Sword Art Online  (SAO)  is one of the most popular animes, especially in fairly recent times. The series had a resurgence earlier this year and late last year due to the first bit of the Alicization arc airing. And although the resurgence was noticeable, SAO has always maintained a steady amount of popularity since first airing in the Summer of 2012. Some would even blame SAO for bringing the apocalypse of isekai that has taken the anime world over the past few years. Yet, there’s one show that finished airing just before SAO season 2 came out, and the premise is eerily similar. I’m talking of course, about the not as well known series, Log Horizon (LH).

A Brief Premise

Log Horizon tells the tale of players who, by some unknown mechanism, got transported to the world of a popular MMO, Elder Tales, and they adopt the bodies of their in-game avatars. The primary cast of characters that Log Horizon follows is Shiroe, who plays a support caster type class, and acts as a sort of strategist for groups and activities like raiding. Akatsuki, a female player who is a ninja type class, and primarily deals damage, and of course Naotsugu, the larger than life knight-like tank class.

Throughout the show, the core three meet and interact with various other important and respected players, as they try to navigate and figure out a way to live in this mysterious world long term.

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Despite the premise being quite similar to SAO, it’s quite fascinating how…different or unique LH is by comparison. Perhaps in short, the best way to explain it, is that if SAO is about escaping from the game world, LH is about living in it.

Nuanced Mechanics

LH comes off so much more as an actual game than the actual SAO did. I don’t mean this as an insult to SAO, as it’s probably my favorite series to be quite honest, but a lot of the rules expressed in SAO are strict, and it rarely if ever deviates from those rules. Past that, SAO intentionally keeps a lot of game mechanics intentionally vague.

LH contrasts SAO in this regard. LH is not afraid to get into nitty gritty detail about mechanics, and does so quite often. LH also maintains an element of mystique around the game world and it’s occasionally changing nature, which adds a sense of discovery for not only the players in the world, but the viewer as well.

For example, player death. In SAO, it’s made clear from the get go that dying in game means dying in real life, and that’s a mechanic that’s used for impact plenty of times throughout the show. But in LH, nothing is quite clearly defined about the game until the players do enough experimentation and draw concrete conclusions about the rule. For example, player death is initially brought up in LH as a big “Hmmm, I wonder what happens” and is slowly elaborated upon as time passes. The players of LH eventually figure out what happens as well as all the nuances surrounding player death.

This leads me into another contrast between SAO and LH. The game mechanics discovered in LH are often subtly nuanced and often times multilayered. Whereas in SAO the mechanics are briefly explained and/or reiterated just as they become relevant. As stated earlier, the mechanics in SAO are kept somewhat vague, but also strict. When a player dies in SAO, they actually die. And that’s that. There’s not much more to it. Yet in LH, there’s quite a few other things in play when a player dies instead of them just resurrecting at a Cathedral. I will stop at saying just that in order to keep this piece as spoiler free as possible.

Log Horizon

Henrietta and Marielle. Credit: Sentai Filmworks/Crunchyroll

Getting Personal

One thing that I believe LH handles exponentially better than SAO is character relationships. Don’t get me wrong, sure the character relationships in SAO do for the most part make sense, through a combination of pacing as well as story structure, a lot of the relationships in SAO feel quite rushed and sudden. In contrast to Log Horizon where the inter-character relationships build up over time. For example, two particular character’s relationship slowly builds over time by becoming closer and closer with each other. The show handles this incredibly well, as the time taken to grow close is displayed and not rushed, with the result being something that feels natural and isn’t forced.

More to the inter-character relationships, there’s a lot of grey areas between those as well. In SAO, unless a character is blatantly hostile towards the main character Kirito, there’s a good chance they’re either head over heels in love with him, or his best friend. There’s no real inbetween. Once again contrasting Log Horizon, where the character relationships aren’t as binary as either friendly or hostile. An example are the characters Henrietta and Marielle, the two players who lead the Crescent Moon Alliance guild. Despite Henrietta and Marielle being close friends, LH displays all of the things that entails. Things like Henrietta being expressively annoyed towards Marielle’s antics, and even through bouts of time where Henrietta just seems to tolerate Marielle.

It’s also worth mentioning that there are characters who dislike each other for whatever reason, but are shown putting those things aside in order to accomplish a common goal. Much like how interpersonal relationships in the real world might be. Log Horizon dances between displaying the professional and personal relationships of the characters.

Final Thoughts

Log Horizon and Sword Art Online are both fantastic and incredible shows that, despite having virtually the same premise, convey and display the human conditions quite differently. Perhaps the most succinct analogy to make is that if SAO is a blunt, black and white show, then LH is a subtle show that tends to operate in the grey area of things. I would seriously recommend anyone interested to watch Log Horizon. It is exceedingly well paced, and can be quite easily binged as a result.

Thank you for reading. I also wrote a retrospective on Your Name, which you can check out here. On top of doing these weekly columns, I also host our weekly podcast Power Up now on our Mixer channel, which you can find here.

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