Ever since the Wachowskis repackaged the themes and imagery of Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk staple Ghost in the Shell for western audiences in 1999, the notion of living in a virtual world has become something of a fascination among creatives, consumers and conspiracy theorists. The most frightening aspect of The Matrix was in how perfectly the illusion recreated our own existence so that no one thought to question it. And yet, in 2016, in an ever increasing milieu of virtual reality and digital images, some of our greatest technologists are themselves putting stock behind the idea.
As well as housing some of the most forward thinking and, let’s face it, barmy, inventors on the planet, Silicon Valley is also home to a slew of folk who believe that we’re living in a simulation. Of the most recent converts, at least in the public arena, is billionaire entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk. At a Recode conference, Musk, whose myriad companies cover renewable energy, electric cars, space travel and the terrifying Hyperloop, said that the odds are “one in billions” that our reality is the base reality. He believes that it’s far more likely that we are living in a simulation. Unsurprisingly, Musk’s comments quickly went viral, with a multitude of media commentators gaggling to get their word in, and Twitter and Facebook et al. awash with memes and responses.
Musk is essentially riffing on Oxford professor Nick Bostrom’s oft-discussed 2003 paper ‘Are you Living in a Computer Simulation?’, in which he posited that if indeed we existed inside a virtual world at any point in the history of the universe, then we would be living in one now. Sci-fi’s honeymoon period with virtual reality may have passed, as VR headsets move out of the realms of speculative fiction and into bedrooms and living rooms, but there’s one avenue which is still very much in love with the idea. Anime.
One of the common plot threads that unite the virtual reality subgenre is becoming trapped in a simulated environment. With the surging popularity of Sword Art Online (SAO), this trope has once again entered the fray, ushering a contemporary swathe of trapped-in-video-game franchises. SAO draws heavily from the venerated .hack multimedia franchise, which began in 2002 with the launch of the anime series .hack//sign and the PlayStation 2 game .hack//infection. The anime follows Tsukasa, a Wavemaster (or magic user) who wakes in a dungeon in MMORPG The World, suffering short-term memory loss and soon discovering that he’s unable to log out. The PS2 release, meanwhile, conveyed a game within a game and is set in an alternative 2010. Unlike its successors,.hack is set in a world where the internet is closed off to the public, following a virus that crashes almost every computer in the world. Two years into a world lacking the internet or online games, a new MMORPG is released to huge acclaim and admiration. With a population eager for escapism and a whiff of the digital, The World becomes the most successful online game of all time, securing some 20 million players. However, a number of players wind up comatose, something the developers dismiss as cyberterrorism.