God Damn .hack//SIGN Episode 1

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First, let me just say, this OP is the best thing Bee Train has ever animated.

I think it’s important to realize that .hack//SIGN is in an entirely different class compared to the rest of Bee Train’s catalog. While nothing special in the grand scheme of things, the art and animation are serviceable, and the character designs (by Sadamoto Yoshiyuki of GAINAX fame) are quite nice. While nearly all Bee Train shows boast Kajiura Yuki soundtracks, none of them comes close to the one for .hack//SIGN (among my favorite OSTs, as a matter of fact.)

These factors give the show a huge advantage, and the fact that Mashimo Kouichi’s style is to play the music so loud that it drowns everything out also helps. In a move the likes of which I’ve never seen before, the first five minutes of the show are overlaid with the entirety of “The World,” one of the songs with Emily Bindiger vocals (my favorites on the soundtrack). Listening to my favorite OST over a halfway-decent first episode (certainly the best out of the Bee Train shows I’ve seen) isn’t the worst way to spend twenty minutes (Phantom episode 1 is).

In other words, I didn’t hate .hack//SIGN episode one—but it still bothered me a lot.

“He hates it…”

The entire .hack franchise is built around a fictional MMORPG called The World—supposedly the biggest MMO in the (real) world—and is set in a near-future wherein virtual reality is pretty fucking good. Problematically, most of the franchise completely fails at presenting a believable MMO—and none fails harder than .hack//SIGN.

Ironically, .hack//SIGN is what got me interested in MMOs back in 2003, when I started playing Ragnarok Online. Admittedly, my experience with the genre is limited to Ragnarok, World of Warcraft, Phantasy Star Universe, and Guild Wars, but I think that I have a good grasp of how these games work, how it’s possible for them to work, and their scope.

If The World is the world’s biggest MMO, then the main characters must be playing on its least populous server. The game is set up the same way Phantasy Star Universe is, wherein characters always play in either town locations or dungeons. A party takes on a dungeon by themselves, so others can’t simply walk in on their play-through. With a set-up like this, there are always going to be massive groups of people hovering around the dungeon gates, either looking for groups or being dumbasses. When Tsukasa and Mimiru are there, however, they’re alone.

In Phantasy Star Universe, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be empty dungeon gates even though there were only so many town areas, because players might be on a less-populated server (the game wasn’t that populated to begin with), or it could be an unpopular collection of dungeons. I probably wasn’t meant to think this hard in justifying it to begin with, but I have reasons to believe this much thought was never put into it.

The main reason is that the Crimson Knights are operating on the same server. (Actually, we have no way of knowing whether or not there are multiple servers on this game—it makes sense that there would be, but that doesn’t mean the series creators put that level of thought into it.) One would assume that the massive group of player police would operate on the game’s most populous server, and not on a barely populated one.

A defense of this might be that, again like Phantasy Star Universe, characters are allowed to go between servers, but then it raises the question of how the Crimson Knights could easily track Tsukasa, who can be on whatever server he wants.

Moreover, there are several parts of this episode wherein characters are shown together in dungeons without being in the same party. Mimiru walks in on Tsukasa, Tsukasa on Bear and B.T., and Silver Knight on Tsukasa. There may be an option to join a party already progressing in a dungeon, but it would surely require the party leader’s permission to join, and we know Tsukasa wouldn’t give that permission to anyone. This makes it seem like the game takes place in an open world like World of Warcraft, but if that were true, then it would throw the point of the towns and gates into question.

All of these confusing elements aren’t meant to be thought about, but it becomes hard for me to buy into the story when it’s set in a universe with unclear rules. Everything in this show revolves around the idea that Tsukasa is trapped in the game, so the way the game works seems like it would be integral to the story.

But maybe I’m jumping the gun asking for all these things to be laid out from the beginning. This is, after all, a 26-episode show, so it has time to establish the world further. There’s one thing that I can’t get past, however, and that’s the Crimson Knights.

The Crimson Knights, a large group of players that police The World, could never exist in a real game. This is what we call “playing mod,” something that gets you banned on forums and reported in online games. The troubling thing is that, in spite of being an unofficial group, the Crimson Knights have administrative powers. When Silver Knight tracks down Tsukasa, he “puts up a barrier” that disallows Tsukasa to use his ocarina, which would teleport him out of the dungeon. No player should have this power, and no admin would need it. The only way that these actions could be explained is that the Crimson Knights are a group of hackers, and high-profile hackers at that. Their actions, even without hacking, would surely get them banned and complained about, and, if their influence is as strong as it seems to be, would drive players away from the game.

.hack//SIGN already requires a lot of suspension of disbelief without the help of these things. I have to buy into the idea of consciousness escaping into an MMORPG, the idea of avatars being able to move their entire bodies freely (Mimiru actually bitchslaps Tsukasa in this episode, which I found amazing), and the idea of players using character models that happen to perfectly match their real voices. I’m willing to let these things pass for the sake of entertainment, but the series must contain enough verisimilitude to help ground these elements or else the narrative conceits break apart.

For those who play MMORPGs and/or have seen this series, do you think this show is believable as an MMO? Am I overthinking this/underexperienced?

5 thoughts on “God Damn .hack//SIGN Episode 1

    • As I’m watching the show and playing MMOs on the side, I’m finding any which way that the show can skate by without being totally hammered for the lack of realism, but I never feel like it’s the result of their research that lets them get away with it.

  1. The franchise as a whole definitely demands a great degree of suspension of disbelief, some more obvious like how you can get such fine movement and character facial animation with a pair of VR goggles and a game pad.

    But adherence to the mechanics of mmos right now would not really allow the franchise to work. Remember that mmos, while boasting online interaction, gives the player a multitude of tools to close themselves off from the rest of the community. You can filter chat, block people, set up auto-blocks on party invites, etc, or simply change characters if you want total anonymity.

    I take in .hack like I take in Tron, it’s basically all magic no matter what technological setting it gives itself.

    • I’m not asking for the show to be realistic, I just want it to have enough verisimilitude that I can accept it. That said, I’ve found so many excuses for the show to fit into MMO shoes that it’s bothering me slightly less.

  2. It’s the future. All of those things stated as happening exclusively in real life MMO’s can be seen as flaws. By the time VR of this caliber exists, these .hack style happenings will all be entirely plausible.

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