Infinite Dendrogram
Episodes 1-2

by Christopher Farris,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Infinite Dendrogram ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Infinite Dendrogram ?

The second of the two VRMMO shows I'll be covering this season, Infinite Dendrogram is a decidedly more serious alternative to the irreverent BOFURI. The difference in execution is one of purpose; the two shows seem to be aiming for completely different audiences. Dendrogram is all-in on the technical, thoroughly thought-out fantasy of a virtual world to quest in. It's to the point that I can't merely dismiss its constant overload of fictional details as mere self-aggrandizement; the show really does seem to have put a lot of thought into the setup it's playing with here, predicated on some interesting ideas for the genre. It's why it's unfortunate that the execution itself is so middling, since there's actually a lot here I desperately want to care about.

As said, the conceit of Infinite Dendrogram and the titular game the story takes place in have clearly had the most thought put into them. It seems to take the appeal of a full-dive virtual-reality online game as far as possible, presenting a living, breathing world the player characters can drop in and out of. Populated as it is by ‘tians’, human-level artificial intelligences that go about their lives with independence and free will, what we see is a functioning world that the real-world human players are encouraged to engage and interfere with as much as possible. With the tians suffering permanent death as opposed to the mere 24-hour lockout the players do, Infinite Dendrogram opens up a realistically shifting, changing game world the breadth of which would put EVE Online to shame. It's a bizarre mash-up of depth that renders it effectively as a ‘real’ place existing as a consumer product; a functional ‘isekai’ that the human participants can log in and out of at will.

That immediately presents some fascinating ramifications for a genre like this, to say nothing of speculation as to what might ‘actually’ be going on in this story, saved for further reveals. The setup embraces the role of audience self-insert ‘players’ as inherently special due to their player status. That is admittedly how a lot of player-controlled game protagonists are treated regardless, online or fictionally otherwise. But this is the ‘summoning a skilled gamer for assistance’ trope of the VRMMO genre's close cousin isekai taken to its most massive conclusion- I think a lot of us would regard the game worlds we were tasked with saving somewhat differently if it functioned as a real place.

That's a dense, meta-analysis of a way to say that all those questions and concepts I got just from Infinite Dendrogram's base setup go almost completely unaddressed by the narrative itself so far. The most we get is a chunk of the massive fictional-world history infodump in the second episode explaining how the economy between world powers shifted in one conflict due to one side's players not being swayed by enough rewards to participate. That episode also cold-opens with a mysterious SEELE-esque council vaguely intoning a plan to take out high-level tians, but other than that all the interest in this story is left for us viewers to speculate on and consider ourselves. Because apart from all that carefully-considered setup, Infinite Dendrogram as an actual story is as rote as those in the VRMMO genre come.

It begins and ends with our main character, Ray Starling. For as much going on as I detailed above, a mere cipher of a viewpoint character might not have been a bad idea if the narrative was simply going to explore the possibilities of the world. But instead Ray comes across as a much more conventional mere audience self-insert: Light on personality beyond being decently pleasant and having a strong sense of justice. Such as it is that when the technical world-building isn't being unloaded on him in the driest way possible by other characters, we're treated to just watching Ray glide through the world, stumbling into cool power-ups so he'll presumably be able to get to the more intense parts of the game and story sooner. There's no sense of fulfillment in him scoring a super-special weapon who is also his girlfriend or lucking into the requirements for the powerful Paladin class because they clearly just befall him on account of his focal protagonist status. But there's also no fun or entertainment to be seen in him utilizing those things because he has all the personality of an NES Dragon Quest hero. That isn't to say the show doesn't try to pick up the slack elsewhere, as supporting characters like Nemesis, the aforementioned weapon-girlfriend, or Ray's big brother bear Shu actually have some personality going on. But there's nothing for them to play off of beyond stock antics as Ray just cruises from chapter to chapter in the story of his level-ups.

It's certainly not bad, not in a sensibilities-offending or viewership-annoying way. But it does leave Infinite Dendrogram feeling aggravatingly boilerplate in a genre renowned for being too boilerplate. It's a show where talking about the setup of it is more interesting than discussing the story itself, which gives off the impression that the game it's depicting would be a lot more enthralling to actually play ourselves than merely watch someone idly go through. The technical merits are average (with an unfortunately noticeable habit of cutting action just-offscreen several times), but it's perfectly watchable in the moment. If exhaustively-conceived game-engine concepts are the sort of thing that's like catnip to you and you don't need the show itself to dive into its own ideas yet, you'll probably be entertained just fine. But otherwise, it's just okay so far.


Infinite Dendrogram is currently streaming on Funimation.

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