This GGO chapter isn’t off to the strongest start.
Once upon a 2012, Sword Art Online consumed us with the mystique of virtual reality and unhealthy gaming habits. It played to our fears of being consumed by gaming and brought interesting discussions to the table, albeit completely unrealistic. Now, in 2018, VR can’t potentially kill its players anymore. Everything is sunshine and rainbows in SAO, and there’s a new girl to boot.
If you’re expecting Kirito, Asuna, and the rest of the SAO gang, you’re not going to get them here. SAO Alternative is just as its name implies–it’s not part of the series’ core narrative. Instead, it’s a side story following a completely new crew of characters in a world we already know from the Ballet of Bullets arc in SAO II. Returning to Gale Gun Online, this series follows LLENN, a famed solo player, and her rise to fame.
In this episode, we’re introduced to LLENN and her partner M. We don’t know how long these two have been working together, if they have at all, but both enter a battle royale tournament dubbed Squad Jam. They’re one team out of 22 others participating, and this episode introduces them as well as explores their unique dynamic as partners. You know, as introductory episodes typically do. Yawn. But the good thing is, if you haven’t seen Sword Art Online, you’re not going to miss any important context in this iteration by having skipped it.
LLENN has a certain undeniable femininity in this macho world, and that in itself is welcome.
LLENN is cutesy and feels massively out of place in the dystopian world of Gun Gale Online. She has a certain undeniable femininity in this macho world, and that in itself is welcome. Her moe appearance on top of her garish pink outfit and the P90 she lovingly calls “P” all help break the mold of the stereotypical FPS player. Whether or not she fits into the “girls like pink” stereotype is yet to be determined – though that’s a perfectly valid way to express femininity – but her character does toe that line of “this is how I genuinely express myself,” and “this is how we write female characters, right?”
It’s clear that LLENN is not written as a “noob” character, as she’s in tune with the game and its mechanics. She knows when she’s being used, and she knows how to get around in this world. But she’s massively uncertain. Instead of coming off as clever or resourceful, she almost comes off as a scared little girl. It’s not her who is taking the lead in her duo’s assault, nor the narration. Instead, her teammate M takes charge and answers questions about the world that can’t be answered otherwise. M and LLENN have an interesting dynamic as partners; it’s obvious their teamwork is founded in respect as M doesn’t infantilize her once as he genuinely appreciates her skill, but even though she’s the protagonist, LLENN feels like a supporting role.
LLENN’s upbeat attitude and sunny disposition are refreshing in this somewhat lifeless world, but if she were removed from the first episode, it’d still have a perfectly fine and relatively coherent narrative. The only time her character truly matters is in its final moments where we learn her real-world identity. Considering she’s the protagonist, it’s disappointing she was kept on the backburner for so long.
LLENN shines in combat, though. We see her use her small body to her advantage, prioritizing speed and agility. The animation in this particular scene is fluid and energizing; it has all the action the rest of the episode is missing. But LLENN’s importance is even minimized further here as she’s once again used more as a support character instead of taking the lead. She may not be treated as a lesser player by others, and there’s nothing wrong with teamwork, but in this context her passiveness removes an important agency in portraying her as the character who’s supposed to lead this anime. Instead, it shows her as a character who is just going through the motions and being used as a pawn in someone else’s strategy.