. At the end of the day, we know that both anime have the tendency to go rely on the idea of cognitive science, thus their take on the role of information to the human mind or to an artificial intelligence. However, Log Horizon is seen to have given the role and concept of NPCs a richer detail. The People of the Land has taken a more active role in the plot from S1 and S2. This is a give-away on one of the ideas of existentialism “existence precedes essence” – in relation to consciousness. In essence, they are NPCs, yes – but after “Catastrophe” or should I say ” Third World Fraction”, we were made known to the changes to their role in Elder Tale. In SAO, there’s really not much to say about NPCs except for the incorporation of AI when it comes to Yui, and later on with Alicization. SAO is more detached on the game-side and focuses more in the real world application of AIs after all.
With regards to senses (especially taste/gustatory), both anime had a phase where it was explored and used as a plot device. However, we saw in SAO how it acted as a bridge for players (such as Asuna) to the real world. It’s these semblance to the real world that made them question their belief on what really is real or virtual. Log Horizon was not that into this aspect as it only made it into the list of “changes from before”.
Log Horizon presents a lot of situations that has to do with the changes in the players mind, and how they adapted to the changes in Elder Tale such as the creation of new spells, new skills, and even real world items. In SAO, all of these are system-assisted – and tied with the Cardinal System, which makes it perfunctory. This is not to say that SAO never focused on the mental effect of the game to the players because Yui was made for that purpose. Again, the difference is that SAO took the melodramatic path of scarring people through the death of their guild mates (Black Cats of the Full Moon) – again with a focus on blurring the lines between virtual reality and “true” reality. Meanwhile, Log Horizon has Debauchery Tea Party which portrays the hesitation of Shiro to deviate from mere indulgence to actually doing something. It even made way for some characters such as William to convey his thoughts about guilds and the camaraderie. Of course, we have the recent episode about the Odyssea Knights and their twisted perception of death.
At some point, for those who are reading the Alicization Arc of SAO, Kawahara-sensei introduces the concept of Transgression Quotient and fluctlights which are pretty much the concept of AIs gaining conscience – like what happened in Log Horizon after the Catastrophe. However, again, take note that these concepts are highly dependent to the Cardinal System which is, at the end of the day, 1s and 0s packed together, unlike Log Horizon which never focused on hardware or software, but simply on the mind and observation of the players.
So there you go, if you are the type who likes to think about existentialism and the role of the human mind – which is closely tied – I would say to the actual act of “role-playing” in online games, Log Horizon is for you. However if you are the type of player who integrates the real world, to that of the virtual world, then SAO is probably going to resonate more to you. Personally, I lean towards SAO. Your thoughts?