Hack: The Birth of Modern Isekai

Hack: The Birth of Modern Isekai

If you were into a combination of anime and video games in the early to mid-2000’s then chances are you’ve heard of Dot Hack before. Long before the Sword Art Onlines and the Log Horizons of the future, the Dot Hack franchise was the first to take the Isekai genre of having a protagonist sent to another world, and apply it not to fantasy, but to something more like modern science fiction, specifically a video game. That also had a little bit of fantasy to it, yeah we’ll forget about that bit. This was a bit of a bold move in retrospect; the whole setting of Dot Hack revolves around an MMO called “The World” from a time when MMO’s only really just came onto the scene. The first released instance of any Hack media came out at the start of 2002.

This was a midpoint when it had only been 5 years since the term MMO was coined with the release of Ultima Online in 1997 and 3 years since the release of one of the more modern mainstream MMO experiences with Everquest. This was also a full 2 years before the monolith of an RPG game called World of Warcraft would be released. The initial entries of Dot Hack introduced us to this fantasy-like world, but one that was heavily rooted in gaming mechanics and terms. This kind of setting would only become more prevalent as the years went on. Welcome ladies, gentlemen, and others, my name is Arkada and Today on Glass Reflection we are taking a look at the early .Hack// franchise and the birth of modern Isekai. Let’s jam. To start, we rewind to the beginning of the Spring anime season of 2002.

While many people would assume that the first entry in the Hack franchise was the original 4 PS2 games (since it’s the games which historically ends up driving the franchise forward), in this particular case Hack was kicked off a full two months earlier with the release of .hack//SIGN. With a plotline that might sound overly cliché now, but was inspired back then, SIGN tells the story of a young MMO player by the screenname of Tsukasa who, due to mysterious circumstances, gets sucked into the MMO that they play and is forced to live in this digital world. Tsukasa is not the same kind of protagonist though that we see becoming prevalent nowadays. He doesn’t really know what happened to him, and largely he seems to feel apathetic about the whole thing. It might also be because it’s not necessarily correct to call Tsukasa the protagonist.

Hack The Birth of Modern Isekai
Hack The Birth of Modern Isekai

While he is definably the focus of the series’ big mystery, the plot isn’t told from his perspective alone and rather in how the rest of the cast of normal, not trapped players interact with him. Over the course of 26 episodes, Tsukasa ends up meeting with a variety of gamers who eventually learn of his plight and, despite Tsukasa’s loner and introverted nature, seek to help him out of his predicament and also scratch the surface on what actually caused him to be trapped in the first place and what that could mean. Now I’ve been largely harsh on SIGN over the years, mostly because a lot of what actually made the series good was dragged out over a length that I don’t think it really justified. Half as many episodes would have served purpose just fine, although I can concede that the extra padding could be necessary for someone who didn’t have any other interest in the franchise and wasn’t also playing or reading other media.

SIGN was very much a prologue chapter to the whole universe and as such is not really good at being anything else but a gateway to the franchise. But, because it’s a gateway, one of the more brilliant things about SIGN is that it had two different narratives going on at the same time, which I think is what made the franchise as a whole so appealing throughout the 2000’s. While there was the surface narrative about Tsukasa’s story that held the spotlight, throughout the series, there were plenty of instances showcasing a much more mysterious and deeper narrative to “The World” itself.

This did not get expanded here but only touched on, just enough to whet your appetite for it and make you curious about it, and to follow along with the franchise to see exactly where it was going. It took the appeal of being sent to a fantasy world and applied it to a more modern context. Instead of being whisked away to some fantasy universe with swords and sorcery like in the 80s and 90s, it set up this intriguing digital world, one that sure also had swords and sorcery, but also one that would entice viewers to want to live in it themselves.

Which brings us to… The Games The original Hack Tetralogy was a series of 4 games released on Playstation 2 between June of 2002 and April of 2003. It was a rare series of games that decided to split its narrative into multiple parts sold separately, rather than as one solid compilation. We’ll get to that in a moment. The narrative of the games has the player character Kite introduced to this new MMO by his friend who plays a swordsman by the name of Orca. All goes well as an introduction to this new world until, during their first play session, they run across a mysterious girl being chased by a monster. In trying to save her, Orca gets hit by an unknown attack which logs the character out.

The story tells us later that the player is now in the hospital having fallen into a coma. Our character Kite, now armed with a fantastical bracelet given to him by the girl Aura, must explore the various caves and crevasses of the game to uncover the truth behind the unexplained incidents so that he can perhaps save his friend. I loved these games when they came out, and my entry into the franchise began with them. This weird cyber mystery about coming together with friends to save a world we loved was a tale that had me hooked when I was 12. Now however, having replayed through the games in my late 20’s, I can only say that the games have not held up.

Though the reason for that is not because of the plot or the characters, but largely because of how Hack was developed and marketed. For example, when I said that the series contained 4 separate games, what if I told you that they really were all actually one game. Despite being split up into 4 separate parts, the game play of .//Hack never changed from volume to volume. If you just watched general gameplay in a video, you would be hard pressed to identify exactly which game was in front of you unless it was given away by a specific party member or an identifiable boss battle. A good comparison for this is another popular PS2 era RPG series, Xenosaga, which between games had massive changes both to how the games were presented and also played.

Hack really is just one game split up into 4 pieces and sold separately for an unknown reason or purpose. For a long time, I assumed it was similar to how many PS1 games were produced back in the day on multiple discs. Maybe because of the sheer amount of data, they needed to split the game off because it wouldn’t fit on one disc alone. But oh no, pop in game 4 and once you complete the game you have access to every cut scene and every dungeon from all of the previous “games”. The only things not able to be replayed are the boss battles themselves.

But I highly doubt the models and attack patterns alone justify 4 discs, especially when all the boss stages are identical to one another. So really, as far as the actual content to the series, it’s all on disc 4 alone or at least should be. It just isn’t available. Because why do that when you can instead sell the game in 4 parts at full retail value? It really does boggle my mind that they were able to get away with this back in the early 2000’s! Can you imagine if they tried that today? What if Square came out and was going to release a Final Fantasy in episodic parts for no reason? …oh wait. It doesn’t help that the vast majority of the game’s plot is buried in gameplay tedium.

Like the whole goal with the gameplay was to create a simulated MMO world and – for 2002 – I honestly think they nailed that perfectly. By that, I mean it was boring as sh– But having spent far too much time in more modern MMO’s the grind was just a bit too much Because the whole game really was a grind and nothing more. 80% of this game is a loop where you are given a location keyword, travel there, and whatever is suppose to happen will always occur on the bottom level of that location’s procedurally generated dungeon. New keyword, clear the dungeon, story continues without variation. 10% of the game is them simulating other parts of MMO life, like logging off the game to read your emails.

Only to then respond to them, and as soon as you log back into the game DING DONG YOU GOT MAIL like you weren’t just there two seconds ago. Seriously, having multiple monitors are a godsend nowadays. Of course, the absolute worst part of the grind is dealing with your fellow “Players” and I’m honestly not sure if the AI is either helping or harming the realism in this respect. If you’ve played an MMO before, imagine a low end pick up group, where your fellow players have no agency on their own, need to be told to do virtually everything, and in the more complicated fights sometimes feel more like a burden than a help.

That’s your party members in this game. Oh look! This enemy is immune to physical attacks! Good thing that Blackrose keeps trying to hit it with her sword even after I went OUT OF MY WAY to tell her to use magic, WHICH I KNOW SHE HAS. Sometimes I truly wondered if it could get any worse, but as any PS2 era RPG player can tell you, this wasn’t the worst party AI we could have been dealing with. It’s just not fun. Perhaps for someone who didn’t spend an embarrassing amount of time living in a more recent MMO world, you might find it quite enjoyable, but I found it to be a slog.

One that I am happy I repeated if only for the nostalgia, but a slog nonetheless. So why did I enjoy it? And why did I spend years searching though game swaps and convention dealer’s rooms for a copy especially when the price is so high? Like seriously, part 4 alone can cost you over $2000… [This is where I screwed up and said $2000 instead of $200] Part 4 alone can cost you over $200 CANADIAN and trying to snag the whole set can cost far more than that. Well, what kept me interested in the series for so long was the style of it. Sure, the game was clunky and looking at the narrative as a whole nowadays feels…well cliché. There is a level of mystery and atmosphere to the development of the whole setting that still sticks with me to this day.

Largely, I feel this was due to the work of two musical composers: Chikayo Fukuda and Yuki Kajiura. Fukuda was the composer for both sets of games, and while her compositions initially lacked a sense of epic scale at times when it might have needed it, she excelled in calming atmospheres and relaxed tones with just a hint of discord within them. It wasn’t until the GU games that I thought she started growing heavily as a composer. This was when she was able to bring that same level of atmosphere to add both the epic scale for battle sequences and dial the unsettling calm up to 11. It also was when she possibly started taking some cues from Kajiura’s work on the franchise by introducing a new kind of eerie vocals much to the mass enjoyment of all, especially me. While there were vocal tracks in the original games, GU is where Fukuda’s work especially shined.

Then we have the work of Yuki Kajiura, specifically her work almost a full 10 years before she would come far more into prominence as a composer. In the grand scheme of things, Kajiura only worked on a very limited section of the franchise, but her tracks are some of the most memorable. Not only that, but since she was the composer on .hack//SIGN – one of the few positive things about that series – and since SIGN was the first piece of Hack media to be released, Kajirua was responsible for the initial musical tone that fans of the series were introduced to. Her work on SIGN is still some of the best the franchise has to date and it’s really no surprise that shortly after this she was tapped for another series of PS2 RPGS and eventually called on to compose the music for the next stage of MMO Isekai in 2012.

This all actually leads to the question of…what happened? With the recent boom of Isekai worlds steeped deep in gaming, why have we not seen a sudden resurgence of this franchise from the depths of the PS2 era? Well, while I don’t have a confirmed answer to that question, I do have a particular theory. The franchise is way too bloated. The developers and owners of the Dot Hack franchise went all in back when the series started, and I mean all in. They had the 24 episode .hack//SIGN that they produced, the original 4 PS2 games, and the sequel manga series that itself had its own anime adaptation The games also came prepackaged with a 4-episode OVA called Liminality, which tells a side story that happened concurrent with the game volumes and is a hell of a lot more compelling nowadays with its narrative than the games themselves. It doesn’t end there though.

There were also a slew of novels released – from AI Buster, to Another Birth, to even Zero – and this is all before Dot Hack reached its second stage. After the success of the original bunch of Hack media, a number of companies came together to help usher in the franchise’s second stage. Titled .hack Conglomerate, the series did a bit of a time jump from a narrative perspective, and they paved the way for a whole new set of media: anime, novels, and of course a new trilogy of games. But all of this, even this second generation of Hack titles all came relatively quickly. To illustrate, let’s bring up some dates, shall we? The initial release of the original .Hack//Infection PS2 game was on June 20, 2002 in Japan, while the final entry of the sequel series, .Hack//GU came out on September 10, 2007. That’s only 5 years, and every single piece of content I mentioned in the franchise all came out in that 5 year stretch of time.

Honestly, we got burned out. At least I did. It was hard to keep up, so it’s not surprising that people fell out of the franchise when they kept feeling out of the loop. Unable to keep up with it all. So much so that for the 15th anniversary of the series, the creators came along and released an HD remaster of the GU games, complete with a brand new 4th part! But I must say I haven’t seen the same level of excitement that I would have hoped from its release, at least not in the West. Perhaps the Japanese reception has been quite a bit different, but I seem to doubt that. .hack is extremely notable for being one of the first in its genre of narratives to do something different. It took a formula which, at that point, had been done to death and breathed new life into it.

I would very much be interested in seeing the creators try to come together to introduce a new entry into the franchise. And no, I’m not just talking about a Japan-only mobile game that didn’t last for more than a year [Hack New World]. Though understandably, I can see the reluctance, as it’s hard to really imagine where the narrative can go from where we left it. After going through two separate MMO games with dark hidden code in them, it starts to break our immersion to believe that people would still want to play MMO’s with that kind of Russian roulette back alley development. There was a PSP game released in 2010, Japan-only of course, that introduced a third version of “The World” MMO as a setting, but it didn’t seem to take off all that well. So now what’s left of the Hack Franchise is a bit like a piece of history, rather than something that is still ongoing.

Something that can be looked at fondly and be noteworthy for what it was and what it did for the genre of narrative and its atmosphere, but sadly not much else. If you wanted to dive into the series nowadays, you could always start at the beginning with .hack//SIGN, as long as you can handle a story that really does feel like it’s almost 20 years old. Either that, or pick up the remaster of the GU series! While you would technically be missing a bunch of backstory to the setting if you went that route, it still works as a semi-introduction for newcomers and is as good a place as any to start as any. Beyond that, I’ll leave it to you.

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