Let's get some things out of the way before we proceed: Accel World is wish-fulfillment, pure and simple. If you hate seeing people get what they want out of life, Accel World will earn your hatred almost immediately. In an environment where the first impression is critical, that's a deal-breaker for most.
Stick with it, however, and you get the sense that Accel World actually deserves to have its happy beginning, happy middle, and happy end (not that happy end). That's because Accel World executes on its (admittedly shallow) vision smoothly, smartly, and with few missteps along the way.
It's a show that you can enjoy "more than it deserves", but hey, that's how wish-fulfillment works. In a world that's rarely fair, the best wish-fulfillment fiction doesn't make you feel bad about getting what you want, or think less of another person for the same.
To keep harping about wish-fulfillment, if one calls Accel World that, to him I respond "So what?" The negative connotations associated with terms like "wish-fulfillment", "Mary Sue", "Chuunibyou" (one of its interpretations, at least) and "power fantasy" are rooted in badly executed wish-fulfillment, and not the concept itself.
And what makes for a badly executed wish-fulfillment scenario? It can be summed up in one word: unfairness. When the audience feels that a character hasn't earned his or her blessings, we rage and reject. Whenever a boy with no personality beyond "kind of nice" ends up with a gaggle of girls trying to jump his bones, we rage and reject. It's why we tend to punish "unfair" trades at our own expense, or react so vehemently when the term "Pay-to-Win" comes up with regard to video games.
That resentment is a natural response, and for many, Accel World and the blessings received by its protagonist, Haruyuki, seemed at first to be unjustified. Despite being a fat, bullied nerd that prefers virtual worlds to the real, he bagged the hottest girl in school and was inducted into an exclusive club of time-dilating teenagers.
Now, one can read all kinds of nasty subtexts into the grudge we held against Haruyuki. Is it rooted in prejudice against fatties and nerds ("He's fat because he must be a lazy slob, why would a hot girl ever want him?"), or perhaps the fact that videogame skills have yet to be considered valuable in our society? That said, those are cans of worms no one wants to open, so let's leave it at the fact that most of the first episode was spent trying to get us to pity this pathetic, chubby creature.
And in the end, we didn't pity him enough to have much sympathy. This might have been fixed with a bit more elaboration on how Haru doesn't deserve his treatment, but the risk in that case was the show trying to hold a tiresome pity party, so perhaps Accel World was better off for not doing that.
Furthermore, considering the greater context and premise of Accel World - which, incidentally, was what kept me going as the show shaped up - things make a bit more sense. 2047 is a time when the virtual world may be entered by anyone, at will. It's a place where everyone's hooked up to the internet. In a world like that, mad vidyagaem skillz may well be a much bigger deal than they are here in 2012. And what with Burst Points and all, mad vidyagaem skillz have a much more direct effect on both worlds.
And what a premise it is! It's wish-fulfillment at its prime! What gamer wouldn't want his mad skillz to translate into real-world benefits? What nerd wouldn't want a hot chick to respect and love him for being faster than everyone, in the same way that we idolize top athletes and naturally talented people (though we occasionally vilify them, too)?
There's another place Accel World tripped: We simply didn't see truly substantial proof of why Haru was as fast or skilled as he was, and simply expected to take that for granted. That kind of arbitrariness is where the hate for "Mary Sue" fiction comes from.
All things considered, the pity party does have its own positives, particularly in our tendency to favor underdogs. In the real-world, Haru's the most under of dogs around, but in the virtual world, he's in his element. As Accel World moves along, we learn to appreciate the value of getting the right man in the right place, at the right time. After all, who wouldn't want to end up in a place where one is valued for what one's best at and enjoys most?
Incidentally, this is where most harem and magical girlfriend shows fail. Their protagonists are usually too dense or moronic to appreciate what just fell into their laps. Haru is the opposite sort. He realizes how lucky he is to have encountered this hot chick and discovered this cool world, to the point of selling himself short. Then again, excessive self-loathing is also a turn-off (see: Shinji Ikari), so it's a fine line.
That's a lot of text spilled on half of why I liked Accel World as much as I did, but another quarter of that lay mainly in its bitchin' premise. I love the concept. It's Ghost in the Shell from a consumer perspective, and wearable computing as the future envisioned by the Google Glasses (but on your neck). It's "Soft AR" taken to its logical extreme (because Hard AR is a much longer way off), and it's gaming at its most fantastic and customizable.
Brain Burst is a freeform, open-world title with all the unexpected joys of the best roguelikes and Demon's Souls, with the ideal interactions from the finest sandbox MMOs, and the immersion beyond the wildest dreams of Oculus Rift. Also, real-life time dilation. Brain Burst is the uber-game, one I'd kill to be a part of.
Remember when I said Accel World's awesome premise was a quarter of why I liked it? Here's the other one, and it's all down to one character: Nomi. Put plain, he's simply a superlative villain, the kind you love to loathe, the kind you'll hate to the core.
I know, the good thing we're supposed to want out of anime is a complex villain, with sympathy, moral ambiguity, and no true right or wrong. But this is a wish-fulfillment show, and sometimes a little simplicity is desirable, where the black-and-white struggle of the virtue versus villainy is clear-cut and unambiguous. Accel World is quite "Golden Age" in its treatment of Nomi, and it's better for it - at least for that arc.
Simplistic villains are one thing, but Accel World goes a step further, and adds in thematic resonance as well. Nomi is basically the antithesis of the Burst Linker ideal, and is everything Haru isn't. Motivated by selfishness and the real-world power of Brain Burst, he lies, cheats, and even has a power set based on craven thievery.
True Burst Linkers gain their powers based on their own best and worst traits, powers that are unique to themselves, and improve those powers through persistence and skill, Nomi steals them, enabling his extortion. He deserved nothing that he had gained, with all the rage and rejection that incites in an audience.
Accel World was even smart enough not to grant Nomi a reprieve he doesn't deserve, that most frustrating of cliches. He "dies", whining and pleading as Haru delivers a fantastically flashy coup de grace. Despite the show's halfhearted attempts to give him a justifiable motivation, it's thankfully all too weak for anyone in their right mind to forgive. To paraphrase that ancient challenge, we demanded satisfaction, and sure as hell we got it.
Lest you think me too gushing in praise for a mere Mary Sue anime, Accel World isn't perfect. It wasted time on diversions, giving Snow Black development she didn't need (she's perfect as it is), and introduced new rules and twists before the old ones were actually employed, giving the impression that it was breaking its own rules (though it wasn't). The wider context of a world so changed by Neuro-Linkers wasn't as explored as we wanted, left in the scope of a game no one besides its players knows about. It was almost as if the show wanted to validate critics that say nerds have a too narrow, insular set of interests.
Haru never quite got over his self-loathing, all the while unable to realize that he at least earned some of what he got (if retroactively). And while ultimately justified, Chiyu's actions weren't telegraphed, and felt like they came out of nowhere. It all looked like a cowardly betrayal, something undeserving of sympathy.
Ultimately, wish-fulfillment is about characters getting what they deserve, be they the heroes or villains. But for the times it stumbled in justifying that, Accel World earned the enjoyment I derived from it.
Now, let's end on some obvious product placement for what is sure to be some future anime:
Coming to Neuro Neuro Douga in 2047!
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