[NieR fan art was supposed to go here]
NieR: Automata isn’t just a good or even great game; it’s one of those games which makes use of the full potential of the medium in a way that few games do. Or, to put it another way, it’s a game that makes you realize just how much untapped potential there is. It surprised me in a way that I don’t think I’ve felt since the early 3D era, when it suddenly seemed like video games could do almost anything.
NieR: Automata is proof that the medium can do almost anything…if it wants to. Playing it to completion was like falling in love with video games all over again.
(Incidentally here’s my previous, less spoilery post)
Which is interesting, because on the surface of it Automata looks awfully derivative. It’s aesthetically very beholden to the gritty anime look that Final Fantasy VII popularized, and thematically it doesn’t stray too far from the existentialism that a lot of golden-era JRPGs liked to dabble in. Like Shadow of the Colossus, it plays up the clash between its tragic narrative and the expectations of video game logic for poignant effect. And like Metal Gear Solid 2, it breaks the fourth wall in order to interrogate the player’s own intentions.
But where Automata excels is precisely in how it takes all these aspects and formally pushes them to their breaking points – something which is also reflected in its protean gameplay, where good old fashioned Zelda/Action RPG stuff is mixed with the likes of shmups, platformers, fighting games, and visual novels. The result is a little bit like a video game Ulysses, except with more interesting subject matter than the actual novel (sorry Joyce).
To recap the basic premise, Automata takes place in a distant future where humans have fled to the moon due to an alien invasion. Control of the earth is being fought over via a proxy war between human built androids and alien built machines. The player controls characters belonging to YoRHa, a special android task force whose units tend to look like anime magical girls with a gothic lolita taste in fashion.
The plot is rather sparse for a JRPG. Indeed the entirety of Route A (which covers the material the players see in their first playthrough) boils down to this: Players control unit 2B, a YoRHa android sent on a recon mission to earth with unit 9S. In the course of their investigations they encounter a pair of humanoid machines called Adam and Eve, who reveal to them that the machines rebelled against and killed their alien creators a long time ago. Eventually Adam kidnaps 9S, provoking 2B to kill him. This in turn causes Eve to go on an angry rampage, forcing 2B and 9S to kill him as well (although Adam and Eve are sexless, both take a masculine, bishounen-esque appearance). In the process, 9S gets infected with a virus and 2B kills him in order to prevent it from spreading, though it turns out his consciousness survives intact.
Although filled with a lot of extravagant set-pieces, it’s an ultimately unfulfilling narrative that introduces a lot of ideas and characters that are never properly explored. A mysterious renegade android called A2 attacks the protagonists and then just drops off from the narrative; a pacifistic machine called Pascal shows up and then is largely sidelined. And what was the deal with Adam and Eve?
Thus Route B begins, telling the same series of events from the perspective of 9S. Aside from drastically altering the gameplay (9S has the ability to hack enemies via an Asteroids-style minigame complete with droll 8 bit remixes of the game’s soundtrack), some important insights are learned: we find out that a lot of the machines’ behavior is due to a desire to ape human behavior without truly understanding it. The more violent ones are just imitating the bad behavior of humans without understanding its implications. Adam and Eve are revealed to be less malicious and more childlike than they initially seemed, with Adam’s aggression coming from an ill-advised attempt to understand human violence and death. To top it all off, 9S learns that humans themselves have been extinct for some time, with YoRHa perpetuating the illusion that there are survivors on the moon in order to keep android morale up. The war at this point is a complete sham.
In spite of these revelations, Route B feels awfully samey. 2B and 9S spend most of the game together, and so a lot of the Route is just going through the motions of what you’ve already done. By the time I was part way through I thought I had figured the game out: Route C would retread the same events through A2’s perspective (she’s on the cover art, after all), filling in the remaining details.
…but then Route C picks up the thread immediately after the ending of A and B and turns out to be an entire second half of the story. This is an extremely risky idea, but it has an immediate payoff: discovering that there is an entire back-half of the game buried beneath two playthroughs was this massive revelation that completely caught me off guard. There’s an almost archaeological sense of discovery to it that you could only pull off in a video game.
Anyway, Route C begins with YoRHa commencing an all-out assault on the machines. This quickly turns disastrous, as it turns out that the machines have uploaded a virus onto the YoRHa server, causing almost all of the units to go insane. The command center is destroyed, and in her escape, 2B becomes infected by the virus. Before she succumbs, she encounters A2 and entrusts her memories and mission to her. A2 then kills 2B, a scene which 9S watches from afar. A mysterious tower suddenly emerges from the ground.
From this point on, the player spends Route C switching between the perspectives of 9S and A2. Traumatized by recent events, 9S goes on a vengeful quest against the machines and A2 as he gradually loses his sanity. This takes the form of a rather Zelda-esque quest where he travels to different dungeons to collect the keys that can open the tower, which he believes is a weapon aimed at the moon. A2’s story begins aimlessly, but soon turns into a redemptive arc, as her encounters with the machines convince her that there is good in the world worth fighting for. The Navi-like robot pods that provide tactical information and combat support to the androids also begin to gradually develop a sentience of their own. Throughout all this its teased that there are these two AI constructs living on the machine network who are ultimately the real masterminds behind recent events.
Things come to a head when 9S and A2 storm the Tower. The constructs reveal to 9S that the destruction of YoRHa was planned in advance as the completion of the cover-up story about humans surviving on the moon, which only fuels 9S’ rage. When A2 encounters the constructs, however, they seem to reach a philosophical impasse and decide to destroy each other. That takes the machine network down, causing two machines to go berserk and attack 9S and A2 separately. These two different boss fights happen simultaneously as the two androids climb the tower, and the game begins making these cinematic jump cuts between the fights while the player is still in control. And the cuts keep increasing in frequency to the point where you’re swapping between characters every few seconds. It’s completely insane and chaotic but somehow it works.
Once the bosses are dispatched and the two androids meet at the top of the tower, A2 reveals that 2B was actually a special YoRHa model designed to kill 9S models should they discover the truth, and that 2B has actually killed 9S many times. This doesn’t really help 9S’s emotional state, and you’re forced to pick which character to play as for the final battle. Choosing A2 leads to her ultimately sparing 2B’s life and sacrificing herself to bring down the tower. Choosing 9S leads to the two killing each other. But in the final moments of his life, 9S realizes that the tower is actually meant to launch the machines’ information into space in the hopes of finding a new home, and he has the option to “go with” them.
After viewing both endings, a final ending is unlocked: the pods are on the verge of deleting the androids’ data for good when they have second thoughts and decide to ask you, the player what to do. Choosing to preserve the data leads to a final challenge where you must destroy the end credits (which by this point you’ve seen at least a few times) while asserting your desire to continue on against all odds and the meaningfulness of life (no, really). This leads other players to offer their assistance in destroying the end credits. After the credits are destroyed, there’s a brief epilogue which shows the pods reconstructing the androids in the hopes of giving them a better future. Finally, the game gives you the opportunity to sacrifice all your save data for the sake of helping another player.
So there’s a lot going on here, but less than initially seems: so much of the plot consists of red herrings, with a lot of the twists existing largely for the sake of declaring previous plot points irrelevant. Aliens have invaded the earth…but they’ve been dead for centuries. Adam and Eve are these mysterious JRPG villains…who are just a couple of kids way over their heads. AI Constructs may be the force behind Adam and Eve…but they kill each other before you get a chance at a proper fight.
The enemies the protagonists face aren’t some supremely evil Other, but rather a tragic mirror-image of mankind’s wickedness; and the Android protagonists themselves are really just a post-human HAL 9000 – beings seemingly designed to be above human frailty who nevertheless find out that they’re all too susceptible to human weakness.
Admittedly, a lot of the appeal this has for me is due to how perfectly the game balances high JRPG melodrama with Majora’s Mask-esque quirkiness, and how the gameplay combines the expensiveness of an RPG with the constant surprises of a Mario or Mega Man game. But more deeply it gets at why I’m supposed to care about what happens in a video game.
I’ve talked a lot about this in my Zelda posts – do I care because this is my personal adventure I’m having in this fictional world, or do I care for non-interactive purposes (i.e., I progress through the game and am rewarded with more cinematic cutscenes, etc.) One of the things I said I liked about Majora’s Mask is how Link’s role as the hero isn’t so clear cut: you have to decide to save the world, and that makes Link’s quest all the more meaningful.
In Automata, you switch between the characters so much than none of them make sense as player avatars, although the game uses this perspective switching to heighten the drama: advancing the game brings 9S and A2 into irreconcilable conflict, and the final boss will be a character you were just playing as moments before.
But the shifting of perspectives and the continued replays serve to make you, the player, into a character in your own right. Like the support pods who gradually gain sentience, your role has both been one of providing guidance (controlling the characters) and being guided (led through events by the game). You initially carry out this role as player because that’s what you do with a video game, much like how the pods initially carry out their functions as unthinking machines. But, like the pods, the events of the game may make you gradually more self-aware of this role you have been playing. Like the pods, you may develop a genuine attachment to the characters and wish them well – your attitude towards the characters as characters may supplant the more mechanistic approach of merely playing to win. The game’s finale allows you to, if you want, take action on this.
And the sacrifice of your save data is as genuine a sacrifice as a video game can ask the player. Often, a sacrifice in a game doesn’t really translate into any feeling of privation on the player’s end; here you’re asked to give up everything you’ve supposedly spent all this time achieving. But if you’ve learned from the game, then by this point you’ll have recognized that your thoughts and experiences while playing it are more important than the “superficial” rewards of having a maxed out character and everything.
All the genre-switching also plays an interesting role in reinforcing this. For some time I found myself wondering why the game didn’t just feel like a bunch of gimmicks strung together; but it struck me that the game understands how a shift in video game genre is also a shift in tone, and it plays with this for incredible dramatic effect – for instance, the irony of a recon mission in a forest reaching an absurdly high body count is underlined in how the game transforms into a side-scrolling beat ’em up partway through. I feel as though you’re supposed to walk away feeling more aware of how video games can ‘play’ you like that.
There are other aspects which I could go on about – like how Automata manages to make locations into characters in their own right, or how it’s the first game since Shadow of the Colossus to pull off a flawless sense of scale in its boss fights – but this post is already running too long.