Yosuke Futami is a man deeply involved with worldwide hit Sword Art Online. He’s been a producer on both seasons of the anime–as well as the upcoming theatrical film–and is one of the key visionaries for the franchise’s video game series. But just how did his relationship with the franchise begin?
[Note: This interview contains spoilers for anime Sword Art Online and Sword Art Online II as well as spoilers of both the game series and the novels.]
“Five or six years ago, […] I was wondering what to do after Oreimo,” Futami began as we talked in Tokyo late last month. “Well, the Sword Art Online and Oreimo novels share the same editor–and because they share the same editor I couldn’t believe [Sword Art Online] would be a bust. It turned out to be quite interesting.” After devouring the novels, Futami requested to be a producer on the 2012 anime and soon joined the production staff.
Alongside the production of the anime, the committee decided to make a tie-in game as well. Futami, with his now in-depth knowledge of the source material, was the natural choice for the role of producer there as well.
The first game in what would become a series, Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment was released for the PlayStation Portable in 2013. But unlike many anime tie-in games, Infinity Moment does not simply retell the story of the anime. Instead, Infinity Moment begins at the climax of the series’ first arc and posits the question: What if Sword Art Online didn’t end on the 75th floor of the flying castle Aincrad? What if Kirito, Asuna, and the rest of our heroes spent several additional months inside the death game?
“[The games] are the continuing ‘what if’ story of this timeline.” Futami explained. Because of this major change, history unfolds quite a bit differently in the Sword Art Online game series than in the books or anime.
The ALfheim Online Arc of the story never happens and is replaced by Infinity Moment (and its PlayStation Vita remaster/expansion Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment). The journey into VRFPS Gun Gale Online is likewise replaced by the events of Sword Art Online: Lost Song–which, interestingly, takes place in the game universe’s version of ALfheim Online.
Happening at around the same time as the main universe tale Mother’s Rosario, the newest game in the series, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, continues the alternate universe adventures of Kirito and his friends as they log into Sword Art Origins–a new VRMMORPG based on the game they spent over two years of their lives trapped inside.
“Of course, this means characters that have vastly different experiences between the original work and the games, like Leafa and Sinon, exist.” Futami told me. “In the end, the most different are Sinon and Yuuki.” He laughed, “Yuuki is still alive [in the games].”
But as different as the game and anime timelines have become from one another, the characters’ personalities remain similar. “Even though [different] accidents and incidents occurred in [the video game version of] Sword Art Online, the feelings involved didn’t change, you know? Kirito and the heroines’ way of thinking hasn’t really changed either and [the two realities] continue to advance together.”
Of course, not everyone is happy with how the game’s characters have evolved. “Some think: ‘Shouldn’t they have exactly the same experiences in both the original and the games?'” Futami added. “I think you can have fun with the games without thinking about that, but I’m happy people think about it this much.”
Futami’s own opinion harbors no such reservations. “For me, I like them both. […] In the game, it’s a Kirito who grew up differently and I like that. […] There are two Kirito’s: [original author] Reki Kawahara’s and the one the players make for themselves. […] The games, anime, and novels–the different shapes of Sword Art Online–all have the same basic values, and so I enjoy my time with each”
Of course, with such different timelines, there are now many characters that are unique to the games. Futami would love it if some of the original characters from his games made their way into the novels or anime. “If the time comes that true fans of Sword Art Online–fans of Kawahara, fans of the novels, fans of the games–take major notice of an original game character, I’ll certainly say [to Kawahara] ‘go ahead and use them.'”
“…Well, if they’re characters that should exist, anyway–meaning the non-AI characters,” Futami was quick to add. “It’s possible for Philia, Rain, and Seven to appear in the main story.”
Regarding Kawahara’s role in the production of the games, Futami called Kawahara “both consultant and warden.” Though that’s not to imply Kawahara ever stepped in and vetoed any of the game’s plans.
The creative team, on the other hand, has a few rules in place for the game series. The player character always has to be Kirito (though, technically you can change his appearance however you want) and you have to be able to date the various other characters.
For continuity reasons, “If you [not Kirito] were the game’s protagonist, you probably wouldn’t be able to date Asuna or the others,” Futami explained. “Sure, you could make a Sword Art world without Asuna and the others, but then how would it be different from any normal MMO?”
With the release of Hollow Realization in the West, a question arises: What’s next for the Sword Art Online game series? Futami has some ideas for which arc of the story he’d like to put his own unique twist on next.
“The one I want to do the most is Alicization.” Futami began, speaking of the yet un-animated story arc that follows Mother’s Rosario. “But I think it’d be really hard to do the Alicization Arc as a game. Though if I could, that’d be great.”
“My favorite story arc is Alicization, actually. It’s a work with an AI theme. […] For the AI characters in Hollow Realization, my mental image is that Hollow Realization is kind of like their version of Alicization.”
Futami continued by expounding upon the similarities between the two works as seen through their main AI leads. “In the original work, it’s Alice. In the games, it’s Premiere. […] For Alice, she’s an emotion-filled girl who had her emotions killed off. Premiere is emotionless to start, but then gains emotions bit by bit. […] But there’s still the chance that, like Alice, she will have her emotions killed off when she grows up.”
“It’s all about coming to understand human feelings and emotions,” he continued. “Yui is logic-based thinking, Alice is emotion-based thinking. Premiere is in the middle. That’s a driving theme in Hollow Realization.”
Another main theme of is the idea of raising an AI like a child. “If good people raise an AI–or if bad people raise an AI–how exactly is it done? How exactly does it become dirty or pure? Actually, that’s what we’re doing,” Futami added, speaking of the Hollow Realization tie-in app Jinkō Chinō Shōjo Ikusei Project CODE ZERO: PREMIERE which allows Twitter users to shape a different version of Premiere through their Tweet history and conversations.
Hollow Realization also speaks to what a digital world is like before players invade. “If there are no humans, if there are just NPCs in the world–only AI–then no conflicts will happen. Nothing will happen.” It’s a world truly at peace.
Of course, human players destroy this peace. Should an NPC gain sentience, isn’t it only logical for them to see humanity as a blight upon their perfect world? Yet, there is also the other side: “To those like Kirito, the world’s not like that. Isn’t it a new future? A VR world where AI and humans can live happily together is waiting!”
Futami himself is somewhere in the middle, though optimistic. “For me, I see the good and the bad, but I want to go forward a bit anyway.”
While with its themes related to AI, Alicization may be Futami’s most loved arc, that’s not to say Alicization is the only arc he’s been thinking about making into a reimagined game. “I’d like to make Gun Gale Online, too. As for [upcoming anime film] Ordinal Scale, I wonder. I suppose it’d be bad to make a game like Pokémon Go but with AI [collecting], wouldn’t it?” Futami laughed. “A game like ‘Something-something Go’ with that as its motif would be pretty fun–though I’m terrible at AR games. But really, for me, while I want to do them all, I’d rather do Gun Gale Online or Alicization over Ordinal Scale.”
But when it comes to which fictional game Futami would most like to play, the answer is clear cut: “ALfheim Online. It’s because I want to fly through the sky.”
After a moment he added, “Of course I also want to play Sword Art Online–which is a sword fighting world. I like all kinds of games. I play FPS–games where you use guns–too. The game in the Alicization Arc is akin to a simulation–you are put into a big box and take part in a simulation.”
But in the end, ALfheim Online won out. “There aren’t many games where you yourself can fly through the sky. If you could play a VRMMO, one where you try flying looks like it would make you feel the best.”
With all the VR technology released this past year, Sword Art Online–a franchise built around people playing various fictional VR games–seems like an obvious choice for a VR game in our world. Sadly, things are rarely that simple.
“Of course, I want to make a Sword Art Online VR game,” Futami explained. “But making a Sword Art Online game on VR right now is exceedingly difficult. […] For our first VR game, a game set in Aincrad would be called for.” Such a game would no doubt feature virtual sword fighting. “With today’s VR devices, if you cut at your opponent, there would be no accompanying physical sensation. That’s the biggest drawback.”
While Futami was quick to point out a gun-versus-gun Gun Gale Online-based VR game might be possible, he feared that sword to sword combat would turn into nothing more than wildly flailing motion controllers.
“So perhaps, until we can add something like [physical feedback] in, perhaps it’s better not to make a Sword Art Online VR game,” Futami said a bit sadly. Though he is hopeful someone will find a new approach that will make a VR Sword Art Online game possible in the future.
However, upcoming Sword Art Online film Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale suggests that VR may not be the future of gaming; rather, it’s AR. According to Futami, Kawahara’s purpose with the film is exploring just that. “[In Sword Art Online,] VR is old, so when new devices come out, what would the next step in technology be? So the movie was made while thinking about that.”
There is also the relationship between Sword Art Online and Kawahara’s other work, Accel World, to consider as there are several hints that the two stories take place in the same fictional world–though years apart. Moreover, Accel World has a strong focus on AR technology. “The world of Sword Art Online is heading towards the world of Accel World and I think it’s conceivable that that was an important factor [in the focus on AR technology].”
To close, Futami had a few final words to add about Hollow Realization: “If you’re looking for a new story apart from the novels and anime, playing this game will very much broaden your view of the Sword Art universe. But for those who don’t know much about Sword Art Online and are looking to play an action RPG or an MMO-like RPG, I think if they try and play it, they’ll see the charm [of the franchise].”
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is available now for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.