Exploring "the World": Part 1
Hello. This is my first installment of what I hope to be a monthly series called "Exploring The World" in which I take a look at the multitude of non-gaming media and material devoted to a game about a game within a game. If that doesn't sound too surreal for you, please follow as I explore the .hack universe outside the console.
Title: .hack//AI Buster – Book 1
Author: Tatsuya Hamazaki
Publisher: Tokyopop Press Inc
The .hack franchise has broken into nearly every form of entertainment you can think of; manga, TV, collectable card games and of course video games. But what few people know is that it all started with a novel back in 2002 titled .hack//AI Buster. Now, four years later, that novel has finally reached the American market, bringing the story of "The World" and its secret purpose full circle.
For the uninitiated, .hack takes place in a not-too-distant future where a massively multiplayer RPG known as "The World" is the most popular game of all time. Though it is played by over 10 million people worldwide, the game is steeped in mystery as its late creator seems to have had more in mind than amusing the masses. Rumors of forbidden areas, non-player characters (NPCs) roaming free and players falling into comas persist despite the efforts of administrators to eradicate such bugs.
This story is told from two perspectives: One is Watarai, a system administrator and Captain of the Cobalt Knights, a group that secretly hunts down and deletes artificial intelligences (a.k.a. Vagrant AIs) within the game. The other is Albireo, a high level player who loves the game but always plays alone. That is, until a party is forced upon him by an air headed and eccentric newcomer to The World, Hokuto.
Assuming that it's part of the game, Albireo and Hokuto work to solve the mystery of Lycoris, a young girl within the game who needs her sight, voice and other pieces returned to her. This quest takes the three of them through many parts of The World, including the infamous "One Sin": An event so trying that no player has yet overcome it.
As Lycoris becomes whole, Albireo is shocked at the lifelike manner in which she acts and the strange powers within the game she has. Albireo even debates whether he should complete the quest to restore her or not. All the while, The Cobalt Knights are closing in, tying the noose around Lycoris' throat.
This story progresses quickly with several action sequences spread throughout. However, the characters are the focus of the plot, not the action. The dynamic thing about setting the story within a game like this is each character is actually two in one. There is the character or PC they are playing the game and there is their real life identities. Both these personalities affect the decisions made and it creates unique encounter as these personalities are sometimes in direct conflict. Questions of identity and what makes us who we are compose the theme of the book. It also establishes the conflict of whether it's right to kill/delete something that can be so much like a human.
Another unique aspect to this setting is the added level of depth to conversations. Characters together in a scene not only speak to the group as a whole, but they often send "whispers," or secret messages to one another, right in front of other people. It's almost like giving all the characters a psychic link to each other.
Being a long time follower of the series, I had no trouble understanding the events and terminology used in this book. But even if AI Buster is your first experience with the .hack franchise (as it was intended to be), and even if you've never played an online game before, the book does a good job of explaining how The World works.
As a stand alone work, AI Buster is intentionally cryptic and incomplete. That is because the full story of The World is broader than any one plot or cast of characters. That doesn't mean you won't get a good story out of this book alone. It just means there is a greater level of enjoyment for each piece of the .hack puzzle you decide to pick up. The story is overall engrossing, occasionally comical and has a twist ending that makes you want to read the whole thing over again. It may not appeal to non-gamers, but even the casual gamer can find something to enjoy from this book.
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