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 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 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.
The purpose of the game, far from entertaining the masses, was to breed the ultimate artificial intelligence, one capable of making independent decisions. To accomplish this aim, a variety of functions were inserted into the system which monitored the players and extracted behavioural data to develop the AI. It cements one of the core crises of the subgenre, in that the stakes of the game or simulation are the soul and the safety of the user; that the simulation is antagonistic or a challenge to overcome. It’s as true for the .hack franchise as its spiritual descendent, Sword Art Online.
SAO began life as a 2009 light novel series penned by Reki Kawahara, and took place in the near future with the release of a new Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game (VRMMRPG) called Sword Art Online, where players can experience their in-game counterparts with the NerveGear, which stimulates the user’s senses via the brain. 10,000 players log in only to find that they are trapped in the sword and sorcery world of Aincrad. In order to return to the real world, they must reach the top floor of the game’s castle and defeat its final boss. It upped the stakes of .hack in that players who die or remove their NerveGear helmets also die in real life, like The Matrix phenomenon which Morpheus explains as the body being unable to live without the mind. If life is defined by the inevitability of death, then the virtual world, in which actions have fatal consequences, is on equal terms to the ‘real’ world.
In Log Horizon, based on Mamare Touno’s 2011 light novel series, the trapped gamers are quick to accept and adapt to their circumstances, and treat their simulated lives with as much significance and dedication as their outside lives, if not more so. One of the ways in which the series differentiates itself from others is with the MMORPG itself— Elder Tales. Most of the characters are veteran players of the long-running title, which only traps its players following an update rather than from the outset. It brought more nuance, and existentialism to the idea, especially concerning its NPC inhabitants. If players die in-game, they simply respawn at the last city they visited, taking the fear of death out of the equation. Despite, or perhaps because of this, players interact and exist as if it were the real world, presenting it as something of a utopia, something better than our own existence rather than a prison of the mind.
Philosophy and psychology alike argue that there is no fixed reality, that it is instead a unique construct differing from one individual to the next. Anime and virtual reality are converging in more than a narrative sense, with VR technology allowing users to explore the art form in a remarkable new way, from Ghost in the Shell to Studio Ghibli. Is it escapism? Or life imitating art? Or is it that we can sense the simulation and, like Neo in The Matrix, want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.