The film's colour palette is mainly sepia tones, helping to blur the line between the real world and that within the game itself.
The film is typically Mamoru Oshii styled in its pacing and editing. It is relatively slow paced, reinforcing the mundane nature of the world Ash lives in and highlighting the excitement of playing the game. The film also features a basset hound, a breed of dog common in Oshii's films, since he has one, named Gabriel.
"Shooting it in Japan was impossible," Oshii advised interviewer Andrez Bergen in a major article that appeared in Japan's Daily Yomiuri newspaper in 2004. "I didn't think of using a Japanese cast. I considered shooting in the UK or Ireland, but the towns and scenery in Poland matched my image for the movie."
In Europe, Avalon was selected for the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and won awards at other European festivals. It was awarded Best Cinematography at the Catalonian International Film Festival 2001"in Spain. In the United Kingdom, it won the "Best Film" award at the London Sci-Fi Film Festival 2002.
However, the film received only limited release in North America (with most of its fanbase created via the circulation of bootleg DVDs imported from Asia) until Miramax released it on DVD in late 2003. The North American version has added narration to make it easier for Americans to understand the plot; although the option to view the film without the English overdubbing is provided, the subtitles still display the added dialogue. The British region-free DVD has literal English subtitles which explain the King Arthur connection better and does not display added dialogue.
Such viewer help was not used in European countries, like France, where local editions only feature optional subtitles about the Polish sung opera piece, in the Polish spoken original version only.
When Ash gets challenged by a better player, she makes up a team to get to a secret game level named "Special A".
Oshii describes his game as a "military RPG" (ミリタリーロールプレー, miritarīrōrupurē). However, it mixes elements of Role Playing Game and First Person Shooter (FPS); it borrows from the Wizardry series Oshii played extensively during three years he was unemployed in the 1980s.
From the RPG genre it borrows the character types such as Fighter, Thief or Bishop, and the level-up system based on experience points and featuring upgradable skills such as Dexterity, Luck or Strength. With the FPS genre it shares the real time fighting mode, including selectable firearms, such as semi-auto pistols (Walther PPK and Mauser C96), sniper rifle (Dragunov SVD) and rocket launcher (RPG-7). With these two genres, it shares the common principle of player hierarchy. In Avalon, players are ranked after three levels, Class C, Class B, Class A. Elite Class A players are rumored to be able to play a hidden extra mode featuring different rules and named Class SA (for "Special A").
Like in modern real life online games, players can join an informal team, called "party" and play the game as allies. Also, depending on the player's personality, some users would prefer to remain a standalone player, which enhances overall difficulty but, in other hand, preserves independence and a sufficient discretion required for sniping technique. Teammates can have a real time vocal communication through a microphone and share vital information only heard among the party.
To complete levels within the game, players must defeat powerful end-of-level bosses similar to those found in classic video games.
As an interesting first, this movie features the appearance of lag, a gameplay error due to network transfer slowdown often encountered in online games. Oshii displays lag as an ailment that causes physical convulsions in the player during these slowdowns.
The scene with Ash in the tramway is a live action recreation of a similar scene appearing in the 1999 anime feature film Jin-Roh, which Oshii wrote but did not direct. This scene is based on Oshii's own teenage experience, when he used to spend entire days spinning in loop in the Yamanote line.
The near future. Some young people deal with their disillusionment by seeking out illusions of their own - in an illegal virtual-reality war game. Its simulated thrills and deaths are compulsive and addictive. Some players, working in teams called "parties", even earn their living from the game. The game has its dangers. Sometimes it can leave a player brain-dead, needing constant medical care. Such victims are called "Unreturned". The game is named after the legendary island where the souls of departed heroes come to rest: Avalon.
"Load Map Data"
The film begins with a display of a digital tactical map, with symbols indicating the various units and their statistics. The map changes to a real-life scene of tanks plowing through a grassy plain. The tanks begin to fire at an unseen enemy. On the digital map, triangular symbols indicating aerial units bomb the tanks into oblivion. As the tanks explode, the blast freezes in mid-air, to show that the explosions are actually rendered 2D graphical sprites. A woman wearing combat armor teleports into the scene, which shifts to a cityscape. The woman watches crowds of people running away from numerous tanks that have appeared on the streets, and then sprints off. Some people, wearing similar combat dresses like the woman, fire at the tanks, to no avail.
The tanks kill several citizens with their weapons. As they die, the people unfold into 2D shapes and explode into sprites. The woman moves from cover to cover, eventually climbing onto a tank. She grabs its machine-gun and fires at some soldiers, killing them. Finishing her job, she takes off her hood, revealing a face with cold demeanor and silver streaks in her short black hair. Hearing movement, she points her gun and kills a soldier who attempts to escape. "You're not ready for Class A," she says. "Work a little bit more on B and C." This reveals that she's playing a virtual-reality game, and the "soldiers" she has killed earlier are in fact players themselves.
An advanced looking chopper drops bombs on the populace, killing them, and then fades away in the sky. A short while later, a large number of players run across the plain, with the woman teleporting into the scene. The chopper appears and the players fire with all they have got, with no effect. The chopper kills several players with its gatling gun and missiles. Meanwhile, the woman runs into an abandoned building, and sets her sniper scope on the chopper. She fires into the cabin of the chopper, which leads to it swaying out of control. The woman climbs aboard a tank and uses its machine-gun to fire at the chopper until it explodes. The explosion kills several players in its blast, then freezes in place, and displays the words "Mission Complete". Satisfied, the woman does a victory pose and leaves. Unknown to her, a man in a cloak watches after her with his scope and smiles.
The words "Log Off" flicker on the screen as the woman wakes up from the game in her booth. Taking off her VR helmet and climbing out of her chair, the Game Master (GM) appears on the screen and congratulates the woman, Ash, on her latest mission. Ash purchases ammo for her weapons and asks to take the rest of her points for cash. The GM tells her that playing solo is more dangerous as she progresses to the next level, and wants her to consider joining a party. Ash stays silent and then leaves her booth. Walking outside, Ash witnesses her own performance on the battle screen with other players in the lobby. While waiting to receive her money from the receptionist, Ash notices two statues above the counter, one of which is headless. Leaving the Avalon game branch, Ash walks to the tram station, where she passes several immobile people on the walkway, except for a dog moving to look at her. Riding the tram home, Ash looks at the passengers in the car, none of whom move at all. Upon returning home, Ash is welcomed by her dog, a basset hound, who she pats lovingly. After feeding the dog, Ash accesses her account on the computer and finds no recent mail for her.
The next day, Ash enters the Avalon branch and watches a player on the battle screen, the same man who spied on her the previous day, break her time record in the Class A mission. Annoyed at being surpassed and challenged by the player, Ash logs onto the terminal for the player's stats, to find he has no name and the access point where he entered is unknown. Upon entering her booth, Ash is told by the GM that her turn to play is not ready yet. Ash then cancels her game for the day and requests to know more about the player "Bishop" (player class) from the GM. The GM wonders why Ash is interested in him, as she never makes contact with another player. Ash responds by saying that she feels she is being challenged by him. The next scenes show Ash in her daily lifestyle: playing in Avalon, going home, feeding her dog, playing Avalon the next day, going home, buying meat for her dog, etc.
One day, as Ash leaves the Avalon branch, she runs into Stunner, a Thief class player and a member from her former party, Team Wizard. Eating their dinner at the canteen, Stunner tells her that by dumb luck, he found her branch where she was playing, after he heard about a powerful female Warrior class player from other people. As the talk turns to Team Wizard in particular, Ash wishes to hear none of it. As she leaves, Stunner asks her if she heard what happened to Murphy, their team leader. Like her, he went solo too and got "lost".
Ash goes to visit Murphy at the hospital. In voiceover, Stunner informs her on a hidden character in Class A, a neutral character that appears as a silent young girl with sad eyes. Some of the players think that she's a bug in the program, and name her the "ghost". As Ash walks through the corridor, a girl with the same characteristics as described by Stunner looks at Ash, but she doesn't notice. In voiceover, Stunner continues by telling her that all the players who went after the "ghost" never came back and turned into "Unreturned". He says that there is a rumored area in the game called "Special A", where players can't reset to escape the game, however it does give out a ton of experience points when completed. Players believe that the ghost is the only gateway into Special A, so they go after her, like Murphy did. Ash stands over Murphy's bed in the ward, where he has become a comatose vegetable.
In flashback, Murphy commands the Team Wizard members in their latest mission. Under heavy fire from an enemy chopper outside the building the team is in, Stunner tells him on the communicator that they're low on ammo and have to go back, but Murphy retorts that resetting the game is not a part of their party's strategy. Murphy then calls out for Ash, who looks distressed and refuses to respond. In the present, Ash smokes outside the hospital and decides to leave. As she goes, the same man who broke her record, Bishop, uses his scope to watch after her. After that, he leaves, walking through dozens of unreturned patients on the hospital porch.
At home, Ash searches for words regarding the game Avalon, Unreturned, and the ghost. The computer instead closes up her searches, and Ash resets her computer, which leaves out a important keyword, "Nine Sisters". She accesses it to reveal a drawing of the Nine Sisters, with the words, "Here lies Arthur, the once and future king." The computer prompts her to enter her Avalon game ID. After pondering for a while, Ash decides to log in using her game card. After waiting for what seems like eternity, Ash gets a message telling her to meet in Ruins C66 at Class A.
The next day, before Ash enters the game, she asks if the GM knows about the Nine Sisters. The GM responds with the name Morgan Le Fay, one of the nine fairy queens who ruled Avalon, the legendary isle, and brought the dying King Arthur over there. She was also Arthur's protectress, the Lady of the Lake. In response, Ash heard of a story regarding Morgan in Northern Europe. Odin encountered a shipwreck and drifted to an island, where Morgan saves him. She gives him a golden ring which grants him immortality and eternal youth. However, without Odin realizing, she also sets a Crown of Oblivion upon his head, which makes him forget his homeland and the world outside. Saying this, Ash puts on her own "Crown of Oblivion", the VR helmet.
Entering the game and reaching Ruins C66, Ash meets Jill, who claims to be one of the Nine Sisters. She brings Ash to meet Murphy of the Nine Sisters. However it turns out to be a trap, and the fake "Nine Sisters" plan to steal Ash's equipment data. Ash takes Jill hostage and demands to know what Murphy of Nine Sisters know. He tells her that only the real Nine Sisters know about Special A, and they are the programmers who created this game. Before anyone can do anything further, a chopper appears suddenly outside the ruins, due to a game time-lag, and kills most of the players inside, including Murphy of Nine Sisters. Ash grabs Jill and seeks cover, attempting to fire back at the chopper. It releases its missiles and due to the lag, they teleport right in front of Ash, who screams out "Reset". Forced out of the game, Ash vomits inside the booth from the stress.
Later, while riding the tram home, Ash notices what seemed like the same passengers as before, immobile inside the car. After reaching her station, Ash walks past more immobile people, with only a dog looking at her. Reaching home, her dog, unseen, welcomes her. Ash then prepares a sumptuous meal for her dog. When she finishes preparing the food for her dog, she suddenly realizes that it has mysteriously disappeared. She looks around her home, and even outside, to no avail. As she stands outside helplessly, she hears what seems to be the chopper from the game flying through her district. The next day, Ash goes to a bookstore and buys books regarding Arthurian legend and Avalon. As she leaves, she runs into Stunner again, who invites her to breakfast. While eating, Stunner tells her that there is one common link between parties who try to seek the entrance to Special A: a Bishop class player, who can seemingly make the ghost appear. Not any Bishop, he says, but a level 12 or 13 Archbishop. Before being unreturned, Murphy was also a Bishop class player, and he managed to enter Special A. Ash neither has enough time nor money to switch to Bishop and level up from there, nor join up a party due to her habit of playing solo.
Returning home, Ash gets a knock on the door, where she finds that it is Bishop, the man who broke her record, at her door. She asks how he managed to find her. "Seek and ye shall find." he answers, and thinks that it's him she needs. Bishop walks around in her home, commenting on the food the dog eats, and the items she uses, right down to the books she bought. He flips open one of the books to reveal that all the pages inside are empty. Bishop tells Ash about the rumors spreading of Team Wizard's demise, which seems to be Ash's doing due to her calling "Reset" back in the party's final mission. Ash requests to form a party with Bishop, who tells her to meet at Flak Tower 22 in the game.
After the branch's closing hours, Ash sits quietly waiting for her time to log in. The receptionist wants to close up, but Ash tells her that she's going to meet a person who can bring her to Special A. The receptionist tells Ash that there is no such thing like that in Avalon. No matter how real it is, Avalon is still a game. If a program cannot be cleared, it is not a game anymore, that's why Special A was kept hidden as a forbidden area. The receptionist reveals that she works for Bishop as a terminal manager. Ash is told that Bishop accesses the game from his own terminal. She is asked by the receptionist to keep away from Bishop, but she refuses, as Murphy's still trapped in Special A. The receptionist, realizing she can't change Ash's mind, prepares her booth. When Ash logs in, she sees the face of the GM in her helmet, who prefers that she doesn't enter Special A. Ash asks if the GM is accessing from a terminal somewhere or just part of the system itself. The GM answers that she cannot confirm if he's real or not anyway, so it doesn't matter.
In the game, Ash walks up to the top of Flak Tower 22, where she rendevouses with Bishop and 3 dummy players created from the game. Ash deduces that Bishop works for the real Nine Sisters, the original designers of the game. Stunner also arrives to help, which meant that Bishop scouted him to look for Ash all along. At Ruins D99, Ash's party runs into a Class A-strength enemy, the Citadel. Bishop, Stunner and the rest of the party distract the giant vehicle with their gunfire, while Ash eventually runs up behind the Citadel and uses her bazooka to blow out the back, its weak point. As the party gains tons of experience points, Stunner spots the ghost, who disappears into the wall. He shoots at it as it runs but does no effect. He is then shot by an enemy opponent, which Ash kills. At Stunner's side, Ash learns that the ghost can only be killed if it leaves the wall and become corporeal. Stunner also confesses he was the one who called out "Reset" in Team Wizard's last mission, leading to the group's disbandment. After this, his character dies, logging out of the game.
Bishop hands Ash a gun and she goes after the ghost, who plays hide-and-seek with her. Reaching the ghost's last location, she manages to fire at it, which breaks into 2D fragments and converts into a gateway to Special A. Ash steps into the portal, which assimilates her into program codes, then brings her to Special A.
Ash wakes up in the game terminal, which seems to be built in her own home, except there is no furniture. Her silver streak of hair is missing, instead having only short black hair. Only her computer is still around, with the words "Welcome to Class Real" flickering on the screen. Curious, Ash walks to the window and opens it, to find it bricked up. She finds a box containing a gun and one magazine of ammo. She also finds an evening gown within. Bishop appears on the computer screen. Ash asks him if this is Special A, and Bishop tells her that the designers call it "Class Real". Building this hidden area has taken them huge amounts of sophisticated data. In many ways, it is still experimental. He tells her that there is only one objective to complete in Class Real: finish off the Unreturned staying here. Her levels and equipment are returned to default, which leaves her with the only gun she has. The only way to exit the game is completion. However, she must not hurt any of the neutral characters who operate under free will in this area, otherwise the game is over. Ash asks Bishop why he brought her here, and he responds that surely she knows the answer within her.
Ash is directed to a poster, which features an Avalon-themed concert, and curiously her dog is pictured on it. That is her destination to which she will find the Unreturned, and she finds a ticket pinned to the poster, which she takes. After putting on the dress, Ash walks bare-feet outside the room, which turns out to be the corridor of the game branch. After gaining a handbag, earrings and high heels, Ash moves cautiously along the corridor and out the door, and is surprised to find herself in broad daylight, under a full colour world, unlike the yellow-tinted world she lived in. Walking along the sidewalk, Ash is overwhelmed by the amount of people on the streets. She finds more of the Avalon-themed concert posters along the pavement. A car pulls up, with what seems to be her own dog staring out at her from the window, but Ash doesn't notice. She takes a train from the subway. Standing inside the train car, Ash catches eyes with some of the passengers, unlike the immobile ones back in her own world. Exiting the train and into the subway, Ash is directed by more concert posters and eventually finds the location of the concert.
While waiting inside the lobby, Ash finds Murphy, who stands in one corner. Both of them stay looking at each other as the guests file into the concert hall. As the orchestra plays in the concert, Ash and Murphy stay out on the courtyard. After a while, Murphy asks why she came here, and if it's because of him. "Isn't that a good reason?" Ash says. Murphy tells Ash that she should know why Wizard broke up. Ash responds that she thought she knew why, that's why she kept quiet about it, and instead let her other team members think it was her who called out "Reset". Murphy angrily asks that if she knew, then why had she come to Class Real to look for him? Ash tells him that Stunner told her that he was lost. Back there, he was just another Unreturned. Ash continues saying that Murphy wanted to go all the way, and the team was in his way of achieving his goal. That's why he used the failure of the party's last mission to disband the team. She asks Murphy if he wanted to abandon them, just to spend the rest of his life as a vegetable on a hospital bed.
Murphy instead smiles, and asks her if he looks like a vegetable right now. After all, he says, this is Class Real. He then rants in anger that reality is nothing but an obsession that takes hold of them. Because of this, he questions why he couldn't make this his own reality. Ash says that even though Murphy believes this, in actuality he is just running away from his problems. Murphy instead asks Ash about her missing silver streak of hair, which the players used it to call her. Upon hearing this, Ash starts to hesitate.
Murphy then asks if Ash has ever been shot, to feel real pain in a real body. Saying this, he slowly takes out his gun. Ash also draws her gun, asking if this is the only way. Murphy says that when one of them dies, and the body does not vanish, the other will know if this place's real or not. Both of them point guns at each other, but Ash shoots first, fatally wounding Murphy. As he collapses, Ash rushes up to him. It is revealed he never intended to shoot her, as he drops the bullets on the ground. Under his dying breath, Murphy tells Ash to never let appearances confuse her, and that this is the world where she belongs. He dies and slumps to his side, but his body vanishes in the traditional way as per in the game. Ash, stunned by this, remains there for a while.
Later, she reloads her gun with Murphy's bullets, and goes to the concert hall, where the performance has just ended and the audience's applause is still audible. However, when she enters the hall, she finds it empty. Empty, apart from the ghost that stands on the stage. Ash walks silently down the concert hall to the front of the stage, where she points her gun at the ghost. A sudden flash shows the two statues that Ash saw above the receptionist's counter, however this time the headless statue now has a complete head. Expressionless, the ghost watches Ash for a few moments, then gives a eerie smile.
Ash's fate is left unknown, as the film ends with the words, "Welcome to Avalon".