By Randy Thompson / March 20th, 2013
At oprainfall, we strive to bring you the best news and content related to niche gaming and related hobbies, like anime. All these are forms of media that we find enjoyable and want to share with others. But there are some stories, some experiences, that bleed into other media forms. One franchise explodes across so many media channels that it’s mind-boggling and, at times, can seem completely overwhelming. But no matter how you get into it, you’re generally guaranteed to enjoy yourself and certainly going to walk away from it with more questions than answers. I speak, of course, of .hack (pronounced “dot hack”).
.hack started out as an experimental project that brought the stars of the animation industry in Japan together to create a phenomenon that spread across anime, games, manga, light novels, and more—all with the express purpose of delivering an immersive story. These stars included Kazunori Ito—screenplay writer for Ghost in the Shell, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Dirty Pair, etc.—Yoshiyuki Sadamoto—founder of GAINAX and character designer for Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL, Summer Wars, etc.—and Koichi Mashimo—director of Noir, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Madlax, etc.
These three industry giants brought their expertise together to create .hack‘s dynamite world and characters and shake up the anime, gaming, and manga worlds in 2002. Their approach yielded a story with so many parts to lose oneself in, each full of countless details to drink in and new information to uncover. Each fragment deepened the story of every part, and every part, in turn, deepened the story as a whole.
While their roles and involvement in the franchise changed as time went on, in this first part, I want to address what’s known as “Project .hack,” the original series of media, where Ito, Sadamoto, and Mashimo came together and worked with all their fervor. This rundown will include many segments of the Project .hack story, some in detail, some only mentioned in passing. It will also follow the story’s chronology as opposed to the release order. I will also refrain from exposing spoilers to each entry, so if you’re new to .hack but are looking into jumping into the franchise, you can read this and still enjoy the many twists and surprises later.
(Editor’s note: Double forward slashes in the title of a .hack installment serve the same purpose as a colon.)
.hack//AI Buster [Light Novel]
AI Buster is one of the earliest stories of CyberConnect Corporation’s MMORPG The World, the most popular, and only, online game in the year 2009. We meet Albireo, a system administrator of The World charged with debugging the system, which we find, as the story of .hack goes on, is quite a huge undertaking. Along his travels, he meets a vagrant AI named Lycoris. Not realizing that she is what others would call a glitch in the system, he helps her regain her functions, including hearing, eyesight, and so on, believing her to be some sort of event character.
As time goes on, Albireo realizes that Lycoris is an AI in search of another AI, one she calls her mother. Something is obviously very strange about The World, as these AI characters exist outside of the regular parameters of the game. They feel so alive, possessing an uncanny sense of individuality. Everything comes to a head when Albireo, realizing who Lycoris is, must make a choice between his true feelings and his duties as a system administrator.
There are two volumes of AI Buster. The preceding story takes place in the first volume, while the second is a collection of short stories following multiple characters and their interactions with other AI. One such story details a meeting between Albireo and .hack//SIGN protagonist Tsukasa.
The first volume is absolutely excellent and is one of my favorite entries in the entire franchise. The character development and how the plot unfolds is magnificent. Coming off of beating the games and seeing SIGN, I was very satisfied with learning about events before either of those later entries. Volume two, while intriguing and giving us a look at many familiar characters you have met in other entries, isn’t as engrossing and can easily be skipped with little lost.
.hack//SIGN [TV series]
A story that happens shortly after the events of AI Buster volume one, SIGN follows a loner Wavemaster (mage) named Tsukasa, who comes to The World to escape the player’s harsh reality outside the game. Tsukasa stumbles upon a strange power that gives him a monster to summon at his command, a function not available to any class in the game. The monster has the ability to wreak havoc on the game—as well as any players it attacks.
Unfortunately, while the game has bestowed upon him this power, he is also unable to log out from the game. While this should be an easy thing to handle by simply unplugging the game terminal, Tsukasa doesn’t have a terminal in front of him. He is trapped in The World. Tsukasa draws the attention of the Crimson Knights, a guild that seeks to keep balance in The World and keep the game fun and safe for all players. Seeing Tsukasa as a hacked player, they seek to put a stop to him. Tsukasa piques many players’ interest; they follow him either to help him and his player, who seems to have fallen into a coma, or out of curiosity as to why these events are occurring in an MMO.
SIGN is one of those series that people will either genuinely love for its character interaction and mysterious ambiance or will hate because of the slow-moving plot and lack of action for a series taking place in an MMO. One of the best parts of this series is the music, with the pacing and presentation of the show really giving it a chance to shine. The music is composed by none other than one of my favorite Japanese composers, Yuki Kajiura (My-HiME, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, Sword Art Online). Here, she channels a Celtic vibe, matching the mythology and setting of The World, and it just brings the whole thing to life. Yes, the series is slow-paced, and I feel like more action could have been incorporated. Regardless, SIGN is a wonderful entry. Should someone look into getting into more .hack, I would recommend it. This is where we learn much about the ultimate AI, Aura, and her origin, as well as a number of other plot points and character origins for later down the road.
.hack//ZERO [Light Novel]
ZERO is a follow-up to SIGN that centers around a new character named Carl, her meetings with Sora (a character from SIGN), and the mysteries behind his strange nature, particularly about Sora’s fate at the end of SIGN. Curiously there is only one volume of ZERO, even though said volume is labeled “Volume One.” Apparently, this story was dropped inexplicably.
This title was never brought outside Japan. Consequently, I have not read ZERO and can make no comment on or review this entry.
.hack//Games (Infection, Mutation, Outbreak, and Quarantine) [PS2 Games]
The main gems of the .hack franchise are, without a doubt, the games of each generation. Developed by CyberConnect2 (not to be confused with the in-universe CyberConnect Corporation), this is where the meat of the plot occurs and often where the actual resolution to all the previous entries takes place. They can be played as the only entries of the series, as they do a good job of explaining the finer points of events leading up to this point, but the experience, as with any part of the franchise, is enriched the more you watch, read, and play.
What fans affectionately call “.hack//Games” are essentially one game divided onto four different discs that tell one cohesive tale. Think of it like if Squaresoft had sold you Final Fantasy VII in three individual parts at full price instead of including all three discs in one set. Is it a huge money grab? Most certainly, but with the multi-media approach that publisher Bandai took for this franchise, these had to recoup much of the costs. The amount of content included in each package certainly was a great incentive not to pick up pitchforks and raid the company for doing such a thing. Each game comes with a separate DVD containing an episode of .hack//Liminality, an OVA that happens concurrently with the games, along with some extras.
The games—.hack//Infection, .hack//Mutation, .hack//Outbreak, and .hack//Quarantine—take place six months after the events of SIGN. Kite, a newcomer player, joins in an adventure with his friend Orca, who is actually a pretty big deal in The World. On their first adventure, they come across Aura, who is running from a mysterious monster in a dungeon. Following her down the dungeon, both Kite and Orca are attacked by the monster, Skeith. Orca stands no chance and is Data Drained. Data Drain is an ability that rewrites data in the game and has a terrible effect on human players.
Orca falls into a coma. Kite is saved by Helba, a mysterious hacker. Later, Aura grants Kite a special item so that he can protect her and save The World. This item, the Twilight Bracelet, allows Kite to use Data Drain himself, as well as hack various parts of the system. A long journey lies ahead of him as he searches for a way to protect Aura and awaken his friend, as well as multiple other players, from their comatose state.
The four games are a huge undertaking. My first playthrough of all four clocked in at over 100 hours of questing and plot driving. There is a huge cast of characters for you to meet and recruit in your quest to help everyone. You’ll learn of their personal connections to The World and who they are in the real world. The combat, even for its time, was clunky and dragged out, but the game and world were charming, and the story was one mystery after another. Playing the games as they came out while watching SIGN as it played weekly on television was an amazing experience. The two intertwined back and forth to help you understand who was who and where and why some things occurred.
While Infection, Mutation, Outbreak, and Quarantine are integral to the overall story of the entire franchise, said clunky combat could be a huge hindrance for newcomers. (Hell, without a basic understanding of the main protagonist, Kite, you’ll be confused as to why so many characters in later installments are running around with teal hair and a bright orange suit.) It’s an odd blend of free movement while fighting and having to pause the action and select every move via a menu. It may be a chore, but yes, the games are certainly something any .hack fan will want to have under their belt. But if worse comes to worse, I’m sure one could find a playthrough of the game or all of the plot points on YouTube. Better yet, the special edition of the first game in the second generation of .hack comes with a disc that breaks down each of the four games into a simplified, easily digested video series.
.hack//Liminality [OVA series]
Liminality is a four-part OVA series, each part bundled with each game entry. The story details a small group that works in the real world to uncover the secrets behind CC Corp., how The World can affect the real world, and a way to help everyone in comas. The group is an odd bunch headed by a former CC Corp. employee who rounds up three high-school girls who have personally had close encounters with problems in The World.
Liminality was a very enjoyable series and certainly a good pack-in with the games, giving us another facet of the .hack story and enriching the experience. However, I can’t help but look back and feel like it didn’t do much to further the overall story of what was happening to our main protagonist, Kite, who did the actual footwork in The World. Without spoiling too much, the Liminality group does help out during the final battle in their own way. The story is basically there to fill in any story tidbits that aren’t shown to players of the games. If you’re playing through the games, then it wouldn’t make sense to skip this OVA series, but if you’re looking for something special without playing the games, this can be skipped.
Despite the number of Xs in the title, no, this is not an adult-only entry. .hack//XXXX is the story of the games repurposed as a manga. Some things are changed, and a character is changed drastically from its appearance in the games, but the overall plot is intact.
Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure of reading through this series and thus cannot give my personal thoughts on it.
.hack//Another Birth [Light Novel]
Similar to XXXX, Another Birth retells the events of the games, but from the point of view of BlackRose, one of the main characters, as she works together with Kite to bring her little brother out of his coma.
BlackRose was an interesting character throughout the games. Seeing her get plenty of spotlight and learning more about her real-world self is a nice way to redigest the games and certainly worth a read for both players and non-players alike. Another Birth skips some plot points, as BlackRose was not always present for everything throughout the story, but you’ll never feel lost or like you missed out on something huge.
.hack//Legend of the Twilight [Manga]
This entry in the series is an odd duck, as all the previous installments occur, in-universe, between 2009 and 2010, while Legend of the Twilight takes place four years later, in 2014, with only a small amount of character cross-over from previous entries. This story follows Shugo and Rena, two siblings who win a contest that gives them exclusive character models of Kite and BlackRose from the “Twilight Incident” four years ago. During their adventures, Shugo runs into Aura, who gives him Kite’s bracelet, declaring him to be “the chosen one, the one destined to carry on the legend of the dot hackers.” Shugo and Rena later stumble upon the vagrant AI Zefie, the daughter of Aura, who is being chased by the Cobalt Knights, a team of system administrators in The World charged with eliminating system anomalies and maverick programs. What’s worse is that the leader of the Cobalt Knights is Albireo’s old subordinate, who takes her job very seriously.
Legend of the Twilight is even more curious in that the manga had an anime adaptation that diverged partway through from the original manga’s story and is officially non-canon to the rest of the franchise. Both are enjoyable, as they are more fun and lighthearted romps through The World than we are used to, but can be seen as the black sheep of the series, as they hold little value in the overall plot of the franchise. It works well as a standalone entry by being so different and not requiring in-depth knowledge of SIGN, the games, or other parts of the story. Longtime lovers of the ambiance and mystery of all the other segments of .hack, though, may find it lackluster in comparison.
There is one other entry that I want to address, and that is .hack//Epitaph of Twilight. This was a two-volume light novel series that is, perhaps, the earliest story in the in-universe chronology of the franchise. .hack//Epitaph of Twilight features the niece of The World’s creator, Harald Hoerwick, who gets trapped in the game, at this time in beta and entitled Fragment. The novels were written and released long after Project .hack came to a close and even after the second generation of .hack had wrapped up. They have not been released outside Japan. Being the earliest segment of .hack‘s history, I am very interested in the details of this story, but we will have to see if—wishful thinking—someone picks it up for distribution in the United States.
That wraps up this first installment of my overview of the .hack franchise, covering all the major stories that made up the first generation of .hack. While there are some loose entries that were not covered here—such as the failed online multiplayer action RPG frägment, the card game ENEMY, or the mobile phone entry MOBILE—I hope you’ve found this installment interesting. And if you’re a longtime lover of .hack, maybe you even learned something new!
I’d love to hear what you all think of .hack in the comments. Were there parts that you loved that I didn’t find all too interesting? Were there parts I loved that you think newcomers can do without? Or are you new to this whole series and have questions? Please let me know down below and look forward to the next installment!
.hack.hack//AI BusteranimeJRPGmangaPlaystation 2