It’s hard to watch anime without having watched something set in a video game. Sword Art Online may have started a ‘craze’, or just confirmed and satisfied the preexisting desire of the market. Either way, because of the poor quality of many of its iterations, some people have become certain that the ‘trapped in an MMO’ setting/genre is dead and devoid of potential.
But the genre’s progress is being marked in its destabilization. Re:Zero, now in its second cour, is taking anime communities by storm in its outcry against escapist, wish-fulfilling stories and the people indoctrinated through them. In fact, Subaru’s suffering is in keeping with the history of every popular fad of genre and setting based on social convention, as those social conventions, through the settings they manifested into, came under attack by the critics of their time.
Let’s go back; quite a while back. The 19th century, Victorian England. The popular theater was booming, and fans would go for a programme full of plays to suit all dispositions. The melodrama was one common, predictable genre that we could translate today into any over-the-top action shows full of special effects. And the special effects in the theater back then were rather incredible. Wanted a mob of hundreds of people on stage? Sure. Set fire to the set, bring on a fire engine? No problem. But another popular genre was the ‘drawing room play’. Quite simply, a play set in a drawing room, where drawing room stuff happens. Comedy, drama, social angst. You had ones that embraced it and ones that ‘deconstructed’ it.
Today, no-one with any consideration for the Victorian period calls out this ‘drawing room’ genre, this cliche of a setting, as a problem in itself, like people are nowadays with the MMO setting. There were good and bad versions of it, and the more it endured onstage, the more theater evolved. Later plays were far more often ‘deconstructions’ of the type – see Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and her suicide as the crux of that – and then they morphed into all sorts of other things and stopped being called ‘drawing room plays’ at all, particularly once the theater-going public stopped having drawing rooms to relate the setting to.
Fast-forward to today, and one of the world’s popular theaters, anime, has its own ‘drawing room play’ – the ‘trapped in an MMO’ story. Why link the two so completely? Because they’re the same thing, essentially. Both are, sociologically, set in ‘third places’ – accessible places we go to that let us socialize freely and relatively cheaply – that also feel like part of the home while also separate from it: the drawing room is literally part of it but is its own sphere of social rules and dynamics, while an MMO is played in the home and likewise involves a different ‘self’ to the one you’d perform to your mum as she walked in.
They’re comfortable locations that the viewing public, as a whole, are going to connect with, and the familiarity of the setting allows for humour and themes using the setting to be more succinctly delivered. They also both involve some extent of ‘performance’ as separate from your ‘real’ self. The way Nishimura meets his friends online in Netoge is tantamount to how the middle and upper class of Victorian England used to meet their friends in each other’s drawing rooms. In short, they’re born from our habits as an audience, and will die with them too. Especially once those habits themselves start being scrutinized under the microscope of fiction.
As with the ‘drawing room play’, shifts are noticeable. World of Warcraft once had its day, but now the most popular collaborative online games are more confined multiplayer arenas – MOBAs, multiplayer shooters and card games – or far more player-constructed settings like Minecraft. With the MMO cliche attracting more and more criticism, and MMOs themselves fading away from the playerbase like the drawing rooms of Victorian England no longer became a thing, the genre can be said to be moving on through the same pattern every popular theater goes through.
More and more MMO shows involve self-aware commentary, good or bad, displaying an attempt to pull apart at the trope. The genre is just like any popular fad based on what ‘third place’ the public associate with the most, and it’s noticeably starting to fade. KonoSuba, for instance, was a stab at many traditional RPG, Dragon Quest-esque cliche. Rather than pan the whole genre as an irritating, over-abundant cliche, it’s worth looking carefully at how it’s changing and evolving in such a short space of time, and how more and more works are tired of just accepting the cliches and the perspectives that come with them. We ought to be getting more and more interesting commentary on it in its future iterations.
Some might argue Re:Zero is already championing that shift, as Subaru has become a critique of not video games, but the way otaku are indoctrinated into thinking they’re the Main Character of everything. He begins as a ‘self-aware’ MC but eventually the show starts picking on him for that very faculty, because what he thinks he’s aware of is in fact a bunch of delusions. He may be the main character of this story, but he is not the main character of this world. Emilia is not his ‘waifu’ who always needs him; the Emilia in his head is so far removed from the Emilia in the fantasy world’s reality. He does not just get super-powers whenever it’s convenient; he’s severely underpowered and in way over his head at this point in the story.
Part of Re:Zero’s appeal is it takes the assumption we’ve seen that an otaku would get transported into a big wide world and suddenly have the people skills they never had with real people, and says ‘nah, I’m pretty sure he’d become a narcissist instead’. Subaru thinks he’s in a ‘third place’ of a MMO world where he’s just there to have a pleasurable experience, but instead he suffers. He only gets more uncomfortable the more he tries to pretend he’s still in the comfort zone he’s been pulled away from.
To continue the terminology of sociologist Ray Oldenburg I’ve used in this discussion, Subaru’s character is a result of never having a ‘first place’, the sociological home, and seemingly never being used to having a ‘second place’, work, either. The only flash we get of his normal life is at a convenience store, and his whole life is just convenience. As a shut-in, his reality is a bunch of fantasies, and this is quickly signaled by his rapid acceptance of the fantasy world. He doesn’t treat it as abnormal because normality is abnormal to him.
His personality and all his failings from that point on are the result of being part of a generation growing up without first or second ‘places’; people who want to escape permanently from such places, and may have even succeeded. People who want their only responsibilities to be things the world has coded to be manageable. The realization that these people don’t actually deserve to do well when they get stuck in a ‘real’ MMO. They deserve to have the shit kicked out of them, become mentally unstable, and ruin all the relationships they’re ever offered and manage to make any progress in.
I therefore want to see Re:Zero, at least so far, as a really good step forward for the ‘trapped in a fantasy world’ genre. Rather than a character being mundanely aware of their surroundings, its us the show makes aware of just how problematic an addiction to White Knight narratives and ‘virtual third places’ can make a person. The more elliptical Subaru’s past is, the more it seems to have no place in his mind, and the more we question if he ever lived any life other than a fantasy at all, and come to think that Subaru isn’t trapped in this world. No; he’s trapped in his own social non-existence before coming here, and how much he’s ruined his ability to relate to anyone. He only knows how to self-insert into himself, with disastrous consequences.
The ‘Zero’ in Re:Zero’s title isn’t just a reference to Subaru having nothing in the new world; in fact, he has his phone, and great strength, which help him a lot early in the story. The ‘Zero’ repeats to the viewer, every time Subaru makes another mistake, and goes deeper into his hole, that a life lived in fantasies isn’t a life at all.