Thursday, March 8, 2012

.hack//Sign: Metaphysics

.hack recap: When we left off the Crimson Knights were guarding the Chaos Gate and Tsukasa walked through a solid stone wall, following Macha's advice.

(I recommend actually buying .hack//Sign since my words don't really do it justice.  One can get either the DVD this episode is on, or the full series as a set.)

.hack//Sign, Episode 2: Guardian, 10:24-14:53

Tsukasa appears in a brightly colored lightly wooded place. There are scattered leafy trees, there's a stream, there's grassy ground, and the purple sky matches his eyes. (I very much doubt that similarity is significant, plus the sky is yellow near the horizon.) The place has a soft white glow about it which washes out the colors in places.

There's a floating teddy bear, and a colorless girl floating above a bed. She's mostly white and off white, but hints of color dance across her body and her clothing. She's a young child. She's asleep, and she's important.

Tsukasa asks, “Who are you?” and gets no answer. Unlike DVL we will eventually learn her name, which is Aura*.

When looking for a good .hack site which has, sadly, gone offline I ran across a not so good site with the same name whose author thought Aura and Tsukasa were the same person. They're not. Tsukasa is a human being, Aura is an AI, Tsukasa is a teenager, Aura is a young child. Tuskasa has lived a difficult life that has provided him with painful memories, fear, and depression, Aura has never been awake before and thus has no past experience to be affected by.

That said, given that real-world Tsukasa is a girl in a coma, and Aura is (at the moment) a girl whose eyes never open, there is room for confusion and such confusion will show up in the series at least once later on. It will then be shot down with force** about equivalent to the look River gave Simon when he asked, “Am I talking to Miranda now?”

Anyway, you've met Aura, she's important, she's asleep. It will take most of the characters most of the series to learn those two things. So we'll talk about it in greater depth later, for now we're moving on.


Mimiru, Bear, and BT are discussing Tsukasa. The Crimson Knights haven't seen Tsukasa since he ran away earlier, but a day has passed since then. Since the knights are guarding the Chaos Gate on the server where he warped*** that means that Tsukasa has not logged out or changed servers in a day.

BT suggests that perhaps he simply reset his computer rather than log out. Which is a reasonable thing to assume when the alternative is to believe Tsukasa has stayed logged in continuously.

I don't really like BT as a character, and at some point I'm going to have to take some time to explain why, but in this scene, a scene in which she is factually wrong repeatedly, I do actually think that she comes off quite well. Her points are completely reasonable, her thinking is crisp, and better still she isn't backstabbing or scheming to backstab.

Even though she happens to be wrong, I think she makes a definite positive contribution to the conversation.

Mimiru flashes back to Tsukasa asking her if she could log out.

Bear: I'm also worried about that.
BT: What's “that”?
Mimiru: Is it really possible for someone to be unable to log out?

Simple answer: Yes. A more detailed answer will require us to consider philosophy and the nature of reality and stuff.

In theory I've got a head start on this because I already wrote on this topic for a thing that happens in the 14th episode. I was in the shower and suddenly it hit me that the eponymous Castle in the episode Castle was probably a liminal space, and once I got out of the shower I wrote an entire post on that topic, and then realized that it'll be a very long time before it's time to post it. (To recap, it's in episode 14, we're in episode 2.  I've been doing this for more than month now.)

Anyway, it got me thinking about what the space would on the limit between, which led into thinking about the allegory of the cave and the nature of reality and whatnot. Hopefully some of that will come in handy here.

Anyway, philosophy.

I had a philosophy professor once who described the root of various schools of ancient Greek philosophy as the attempt to answer the question of what is really real. Is the world as we see it real? Are numbers real? Is the plenum real? Is fire real? What about water? Change? Ideas? Atoms? What's really real?

The Daily Show I saw today began with one of Zeno's paradoxes. From our perspective it looks like someone smashing face first into calculus about 2000 years before anyone was ready to tackle the subject, but for Zeno it was proof that the world as we know it wasn't really real. It couldn't be, because it didn't make sense. It led to paradoxes.

For other philosophers there were other ways of looking at the question. If we consider the sentence, “The ball is red,” (and assume it to be true) what's real? The ball? Red? Most modern people would, I think, answer that the ball is real. It's a physical object, it has measurable properties, it can be poked. All of that points to real for a lot of people. Red, on the other hand, is just a concept.

But some people give a different answer. The ball, after all, is ephemeral. Maybe at this time tomorrow it won't be red, maybe it won't be a ball. It is subject to change and destruction and the only thing that we can say about it for sure is that it's not likely to remain as it is for very long. Probably hasn't been this way for long either. (As Mr. Squid said to Mr. Sperm, “You were not here, you know, scarcely a billion years ago.”)

Red, on the other hand, is by definition eternal and unchanging. If all red things should be destroyed, that doesn't harm the concept. If the concept should be forgotten, that doesn't change the concept. If the meaning of the word should change, that doesn't alter the concept because what we mean by red (right here, right now) will always be what we meant by red in this time and space. It may be differently labeled, or forgotten, or recategorized, but the concept as it exists now will always be as it exists now. If a year from now people should mean something different when they think “Red” that doesn't change the concept because the fact that they're thinking something different means it is a different concept they're thinking about. That's what “different” means in this context.

So some people concluded that the idea “Red” was more real than the ball. The ball partakes in and approximates the underlying reality that is red. Or something like that, other people can explain it better.

The same would be true if I had used the balliness of the ball. Under this way of looking at things a red rubber ball is an imperfect expression of the underlying really real ideals of red, rubber, and ball.

Anyway, I bring all of this up because the answer to Mimiru's question very much depends on what's really real. BT is going to give one answer, Bear will give the opposite. Their disagreement is predicated on their different answers to the question of what is really real.

So, is it possible for someone to be unable to log out?

BT: No way. Because... the question is, can you stay logged in? People have to go to work or school, and sleep as well. Even if you can't log out, all you need to do is reset your terminal.

This is a perfectly reasonable answer. We can even add to it. You have to eat and drink, for example.

BT assumes that what's really real is the real world. And why not? It's called the real world ffs. Surely the name itself is all the proof that we need that that's where we should be basing our answer.

So in the real world this is all just a computer game. Step away from the computer, you step away from the game. If your parents come in and say, “Off to school with you,” then you're going to have to log out. If you refuse, they'll yank the power and you'll be out. If you stop going to work, what happens then? Assuming that food and drink aren't a problem for you, eventually not paying your bills will catch up with you and when your power or internet bill isn't paid the service being cut will kick you from the game.

That's if you're trying to stay logged in, if you're not then as BT suggests, you could just pull the plug. That was Mimiru's idea as well.

If the real world is the only real thing, then the game is just something on the internet you connect to via your computer. Cut the connection and you've separated from the game. Simple as can be.

BT first thinks about the real world concerns that would pull one away from the game, then she thinks about what is necessary to separate from it, assuming that it is just what it appears to be from a real world perspective.

Bear has a different perspective.

Bear: What if one couldn't reset the the terminal?
BT: Huh?
Bear: What if the main body... in front of the terminal... is lost?

This is already a massive difference from an earth-only perspective because if you assume that the so-called real world is the whole of what is real then that's already impossible. The game is not The Matrix, to play you need control of your body because you need to operate the controls with your hands.

BT doesn't address that difference in perspective, and instead continues to look at it from the same perspective as before.

BT: Either way, resetting should be possible. Someone simply has to turn of the power. Who does it is not an issue.

Again, this is a completely reasonable thing for her to say. It should be true. If you look at how the game physically works, cut the power and one isn't playing anymore. It also happens to be wrong.

We know that what's happening with Tsukasa transcends what should be possible because he can experience things never programmed into the game. The most obvious example being pain. BT doesn't know that and has no reason to suspect it.

Bear isn't convinced by this, and BT asks for an explanation. This is when we get to Bear's metaphysics.

Bear: A long time ago when we didn't have games that everyone could play together I played an RPG with a character that saves the world from evil. Whenever I got in a bad situation, I simply pushed the “reset” button. But when I did, this thought always crossed my mind. I wondered what happened to the world I reset.
BT: But...
Bear: It's only a delusion. But thoughts turn into reality. So the world I abandoned by resetting might be engulfed by evil. I get the feeling that it's not just a matter of turning on and off your terminal.

What the subtitles translate as, “a delusion,” the dub translates as, “a virtual world,” that might be a useful thing to keep in mind.

Anyway, Bear isn't in the position of someone who says that the ball isn't real, but he does appear to be in a place where reality includes things one cannot poke. He accepts that the real world is indeed real, but he also allows for the possibility that there is more to reality than that. The World (the game) is a program on a computer, but it might also be something else, and just separating yourself from the computer program might not be enough to separate yourself from that something else.

This is where the allegory of the cave becomes somewhat useful.

The game world is an expression of an idea, but it isn't a complete expression of that idea and certainly is not perfect. There was an idea of what The World would be, and various people worked together on the development team of the game to construct an approximation of that idea. They couldn't build an actual world, so instead they did what they could on computer. The result falls short of the idea in various ways.

For one thing, whether you're there or not depends on whether your computer is on, I somehow don't think that the world the developers thought up in their imagination was one where people could simply disappear if there was a power outage on earth. For another it's incomplete. It has depth and color, but not smell or tactile sensation. All sorts of limitations would be placed on the game, technology, and the amount of time that could be spent on development, and what is marketable, and so on.

What results, the game everyone is playing, is a mere shadow of the idea. But the idea can be gleaned from that shadow. When your character is harmed you know the idea is that it hurts, even though it causes you no pain, for example. When you're surrounded by snow, you know the idea is probably that it is cold****, even though you don't feel cold.

But while everyone else is interacting with shadows, Tsukasa has somehow ended up interacting with the things casting those shadows. He's interacting with the substance of the idea. For everyone else it's just a projection, an illusion, for him it's real. While everyone else is stuck looking at shadows on the wall, he's become trapped in the place where those shadows originate. He's still in the cave, but he's in the part of the cave where the actual objects are.

Tsukasa isn't trapped in a game on a computer. He's trapped in the ideal of the game. He hasn't been in contact with a computer since he became trapped, and all of BT's objections don't apply to him because he's operating on an entirely different level.

Mimiru: That guy... I wonder if he's in trouble.

That depends on what you mean by that. Overall, yes, absolutely. Deep, deep almost unrelenting trouble. Plus he's in a coma. At this specific moment, no. He's actually pretty good. Moments like this are the reason that “unrelenting” above was preceded by “almost.” What's more, he's about to get some really good advice. Oddly enough, he'll get it from a source that has the opposite of his best interest in mind.


* What are some associations for that name? For me it's Latin. Aura means a wind or breeze. It's also the plural of gold and very close to the word for ear which allows for some impressive punning. Of course it also happens to be an English word, and given the scattering of English throughout the series, perhaps those should be the meanings one looks to.

Anyway, using her name doesn't seem as perception changy as using DVL's name.

** Which turned out to be overkill in that case, for reasons I'll describe when I get there. Tsukasa was still right about the answer to the question but, because of things he was wrong about, it wasn't nearly as absurd a thing to ask as he thought it was.

*** As near as I can tell, there's an error in the dub and the subtitles here. They're talking in the grassy place above the clouds/mist/fog which is a root town of a server. The root town of the server Tsukasa is on is Mac Anu, the place that looks like Venice. So they're on a different server than Tsukasa. Yet Bear says, in the subtitles, that Tsukasa must be somewhere, “on this server” when he should have said, “on that server,” and the dub increases the error by making it, “here, on this server.”

**** Though that isn't always true. Today there was plenty of snow on the ground, but it was warm.



  1. I just wanted to notify you that ironically I just started my own .hack//SIGN rewatch after so many years, considering that this show was a huge formative influence on my life as a young teen and is pretty much the anime that got me into anime. I just happened to stumble across this blog and it's wonderful, and I really like your thoughts! So expect to hear from me soon as well :)

    On another note, what do you think about the transition of scenes very quickly from one 'random' scene to another? I was watching the first couple of episodes and I personally find it fascinating that the show, instead of delving into Tsukasa's storyline as the prime and constant POV of the story, rather takes a branched view and goes into 'segments' instead. It's also interesting because we never really see how Bear and B.T and/or Mimiru technically ~meet~ but they end up chatting together and talking about Tsukasa. Rather than it being mindless gossip though, it's very realistic conversation, and so we're forced to have this sort of layered opinion on who- or what, rather- Tsukasa is. It reminds me a bit of this Bollywood movie I had seen a couple of years back, called Yuva which followed these stranded, individual storylines that all come to merge at a certain point in the movie. The difference between that and .hack//SIGN however, is the fact that the 'independent' storylines don't focus on the characters- they all revolve around Tsukasa, but hardly vary. I think it's intriguing to have the storyline change from one POV to another, not only so we get a more detailed account of what's going on in the first place, as well as skewed information and perception of the characters- which ties back to the idea of what we determine as real and true in front of us- but it also allows for some really fantastic development of the characters. Just some random thoughts!

    1. The first episode I ever saw was Epitaph (Episode 9). It had two threads running through it. One was The Key of the Twilight, the other was Tsukasa trying to save a grunty. So you'd cut between those two threads, but with the The Key of the Twilight thing you have five people involved.

      So in various scenes we hear from BT, Crim, Subaru, Bear, and Mimiru. They each bring a different perspective to the matter.

      Crim's original solution was to just look for it, since talking about it was getting nowhere. BT tries to go back to the source of the rumor.

      Mimiru looks at it from a fairly straightforward logical perspective. Bear points out that something that seems contradictory at first can actually be consistent, and does it by analogy to biology. He also comes to some of the same information as BT, but from a completely different direction.

      And when BT and Subaru talk about things we also get a certain amount of insight on Crim.

      On top of all that, we've got several different motivations at work. Bear and Mimiru are interested in the Key of the Twilight because of Tsukasa, BT is interested in Tsukasa because of the Key of the Twilight. Crim is interested in The Key of the Twilight because of Subaru and his past history of looking for it. Subaru was originally interested in it because of the larger flow of events which has the potential to change The World and affect all in it, but her interest is increasingly shifting towards "for Tsukasa".

      The same exposition could be carried out from one perspective, but you'd never get so much insight into the various characters without shifting between viewpoints.

      And really I was just talking about the first half of the episode in the above. We also get Sora in the second half. And you have to remember that interspersed through all of that is what Tsukasa is doing.

      So I think that that the viewpoint switching really defines the series, and provides a lot of information that would be lost with a tighter focus on a single viewpoint.