".hack//QUANTUM": Hackery Down to Its Smallest Constituent Part

My first suspicion that .hack//QUANTUM was going to live down to its name–hackery down to its smallest possible constituent parts–came in the opening credits, which inform the viewer that it is “Based on ‘.hack’ series by .hack CONGLOMERATE.” Never mind the presenter’s “Engulf and Devour”-like name. How much room could there be for personal, idiosyncratic, creative vision in a product that is avowedly authored by a conglomerate? Maybe a quantum’s worth, if even that.

ImageStill, to start with the bright side: This OVA is so dismally predictable and instantaneous to grasp that anyone can dive right into it without knowing anything about the source material. It takes place in a not-too-distant future where virtual reality technology has progressed to the point that immersive MMORPGs really are immersive, and players run the risk of being captured within them. The MMORPG in question is a World of Warcraft-like game–and so creatively impoverished is this show that the game is called The World–and the protagonists are three high school girls who discover that its addictive qualities really might be unbreakable. Players are slipping into mysterious comas, and when one of our trio falls victim, the others must cooperate with a real-world investigator to find out who is behind the scheme, and why.

Events take place on two levels. In the boring normal world, Asumi, Eri and Iori having nothing better to do than go to school and do homework and worry about exams, so it’s not much of a surprise that they prefer the faux-medieval trappings of The World, where they can run around in scanty costumes–for the viewer’s benefit more than their own, you suspect–and have fun … Well, doing what? The OVA opens with them on a dungeon crawl that climaxes with them facing off against an enormous dragon, but never once in the story is there any sense of what you’re supposed to do in The World. Sometimes the girls pick up bright and shiny objects, and some players engage in ginormous, forest-encompassing melee battles, but most of the time they just seem to hang around market stalls or run around being chased by thugs. Maybe the writers just assume that MMORPG players will supply the deficiency by reading their own kind of adventures into the background, but it’s a poor sort of story that asks the viewer to invent reasons for visiting a setting.

Most of the action and drama have to do with the real world plot, but it’s MacGuffins all the way down. In the initial fight, Asumi picks up an item belonging to a mysterious little cat boy, and said cat boy then spends most of the rest of the OVA trying to get it back because it contains data he needs in order to find a donor in the real world to save someone’s life. The cat boy is also connected to the players whose souls (apparently) are being sucked into the game, but it appears that he’s just someone else’s catspaw (who, exactly, is never revealed) in that scheme. The girls, meanwhile, are trying to solve the mystery of the comas. It all ends happily, I suppose, but only in a way that returns everyone to their starting points without really being the wiser for having spent a lot of time running around. .hack//QUANTUM doesn’t exactly suffer from an idiot plot, but everyone could have spared themselves a lot of hurly-burly if they’d only sat down and told each other what they were all up to and what they all knew. The plot’s murkiness on several key points seems to serve only as an excuse to keep them from having just that kind of enlightening conversation.

ImageSince the plot is nothing special, everything comes to depend on the characters. This would be fine–most really good action stories are only excuses to hang out with cool and charismatic types–if there was anyone worth caring about. But they’re all stereotypes. Asumi is the squeaky-voiced ditz who has enthusiasm the way some people have wild Appaloosa ponies; Iori is the sensible one who tends toward “too cool for school” faux-nihilism; Eri is the one in the middle who is defined solely by not dwelling at the extremes of the other two; and Reiko Saeki is the hard-as-titanium real-world investigator whose thankless job it is to corral the other three out-of-control kittens. I recommend the sub over the dub if for no other reason than to avoid the way its English-voice actors relentlessly nail the stereotypes into place.

Animation work is pretty good, falling just below theatrical quality in many places; design work is strong enough, even if it’s just a lot of half-naked elves and other clichés.

Despite .hack//QUANTUM‘s overall uselessness, .hack fans may get something out of it, but as a standalone advertisement for the franchise, I doubt it will win many converts.

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