Nier: Automata is a sublime expression of what the medium of video games can be

9th of April, 2017 at 4:39 pm

I have played two games in the past month that I could safely say are among the greatest games I’ve played ever. The first, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, artfully advances the mechanics of open world adventure games, and the interactions of those mechanics, in a way that future games should aspire to emulate. It is a game where the act of playing the game brings immense joy and delightful surprise. The second, by contrast, is a game that I think is amazing in how it conveys a story through its mechanics and through the inherent structure of a video game. The story of Nier: Automata could not be told through any other medium, not without losing much of the impact and connection I felt playing this game. To put the cart before the horse, I think that if you have any investment in video games, either as your primary means of entertainment or as the premier form of interactive fiction, you owe it to yourself to play through Nier: Automata.

Because of the nature of Nier: Automata, where much of the impact comes from how it uses certain mechanics in the game to advance its story, I have divided this post into sections – minimal spoilers, where I essentially review the game; some/early spoilers where I start to get into why I think this game touches on some interesting concepts in a meaningful way; and finally endgame spoilers where I will fully discuss just how this game has left its mark on me.

Glory to Mankind: Minim[A]l spoilers

The introductory premise of Nier: Automata is that Earth has been abandoned by humanity following an alien invasion, with the survivors retreating to the surface of the Moon. But humanity still dreams of returning to their home planet, and have created an android army to defeat the occupying machine forces of the aliens. You play as 2B, one of the android soldiers of humanity, over a thousand years after the initial invasion of Earth. As a YoRHa soldier, 2B has the advantage of being able to have her memories and personal data be reincarnated into another body if her current body is destroyed, as long as she backs it up to the YoRHa server in orbit above Earth. This fact comes to light in the spectacular climax to the prologue chapter, where 2B and her combat partner 9S unleash a suicidal explosion to defeat a few gigantic machine colossi.

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This premise serves as an overarching backdrop for an at times crazy, at times emotionally heart-wrenching exploration of what it means to be human from entities that have never seen a human before. It is also a game about the relationship between 2B, a cold, serious YoRHa warrior who initially obeys the YoRHa rule of “emotions are prohibited”, and the more laid-back reconnaissance unit 9S with a magic touch for hacking. But to write anymore about the story in this section is difficult, because I don’t want to spoil any significant moments even in the first few hours of the game. So skip down if you want to read more about it.

Nier Automata Child

The combat has received the Platinum Games touch, taking elements from their most accessible action game Metal Gear Rising. 2B has a light and heavy attack, with each attack set to a different weapon that you can change depending on your play style. The dodge and ninja run actions from MGR have been combined into one button, and perfect dodges are rewarded with a launcher attack in a very satisfying Platinum Games way, although sometimes tougher enemies won’t be launched and you can find yourself swinging at thin air. You also have a support drone equipped with a projectile attack that you can oddly use while engaging in melee combat, so if you are good with holding the shoulder button (or a back button on an Elite/Steam Controller) while mashing the face buttons you’ll increase your damage output. Unlike MGR you can equip modifier chips in your android, allowing you to increase damage output for specific attacks, heal from dealing damage, slow time when executing a perfect dodge, and many other things. It’s a system I really like as it feels like upgrading new weapons in Dark Souls to get a new moveset with greater damage. But if the combat is too overwhelming, the Easy difficulty allows you to enable chips that will automatically dodge and attack for you.

The standout element of the game is definitely the music. Keiichi Okabe has created an amazing mixture of styles, from the subdued electronic menu theme, to the playful children’s chorus of Pascal’s village, to the absolutely amazing violins, piano and vocals of the ending theme “Weight of the World”. In-game the music transitions between songs really well to match changes in environment or story, but the most impactful transitions are from the instrumental versions of songs to the vocal versions. Entering the central areas of an environment or reaching the climax of a certain story point or quest is rewarded with the song transitioning smoothly to having its vocals kick-in in a really satisfying way. This culminates with the “Weight of the World”… which you’d have to play through the whole game to find out.

That’s all I can say without delving beyond minimal spoiler territory, so before I speak more in-depth, I will again reiterate that if you have any investment in video gaming as a hobby or medium, you owe it to yourself to at least check this game out. Preferably without reading too much about the game. Just make sure to take note of what the game tells you after you see the credits as intended.

Emotions are Prohi[B]ited: Mid-game spoilers

So hopefully if you are reading this point, you have completed your first playthrough and achieved ending A, and are some way into your second playthrough.

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The idea of having playing a second character during the same events is definitely not a new concept in games. But Nier: Automata sets a good tone by playing back your exact actions when waking up 2B after the prologue, reinforcing that this is your 2B that 9S is accompanying. Regardless, presenting a second point of view on the same events through a second playthrough is still a great concept, rewarding your mastery of the game’s mechanics and knowledge of the outcome of the story while offering new twists on that same story and mechanics. This is especially prevalent in the contrast between the interactions between 2B and 6O, and between 9S and 21O. In the first playthrough I assumed that 6O was communicating to both 2B and 9S, but 21O’s communications indicate that this is not only the case, but that the operators are just as varied as the YoRHa soldiers.

But the crux of these playthroughs is the journey through the various ways the machines are trying to be human, and the additional insight you get in 9S’ playthrough is a good justification for that playthrough. Most meaningfully, the robots are emulating human behaviour but not necessarily understanding what it means to be human. In many cases there is an ‘uncanny valley’ of human behaviour, where the robots are acting in ways divorced of their usual context. Early on it appears in the desert with the robots engaging in simulated coitus and imaginary baby-rearing, but it extends to the Forest King and the machines’ lack of understanding of how humanity grows up and matures.

Beauvoir, the robot obsessed with beauty, is a good example of this. She initially appears as a creepy doll boss with corpses hanging from her dress and crucified on crosses. But the second time you fight her you get her backstory – the spreading of myths amongst machines, her desire for another machine translating into adopting the human concept of beauty, her realisation of the fault in her thinking too late – helps to contextualise her behaviour now that you’ve gone through the first playthrough and understand that the machines are attempting to emulate humans. She knows that being beautiful is a way of attracting a potential partner, but she has no concept of what beauty is, only the actions undertaken by humans to achieve ‘beauty’. Beauvoir’s final form is in some way pretty (minus the android corpses), but it is a very human form of beauty and at odds with the look of the machines.

The robots attempting to emulate familial and social units are probably the most interesting aspects of the machines’ evolution. In many cases they are emulating those units without understanding why they do so, yet understand that they are more satisfied in those units than alone. Related is the idea that for some machines being disconnected from the network connecting all the machines is more desirable than staying connected, despite the human issues of not being able to understand each other except by talking. Yet it makes sense, in that the disconnnected machines of Pascal’s village are the closest to understanding human behaviour and emotions precisely because they share the disconnectedness from others that humans face, and if they desire to emulate humanity they would desire to disconnect.

Which leads me to Adam and Eve. Eve understands the concept of hatred, yet is also the manifestation of half of the machine network. Is this because all the machines have suffered from loss at the hands of the androids? Eve’s hatred stems from the concept of family and the death of his brother. Do the machines understand the concept of family? We are also given the example of the little brother machine attempt to revive his dead older brother at the beginning of 9S’ playthrough. But by contrast, the Forest Kingdom don’t appear to understand what a family is, but innately understand that it is a good concept and somehow establish loyalty to each other and to the King.

It is this weird yet engrossing take on the machines emulating and achieving human traits, or failing to achieve in many cases, that really ties the first few playthroughs for me. But then you move onto your next playthrough…

The Weight of the World: [E]ndgame spoilers

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Again, ENDGAME SPOILERS. Do not read if you plan to play this game and have not finished yet.

The greatest triumph of this game is that it made me want a happy(-ish?) ending, and then it told me that I could help other people get that happy ending… for the price of my progress. In a repetition of the great choice in Nier Gestalt/Replicant to save Kaine, Nier: Automata asks you if you want to assist other people achieve ending [E] – by deleting all your save games. And that ending was so satisfying for me that I wanted to help other people.

It helped that I could backup my save though…

But I really want people to achieve ending [E]. Not only was I so emotionally invested in 2B and 9S (and A2 to a lesser extent) that I was tearful at [E], but that sequence to achieve it is an amazing use of the game’s structure and music. It is the satisfying climax to the multiple playthroughs that could have broken this game. After achieving endings [A] to [D] the pods ask if you want to save the three androids. To do so you have to engage in a hacking sequence fighting the credits themselves, that you have presumably sat through three times by now. But not only that, each time those credits played you got the English, Japanese and Chaos versions, and now they combine for a medley that climaxes in all three choruses combining when you accept help from those kind strangers that sacrificed their save files for you.

But lets talk playthrough C/D. This part eats the heart out of Metal Gear Solid V’s Chapter 2. Each moment in that playthrough, beginning with the Bunker’s destruction and 2B’s death, were an attack on nearly every character you had some attachment to in the first two playthroughs. Even in death 2B was not spared from additional suffering, or at least my understanding of her suffering. The Amnesia sidequest is an amazing foreshadowing of not only 2B’s true role as 2E, but also the mental break that 9S suffers. Knowing that 2B has been killing 9S over and over again, harkens back to my post on A Certain Magical Index. I am a sucker for stories about continuous cycles of suffering, and 2B adds a tragic love to that cycle.

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Beyond that you had the revelations behind the YoRHa project, the fate of the Popola and Devola models as a result of the events of the first Nier (and the return of the library from that game), and the gradual development of A2. With the latter I am still unsure as to A2’s reasons for keeping 2B’s promises – whether out of a sense of duty to her memory, redemption, or some feeling related to the Pearl Harbour infiltration – but it doesn’t matter. Her actions in following 9S into the tower and communicating 2B’s message were enough to make me smile when she appeared on the windowsill in the [E] ending.

Finally, we have the Pods. Where you had the machines attempting to emulate humanity and the androids created in humanity’s image yet struggling with their sense of self, the Pods are logical machines… who eventually develop the early seeds of emotions with very satisfying timing. Pod 042 refusing to delete the YoRHa data is the start of the [E] ending, and a really powerful moment in itself. Whereas I expected the machines and androids to be central in the examination of what it means to be human, I was not expecting the support Pods to also be involved in that theme. It is their actions that lead to that most wonderful ending, and their words that end this game on a positive note.

In no other medium could you have multiple playthroughs that conclude in the way Nier: Automata do. In no other game has your satisfaction in reaching the final ending been so dependent on the generosity (or backup plans) of others. Nier: Automata is one of the most captivating and most memorable games I have ever played.

It is something you must play for yourself.

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