System administrator

A review of the first Log Horizon series

Read other peoples’ reviews of Log Horizon and a pattern emerges, whereby your enjoyment of the series seems predicated on your level of involvement with MMORPGs and by how much you want an anime series to capture the feelings they invoke. So on the one hand you have those who have played since the heady pioneering days of Ultima Online and Everquest and have moved past the day to day minutiae of MMO activities with an elevated focus on community and meta aspects to the experience. On the other, you have those who seek the thrill of loot, of building one’s character, min-maxing and optimising and savouring the Pavlovian new-level ping.

that knowing sense of daftness when a samurai takes down a boar ten times his size, or when a griffin tries to eat Naotsugu’s head

Log Horizon contains characters from that entire spectrum but as a series, favours the former over the latter. The concept of characters becoming trapped within an MMO is definitely not unique but its approach to telling a story within that structure is. Perhaps most crucially though is that the series seems to understand which core tenets of MMOs make a good story rather than doing the opposite trying to apply a story to an MMO.

It’s a subtle distinction but it’s similar to the idea that, as Digibro in his excellent video points out, Log Horizon isn’t a series predicated on characters being trapped inside an MMO, but that an MMO’s world has become reality for the characters. It’s taking the rules and systems within an online game and spinning them out in a large-scale hypothetical “what if” situation. The “being trapped” part is neither the focus of the story nor the driving force of the characters, the more immediate situation of surviving within this new world takes priority. In fact this concept is taken to such extremes that no character ever talks about their lives “outside” of the new world and any flashback histories are always of events that happened within the game prior to it becoming real.

The exception to this is with a pair of twins who are gifted an excellent, wordless vignette - barely a few seconds long - that is so easy to miss and so endlessly revealing towards their characters that it is sheepishly shown again in the next episode, lest you missed in the last. Shiroe as well, ostensibly the protagonist of the show, is briefly shown at his computer, serving the dual purpose of contextualising the MMO itself - in this case called “Elder Tales” - as a standard keyboard-and-mouse affair, but is only revealed during weighty discussions about the very nature of the world itself.

It is this aspect that proves to be the bread and butter of the series and is why many people were frustrated with its lack of action. More than anything Log Horizon is built - from world to character - on discussion; be that round a table or round a campfire, whole episodes are dedicated to conferences on trading, on laws of the land, on monster hunting, on guild affairs. There is action of course, a massive thousand-person raid in the last third of the series is a particular high point, but by and large this is about talking.

And why wouldn’t it be? The original light novels were after all written by the same person who penned the Maoyuu Maou Yuusha scenario and the same level of astute detail is applied here. The concept here however allows for a greater scope, specifically an exploration of humanity and the oft misused term of the “human condition”. It’s about what happens when you remove the threat of death and disease from a group of people who, when compared with the local populace, are demigods. Able to wield immense powers and command huge fortunes while the NPCs, the People of the Land, are now bestowed life and emotion outside their conditioned, computer-aided responses. What goals do these new inhabitants of the world seek? How do they govern themselves?

These are all questions the series poses and, to a greater or lesser degree, suitably answers thanks primarily to serial schemer Shiroe. So a large chunk of the series’ second act deals with the politicking of the nobility of the People of the Land. They are mortal, they work for their food and they are born into an antiquated caste system, all of which these Adventurers are not. Of course these Adventurers who just showed up one day are met with distrust. They are not just physically intimidating but represent an ideological antithesis to the natives, the People of the Land. It’s non-obvious questions like this that the series thrives upon and is why it is deliberately divorced from the shounen-esque “must get stronger” mentality that, on the face of it at least, MMOs are about.

What this means in practical terms however is that the series’ structure is immune to the peaks and troughs of excitement that are emblematic of other series. There is no “action episode” followed immediately by a “talky episode”, there is action and there is talking and there is excitement but it is so expertly meted out, holding that anticipation and buzz across two, even three episodes, that when one ends there’s genuine frustration there’s not more. Episodes don’t need to end on a cliffhanger for you to carry on watching because you’ve seen how this situation has developed, you’ve watched the characters plot and scheme and manoeuvre and fight and you just want it to keep going.

A lot of that is thanks to the gently expanding cast of characters who go from a trio - Shiroe, Naotsugu and Akatsuki - to a party, to a guild, to a city, even an entire country. Focus slips from one group to the next with such deftness that when it comes to that large raid, when threads twelve episodes in the making come together, there is never a sense of confusion or disjointedness, only awe. That in itself is amazing but being able to blend superb character drama into epic world shaking fights is almost beyond belief.

It’s the buildup to that payoff however that likely proves to be the stumbling block for many. Early episodes especially spend a not insignificant amount of time explaining MMO terminology and tactics in order to bring non-players up to speed. These parts noticeably drag if you are even partially familiar with the concepts being presented but serve as touchstones for the story to come, along the lines of “here are the systems we’re going to be using next”. Thankfully these explanations are pared back as the story progresses and are better incorporated into it, feeling less like a lecture and more contextually appropriate.

Watching all of the different strands come together is a large part of the appeal, especially so with characters like Shiroe and Minori, the former of whom we watch carve out a position of respected authority thanks to judicious planning, the latter follows in Shiroe’s footsteps, growing from the timid girl who was in indentured servitude to a guild to a trusted party leader. These aren’t the only two character who change and grow but even ones like Akatsuki, the diminutive ninja who pledges her allegiance (and secretly her affections) to Shiroe, comes out of the shadows both figuratively and literally in the last story arc, acknowledging and attempting to combat her lack of presence throughout the other episodes.

Although it may seem that Shiroe is the prototypical dense harem core - and indeed by the end several ladies are fighting a clandestine war for his feelings - there is the strong sense that their fondness for him is justified, not only by his obvious and demonstrable skills but because they’re fully formed characters themselves. Even Henrietta who, like Shiroe keeps her emotions closely in check, has spent time with him and both share a mutual respect for one another. It helps too that there is evidence of romance blossoming elsewhere in the cast list and that these stories don’t overtake others in terms of importance.

Log Horizon isn’t just poe faced musings on humanity and molasses thick MMO terminology though: a large part of the style of the series is held in the super-deformed faces of every character and the slapstick humour that usually accompanies them. Sure it does drive a few lacklustre jokes into the ground, but the series never seems to lose that knowing sense of daftness when a samurai takes down a boar ten times his size, or when a griffin tries to eat Naotsugu’s head, or that when you get right down it, this new society of Adventurers is comprised of video game players. You might have all sorts behind that categorisation - otaku, housewives, salarymen, armchair strategists, curious economists - but this is a society of nerds which means when the glasses push is used, and then overused, the series is in on the joke.

There is so much more going on in Log Horizon than all that I’ve detailed so far, but it’s mostly just a longwinded way of establishing that this is a phenomenal series. It’s not a mistake that the second series - itself rumoured to be twenty five episodes - is already well underway, after an already generous uninterrupted twenty five episodes for this first one. It is exceptionally good with a story that goes from existential musings on HP and MP through to goblin-slaying scenery-scorching magic spells and damn fine looking hamburgers in between. There are missteps of course: Rudy’s story is somewhat spoiled by the opening which itself is an acquired taste given the rather eclectic lyrics, the visuals are solid if unimpressive, Minori and Serara’s characters tended to merge together as they both occupy the “wide-eyed schoolgirl” pigeon hole, and as already mentioned, some jokes are run ragged with overuse.

Don’t misunderstand though, you should absolutely watch Log Horizon regardless of your experience or feelings towards MMORPGs. The series is as much about MMOs as you want it to be; levelling may not be touched upon and loot may be absent but if you can appreciate a varied cast of stellar characters and a story that can reasonably summon up comparisons with Lord of the Flies, Log Horizon is for you. If you’re searching for a hero’s journey though or cannot appreciate the majesty of a group name like Debauchery Tea Party, this is perhaps not for you; other anime, ostensibly about MMOs, may be a better fit.

Responses to “System administrator”

It's very true that this isn't a show about people being "trapped", but I don't exactly think it's about survival either, or about living in new circumstances. The real life is always just beyond the veil; we only get it in glimpses, but it's there. It's odd, for example, how the show plays up the importance of memories (with every death) near the end of the show, but never really lets us know in any great detail what memories they are, or why they are important. The "real world" is ever present, though, as background radiation - the hamburgers you cite, or the fact that the places where the adventurers live are named after real-life server locations.

It may help to contextualise LH.

The first trapped-in-a-game anime I've seen is .hack/sign. In this show, only few people are actually trapped in the game (in .hack/sign its only one? I don't remember too well). The key concept is, if I interpreted that correctly, the interaction between an easter egg left behind by a programmer and the game's AI, which reminded me much of Lem's Solaris. The .hack series (I've only seen /sign, but I'm loosely familiar with the PS2 games/Twighlight Bracelet), then, seems to be interested in the indirect communication between programmers and users, with AI serving as a sort of metaphor for the concept of metaphor itself. The AI probably doesn't understand the metaphor its acting out; it's a program, a formula with variables. And people interact with that, while they interact with each other. .hack/sign is very semiotic; it's the only one of the three shows I'm going to talk about that's actually interested in the technology on a deeper level. People use metaphors to communicate; and a computer can relay them. And an AI can pose an interactive metaphor. It appeared all very Jungian to me: in a strange sort of way the hackers double as psycho-analytic scholars.

Then, there's Sword Art Online, which is all about a male teenage gamer's anxieties, but instead of exploring them its assuaging them. It's a straight-forward fantasy, where gamer skills are useful, in the least subtle way imaginable. Kirito may angst about his place in real life, but everyone loves him (except the cartoon villain, of course). The SF elements are window dressing. Anything here is mined for threat value, or for sentimental validation. It's not that there isn't a potential story in SAO; it's that the show doesn't care about it.

Let's compare .hack and SAO with the topic of player killers. The player killer character in .hack is a child whose having fun. He's a bit of an ass, but generally a decent kid. Turns down the ability to cheat, because it wouldn't be any fun. In a situation like SAO, this kid would certainly not have continued to be a player killer. Player killers in SAO, on the other hand, are little but a threat. There the outside-threat that you have to overcome. The threat is dual: being killed and having to kill. But at no point is SAO interested in a player killer's motivation. They're cartoon villains; that's all. It's not implausible that such people exist. It's just that by calling them player killers and leaving it at that the show demonstrates disinterest in the meaning of playing a game. .hack/sing needs the tension between the real world and the game world to work out: meaning is imported into the game. SAO needs the illusion that the game is real to function, and thus they just pull over metaphors into the new situations: player killers are annyoing in real life (so much so that modern MMOs are all designed to deal with them in the first place), thus they are downright evil when you make things real.

So where does Log Horizon fit in with these two shows? If .hack/sign is interested in the man-machine interface, and SAO is an escapist fantasy, where does that leave Log Horizon? I personally feel that Log Horizon is a pretty pragmatic, explorative thought experiment: in LH the conceit is that a gameworld becomes real, and that's literally what the show is most interested in. It's pragmatic and explorative. The talks aren't meant to communicate anything; they're meant to explore a topic. If there's a sense of pretentiousness about .hack, and there's a sense of escapist denial about SAO, there's a sense of banality about LH. If there's a sense of awe about .hack, and there's a sense of catharsis about SAO, there's a sense of curiosity about LH.

The difference emerge in how the shows name their respective games: .hack's simple and comprehensive "The World"; SAO's pseudomythological Aincard/Alfheim; LH meta-fictional "Elder Tales". The differences emerge in the nature of the threat: In .hack a rogue AI pits players against their own desires; in SAO Kirito fights monsters and villains; in LH people fight meaninglessness and boredom.

When it comes to how the shows view society, .hack comes across as existentialist: a couple of people thrown together struggling for meaning. SAO comes across as moralist: there's this sense that you need to justify your place in society, though that may be the overemphasis on the main characters anxieties. LH feels like some sort of unquestioning, benevolent conservativism: there's a clear sense of hierarchy from Nyanta to Shiroe to Akatsuki, but it's based not on power, but on earned respect (there's a very clear correlation in age and life experience here). There's this sense that if you're patient and work hard, everything's going to be all right. To me, that feels a little schoolmasterly, a little patronising, but I don't doubt the shows good heart.
I think that’s one of the lengthiest and most amazingly in-depth responses I’ve ever seen, let alone received! I debated spinning my response out into its own post, but I don’t think I have anything other than thoughts about what you’ve written.

I’ve seen a lot of people summon up the duo of .hack//sign and Sword Art Online when talking about Log Horizon (though never with your eruditeness) and, especially with the latter, is something I purposely tried to stay away from in my post (I only begrudgingly linked to my SAO post at the end there) primarily because I think the “trapped in a game” seed for Log Horizon produced a very different result to the other two. I’ve seen all of them, although my memory of .hack//sign is limited.

You seemed to hit the nail on the head in your opening paragraph though with:

“The real life is always just beyond the veil”

I had the same thought with the first few episodes of SAO and likened it to Socrates and Plato (as well as a dash of religion) in that the real/virtual split was used as a goal, something to attain which is an idea even the Alfheim portion of the first series used with Asuna. .hack//sign, if I remember rightly, like Log Horizon staunchly stayed within its virtual world and the character trapped in that world got to see others logging out (ascension?); but again, real/virtual was a hurdle to cross. Log Horizon, for the first series at least, doesn’t mention the past world (not “real world”, just other) apart from the first and last episodes which is a large part as to why I think it stands apart from the other two.

I disagree with your assessment of SAO though as being about a “male teenage gamer’s anxieties” when, as the second series seems to have borne out, Kirito seems uniquely charmed while all the other characters compare themselves to him. Further than that though is that SAO seems to be constantly trying to justify the “virtual” world’s experiences which it has done initially through real world consequences, but just recently with Asuna’s domineering mother writing off any social interactions had through it. I would even go as far as to say that speaking about SAO in a critical sense, given how the series has progressed, seems somewhat futile when, as you say:

“It’s not that there isn’t a potential story in SAO; it’s that the show doesn’t care about it”.

As for .hack//sign, I will defer to your reading of it, especially as your mention of communication as a metaphor goes over my head. My lasting memory of the series is that it favoured the idea of hidden, secret elements being discovered in computer programs which although undeniably enticing, seemed antithetical to MMOs both then and now. This could just be because it’s a product of its time, coming as it did only a few years after Lain which goes about as deep as one can with technology and humanity.

I like your viewing of .hack//sign and SAO through the lens of player killers though and extending that to Log Horizon I would say underscores my overriding point with regards to why it doesn’t belong on the spectrum between the other two shows as you imply. As I think you were intimating: PK’ers in SAO have a real world impact, whereas PK’ing (or simply dying) in Log Horizon costs memories, but again these are contextualised in-world rather than having an effect in some nebulous “other” world.

That I think is the key to contextualising Log Horizon: it uses the MMO concept as a frame for exploring humanity rather than the other two shows which still treat a virtual world as a thing, something tangible even if digital. It bypasses the standard “transported to another world” trials with MMO terminology. So transpose Log Horizon to a “lost on a desert island” scenario, and suddenly key concerns are food, shelter etc. Similarly for many people watching Log Horizon, even if the series explains some of them, a lot of the MMO concepts can be thought of as shorthand. Then the series isn’t about survival (though it starts as such) but maybe adaptation? In an aliens-humans or invaders-natives sense? Naturalisation perhaps? I’m not sure how the second series is progressing but I can see a situation where, in a Star Trek Prime Directive sense, the People of the Land use the inventions of the Adventurers for nefarious purposes.

In that sense I agree with you that Log Horizon is a “pretty pragmatic, explorative thought experiment” but would disagree that it’s about people fighting meaninglessness and boredom, that seems to only be the thrust of the first arc of the series.

I seem to have similarly created a monster response so will leave it at that. Really appreciate you taking the time to respond with such thought provoking ideas, especially with such beautiful sentences as:

If there's a sense of pretentiousness about .hack, and there's a sense of escapist denial about SAO, there's a sense of banality about LH. If there's a sense of awe about .hack, and there's a sense of catharsis about SAO, there's a sense of curiosity about LH.
I'll go with what I think is the most topical point here: the nature of the threat. "Death" is replaced by "memory loss". Memory, in many, many anime, is the location of identity. You're right, I think, that LH frames memory loss as a problem in the here and now: I'd say it's about finding an identity in the "new world". As such, it is, as you say, about adaption and naturalisation. But the problem is complex, here. There's a matrix:

On the one hand, the players have to adapt to the new world, but on the other hand the people of the land have to adapt to the newcomers. This is only gradually emerging over the series. So on one axis of the matrix we have a straightforward clash of cultures.

On the other axis of the matrix, though, there's a different problem. The people of the land are living their lives. The adventurers are doing... what? What they used to do was play a game. Now that game is real, and the consequences aren't really any worse than they were. This issue is embodied in the taste of food, for example. If you treat the new situation as a game, and that is all you have, your life will have no meaning.

So are we in a situation where we have to accept that the game is real? If we prepare food the way we used to, it tastes good, right? But then the issue of memory loss emerges. The more real this world becomes, the less real the other world becomes. The person is caught in the middle. To what extent is this still a game? All your mind-habits, what you take seriously and what you don't, have been shaped in the "real" world... the old world. How can a person from our world
take a world seriously, where you kill a monster, it disappears and leaves money behind?

In a story about adaption, the people of the land would be the other ones, the ones you have to adapt to. But they're a lot more like what the adventurers used to be. What they really have to adapt to is their new selfs; but the twist is that their new selfs already come with a set of habits; it's just that those habits used to be very contextual. In a sense the adventurers, once students and office clerks and whatnot, have suddenly become faeries: magical creatures, all song and dance. Not even death is final. Life's a game.

Boredom/meaninglessness may have only been a topic early on, but I do think it provides an important frame for the show. I think the key interest of the show is how a make-belief world differs from the real world. What can we learn by playing? What can we unlearn by playing too much? I think those sort of questions are what determines plot choices. At least so far, the show has made sense to me when viewing it like that. It explains why the story de-emphasised initial confusion. It explains why the story focuses on memory loss as a problem, without focussing in any detail on the content of those memories. What do we retain, what do we lose, when things no longer feel real?
Ah I think I see what you're saying now: the listlessness that was a plot point early on is part of the larger view that the series takes towards how the adventurers naturalise to the world.

I like the idea that the People of the Land are akin to the "old" Adventurers: trapped in archaic ways providing a mirror to just how free and unattached the Adventurers now are. Similarly with the dichotomy between what they "knew" and what they now need to know - maybe the "old" memories disappearing will be a net good thing for them as they slough off any useless knowledge (bus timetables etc.) in favour of what they are now. It also raises all sorts of questions with their lack of death, specifically are they now immortal? 300,000 people destined to live forever?

I do wonder whether the idea of the "hardcore" roleplayers will come up in such a situation. With Akatsuki and especially Nyanta, their once playful choice of language and mannerisms may become their entire identity that, like you say, is tied up in their memories, i.e. when they lose the memories of how they once were. (Memory is one of my favourite topics in anime which is why I keep banging the Lain and GITS drums).

I hadn't really thought about Log Horizon in terms of threat, but taking that thought further: with characters like Shiroe and Nureha, how much has to be at stake before they actually feel threatened? Or even satisfied or entertained? Without death to end their schemes, how long before dynasties or empires rise and squabble with everyone else - questers, raiders, craftsmen and the People of the Land - caught in between?

I'd best get on the second series I suppose! As always, really appreciate your thoughts, it's been fascinating to think of Log Horizon in so many different ways.