The isekai genre has exploded in recent years giving way to literally hundreds of new franchises some good and others not so good but despite the ups and downs in terms of quality, the massive influx of new series has led to some creativity in the realm of where isekai are set.
The most common setting found within the isekai genre is that of a fantasy world filled with magic and mystery, yet that setting is starting to get used less and less in favor of having characters be transported into a virtual world akin to that of a video game.
Whilst some may credit the adoption of the virtual world setting to the worldwide phenomenon that is Sword Art Online all the way back in 2012, in reality, the franchise only served to popularize and revitalize the sub-genre since franchises like that of Digimon have been using the same “trapped in a virtual world” concept for decades.
Since SAO’s release, almost a decade has passed and multiple top tier isekai like that of Overlord, Log Horizon, and many others have debuted with a similar concept. The twist of having characters be transported to a virtual world instead of a completely new one has brought with it a new outlook on the genre but has also created some glaring flaws in terms of both the characters and story elements of an isekai.
Having the setting of an isekai be a virtual world offers a different sense of reality that pivots the protagonist’s purpose to one that is most often influenced by the familiar setting.
Despite the clichéd primary plot point of having the protagonist find a way back home being still present in most virtual world isekai, unlike their fantasy-based counterparts virtual world based isekai seem to stick with that goal for much longer.
Since the characters that are being transported are often already familiar with the world they now reside, there is no obligatory exposition that is forced upon the viewer instead many virtual world isekai rely on the natural flow of the story to provide context and background for the viewers.
Sword Art Online and other virtual world isekai have their protagonist share a similar goal that of returning back home and because the protagonists are trapped in a familiar world they are not as deterred from the idea that there is no way back home.
An isekai with a more traditional fantasy setting like that of Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu sees the protagonist Subaru question his place in the world in which he was summoned to but he does not explicitly show his desire to return to his homeworld, in fact, he does the opposite quickly embracing his new life and tries to make the best of his new life.
In stark contrast, SAO’s protagonist Kirito is seen trying to escape the virtual world in which he was now trapped in from the very start trying to become as powerful as he could in order to survive and eventually find a way out.
Despite his clear goals Kirito at one point became accustomed to the virtual world and for a brief stint it almost seemed like he was complacent with the idea of spending the rest of his days within the game, but he quickly went back to his original ideals and believed that he could achieve a higher level of happiness in the real world.
It seems that fantasy world premise often creates a sense of false security in the way that most protagonists forget their old world in the process of adapting to the new world they find themselves in.
In comparison when a protagonist is summoned to a virtual world, they are familiar with they do not face the hardship that is adapting to a new environment leaving them free to come to terms with where they now reside and accept the fact that there must be some way back home.
It is no understatement to say that the setting of a story has a deep impact on all other parts of series, and when it comes to isekai that statement is magnified tenfold as the world shapes the way characters evolve and thus heavily impact how a story may progress.
Since isekai based in a virtual world often abide by rules similar to that of a video game it results in characters that are often obsessed with getting stronger.
The concept of levels, experience points, powerful items, and skills are all found within the virtual world isekai and as seen in series like that of Overlord and SAO give way to stale character development.
Within Overlord the protagonist Ainz is seen constantly referring to levels and certain skills using his prior knowledge to his advantage in an effort to retain his status as the most powerful person within the series, the repetitive nature of having him analysis every little thing does nothing for his character and limits the potential he has as a protagonist of one the best isekai of the past decade.
On the other side of the spectrum, the series No Game No Life also considered one of the best isekai of the past decade had protagonists transported to a world that had zero signs of any video game logic and resulted in a series that really explored the potential of their characters.
The protagonists Sora and Shiro climbed the ranks of the world they now resided in without any aid from magic or some unrealistic skill instead they relied on their natural talent and wit to outsmart their opponents.
It seems that when a character is put into a familiar world like that of a video game more often than not, they tackle problems in the same way they would have if they were playing the game not living in it, creating an atmosphere where development is not explored to its potential.
In contrast, putting characters in a foreign world results in them having to struggle on multiple levels and forces character development.
A fantasy world and a virtual one are two very distinct settings for an isekai, yet due to the popularity of the two settings an alternative that seems to incorporate the best of both worlds has started to gain traction.
The open-ended nature of a fantasy world is one of the most appealing parts of an isekai based in an entirely new world and thus it seems only natural to combine it with the easy to grasp concepts of levels, skills, and experience that comes with isekai based in virtual worlds.
The combined aspects of either setting have resulted in some of the most captivating isekai ever, some examples being Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari and Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo!.
These two isekai see their protagonists be transported into a fantasy world filled with monsters and magic, but also incorporates some virtual world logic like that of learning and obtaining new skills and leveling up.
The combination of both fantasy and video game logic results in a series that is both grounded by some clear rules that come with a leveling system yet has the ability to not be limited to a world that the protagonist already knows in and out.
In the end the isekai genre will continue to develop and find new ways to explore past concepts and despite the rise of virtual reality-based isekai over the past decade it seems like a happy medium between that of fantasy and virtual world may result in the most innovated isekai yet.