Asking why people play video games is like asking why they watch TV, or why they eat pizza: You might be able to identify a few clusters of motivation (“it’s funny when Sheldon says ‘bazinga’ on The Big Bang Theory”; “hot cheese and pepperoni are comforting”), but any given explanation won’t get too deep.
Why do people do anything? To escape their lives? To join a community of like-minded people that isn’t available to them in person? Because it’s cool to blow things up?
.hack//SIGN, a one-season anime series from 2003 that’s finally streaming on Crunchyroll and Hulu, takes a serious stab at answering these questions, and manages to address the full constellation of reasons people play games — largely by ignoring actual gameplay.
The series has some American fans — .hack//SIGN briefly appeared on Toonami’s lineup the year of its debut — but, at least anecdotally, it doesn’t seem like the show has had the staying power I would have expected. I was 10 when it aired, obsessed with RuneScape and deeply invested in pretending to be an adult man on Dragonlance forums, and although rewatching the series a few months back felt like one, long, grim retreat to my adolescent self, it also felt like hindsight, a rare experience of seeing a piece of art ask questions in ways that were ahead of its time. Given the centrality of .hack//SIGN’s subjects to the miasma of modern American life — our obligations to people in online spaces, how to cope with seemingly unending anxiety and depression, resisting the creep of authority — I think it’s about time it had a comeback.
.hack//SIGN takes place almost entirely in The World, an enormously popular MMO in the show’s version of the then-future year 2009. The World has a surreal fantasy setting, dotted with impossible cliffs, angled balloons that look like they should be blowing in the wind but never move, and adorable, existentially stricken creatures called Gruntys. In theory, The World is the site of cool monster combat, dungeon-crawling and maybe some epic magic. (And in some media it is; the .hackfranchise grew to encompass another anime series, manga, and a series of games putting real players in the role of players in The World.) But .hack//SIGN features almost none of these things — instead, the vast majority of the show is just characters talking about their feelings. And it’s great.
At the beginning of the series, Tsukasa, a Wavemaster (The World’s name for wizards), wakes up and realizes he is unable to log out. Later on, he discovers that he is not only trapped in The World, he’s become part of the game: He can feel it when he runs his hands through the grass, he can tenderly pick up and observe the bugs in the digital world, and most importantly, he experiences real pain when he gets hit. The rest of the characters — among them a brash teen girl brawler named Mimiru, an elder swordsman named Bear and a quiet knight named Subaru — come together around Tsukasa, taking interest in the cause of his plight and what, if anything, any of them can do about it.
The “trapped in an online world” genre was heavily developed with its own set of tropes even before it became the default state for most of our lives. There’s everything from Tron to Ready Player One, while Sword Art Online, a light novel and anime series, has taken it as the foundation of an ongoing franchise. (Though the first arc features the characters stuck in a fantasy game superficially similar to The World, the franchise has branched out — Sword Art Online 2 takes place in a game that is literally called Gun Gale Online.) Even the rest of .hack properties solely focus on people playing the game.
Fully embodying your role-playing character is a long-standing fantasy, and most works in the “stuck in internet” genre largely act as wish fulfillment. When they acknowledge the limitations of characters’ lives outside of games, they use it as a way to affirm that the game is, in fact, where the character is “really” alive. .hack//SIGN takes the opposite approach, suggesting that its cast of misfit characters are continuing to live their lives — with all of the attendant anxieties, complexes and traumas — in the game.
On one level, Tsukasa being stuck in The World is a simple enough story hook: Why is he trapped there, will he escape, and how can the other characters help? But “logging out” becomes a potent metaphor, one that is slowly imbued with more and more emotional baggage as we learn more about the real person behind the character. We learn that Tsukasa’s mother is largely absent; we learn that he has suffered long-term abuse at the hands of his father; we learn that he is, in all likelihood, a girl, facts that he himself does not remember until late in the series. (One reading of .hack//SIGN could posit the show as an understated coming-out narrative.) The fantastic setting of The World, desolate as it is sometimes, becomes a far more understandable form of escape, as MMOs are for all sorts of awkward and isolated kids.
Even the seemingly fun parts of The World become arenas for interpersonal conflict, rather than pyrotechnics. The characters answer riddles as part of dungeon-crawling missions rather than fighting, use sword swings as places to emphatically express their problems, and take dying in the game — even temporarily — as a deadly serious matter.
During these scenes, there’s very little dynamism in the direction; most of .hack//SIGN stays squarely in the two-shot space, with static shots of characters staring at each other. When the series’ villain finally confronts the protagonists, it’s in the form of their worst fears about how other people see them. There’s tons of anime precedent for this degree of internal conflict eliding seemingly bombastic external features (the creative team on .hack//SIGN included alumni of Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion), but literalizing this tension in the form of The World allows .hack//SIGN to even more directly explore this tonal tension.
To be sure, there are lots of aspects of .hack//SIGN that feel almost quaint: The relationship players have to the idea of their characters dying, the near-taboo against looking up information about other players outside of The World, the almost-total lack of knowledge about the version histories of the game and who made it. Still, the question .hack//SIGN asks continues to resonate, between all forms of escapist media and online interaction: If we play games in part to escape our relationships in the “real world,” at what point do the people we play with become more important, and when do we become obligated to them? What is worth logging out for?
The answer, it turns out, is lesbian romance. Subaru and Tsukasa’s connection becomes the core of the show, founded as it is on their shared recognition of each other’s trauma and difficult life experiences. (Where Tsukasa is the victim of abuse, Subaru suffers from serious health problems and is paraplegic, playing The World as a way to experience motion.) Once Tsukasa has begun the hard work of processing what’s happened to him — and once Subaru has confirmed that she is interested in the real Tsukasa, independent of his gender — they agree to see each other in the real world.
Once Tsukasa has logged out, they pass each other on a quiet street, and An (the player behind Tsukasa) says, simply, “I’m home.” .hack//SIGN doesn’t delve into what it means for Tsukasa to be home, but it’s hard not to believe that the statement would be true wherever they were together, even if they were lost in The World.
Eric Thurm is the founder, host, and overall doofus behind Drunk Education, which started as a party at his house that several people had to be tricked into attending. He is also a writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club and other publications, and the author of a book on board games forthcoming from NYU Press in 2019.