Dot Hack Sign: How to properly write a character with a traumatic past

Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for .hack//SIGN.

Disclaimer: The following article delves into the sensitive topic of abuse and its effects on relationships, specifically within the context of the anime series .hack//SIGN. It is essential to approach such subjects with care and sensitivity when creating content for a diverse audience.

Due to Tsukasa’s dual identity, I will refer to him throughout as a boy, even while referring to the player character, An Shoji’s real life despite the fact that she is a girl.

I’m about to spoil all of Dot Hack Sign for you – You’re welcome

Dot Hack Sign (also written as ‘.hack//SIGN’), my favorite anime of all time, has captivated me for almost 20 years despite its reputation for being slow and boring (Thanks, Bee Train). I’m enthralled by its exploration of psychology and character relationships instead of just constant, flashy action. The Celtic-inspired world, and the mesmerizing music composed by Yuki Kajiura have also cemented it in my heart where it will likely stay for the rest of my days.

As a dedicated fan, I watched it on a tube TV way before flat screens became a thing and savored each and every episode one at a time since I had to wait for it to come on a schedule (Ah, the early 2000s). Today, we’ll delve into the psychological journey of the show’s protagonist, Tsukasa. By the way, while Tsukasa is a boy character in ‘The World’, the story’s in-game MMORPG, it turns out he’s played by a girl named An Shoji in real life. That, my friends, is where it gets interesting, especially if you’re a writer.

So you want to write a character with a traumatic past?

If you’re trying to write a character for your game narrative or story that has deeply inflicted trauma or abuse, then Tsukasa is the perfect case study. As a child who grew up in foster care and was abused before entering the system, I related a lot to Tsukasa’s standoff-ish nature and reserved behavior around others. You could say that the fact that I was watching this in my foster home had a lot to do with why it’s stuck with me for nearly two decades.

Speaking of An’s real life, it’s revealed that she incurs regular verbal and physical abuse from her father before getting trapped in The World thanks to the events of the show. I won’t spoil absolutely everything since the show isn’t just a show – it’s a series of transmedia that you really must experience to understand and appreciate. The gist though is that she’s in a coma in her physical body, but her mind and consciousness are encapsulated and alive and well in the game.

The scars of this abuse manifest in Tsukasa’s withdrawn nature, lack of trust, and pervasive fear throughout, even after he’s become accustomed to being around certain characters many times over. In fact, this trauma also plays directly into the antagonist’s plot to cause chaos and destruction by feeding an artificial intelligence named Aura Tsukasa’s negative emotions in an attempt to corrupt her (Aura). Tsukasa’s experiences in the game world parallel his real-life trauma, magnifying his vulnerability and powerlessness, making it easy for the aforementioned scheme to occur.

You’re going to need some really good support characters

However, thanks to a few characters Tsukasa encounters in the game, that doesn’t come to pass entirely. In the first episode, he meets Mimiru, a skilled female Heavy Blade player in “The World” (who I totally had a crush on as a kid). Initially, Tsukasa is cautious and mistrustful, understandably guarded due to his traumatic circumstances.

However, Mimiru’s persistent attempts to engage and understand Tsukasa (despite her teasing and immature demeanor) begin to chip away at his defenses. Mimiru’s genuine care and curiosity, though buried as it is, gradually convince Tsukasa to let his guard down and form a bond based on mutual support and understanding.

Another important character in Tsukasa’s journey is Bear, a male Blademaster who reveals early on that he’s quite a bit older in the real world than his in-game friends. With this, it’s continually revealed that Bear has a fatherly mentality and desire to seek out An Shoji to uncover what’s happened to her and why she’s stuck in game as Tsukasa.

Bear’s compassionate nature and desire to create a safe space for Tsukasa are evident in his interactions with him. His support and guidance not only provide Tsukasa with a sense of security but also offer him an opportunity to confront his past trauma and rebuild his shattered self-esteem. He eventually opts to adopt An, and acts from that point on as the unconditional love and care she desperately needs and deserves.

There are many others who have affect Tsukasa’s journey toward healing, including B.T. who reveals to him how she got her name and acts as more of a tough love and distanced support. However, I want to focus on one last vital piece of the puzzle – Lady Subaru.

I won’t go into many details here, but Subaru is a female player who is revealed to be handicapped in real life. She presumes the role of a leader in The World, countering her helplessness in her day-to-day life. As you can see, she’s taken an entirely opposite approach to Tsukasa (with the help of her friend Crim, of course), and opts to tackle challenges head on and conquer them rather than being a victim of her circumstances.

Through their interactions, Subaru falls in love with Tsukasa and helps him see that he too can control the narrative of his existence, whether or not he ever escapes from the game. They also “see” each other for who they really are later on in the series, and accept each other despite the differences from their in-game counterparts.

Pay attention to the love triangle…no, not that one

All in all, Tsukasa has a trifecta of love and support for his healing process – the love of a friend who’s willing to push while everyone else is tip toeing around the sensitive afraid to offend (Mimiru), the love of a good and stable father willing to investigate and go the extra mile despite the uncertainty (Bear), and the unconditional “Eros” love of a significant other who can see and accept him regardless of any circumstances. Even though I personally disagree with the bi narrative of An Shoji and Mariko Misono, Subaru’s real life identity hooking up, I do understand that it’s written with the idea of the early 2000s internet and anonymity being cracked in mind.

You can do this, but be careful!

By exploring Tsukasa’s story, writers and creatives can gain insights into portraying characters who have experienced abuse with sensitivity and authenticity. It’s crucial to depict its complex psychological effects and the challenges survivors face in forming new relationships after the fact (or even during!). Capturing the nuances of trust-building, the impact of persistent support, and the role of surrogate parental figures can enhance the realism and emotional depth of characters dealing with abuse, but it’s no easy task.

It’s also vital to approach these subjects tenderly, considering the diverse audience consuming the content. While exploring themes of abuse, you must strike a balance between realism and responsible storytelling, ensuring that the narrative avoids glorifying or sensationalizing the experiences of abuse survivors – at least, that’s my opinion, and I feel strongly about it.

To beat a dead horse, let me reiterate – the portrayal of Tsukasa, Mimiru, and Bear’s relationships with Tsukasa in .hack//SIGN offer valuable lessons you in your own creative work. The initial distrust between Tsukasa and Mimiru underscores the cautious nature of survivors, while Mimiru’s persistence highlights the importance of patience, empathy, and genuine concern in forging meaningful connections in supporting characters.

Bear’s fatherly role serves as an example of the healing power of unconditional love and support. It also underscores the need for one of your characters to go outside of the bounds and break rules that others are unwilling to for greater impact. This can also help you push the narrative along.

By the way, writing a complex fatherly figure gets you bonus points. For example, Bear adopts An despite the struggles he has with his own real life son, which is shown several times in the show’s later episodes.

Writers can draw inspiration from these characters, weaving narratives that showcase the transformative potential of nurturing relationships and the significance of creating safe spaces for survivors of abuse. Of course, you could always write your protagonist as one who does not recover from a traumatic past, but everyone loves a good redemption story, right?

There's always more to discover