The first show I watched as it was broadcast in Japan, .hack//SIGN was part of a multimedia experiment spanning TV anime, OVAs, manga and videogames with a shared universe - a fictional MMO named The World - and long-form stories that fed into each other to varying degrees. .hack//SIGN was the first part of the franchise, although the PS2 games (offline single-player JRPGs, rather than actual online games) are probably more well-known in the UK.
I remember sitting up until two or three in the morning, waiting for the torrents to finish so I could see the newly-fansubbed episode. I wasn't even engaging with any other fans on forums, reading and sharing theories about what was happening in the show. I was just obsessed with it, desperate to find out how it ended. Now, 13 years later, I can't even remember the ending.
I've never managed to rewatch it though, until now. I tried, when the UK DVD release first came out, but I couldn't even finish the first disc. What had somehow been so engaging in 2002 just seemed tedious and boring. The show is stubbornly paced, dripping character and plot information over the first several episodes.
I'm now six or seven episodes into my second proper viewing and the glacial progression of plot isn't as frustrating as I found it a few years ago - I'm appreciating the importance of showing how The World operates and how its players approach their time there, but a few things are sticking out as bizarre.
There appears to be zero administrator presence in the game. The closest thing to a moderation team would be the Crimson Knights, a hardcore RP guild inexplicably led by low-level axe-wielding mage Subaru. They appear to have contact with the game's operator and even mention getting access to server logs for their investigations, but appear to have no enforceable power over players.
Of course, since there seem to be next to no players anyway, maybe they just make up enough of a majority to do as they please. Most of the game's areas seen in the show appear to be abandoned; you'll occasionally see a couple of players walk past a main character, but it's rare even at what look to be spawn points. The "Aqua Capital", the only urban area shown, is sparsely populated, and at least some of the people you see must be NPCs anyway.
Something I've noticed recently is my tendency to reimagine shows I'm watching - trying to figure out what the core idea or theme of the series is, and how you'd reshape the rest of it to work as a live-action film or TV show, that might appeal to someone who's not interested in the animated version. These thought experiments have varied results, from realising that Evangelion is basically unadaptable, to wondering how a mainstream audience would react to a GATE series that's basically Game of Thrones meets Generation Kill.
But it's also resulted in my trying to come up with a back story for The World; how it would end up in a place where the company running the game appears broadly uninterested in what's happening to its players, and why there are so few of them anyway.
My headcanon, as it stands, is that the game's been running for years and its popularity is fading. The only people left are high-level players with established friendships, and solo players like Tsukasa using it to escape real life and be alone. The developer has all but abandoned development and moderation, allowing the Crimson Knights to police the userbase. Rumours of hidden items and players unable to log out are being dismissed as forum jokes or creepypasta.
I'm hoping to get all the way through .hack//SIGN again, but I'm already feeling the fatigue starting to set in. Fingers crossed my curiosity about the ending keeps me going, even if we never find out why The World is still running.