Anime Reviews: .hack//SIGN
I’m not into video games. It isn’t because they bore me or I think they corrupt the youth of America or anything like that; it’s just that in this world of X-stations and Playboxes, I still have an Nintendo 64 gathering dust on my shelf, and the only thing we use our Wii for is to watch stuff on Netflix. When I purchased my .hack//SIGN (pronounced "DOT-HACK-SIGN" for the uninformed) box set, the person at the register asked if I was into the game it encompasses. I told her that I wasn’t, and it was just because I liked the show.
Strip away the ties to the video game and it’s just another fantasy anime…or is it?
In the not-too-distant future, there is an MMORPG (and despite my unfamiliarity with video games, I know what that stands for) that is quite popular on a global scale. Known simply as “The World”, it is a fantasy-based realm with no real plot or objective, so players who enter can roam about as they please.
Recently, to a cynical player named Tsukasa, it has become more than a game—it is his reality. At the start of the first episode, he wakes up in a dungeon with little knowledge of where he is or how he got there; the only memory he seems to have is an encounter with an illegal character with the face of a cat. He slowly becomes aware of a number of strange circumstances; not only can he act outside the rules of “The World”, he can also feel pain when attacked…and most bizarre of all, he is unable to log out. His very presence attracts the attention of a team of moderators/mercenaries known as the Crimson Knights and their leader Subaru, and when one of the Knights attempts to detain him, a barbell-shaped guardian monster appears out of nowhere to protect him.
Apart from the Crimson Knights, Tsukasa’s behavior attracts the attention of several other player-characters he meets: Mimiru, a friendly but temperamental player; her companion Bear, an older, more mature swordsman; BT, a nonchalant character who schemes a lot; and Sora, a player-killer who goes by his own rules. He at first tries to avoid them, but eventually starts traveling with them on occasion. The plot thickens as monsters similar to Tsukasa’s appear throughout The World, and the real-life backgrounds of him and the other characters are slowly revealed.
The story of .hack//SIGN is complex and told in the form of a mystery, mostly taking place inside “The World”, but occasionally cutting to the real world and giving us glimpses of Tsukasa and the others’ lives beyond the game, as well as the occasional false clue and red herring. Action scenes take a backseat to dialogue quite often, and the pacing can be slow sometimes. However, that just gives you more time to soak in the show's atmosphere. The backgrounds and colors are amazing, as are the character designs (from Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, who also worked on FLCL and Evangelion). The fantasy-techno background music and opening and closing songs rank among the best of any anime soundtrack I've ever heard.
Character development is also a series strong point. The show deals with escapism and social interaction in a world where friends no longer have to meet face to face; real world conversation is mixed into the dialogue so that players come off as real human beings and not horny 733tspeek nerds who’ve been playing World of Warcraft too long, and also have you guessing who each player really is. As the PCs connect the dots, some of them recall why they got into the game in the first place, and some of them begin to form a bond with Tsukasa, partly because he is at the center of a puzzle involving an unknown artifact known as the Key of the Twilight and a comatose child in a hospital bed, but in some cases, such as Bear, Mimiru and Subaru, it’s more because they want to see him log out and get to know him in real life.
.hack//SIGN is a very enjoyable series regardless of whether or not you follow the video game continuity, or whether or not you're into video games period. It is merely a prequel to the .hack franchise of video games, anime, manga, et al., so it doesn’t focus heavily on the world of “The World”, but even if you’d rather not pay to see the whole story play out, at least it works well as a standalone series.
Characters well designed and developed; very atmospheric; engaging story that appeals even to those who haven't played the games
May not be for anyone who watches a series more for action than for dialogue