The villains of Sword Art Online: An Angry Rant
Villains are undoubtedly an essential aspect of any story, and Sword Art Online is no exception. Yet I have found most Sword Art Villains lacking in some fashion. The problem is most often not in the characters' motivations and personality, but rather in how they are portrayed, how the show tries to make us feel about them. I feel like the show is trying to force the villains into becoming things they are not. So in a ranting fashion, here are some of my objections to SAO's villains.
First, just to get it out of the way, the minor villains we encounter in the beginning are pretty flat. Laughing Coffin does not appear much, so much development of them would be too much to expect. What bothers me is that they seem to look at Aincrad as a game, they play it as a game, killing other players. But in this game, people really die. There would perhaps be people who killed, but these people seem to treat the world like a normal MMO. This may just be my view, I shall admit, so with this little complaint out of the way, let us move on to the major villains.
The Major Villains
Akihiko is the villain of the first season, the man who created Sword Art Online, tempted people to join the online game and then trapped more than ten thousand people in it. He also made the game so that people who died in the game would die in real life, and kept the game going for several years, intending to not end it until somebody won. Akihiko himself entered the game under the name Heathcliff, changing his appearance so as to not be noticed, and played it together with others, but not before giving himself immortality, of course. He thus faced no risk until the season one finale, when the invincibility was removed.
Sugo was the second main villain, taking over for Akihiko. He created a new online game from the remains of Akihiko's, one which actually functioned like a normal game. Except for the fact that he kidnapped about 300 of the Akihiko's victims, and made them guinea pigs in his experiments, which involved torture. He also lusted after Asuna, the main character's love interest, and went about locking her in the game, sniffing her hair and doing everything short of rape. Finally, he aims to marry Asuna while she is in coma.
Sugo is played rather over the top, he is malicious, uncaring, he enjoys being evil a little too much. The facial expressions he makes turns gradually less human as he does, at the end he is little more than an unrealistic maniac, who then pathetically breaks down in tears when foiled. We are left to guess why Sugo did all this. Was it money, did he work for someone else, did he try to conquer the world through brainwashing, was he trying to force Asuna to love him. My guess is he did it because he got off on it, like so many bad villains do. Why give Sugo so little development, why make him so over the top? I think to understand we have to go back to the first major villain of the series.
The Presentation of Akihiko
In the first part, Akihiko is a difficult character to grasp. He is very much absent, and the characters are left to wonder what he is doing. They do not even begin to guess he walks among them as he becomes one of the most powerful players, and they do not think or talk much about. There is surprisingly little cursing of his name. As Heathcliff he is a kind and calm man, and much of this demeanor carries over when he reveals his true identity.
When he dies, Akihiko does so heroically, he accepts defeat and releases all the surviving players, and he tells the main character about his dreams and and thoughts. The main characters does not seems angry at him, and it is almost like they leave as friends. Then, when Sugo is the main villain, Akihiko helps Kirito, saves his life and gives him the power to create his own virtual universe. Then he leaves, and everyone seems content with that.
Akihiko the Monster
Yes, Akihiko is Kirito's guardian angel for the last part, and the contrast with the monstrous Sugo could not be clearer. But let us compare the crimes of these two: Sugo kidnapped tortured and was dangerously close to rape, that is true. But Akihiko trapped ten thousand people for several years, killed more than six thousand people in the most horrific ways, including being eating, torn to pieces or pressured so much they collapsed and took suicide. Some became insane by what they had seen, as we are told in episode 12. In fact, almost everyone seem to have been severely marked for life, naturally. Many of these were children down to elementary school level, and in the end only four thousand survived. These numbers were stated, but never connected to Akihiko, almost like it was not his fault.
And there was Akihiko, walking among the others but invincible and with complete knowledge of the game, seeing their pain and suffering. Yet he kept up his act and never seemed horrified at what he had created. He could quite possibly have ended the game, but decided not to. It does not seem that it ever dawned on him what he had done, or at least he never cared. In the end, he seemed happy with the outcome.
Sugo the Monster
For any good villain, the motive plays an important role. So why did Akihiko do these things? Like with Sugo, it is not really touched upon. In fact, it seems Akihiko himself does not know what drove him to destroy so many lives. When asked by Kirito, he answers that he forgot why he created the game a long time before it was completed, but he carried it out anyway. That is the only reason we get. Akihiko killed thousands for reasons he does not know and does not seem interested in knowing. And that would not be too bad, in fact, I would find it fascinating, if the Sword Art Online had acknowledged how sick this is. But it does not.
And I think this is why Sugo is presented as a monster. It seems that the writers wanted Akihiko to become a hero, a helper of some sort, the one who gave Kirito the ability to create new games. But Akihiko is, if you think about it, a monster. So Sugo was made to make Akihiko seem good by comparison. Akihiko is calm and kind, Sugo is cruel and insane. For me, it did not work. Akihiko was the greatest monster, Sugo may seem more cruel, but his actions were far less severe. He never killed anyone, for starters.
I am not clear on why it was so important to make Akihiko a hero. Maybe it was because of the idea of creating new virtual worlds, maybe they did not want the programmer of it all to be a villain in the end. I have only watched the anime, so some things may have been explained better in the books. Turning a villain into a hero like that, though, proved too much for the show. In the end, I perceived the villains in a way the writers did not want, and because of that, large parts of the show were ruined for me. And with this, my rant is over.