I started watching .hack//Sign back in 2005, and it was very nearly one of the very first anime I abandoned. I didn’t write out my impressions of it back then, but I finished it months later in 2006, and the few mentions I gave it in my journal were unimpressed: ‘It just doesn’t interest me.’ ‘Maybe it’ll get better towards the end.’ ‘Just not cutting it’.
But finish it I did, and the OVA episodes – eventually. Always hoping that the series would become one I loved at the end. Sadly, it never did. There were some superb ideas here, some very memorable concepts and strong images, but ultimately it’s undermined by weak storytelling and horribly slow pacing.
I genuinely expected to love .hack//Sign. It really seemed like my sort of thing, visually, conceptually and in terms of its ambition. In an online MMORPG called The World, a young ‘wavemaster’ called Tsukasa cannot log out of the game. Despite his extreme shyness and unwillingness to form any sort of human connection, other players gravitate towards him, both those seeking to help find out why the player cannot log out and those who feel he is linked with a mysterious game-changing ‘Key of the Twilight’, which for whatever reason Tsukasa’s friends decide will allow him to log out. It soon transpires that Tsukasa’s player in the real world is comatose, and is very possibly forced into unconsciousness by the game itself – but just possibly, it is Tsukasa’s own frame of mind and not an outside influence that keeps him there.
There is much to like here. The MMORPG setting may be very familiar now, and ideas from .hack recur in, for example, ½ Prince and the comedy Master of Epic, but with its 2002 release, .hack//Sign was doing it much earlier and with admirable seriousness. The look of the piece is very nice, with character designs by Sadamoto Yoshiyuki, who had also produced the iconic designs for Evangelion, and went on to create the characters for Hosoda Mamoru’s films. There was a lot to like about Tsukasa, with Saiga Mitsuki doing her definitive softly-spoken boy voice (see also: Junior in R.O.D. the TV, Souji in Peacemaker Kurogane) and a great outfit, so that even if it seems that having a protagonist whose character is defined by negativity and an unwillingness to trust others is a bad idea, he’s both sympathetic and relatable. Those who surround him, from the cheerful but vulnerable leader Subaru to the strong and dependable Bear, have their own interesting stories, and the relationship between real person and online persona is very interesting. It’s nice seeing characters with ambiguous motives, like BT and Crim, and while frankly, we all know that if this game were real, there would be a whole lot of ‘pwnd lol’ and ‘buy gold from VVVVVV.skamz.C0M!!!!!!!!!’, the appeal of an MMORPG setting is really that you can play it as a straight fantasy with a twist.
The trouble is that the attempt to make the series high-minded and deep made it extremely dully. Only when the series lowered itself to conventional episodic plots, like when Tsukasa has to look after a baby cow, can it be called entertaining. There are good concepts here, but let’s face it, they’re not exactly revelatory: it’s no surprise to learn Tsukasa’s real-life identity, or the reasons for her negativity. It’s predictable and certainly doesn’t fill up the minutes with compelling dialogue. Too much time is devoted to character debating morality and existentialism using their Heavy Axe Warriors in an online game, and while the scenes with Tsukasa, a strange bed and a flying clown-cat are supposed to be intriguing and symbolic, they far outstay their welcome and the result is boredom.
.hack//Sign had great ideas and a memorable concept. It just needed to be written less like it was patting its own back for being oh-so-smart and more like it had something interesting to show its audience. There is a middle-ground.