There are very few nerdy activities I haven’t partaken in at some point. I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve beaten the Queensland State Champion at Scrabble. I’ve assembled and painted two Warhammer 40,000 armies. I’ve written Neon Genesis Evangelion fan fiction. I’ve played pretty much every prominent collectible card game you can name – Pokémon, Star Trek, Star Wars, Netrunner, VS System and, of course, Magic: the Gathering (which I was pretty good at). But outside of a very brief flirtation with Guild Wars, I’ve never really engaged with an MMORPG (which stands for a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game – think World of Warcraft).
Thanks to the very many nerdy friends I’ve had in my life, I’m nonetheless more than familiar with the minutiae of these games – the mechanics, the strategies, the social dynamics. This has all been accumulated through overhearing endless conversations about these games or, on many occasions, simply sitting around watching someone else play. The experience of watch the anime series Log Horizon, then, came with a distinct sense of déjà vu. Log Horizon, you see, operates very much like watching someone else play an MMORPG, listening to them expound upon the particulars of the game’s universe and its rules while navigating their avatar through its vast realms.
This is because Log Horizon literally occurs within an MMORPG, with a premise familiar to those who’ve watched either .hack//Sign or Sword Art Online, following a cast of characters inexplicably trapped within their MMORPG universe. I haven’t seen the latter series, but despite the narrative similarities, Log Horizon couldn’t be more distinct from .hack//Sign. .hack//Sign approached its premise with an enigmatic poetry, but Log Horizon is more interested in tackling the challenges of establishing a new society under new circumstances – like a much less profane Deadwood.
Log Horizon’s first few episodes are spent establishing the rules and characters of its universe – Shiroe aka “the Villain Behind Glasses” (Takuma Terashima/Mike Yager), an experienced, erudite adventurer; Ataksuki (Emiri Katō/Jad Saxton), a miniscule tsundere assassin; Naotsugu (Tomoaki Maeno/Andrew Love), a heavily-armoured warrior with a juvenile sense of humour; many others. The show doesn’t really become interesting until it reveals its real interest – politics. This is the sort of series that features dialogue like, “The system doesn’t encourage guilds to make what I call moral choices,” and “You need a supply chain! What price point are you looking at?” Shiroe becomes an important figure in the MMORPG world, founding and leading a guild by the name of Log Horizon, thanks in large part to some intricate political machinations.
Log Horizon is deeply invested in moral questions – like, say, whether or not the game’s NPCs should be regarded as people – but less invested in establishing stakes for viewers who don’t find such high-level questions interesting in of themselves. It has the exact same problem as watching someone else play an MMORPG – you begin to understand that the specifics of their universe, the political and strategic challenges, are incredibly fascinating to them, but that doesn’t quite translate to make it interesting as a spectator.
For me, the series biggest problem is its lack of progression, of forward momentum. My biggest problem with MMORPGs – and the reason I’ve never played one – is that they require level progressions to justify the grind inherent to their gameplay. Level progression is great, but I need more – especially once you reach the top level and there’s nowhere else to go. Log Horizon fails to establish a serious antagonist or objective through its first season, with enemies briefly surfacing only to be swiftly defeated. The lack of an end goal is entirely understandable. Real societies don’t have them, and Shiroe’s (and therefore the series) disinterest in trying to escape from the MMORPG universe means that the narrative just sort of … keeps on happening. It feels silly to complain about a series avoiding conventions, but its insistence on omitting any story goal of substance leaves the show feeling as pointless as grinding for XP.