In 2002, a multimodal endeavor from some folks who brought action-based, toy-inspiring creations like Power Rangers and Digimon into the void began a project that would still be going today. Perhaps trying to veer from action figures to video games, knowing that the only way the toy industry would survive technology would be to embrace it, Bandai created a universe that would bring a home to at least one anime series and a series of games to accompany the show.
Project Dot Hack sounds like an ambition created by a fictitious tech conglomerate from which a protagonist must save (what’s left of) the world from, like Resident Evil’s Umbrella or Final Fantasy VII’s Soldier. The universe of Project Dot Hack is an alternate reality of our own. The key difference of this reality is that gaming companies went all in on the 3-D experience in a time when we were all adjusting to 64-bit graphics. “The World,” is a popular Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game that immerses players in a technologically advanced virtual reality.
I remember seeing ads for.Hack//Sign for Toonami’s weekend lineup. It was simply pitched as, “Player Tsukasa can’t log out of the game everyone is playing called The World.” I was so intrigued and watched every weekend until it was moved to time slot late at night.
My intrigue for the show fizzled soon after but was reignited when I saw DVDs of the first few episodes at FYE, but those were expensive so I only saw the first few episodes. I also played the games, .Hack//Infection and .Hack//Mutation for PS2, but did not finish the series, again because of the price of tech.
For the next ten years or so, I watched .Hack//Sign any chance I could, usually staying up late, until I could finish the show in college when I saw that all of the episodes are on Youtube. The more I saw of the show, the more marveled I was. I marveled not just at the story itself, but the fact that the show came out when it did and it was dealing with ideas that the cultures I was a part of had little to no knowledge of. This included, among other things, the first gay couple I ever remember seeing on my screen.
The show is less action-based and more like a soap opera that takes place in an MMO based on medieval aesthetics. It feels more like a Jane Austen novel than Dragon Ball in that some of the scenes won’t take place on screen. I was not mad about it, not all anime needs flashy fighting and characters screaming for 7 episodes in a row. Potentially to save money on budget, many scenes focus on objects are body parts that don’t move, avoiding characters faces while players interact and a plot unfolds.
This lack of action would normally not quench my pallet that is used to pairing movement with beauty, but the slowed-down nature of it all entrenches you in the mystery, and it helps viewers get to know the duel-identities of all the characters. All of which have a “at-home” persona in addition to their game character. Each have their own names, appearances, wants and needs.
If a slowly unfolding plot doesn’t get you going, the show’s soundtrack and score will. Utilizing just as many violins as synthesizers, each episode feels like it could have been written by Hans Zimmer or a co-op of 90s rave lifers.
The MMO Before The Rise of the MMO
Everyone has done the “trapped in an MMO” thing at this point. Sword Art Online is one of the biggest anime out there today, Digimon often entails main characters getting trapped in a digital world, and even the OG characters on Yu-Gi-Oh were stuck in an MMO for a filler arc or two. Amazon’s Upload uses the idea that you can be dead and in an MMO, nearly 20 years after the release of .Hack//Sign. So many of it’s ideas, while not the flashiest or most daring, are still fresh and ahead of their time for a lot of communities. The Dot Hack project has “The World,” and it still seems more fun than most MMOs out currently.
.Hack//Sign added a realistic yet fantastic angle to the trope, which was newly budding at the time because the idea of MMO’s themselves were fresh. Tsukasa (and other players, if you play the games) could not log out because Tsukasa was in a coma. The paradox of being trapped in an extensive game and buried alive in fascinated me when I finally learned the twist. It’s only one reason why .Hack//Sign was ahead of it’s time.
Information Security Ethics
Remember in 2016 when Russians hacked Hilary’s email? This didn’t happen in .hHack//Sign, but it presented its characters and viewers the same ideas back when the US was sporting yellow ribbons on every pole to honor their new war. Who should access personal information? What information are people entitled to? These types of questions yield countless answers, so to see characters grapple with these ideas before the popularization of the word “phising” feels fresher than newly washed sheets hung up outside to dry.
This conflict presents itself in .Hack//Sign when The Crimson Knights, a player-led community in The World video game, receive more and more classified information, in part to help gain information on the whereabouts and situation Tsukasa. After spending time with Tsukasa, who’s still unable to log out, Subaru, the leader of the Knights, decides not to pursue the matter further, even though The World administrators offered information regarding Tsukasa’s account and login info.
This leads to SilverKnight, a board member of the Knights, lying to Subaru and going behind her back, which ultimately causes her disband the organization that has been a staple of The World. According to Subaru, the Knights were not administrators and did not want to be.
As it becomes clearer each day in our own universe that information is power and data is the new natural resource companies are mining for, it’s still refreshing to watch Suburu to set her own boundaries and cut off an avenue for a power-hungry male with a personal vendetta.
The Self Harm Handling
In episode 12: Entanglement, Tsukasa, hiding out in a secret space with a cat humanoid, a sleeping girl in a bed, and a voice that watches over them all, gets hurt. After expressing interest at figuring out how to log out of The World, Tsukasa sees this hidden area overrun with thorns, some of which bind the sleeping girl, Aura, to the bed. Tsukasa tries to free Aura, but ends up hurting their hands in the process, learning that they can feel pain in The World, a virtual reality video game.
While not intentional self-harm, Tsukasa’s narrative has strong ties towards mental health struggles. In parts of the series, Tsukasa is catatonic and feels hopeless. Tsukasa is constantly making plans and cancelling them, calling people selfish and leaving conversations midway through, and crying throughout the series. The character is literally trapped with zero options, so seeing a character grapple with their own mortality while existing only in a digital space among characters being controlled by physical lives is haunting in some ways.
The wounds on Tsukasa’s hands mark the character in a way that hasn’t affected the character yet, or most characters in anime for that matter. Even though Tsukasa was trying to help Aura, the wounds were self inflicted. When Mimiru, Tsukasa’s closest person to a best friend, inquires about the marks, Tsukasa gets quiet and hides them. The conversation gets tense until the subject changes, which many victims of self harm and their allies can relate to.
As Subaru’s character develops, the viewer learns that Subaru plays The World because she doesn’t want anyone taking care of her. She wants to explore The World without anyone pushing her around or getting up in her business. Like many, Subaru plays video games, this MMO in particular, to escape.
Deep into the short series, the viewer sees that Subaru uses a wheelchair to get around and is often assisted by others in day-to-day activities. In 2019, GLAAD reported that of 827 regular characters on TV, 27 had a disability. 3.1%. This data is hopeful because it shows that those numbers are on the rise (even thought it doesn’t mention if the characters’ disabilities are handled well). When .Hack//Sign released, that number was much lower. Subaru’s character matters.
The Gender Dysphoria Thread
You may have noticed that I have avoided pronouns when talking how .Hack//Sign’s protagonist, Tsukasa, asid from one “they.” This was a conscious effort by me, because at this point, I’m not sure how Tsukasa identifies at this point in time.
The character Tsukasa is a boy character and uses he/him pronouns. The real life Tsukasa is a bit more complex. It is hinted that Tsukasa was a girl that was raised like a boy by an abusive father. Tsukasa’s gender and sex are questioned by most of the characters, some of them even treated the duel-identity like a bad thing.
This would not fly in 2020 and beyond in most circles. I tell myself that, but then I remember #gamergate and how little has changed in gaming/in our world, so the characters that say something along the lines of, “it doesn’t matter who you see yourself as, I want to be your friend,” is still kind of groundbreaking.
Queer Love That Transcends Gender and Reality
When Tsukasa finally does manage to log out, they find Subaru, being pushed in her chair. Upon seeing each other, all they can do is embrace. This relationship, lesbian at the surface, and nuanced, nonbinary love at its core, is one of those romances you only see once in a generation. It’s a moment of payoff that makes the emotional weight of the show worth every figurative ounce.
Representation matters, and as someone who took years to finish the show, their romance was so magical to me. I finished the series 7–8 years after it released. Even then, gay representation was so few and far. In the media I chose to consume, there weren’t gay couples. The show may have been moved to nighttime because of this explicit love, which is sad to think about, especially when you remember that George Bush won an election in 2004 due to the weaponization of gay marriage. Seeing Tsukasa and Subaru embrace eachother in The World and IRL, a courage started growing in me that may or may not have existed prior to .Hack//Sign.
The two make cameos in future Dot Hack projects, but their love, sequestered to late-night time slots by Cartoon Network, paved the way for the complex queer relationships in animated series that followed .Hack//Sign, like in Adventure Time and Steven Universe. Tsukasa and Subaru, however, seeing past the binary code that built the game and the culture they were raised in, hold a special place in the hearts of cult followers in countries, ages, differently-abled bodies, and digital spaces across the globe.