I made a meme image of how wrong my expectations were: I'd somehow gotten the impression it was "plucky regular kid gets stuck in weird online game, goes on generic fantasy adventures trying to get free" story, but it was in fact "weird kid gets stuck in (mostly) regular online game, everyone else tries to persude him that being stuck in an game is WEIRD AND BAD but he tells them to get lost". The MMO (massively multiplayer online game, like World of Warcraft) setting is used to give everything an air of fantasy, but the only people who talk like fantasy characters are pretentious roleplayers, death is an inconvenience, and people have to log off to do homework etc. It's not a fantasy story using an MMO as a gimmick, it's actually about playing MMOs, and the way online games and communities can be important to people. There is some very late 90s/early 2000s-ish WEIRD METAPHORICAL SCIFI STUFF, and some odd choices about what to show and what to imply, but unlike most weird 90s/early 2000s anime it all makes a moderate amount of sense in the end and even more after reading some wiki pages. And the characters! I love them all, even the annoying or antagonistic ones.
A note about the episode structure because it confused me a LOT: the first 25 episodes are the main arc and end rather suddenly in the conclusion of the story. Episode 26 is a flashback to a relatively minor event in one of the character's backstories that is only important for metaphorical reasons. Then there's two OVAs: "Episode 27" is a summary clip show. "Episode 28" is an epilogue to all the .hack stories, not only the .hack//sign anime but a bunch of games and manga and stuff. So it's got a bunch of characters I didn't recognise, and talked about stuff I didn't understand, but the stuff with the .hack//sign characters made a moderate amount of sense and worked as a cute happy epilogue.
Now the MAJOR SPOILERS I was told before I watched it which made me more enthusiastic. If you're already planning on watching the show then don't click!
So the main character Tsukasa wakes up with holes in "his" memory, unable to log out, knowing only that he is playing this game and that he doesn't want to go back to his real life. But it turns out Tsukasa's memory is more faulty than they thought: they're actually a cis girl offline. If you squint you could read them as non binary or a trans man, though it would require some reading against the text. The nice thing is NOBODY REALLY CARES when they find out. "Why is Tsukasa trapped in the game?" is universally considered more important than "what gender is Tsukasa?".
INCLUDING by her love interest Suburu WHO IS A GIRL IN A WHEELCHAIR OFFLINE. And that fact isn't a big deal either! She's a bit Sad Anime Wheelchair Girl but still a fully realised person, and her disability is again seen as a pretty minor character trait and Tsukasa in particular doesn't care. AND THEY GET TOGETHER AND LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER AND DON'T DIE. There's no kisses or explicit declarations of love but it is very much a romantic arc, though it's a little underwritten.
For a while I thought the disabled one was the energetic girl Tsukasa befriends first but alas no. Still, I can't think of a better wheelchair using character in anime, Suburu may have the Generic Wheelchair Girl Personality of passive niceness but at least she gets to do things. Including getting a girlfriend :D
And yes ".hack//sign" is a rather silly name, and I'm always worried it's going to break something when I use it as a tag. LET'S FIND OUT.
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