We’ve talked a good bit about the .hack//GU remaster and what makes the series so special, and that post got a fair amount of traction. However, it also meant I’ve been fielding the question, “won’t I be lost in this story?” quite a bit. Thankfully, as I mentioned in the last post, the individual story stands on its own. However, there is a lot of nuance to be gained by digging deep into the story, and the shared world of .hack spans across not only games, but novels, anime, manga, and movies. Its density can be very daunting, but luckily the .hack//GU Last Recode release includes the Terminal Disc, a story summary that covers just about everything that came before the GU series. But y’know, some people don’t feel like watching an hour or more of videos before digging into the game. Some people would like to get started early. Some people just prefer reading to writing.
Well, I’m happy to oblige. What follows is a brief history of the .hack universe. I won’t be going as deep as the stories themselves do in the interest of keeping this readable. This should leave you with a good feel for the state of the world of .hack before diving into GU, but I won’t be delving deeply into individual characters and their arcs. But if you want an introduction to the series, well… this is one. This is that thing you asked for.
As you might guess, this contains massive spoilers for the original .hack series and its surrounding works.
Most people remember one of two pieces of media when they think of the original .hack series: either the anime series .hack//sign or the original game series, starting with vol. 1, Infection:
These make up the bulk of the narrative around an event known as the Second Network Crisis within the world of .hack, with the games making up the focal point of this section of the story. While these events mostly get you the context for the GU series, there’s a bit to know about the setting that’ll ensure this whole complex situation makes sense.
While the pertinent .hack story really gets going with the release of in-fiction MMO The World in the distant-future year of 2007, the technology of the world is already a bit more complex than what we have today. Thanks to advances by the Altmit Corporation, creators of the ALTMIT OS, the world runs unified on the same platform and every device is connected to the same platform infrastructure. Think Apple, Microsoft, and Google saying “fuck it,” joining forces, and taking over the entire internet. Normally such a colossal monopoly wouldn’t be possible. Of course, that’s assuming a massive security vulnerability doesn’t kick off a nightmarish event like Pluto’s Kiss, the first Network Crisis.
In 2005, a kid from LA released a network virus that hit every networked device in the world. Planes crashed, traffic lights died, and the questionable decision of the US government to leave their nuclear launch controls on an open network came back to bite them as they came close to launching a worldwide armageddon.
ALTMIT was the only OS unaffected by the virus, and in little more than a year its legendary stability led to it becoming an internationally mandated standard. Altmit Corporation got paid.
This is the state of the world we’re dropped into. The events of .hack focus around the aforementioned MMO The World, a VR game that’s taken over as the most popular game in the world. Originally created by a single man regrettably named Harald Hoerwick, The World started as a beta MMO called Fragment. Harald based this game off of a fictional epic poem, Epitaph of Twilight by Emma Wielant. After completing this game single-handedly, he sold it to a game company called CC Corp for dirt cheap. CC Corp tested the game both internally and with a handful of external testers. While the testing was considered a success, the test was cut early and the game was repackaged as the full game The World. Rumors were that the original game killed some folks, but that doesn’t seem super likely. Let’s proceed to completely ignore that point forever.
Of course, a single genius programmer selling a completed game for a song just screams “GIANT FREAKING CATCH” and sure enough, Fragment was not created simply to make money and spread joy. Sitting in a black box in the code was the incubation chamber for a new breed of evolving AI. Having used the code for Fragment wholesale in the creation of The World (because let’s be honest, you’re not just gonna throw that hard work away because of some rumors) the black box persisted and was uploaded to the greater network.
As you can no doubt already tell, this will all end well.
As the AI, eventually known as Aura, needed oversight to evolve into the true Ultimate AI, Harald included a system known as Morganna Mode Gone. A lesser AI based on the personality of Harald’s own mother, Morganna’s purpose was to nurture Aura to maturity. While slavishly loyal to her initial programming of raising Aura, before the story takes place she realizes that this would render her purposeless after Aura was brought to maturity. The only way for her to survive with purpose was to stall the development of Aura indefinitely. As such she becomes the main antagonist of the series, going to extreme lengths to both follow her programming and to survive herself. While Morganna is without a physical form, she manifests through actions and actors on her behalf, as well as occasional vessels she can inhabit.
This is pretty much where we’re at when we pick up one of the more well known bits of the .hack universe, .hack//SIGN.
.hack//SIGN takes place before the original games, telling the story of perennial sadboy Tsukasa. Tsukasa’s gotten a bit of a rough deal. In real life a high school girl with a dead mom and abusive father, she adopts a male avatar in The World to distance herself as much as possible from her real life. Left despising more or less everyone and everything, all Tsukasa desires is to live in The World, unattached but unharmed. Morganna sees an opportunity to stop Aura’s development, conspiring to tie Aura’s growth to Tsukasa and allowing the latter to corrupt the former. Morganna’s first step is trapping Tsukasa in the game, and if you thought we were dealing with a lot of proper nouns before, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
See, the Epitaph of Twilight, though never fully transcribed in fiction, plays deeply into the plot of .hack. We see bits and pieces, and hear references to important concepts and passages that are recreated within Harald’s world. Perhaps the most relevant of these is the Cursed Wave, a malevolent force that comes in 8 phases to destroy the world. Morganna, having full knowledge of the Epitaph, begins to fragment pieces of herself as she malfunctions to recreate these phases as servants to do her work within The World. While each has its moment in the story, perhaps the most interesting (and certainly the most relevant to SIGN) is Macha, the Temptress.
Morganna sends Macha, a friendly and mischievous cat-like avatar, to befriend Tsukasa, eventually leading him to the bottom of a dungeon and performing a Data Drain on him. This strips away excess character data. When used on a monster within The World, it can severely weaken it. When used on a human, it sends them into a coma. This becomes a focus of the series, but Tsukasa’s case is a bit special. While his real life counterpart does fall into a coma, Tsukasa remains, trapped in the game. Morganna further tipped the scales in her favor, altering Tsukasa’s memories to believe he’s actually male and forcing him to focus on the memories of his father. This made an already despondent Tsukasa even more miserable, increasing the potential for him to corrupt Aura and permanently freeze her awakening.
In order to keep Tsukasa safe, Morganna also grants him a creepy ooze-like guardian buddy and the ability to teleport freely without the need for a Chaos Gate, the usual teleportation mechanism within The World. These abilities draw attention however, making Tsukasa a target for a number of well-intentioned players including the Crimson Knights. A self-styled police group within the game, they are concerned with the presence of a hacker within the game. This becomes even more concerning as Tsukasa’s guardian displays the ability to perform Data Drain to protect Tsukasa and puts a member of the Knights into a coma.
Tsukasa is not without support within The World, as would-be friends attempt to help Tsukasa get free despite Tsukasa’s best efforts to remain solo. A large portion of the series focuses on these relationships, as Tsukasa’s journey of emotional healing is vital to Aura’s survival. If you’re interested I encourage checking out the series itself. While it’s certainly a slower-paced series, it’s widely regarded as one of the best anime series to come out of the franchise and still has plenty of fans today.
For the rest of us, we can just focus on the story revelations. Tsukasa does eventually discover his link to Aura, discovering her asleep and deteriorating, but Macha regularly hounds him, resorting to another Data Drain to alter his memories. He wanders lost for a time, but is eventually given the full details of his situation by a hacker named Helba. Helba is pretty deeply intwined with this first arc of .hack, being both deeply knowledgeable about what’s happening (if not always entirely forthcoming) and holding at least some knowledge of the Epitaph of Twilight. She also runs Net Slum, an unsanctioned server town with remnants of undeleted data, glitches, and vagrant AIs. This becomes a haven for many heroes within the .hack storyline as a base of operations without admin interruption.
Tsukasa also finds help from Macha, who finds affection toward Tsukasa after a moment’s kindness and decides to turn on her creator. She sacrifices herself to save Tsukasa as he decides to find a way to log out and free Aura from their shared imprisonment. While Tsukasa does manage to escape and log out with help from Helba, Morganna’s last ditch effort to stop Tsukasa involves summoning phase one of the Cursed Wave: Skeith, the Terror of Death.
Skeith, as we’ll see in the games, is a bit of a key player.
With that, Aura is finally awakened, capable of action despite still needing time to mature into the Ultimate AI proper. What does Morganna do as she loses her grip and becomes more desperate? How does the birth of a single AI lead to catastrophes on a global scale?
Oh dang, this post is getting pretty long. Let’s put a pin in it right here. It’s unlikely things will get much more complex from here, right?