I distinctly remember watching the anime adaptation of the Sword Art Online light novels a few years ago and absolutely falling in love with the first half of the first season which detailed the Aincrad arc. Even though I have a less than ideal opinion of the other arcs, I thought the tale of Kirito and Asuna’s journey through the death trap that was Aincrad was particularly compelling because it was grounded in so many actual MMORPG elements. In a lot of ways, the Aincrad arc of Sword Art Online can be credited with creating a whole new genre in anime. Since its release, there have been many shows in the same vein as Sword Art Online such as Log Horizon and No Game No Life. Because of the desire to look at Aincrad in greater depth, I read the first volume of Sword Art Online: Progressive.
Sword Art Online: Progressive explores Aincrad in-depth. Its goal is to delve into the nuances of the climb up each floor within the tower, with two floors being included per volume. For those that are unfamiliar with Sword Art Online, players enter a MMORPG through a virtual reality console and are consequently trapped inside the game by its creator. If anyone dies inside the game, that person will also die in real life. The only means of escape is putting your life on the line and ascending the tower. Once the final boss on the final floor has been defeated, players will be able to log out and resume their lives once more. The hero of the story is a middle school boy named Kirito who is an experienced MMO player. He played in Sword Art Online’s beta and due to the knowledge he obtained there and his experience playing games, he is an excellent player in Sword Art Online. He meets a young woman very early in Progressive by the name of Asuna, and the two of them forge an unlikely partnership as they climb the tower together.
Reki Kawahara, the author of Sword Art Online: Progressive, explains in the novel’s Afterword that some changes needed to be made in Progressive. The biggest issue was Asuna herself as she does not appear immediately in the original story. He either needed to introduce a new heroine or have the two titular characters meet from the get-go. He chose the latter option, and the story works so well as a result.
Admittedly, this was my first light novel and I was thoroughly impressed by the writing. The visual descriptions of the world inside were striking. Kawahara’s writing does an excellent job at providing an insight into the technical terms of an RPG. When he writes about the boss battle of the first floor, it felt like I was inside the boss room with the characters. He accurately describes the scope of a full raid party without getting lost in the technical language. I have a lot of MMO knowledge, but he does he does a great job at providing explanations for terms that most people would not be familiar with. He understands that his audience is comprised of many different people.
Sword Art Online: Progressive is more of a character study than anything else. The overarching premise is simple, but this is a story where the journey is far more important than the end result. The evolving dynamic between Kirito and Asuna is splendid. A lot of people will often say that relationships usually begin with strong friendships, and this is especially true for Kirito and Asuna. He saves her at the beginning of the novel after she collapses from exhaustion and he has no ulterior motives on his mind. However the two of them cross paths routinely and Kirito learns to be able to play with someone else after resolving to be a solo player. Asuna in turn learns about the game world from Kirito, but you get the sense as a reader that they are slowly falling for each other and neither person wants to admit it.
Kirito has compelling interactions with other characters as well such as Argo the Rat. Kirito works so well as a protagonist inside the Sword Art Online setting because of his lack of real life experience. Being only a middle school teenager, he is not very experienced when it comes to interacting with others. His dealings with Argo the Rat help him to grow as a player and do meaningful favors for other people. Kirito is levelling his skills as the story progresses, but more importantly he is levelling his social circle and social ability. His naivety also works incredibly well because if he was older, he might be more jaded and cynical. Being a young boy has its benefits in so far he has a strong moral compass. This is very evident when he meets a blacksmith and has to decide when he should and should not intervene in the struggles of others.
Sword Art Online: Progressive is not about a fast paced story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It takes it time to build up these small individual stories. The story of the blacksmith takes a while to play out, but when it does, it becomes evident the payoff is worth the wait. This retelling of the original story is an attempt by the author to get his readers to appreciate the finer details of a narrative. I got absorbed in the story because I wanted to see how people would interact with each other when the stakes are so high and chances of success are so low. Sword Art Online is more about trying to understand the human condition more than anything else, and if you are into that type of thing, I could not recommend Progressive enough.