.Hack: Falling through the happily ever after
(Warning: .Hack games series spoilers)
You started off as a newbie player. Just as it happened, the character you created happened to be special, and with that you were given this fate to be a saviour. You formed your band of heroes, you learned the ropes, you collected your obligatory magical items, you fought, and you won. Congratulations, kid. Both the world and The Worldare safer places because of you. Now it’s time to go and leave this twilight, knowing that there will be happily ever after and it’s all because of you.
You know they are not going to be. They had a glimpse of a bright future, then it’s back to the old route. Worse, they will deteriorate more. Now that’s the T-Rex in the room.
I’ve never been a fan of direct sequels. The framework of the added-on stories often felt more like planning based on external expectations rather than what works for the stories on their own. Now that the Big Bad is defeated, everyone is happily ever after forever. Comes a new sequel introducing a mandatory massive crisis to be solved, yet without risking previous players feeling like their battles had been futile, far too many sequels rely on Magical Bullet Solutions regard to some of the matters that just could not be solved in the usual Epic Explosion with Friendship manner. The alternative to that is to completely not confronting the issues and plan the new arc around it. Either method is kind of insulting.
It is a rare thing for me to see a direct sequel that elevates the entire series to a new height by progressing its characters in a believable way.
Cue the .Hack series.
Trying to explain .Hack’s span across forms of anime, manga, novels and video games, each related to the verse but mostly operating as stand-alones, is challenging. As far as the video games go, the ones translated into English can be divided into two clusters: the .Hack://Project series including four games tells one tale, and the .Hack://G.Useries spans three games that tells another story.
.Hack is a series of single player games about fictional MMORPG The World, and how its core AI grows to become uncontrollable and starts to wreck havoc by putting the players of the game into untreatable comas. It is up to the player to get to the core of the mystery and save the lost ones. It is a hard job simulating an online community, given the sheer amount of information flow as well as the often scatological type of language involved – both the vulgarity and banality were toned down yet still captures the spirit of online culture.
This is a game as real as it gets, with people working together towards a common goal. But then it’s time for the party to be over. They can stay around afterwards and soak in the rapidly disappearing afterglow, but what then? .Hack://Project ended there, but what will become of them after a month, a year, seven years? We wonder what stories of simulated real people would be like after the big battle is over, what becomes of them with the .Hack://G.U?
A recipe for a “here, let’s create a new Biggest Threat Ever ™ crisis, paste it on and let our player heroes save the day!” This indeed is what .Hack://G.U’s main plot is about, upgrading The World into The World R:2, pushing the time line seven years into the future, and an event mirroring the first crisis occurs. Players are falling at an alarming rate, and it is up to the player to take up another identity to save The World all over again.
That much was expected. What I didn’t expect is when I see the glimpses of my former allies. The main character of .Hack://Project has long retired from the game, leaving nothing but an empty mutated character resided in by a vicious AI. The two Big Name Fans, names as big as The World itself have done all there is to do in the games and got on with their lives.
They are the lucky ones, compared to the ones who stayed.
There is Tomonari, who was a victim early on in the first series. As a 17 year old, he wasn’t comatosed for long, but it was enough to leave a long lasting impact on him. His girlfriend Mai went on a mission to save him by joining a band of other misfits, breaking into the core of The World’s server. Tomonari went into the coma as just a player and wakes up as a legend.
Now at the age of 24, he takes on a new avatar: Kuhn. His education was interrupted, and so were his life prospect. Mai has long left him, as his mental age simply could not keep up with his real age. He desperately wanted to have a girlfriend, but even with all the flirting he simply could not form a deep bond with a woman. He might have been a legend in The World, but his problems didn’t magically go away since his awakening. If anything, many of his problems come back with friends.
Then there is Kaoru. When .Hack://Project occurred he was 13. He was co-dependent, anxious, constantly fearful of doing something wrong, forever apologising over his existence. He formed an obsessive, possessive friendship with feline avatar Mia, who turned out to be an AI glitch of the game. Kaoru was in the centre of the action, playing such a vital role in the fight against the villains that it’s safe to say that the party would not have won without him. By the end of the .Hack://Project he was ready to break out of his shell with is new-found confidence, ready to blossom into life.
By the time we meet again, Kaoru’s life is anything but sunshines and rainbows. Technical failures mean Mia is lost forever. Unable to cope with the grief, Kaoru signed up a new character Endrance, now existing solely as the keeper of Mia’s memory. He has not left his parents’ house for god knows how long, doing nothing but playing The World R:2. In the game he is the King of the Gamers, outside of the game he can’t even function.
Then there was Takumi. He was only 10 when he made his appearance as Wiseman in The World. A child with absurd talent in computers, information trading, and stock brokering, he was an apt hacker guiding the party with his illicit supplies.
Now at 17, he is riding high as Yata. He is an official admin of The World R:2, one who still excels at everything he is good at. Pity none of these is enough to feed his ever expanding ego, because he clawed his way to importance all his life now he just wants to be special. Just this once, he wants to be chosen. Now that it is the character Haseo that is special, and Takumi is not okay with this. It has to be him.
What about Haseo, the player character of .Hack://G.U? His real life identity is Ryou, who first played The World as a playful but obnoxious 10 year old troll and was trapped and comatosed before the beginning of the games. .Hack://Project closes with a happy ending for him, for that he was finally awake. Awake, but mentally stuck to the child that he was, unable to remember a thing.
It didn’t help that his neglectful parents never bothered to tell him that The World almost killed him. So Ryou picks up The World R:2 again as Haseo, physically 16 but emotionally stunned as a preteen, and he has nothing going for him but a never ending ball of fury. The cyber imprisonment has been locked from his memories, but the effects are acute. Hatred against everything, hatred that he can’t even explain himself.
The happy ending in .Hack://Project released Ryou, but to get his personal happy ending it is up to him to work for it. He needs to accept his personal short comings, his internalised obsession, and catch up on the years of development he was robbed of. Fight for it tooth and nails, fight for it with everything he has to save his girlfriend. He needs to learn to work with people, and if he can’t sincerely like people he could at least learn to be a bit nicer about it. Others had helped with setting the stage, but it is up to him to earn his own happiness.
The World R:2 is safe again, thanks largely to Ryou and his team of misfits. But what will become of them five years later on? Saving The World don’t mean saving themselves, the power of friendship solves nothing beside the yearning of friendships, the power of romance don’t change the fact that they still need to work on everything else that’s wrong in their lives. Now that the big goal is achieved again, all that’s left over is the same mess of personal issues of each of the characters, just like in the beginning. These issues that are not going to go away unless they work on it, and it is not a battle that can be fought by anyone but themselves.
Happy ending for the crowd, but not happily ever after ending for the individuals. Now they have a life time left to live, and it is up to them to make it. I don’t know what will become of the .Hack franchise from this point and onwards, as the games newer than G.U was never released outside of Japan. But if it do happen, I would love to see the progresses of the lives of the ones who are still around. I hope to see the progression of their struggle played out, and please – no miracle pills that solve all their problems away.
They’ve got to earn it.