In 2002, Bandai Entertainment launched Project .hack (pronounced Dot Hack), a multimedia franchise spanning anime, games, and novels. Set around the turn of the new millennium, Project .hack centers on the fictional VR MMORPG known as “The World” and the mystery concerning players who die in-game and subsequently fall comatose in reality. In the first game, .hack//Infection (2002), the player controls Kite, a 14-year old boy who is introduced to “The World” by his real-life friend Yasuhiko, otherwise known in-game as, “Orca.” One of the strongest players in “The World,” Orca sets about teaching Kite how to play the game, but on their first mission, the two are attacked by a strange entity.
Arriving at the bottom of a dungeon, Kite and Orca find their characters teleported to a liminal space existing outside “The World’s” known infrastructure. There, a humanoid monster made of stone and wielding a red-wand bursts from thin-air and challenges the two. Orca beckons Kite to escape before attacking the monster but realizes something is wrong when he fails to harm the creature. Kite watches helplessly as the monster cleaves Orca, who with his dying breath, pleads once more for Kite to escape.
Written by cyberpunk writer Kazunori Ito, best known for collaborating with Japanese anime director Mamoru Oshii on films such as Patlabor 2: The Movie (1993), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Avalon (2001), .hack//Infection channels the same anxieties over technology that Ito explored in his previous work. .hack//Infection portrays the internet as a mythic place, one at the intersection between magic and technology. Project .hack heavily borrows from Celtic mythology as much as it does from Y2K culture. An event known as “Pluto’s Kiss” wipes out the internet a few years prior to the events of the game, and, following Orca’s death, Kite learns that the monster responsible is a rogue A.I. called “Skeith,” a name derived from the “Skeith Stone” in Kilrenny, Scotland. Skeith’s non-diegetic theme song (see embedded clip), “Phase 1,” combines the warbled and shifting beats of 90s techno with crescendos of Celtic chants and bells.
Orca’s death then comes across as unsettling because it is not part of the “The World’s” script, and the in-game developers behind “The World,” CC Corp, dismiss the string of players falling comatose as baseless rumors. In reality, CC Corp is well aware of Skeith’s presence but are unable to apprehend it, let alone understand its origins as a Blackbox program. Like .hack//Infection’s art direction, Skeith himself embodies a liminal space between the known and unknown; magic spells and concrete data; the techno and the occult. For Ito, the internet becomes its own living creature, one whose wires and bits promise the freedom of connectivity whilst simultaneously threatening to run amok by upending the divide between the real and virtual worlds.