November 6th, 2022: The SAO Incident

The Next Step In Virtual Reality Gaming Is Born

Setting The Stage For A Catastrophe

In May of 2022 a brand new type of gaming console was released. It was called, Nervegear. Taking the form of a helmet, this device is placed over the users head and part of their face. Once connected to a computer and powered on, this interface connects directly to the users brain using microwave technology. The process renders the user in a sleep-like state. Meanwhile, the users consciousness is thrust into a full immersion virtual reality simulation. This is called a Full Dive.

Whereas previous virtual reality systems only gave you audio and visuals through ocular and aural means, the Full Dive hardware has a direct connection to the brain. Thus the user gets the full spectrum of sensations and experiences from their simulated environment. You can feel the simulated breeze on your skin. You can taste simulated food. You can feel a simulated swords weight in your hands. If you tell your brain to walk forward in-game, you move forward. Once connected, the Nervegear blocks the synapses from your brain to your real extremities. So there is no need to worry about sleep walking. This Full Dive technology was seen by many as the next logical step in virtual reality.

The verbal command, ‘Link Start’ activates the device and brings a splash of vibrant colors and log-in screens

Nervegear was created by Akihiko Kayaba. This same man would also design Sword Art Online. Or SAO for short. The world’s first Full Dive Virtual Reality Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game. Kayaba designed everything from the setting of the world, down to the Cardinal System. This was the AI system designed to run the game and take care of the well-being of the players by monitoring their mental and physical states. If a player developed any kind of health emergency Cardinal would safely disconnect them from the interface.

Now, I know what you may be sarcastically thinking. An AI system designed to oversee an entire simulation and the health of the human players? What could possibly go wrong? Or perhaps, I’ve seen this movie before! But no. Cardinal was almost perfect and worked exactly as designed. Akihiko Kayaba was viewed by many as a genius, and a technological hero to others.

In August of 2022, the closed Beta of Sword Art Online was released to a lucky group of play-testers. Approximately 1,000 people in total tested the games first ten levels during the course of the month. This closed-beta wrapped up on August 31st leaving the beta testers wanting more. SAO was incredible. And they didn’t have too long to wait, as SAO’s open release was scheduled for early November of the same year. The hype leading up to release day was intense. Pre-sales of the game began on October 31st, with some people waiting outside of stores for days just to score a physical copy of the software prior to the official launch.


The SAO Incident:

This Might Be A Game… But It’s Not Something You Play…

Image source
Play-testers and new players alike, all suit up for the moment the SAO servers go live.

On November 6th, 2022, at 1pm Japan Standard Time, Sword Art Online, the Worlds First VRMMORPG went live. At least ten thousand players(with almost all of the original beta-testers mixed in) logged-in in the first couple hours alone, and began to experience the wondrous Sword Art Online fantasy world of Aincrad. For the beta-testers, it was a much anticipated return.

Aincrad, is a floating world that looks something like a massive and metallic castle-like egg. Inside the walls were 100 expansive levels, each with different climates to experience, environments to explore, NPC’s to interact with, and of course adventures to undertake. All players start at the bottom-most level of the world, in the Town of Beginnings. From there, they must work their way upwards to clear the game. The top-most level is a cathedral of sorts, and that would be where the adventurers would face the final boss in combat. A basic precept since the dawn of video games. Start at the bottom, fight your way upwards all the way to the top.

As the name of the game alludes, the fighting mechanic centers around the use of swords or bladed weapons. No guns can be found inside this world(nor magic). A Sword Art is a skill. A special move. Though, as opposed to button mashing a series of keys on a game-pad, the player actually performs them with their own virtual bodies. It takes practice and muscle memory. Each class has various class-specific Sword Arts. A player can even develop their own Arts to an extent.

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Aincrad, the floating fortress world of 100 levels. At its peak is a crimson cathedral.

The games opening day was going swimmingly. Players were enjoying themselves and the games environment. But that fun would prove to be short lived.

At approximately 5:30pm, after only a few hours of gaming, players began to notice something strange. A bug or a glitch perhaps. In the spot on the players menu where there should be an option to log-out of the game and safely disconnect the Nervegear, there was… nothing. Just a greyed out icon and an empty menu field. In fact, a log-out option was nowhere to be found on any menu.

Calls to Game Masters for assistance were going unanswered. It was in those minutes between 5:30pm and 6:00pm that deafening alarms within the simulation began sounding. Seconds later, all of the approximately 10,000 players were instantly transported to a massive arena in the Town of Beginnings. Above them, the beautiful sky went ominously red, and a giant avatar appeared. This all seemed like an in-game event, maybe a welcoming quest to get everyone started, so many people were smiling and having a great time.

The ominously robed avatar would introduce himself as Sword Art Online’s ‘Game Master’. Singular in form, those two words. Not ”one of the game masters”. No. The Game Master. He would also reveal his true name. None other than Akihiko Kayaba himself. The creator everything they were experiencing. Players, many big fans of his, were awestruck.

What would happen next would send shock waves around the world. Because, what would become known as the SAO Incident, had officially begun.

The place where the log out option was supposed to be is now blank.
The Game Master welcomes everyone to Sword Art Online.

Kayaba, looming ominously over everyone, with a booming and confident voice welcomed everyone to Sword Art Online. From there he went on to inform everyone that the inability to log-out from the game was not a bug. It was, in fact, a ‘feature’ of the game. Thousands were dumbfounded. A feature?

The only way to successfully log out of this game was for someone, anyone, to clear the game’s last level. Shock was beginning to take hold of many. There were many that thought this a ruse. But this didn’t quite feel like a joke. Kayaba continued and informed the games participants that this was now a game of life and death, and a few points emphasized his statements.

All previously established methods of resurrection in-game were now unusable.

If your health falls to zero and your avatar dies. You will essentially die in real life.

In the event of a player’s avatar dying, the Nervegear, currently resting comfortably on the heads of all approximately 10,000 players, would send extremely powerful microwave signal into their brains. Frying it. Thus rendering the player brain dead. Now many laughed at this, but Nervgear, to anyone who had actually bothered to read the design specs, was certainly capable of doing this, given the power it possesses. But that wasn’t all, any attempts from someone on the outside to disrupt the game, such as a loved one unplugging the power, would lead to the same result.

This is due to the Nervegear having a powerful backup battery power as a fail safe in case of power outages and whatnot. Though, this was designed so that the player could safely disconnect their brain from the game in such a situation.

From there Kayaba began showing the stunned masses news feeds from the outside world. The news from all over Japan was already reporting that what he had just announced had already occurred to many players.

Kayaba showing the bewildered players news from the outside world.
News from Nagoya, Japan. Two more victims had been identified.

In fact, news was spreading far an wide in the real world. Family members and friends were unable to wake their jacked-in, seemingly comatose loved ones. Quiet neighborhoods, and bustling city centers were turning into crime scenes. In the matter of only a few hours, over 100 people had already been rendered lifeless and brain dead. Either by in game death, or an outsider intervening.

Families were already being torn apart in multiple ways.

As a parting gift, before his avatar disappeared back into the sky, Kayaba placed a mirror in all of the players inventories. Shocked, yet curious, everyone immediately retrieved the “gift”. Once the player gazed into the reflection, in a flash of light their players avatars were instantly transformed into a likeness of their real life selves. This would drive home the realness of their dire situation even more.

Gone were their fantasy avatars. Gone was their anonymity. Gone was that small, yet effective, safety net.

Men became women. Women became men. The super muscular and/or incredibly attractive became… the opposite. The tall became short. College age adults became children of single digit or barely double digit age. Gone were the voice filters that gave the squeaky voiced, a deep baritone.

Everyone’s masks were now broken, revealing there true selves.

Players being transformed into likenesses of their real world selves.
The mirrors power stuns the thousands.

But how was this possible?

Prior to the users first use of the Nervegear, they must create a profile. Something that the players all thought to be benign. After doing this the hardware takes a scan of the users face and head. With this information stored, and as soon as the mirror was accessed, the game system used its algorithms to create an avatar equivalent of the players real life selves. And it was very accurate. If they hadn’t been stricken by now, this was enough to send waves of panic through the captive masses.

Kayaba’s point was finally well received. These approximately 10,000 players were indeed trapped. Trapped in a game of life and death. People have already died. This was, without a doubt, happening.

After Kayaba vanished from above them, and the sky returned to normal, some players began to panic more and more. Many just shut down emotionally, some rushed to console real life friends or loved ones that were playing together. Others began tending to the children that magically just appeared mixed in with the crowd.

And some, just began running in general. These were the beta testers. They knew what they needed to do. And it had to be done fast. They needed to level up, and get stronger. As soon as possible. There would soon be thousands of people with this same thought, and the random spawn beasts and mobs in this, the first level of the game, would soon become difficult to get at. Thus creating a roadblock in terms of gaining the all powerful experience points needed to level up.

The clock started now.

Sword Art Online, the fun online simulation, was now a battle for actual survival.


The SAO Incident:

Resolution and Aftermath

Aincrad had 100 floors. Each floor had a hidden dungeon that was required to be first: found and explored. Then: a boss fight had to be cleared. Only once the boss was destroyed would the stairs and gateway to the next floor would be revealed. Each levels dungeon would be harder than the last, as one would expect. Time would slowly press on as players fought and fought, and the floors continued upwards. Until all progress came to a grinding halt. The monsters were becoming too powerful. The players, regardless of how strong they had become in their leveling-up, were definitely feeling their mortality.

The players of Sword Art Online would remain trapped in their virtual prison for two years. The whole time their bodies in the real world, having long since been carefully transported to hospitals with special wards for these victims, lay seemingly comatose. Their arms stuck with I.V.’s and monitoring equipment. This was until the day that the Black Swordsman, as he would come to be known, Kirito would surprisingly defeat Aincrad’s last boss.

Though, this would not take place on the 100th floor as it was deigned, by Kayaba. Kirito had discovered a deep secret about their strife and exposed it. Thus bringing on the final battle, far earlier than intended. This occurred on the 75th floor.

Kirito, a dual-wielder, preparing for the final battle.

In these two years, many chose to fight on the front lines, forming guilds to clear Aincrad’s levels. Many fought alone, only occasionally teaming up to help in the games clearing, or just plain help someone who was struggling. Some chose to live in peace, in safe haven towns that were spread throughout the cleared levels. Choosing instead to become craftsmen or shop owners to support the game-clearing effort. Some, accepting their situation and new reality, chose to settle down and get married or just enjoy their retirement.

Aincrad wasn’t exactly a bad place to live in the grand scheme of things. Though it was only a simulation, Aincrad had many picturesque and safe places to create a home and family. And there were plenty of chances to enjoy leisure activities such as camping and fishing. As many of the older player/prisoners would do.

While there were, of course, weapon drops and treasures in Aincrad. Some players decided to become blacksmiths or other artisans, rather than fight on the front lines. They were doing their part to support the game clearing efforts.

There were some players, however, that chose a much darker path. Player killing. Definitely not a new concept to anyone that has ever played an online game. Most games have entire servers specifically for Player Versus Player(PVP) gaming. But in SAO, in Aincrad, it was the equivalent of murder, given the situation they all faced. These Player Killers had developed a blood-lust, with many in denial about what happens after your health drops below zero. They were killing for sport. For fun. Because they could. It was primal. It was just as they had done in many video games before. The killings, or attempted killings, got so bad that the front line fighters had to halt their progress at times to band together as a militia to subdue these killers. Relegating them to makeshift prisons. Yes, a prison within their prison/game.

In the two years(almost to the day) since the launch of Sword Art Online, some 3,853 people perished in the simulation. And regardless of what the deniers believed, the perished did not survive in the real world. 3,853 souls had been indeed extinguished. Some unfortunate people were inadvertently killed by loved ones in the real world. They were just trying to wake them up. These unfortunate deaths mostly occurred in the opening hours of November 6th, 2022. Many died at the hands of the game’s monsters or traps. But many that were murdered by the aforementioned player killers.

There was also the many that died because they just couldn’t take it anymore. Suicide. The weight of everything that was happening was just too much for some. They used various means to end their lives. Some actually jumped off of the floating castle of Aincrad itself. The laws of gravity are just as strict in the simulation as they are in the real world.

The Cardinal System, the system that was supposed to monitor the well-being of the players was rendered unable to make any actions during the entirety of the SAO incident. So there was really nothing to help these poor people. In a normal operating capacity, if a player had shown an unstable mental state, Cardinal would have stepped in immediately to help the player. But the Cardinal AI, in the opening hours of SAO, was disconnected by Kayaba. The AI itself, now placed in the role of ‘watcher’ only, would eventually become overwhelmed by it’s inability to act and help these ailing people, resulting in an overload of sorts. This overload threw the AI, in an avatar form of a child, out into the games simulation. Looking just like any other player. It would be lost, wandering the wilds like an amnesiac. This caused rumors of a ghost walking in the forests on one of the floors.

This AI would be rescued by SAO heroes Kirito and Asuna. Whom, tiring of the front lines and daily reminders of their mortality, had fallen in love and decided to settle down together. The lost AI, now known as Yui, would recognize them as her parents.

Image source
Kirito, Yui, and Asuna enjoying the slow life inside SAO.

In the wake of the SAO incident, after some time, it was deemed that Nervegear was extremely dangerous, and all Nervegear helmets were to be collected and destroyed. But this would prove to be impossible, and not all of the sold units were recovered. Full Dive technology would be scrutinized and regulated before the next release of any similar equipment. Yeah, regardless of what had happened over the past two years, it was pretty well thought that Full Dive technology was still the next step in Virtual Reality gaming. And a new version of the Full Dive technology would, in fact, be released.

The surviving participants of the SAO Incident were of many age groups; from energetic youth to elderly adult. But most were school age young children and teens. All of which having missed two years of school were, following rehabilitation, were enrolled in schools specifically created for SAO survivors. These schools were designed to re-acclimate the victims into society, with classes on world events that they missed, how to cope with what they had seen and done, etc.

The problem for many was, reality wasn’t really the reality they knew anymore. The world of SAO and Aincrad had become their reality in those two long years. They were adventurers, warriors, artisans, and retirees. So many people had a lot of difficulties returning to their lives away from the game. Some were unable to deal with ”reality” at all. Most survivors walked away from Full Dive games after what they had been through. But many felt a desire or need to return to those lives. And that is something that a good many would end up doing.

But that is a completely different story altogether.


Afterword

SAO and I

This piece, though it was not finished until about 1 week or so before it’s release, was actually scheduled half a year back. I scheduled this piece to be released precisely at 12:00am EDT on November 6th, 2022. Why this specific time? Because 12:00am EDT is actually 1:00pm JST(Japan Standard Time). The very same time that the SAO servers went live and accepted players log-ins.

I am a geek, otaku, and weeb. I have long accepted all of this.


I watched the anime Sword Art Online as it released ten years ago, on Crunchyroll, and I was really taken by the story of the Aincrad arc. Sure it was rushed( the Aincrad arc was only half of a season), had some cheesy points, and internet weebs would come to skewer it here and there. Is it perfect? No. Not even close. But I really enjoyed it and connected with it. And that is all that matters. I have been a fan of the ”stuck in a video game” concept ever since I first saw .Hack//SIGN, more than 20 years ago.

SAO has seen multiple story-arcs since its release. With the Fairy Dance arc immediately after Aincrad, the Gun Gale Online arc(which also spawned a one-off spinoff series), and the Alicization arc. On top of that, at the time of writing this, there are three movies. Two of them offer a look at the SAO incident through the eyes of a different character.

2022 is the ten year anniversary of Sword Art Online, and it is also fitting that the year of the ten year anniversary is also the year that the SAO Incident occurred. I honestly wonder if it was planned this way or if it is just all a coincidence. In these past ten years I have collected most of the main manga, many of the spinoff manga, some art books, soundtracks, and about 1/4 of the light novels. I have also added substantially to my figure collection. Which currently sits at 17 SAO models. I have played almost all of the major release video games(none of the mobile games). I even bought a Playstation Vita about 10 years back specifically just to play a couple SAO games. One of which was not released in USA at the time. So I played it in Japanese.

The Ex-Chronicle collection of figures. I love the evening-wear design.
The count is currently at: 5 Asuna figures and 4 Sinon figures.
Manga and Light Novels. I also have one or two art books somewhere. The Gun Gale Online spinoff manga is in Japanese.

SAO, as an anime, having been around for more than ten years at this point has worked its way up into a level of anime that not many see. Many anime are of a one-season-and-done variety(many don’t even get a full season). Some see two seasons. Some get a movie. But for a series to reach a ten year milestone with new content on multiple media mediums is a pretty wild concept nowadays.

The latter seasons of SAO got to be a bit dry, but are still enjoyable as a fan. You more or less are watching because you are a fan of the characters and want to see their stories evolve. But you also begin to understand why the weebs are skewering the show a little. However, regardless of the reviews, the first season of Sword Art Online was enough to hook me and keep me around. I have seen many of these ’trapped in a game’ stories by now. And I had seen similar ones before. But it was the first season of SAO that was the only one if these stories that made me wonder what I would do if I had been trapped in a life and death game.

Would I fight? Would I become a support character? Would I just accept my new reality and settle down? Or would I just give up altogether?

I would love to put on a brave face and say that I would fight to the end. But I am honestly not sure I have come to a conclusion yet.

Cover image source Other images without sources are screenshots.

[This post was originally published at Otherverse Games & Hobbies]



Robert

All of these are true except for one:

Robert is: a Hobbyist, a Music Lover, an RPG Gamer, a Mustard Lover, Chaotic Neutral, a Japanese Speaker, a Veteran, an Otaku, a Table Tennis Player, an Anime Fan, an Aviation Professional, a New York Rangers Fan, a Chaos Lover With Loyalist Tendencies.

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