Yoko Taro, the team at Platinum Games and Square-Enix may have created a true work of art in NieR: Automata.
NieR: Automata, published by Square-Enix and developed by Platinum Games, is the second entry in the NieR timeline of the Drakengard (or Drag-on Dragoon) games. In the month of being released, it has sold over 1 million copies and has gained a considerable cult following in the gaming world. But what is quite remarkable about this title isn't its sale stats, or how good of a game it is, it is that it is truly the greatest argument that video games can be taken as a serious art form.
Much like most people, I went into NieR: Automata not knowing much about the game and its history at all. On the recommendation of a few friends that are fans of the franchise, and Platinum Games' good name in making memorable action titles, I opted to pick this gem up only if I could find it a significantly reduced price due to some of the heavy criticisms of the previous entries in the franchise. Namely, those in the Drakengard portions of the series. I had previously tried to play the first game but dropped it after an hour due to how amazingly terrible it was.
Fortunately, I was able to find Automata at an amazingly reduced price on Green Man Gaming (with their sign-up promotion, combined with a further 5% off voucher I found on Google), and bought it on the spot. I have to say that I went into this expecting a terrible game with solid action mechanics. Instead, I was-- quite simply-- drawn into this remarkable world with truly memorable moments, characters, and of course, immense pain and suffering.
How is it that a video game could make a person feel so much emotion? I've never played an action game, an RPG, or any kind of game really, that literally made me cry on more than one occasion. I'm not the type to be drawn into a horror game, I don't usually connect to a protagonist in an RPG, and I can watch guts splatter across a screen and not even bat an eye. Yet here I was, drawn into the incredibly human story, ironically told using robots and androids, that made me genuinely feel for the characters and the scenario.
To really examine this, I want to talk a bit about my experiences playing the game, so this may contain some spoilers for people that haven't played it. Not that they make a difference, this is a game that somehow works well even if you're expecting certain things to happen. What you read kinda just sits in the back of your mind while you're playing and somehow makes the pain worse. It's kinda interesting.
The Route A Discussion
The game opens with you taking control of a hardened combat android with the looks and graces of a gothic lolita ballerina. Her name is 2B and is she is a sexy badass. With twin-swords in hand, she mercilessly wrecks enemy machines that, at first glance, just seem like brain-dead mooks... much like in any other video game. However, by the end of the opening level, you've met and seen killed her companion android, a shota-styled boy named 9S.
What's interesting about their relationship in this opening level isn't that they are partners, it's the hints that there is more behind them two than the game lets on. While playing this opening level, it is as though both 2B and 9S have met for the first time in their relationship. You can tell that this is so from how 9S introduces himself to 2B, and that while he tries to build a level of camaraderie, 2B rebuffs his advances by being incredibly cold. "Emotions are prohibited," she tells him.
What's interesting here is that by the end, she is crying over his broken body and is willing to sacrifice herself alongside him for the sake of the mission, almost as though her actual emotions for the android boy, whom she had just met, had been developed over a much longer period. Somehow, watching their bond grow over the course of the level makes the end moment strong, but when you consider the implications more in-depth and take into account that not many people on their first meeting would feel so strongly, it becomes apparent that there is much more to their relationship which makes it more sad, because it means that at least one of them is hiding something.
While this opening moment wasn't the strongest in impact, it set the tone for the game in that it may not just be the action game that people were expecting. Of course, we had all seen cheap emotional moments in action films and the like, so it was still possible that this would just be a slightly perverted action game, considering the looks of the seeming main character and her finely shaped booty. So, it wouldn't have been too bad if the title was just explosions and cheap romance. But no... it definitely isn't that at all.
One of the things that the game slowly builds you into is that these machines that you took for faceless mooks may not actually be as faceless and mooky as you thought. As you progress through the story, you meet various characters that at first seem a little strange and out of place. Slowly though, characters like the machine, Pascal, become more like caricatures of human emotions that really start to play on your own thoughts. After a while, and after being thrown into intense situations, these machines feel more like people than even 2B or the other androids.
It's not just side-character variant machines like Pascal and his family in the forest, and their tragedy, that makes you feel. As you progress through the game, you are consistently increasingly barraged with the cries of the enemies you encounter and destroy. At first the machines don't do much, they just kind of stare blankly at you until you mercilessly slaughter them for experience points and loot, as, after-all, it's completely justified murder for they are your mortal enemies in an endless war. However, they eventually do start to talk, and it becomes apparent that many of them feel a familial bond with each other that you have have walked into and destroyed.
This theme really becomes apparent once you enter a desert boss fight with two machine-made androids named Adam and Eve. When you first enter the zone that they are found in, you will notice some rather interesting robots. At a glance, they are your usual faceless mook types, but if you pay attention, you can clearly see that they are trying to breed with each other. As in, they are mirroring the way humans breed. What's interesting here is that they all do manage to combine and give birth to new beings in Adam and Eve. Through these two characters across the story, we can see a human face to put onto the machines and the pain that they feel having been invaded and destroyed for a war they have long forgotten as pointless.
All the while the world is constantly bombarding you with these messages of painful feelings, you have 2B and 9S' relationship slowly growing along too. At some point, you don't quite realise when, you've become attached to the two of them as a team. Maybe it's because humans naturally bond over time and this is reflected in games where you are partnered up. After-all, I became solidly attached to Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V as well, simply because I used her as my main companion. Perhaps the team making the game were kind of aware of this phenomenon, and with the hints of a building relationship, were able to create a stronger image in the mind of the player.
It seems like everything in this game is timed to be reached at the perfect moment to create distress in the player themselves. For example, in a battle with the previously mentioned Adam and Eve one is killed by the player. This sets Eve off to become a murderous and homicidal machine hellbent on taking revenge for his deceased brother. Unlike in other games though, you can somehow feel Eve's immense pain. This is possibly due to how the times you've seen them have been quite charming despite them being caricature villains. It seems as though they may be a parody of over-the-top pretty boy bad guys. This is exemplified through Adam's kidnapping of 9S after an emotive and extreme battle.
I don't know why, but not having 9S there really affected me. It was as though I had lost half of myself after that fight. I wanted 9S back, not because it is right to rescue a comrade, nor because the game was telling me it was what I was supposed to do, but because I genuinely wanted him back to satisfy my own ego. It was lonely without that shota, and I'm not even into that stuff. Adam was gunna be murdered, because he stole my shota from me. And he was. It was very self-reflecting, particularly how the game talks about this very issue as you are fighting him.
After all of this buildup over time, you aren't just playing a game anymore. The game is pecking at your subconscious, making you consider the actions that you're taking. Yet, you don't want to stop. For some reason, you want to continue fighting these machines, you want to uncover the truth behind the world, you want to save your android friends and protect humanity. Even as the cries of the machines that you slaughter play in your subconscious. This is particularly true when for when you reach the forest zone for the first time.
You learn that these Forest Kingdom machines had separated themselves from the machine network long ago and started their own kingdom. When you first hear about them, they are made out to be bad guys and so you are justified in killing them by your friend, Pascal, the caring and nurturing machine that is a clearly a guy with a womans voice. He states that they have been harassed by them in the past and have built a gate to separate themselves from the kingdom. And so, because of this, you feel justified in your killings. As flimsy as a justification as it is, it is enough to feel okay with going on a killing spree against them.
What's shocking here is that they see you as the invading force when you enter the forest. They just want to be left alone and are willing to defend their kingdom to protect their family with their lives. The voice acting for these machines, particularly in the Japanese language, can get downright distressing. These machines don't just give stock lines, the voice actors really go so far as to even want to do look more like they actually have something to fight for. This sound of genuine distress in some of the machines is quite off-putting the first time you hear it. You start to consider if maybe a killing-spree isn't the wisest choice of action. And then you kill them all anyway for experience points and loot because they're game monsters and you justify it to yourself that way.
After a bit of a climb, you discover some interesting things about them that make you feel rather bad for the slaughter. But you consider also, they tried to kill you. They had been harassing Pascal. It is okay to murder them. Are humans really such easy monsters to create? We can take a flimsy excuse to kill something and just roll with it.
In this initial run with 2B, you really only see the surface layer of what you're seeing, doing and hearing. This reflects 2B's action oriented nature of putting feelings below, or behind, the job at hand. She is a killing machine designed to murder these machine lifeforms and not feel anything about it.
However, much like the opening level of the game, the ending battle sees her once again lose her one and only companion 9S. She can't withhold the feelings that she has for the android, and as an audience, we identify 9S as a companion of our own and we feel similarly bad for his eventual passing. Then suddenly it's End of Evangelion tier suffering, but with a bright and bittersweet ending that has so much cheese that you can't help but feel happy to see 9S' memory live on.
And then after the credits roll, you do it all over again, but this time from the perspective of 9S. The character you have come to care about the most through a single playthrough of NieR: Automata. This time around though, it's not just the exact same game but with a different character, it's a similar game as told through the eyes of a completely different person.
The Route B Discussion
9S, due to his function as a Scanner and not a Battle type of android, sees the world much differently to the way that 2B does. And we see this as early as the opening level of the second playthrough. 2B's playthough was designed to be a cursory glance at the world and its themes. These are conveyed to the player in passively through the guise of meaningful interaction in combat. Unlike 2B and her two swords, 9S is much worse at direct combat but has the ability to plug himself into the minds of enemy robots. So, he sees and hears things that 2B cannot, and this second playthrough acts as a reinforcement of the themes felt only on a cursory level within the first playthrough.
You know that this is the case as immediately on the second route of this game, you already see the kinds of deep relationships between the machines within the first few seconds. Instead of the high-octane action sequence found in 2B's run, you instead start the game at the slow pace of a machine that has lost his brother to scrap. As the player, you control this robot as you try to repair your brother in futility. Once you take control of 9S, he sees this and remarks on how dumb it is. But you, as a player, probably can't help but feel the opposite of 9S. You feel as though he is a bit of an ass, but yet, you know this can't be the case as you previously tried so hard to save him.
This kind of sequence plays into another level of themes that are introduced into this playthrough. It's that not every character is as they seemed the first time around. You get that extra small look into matters and characters that you didn't as 2B, and it really conveys more appropriately the level of complexities that actual characters have. This isn't to say that all characters are the opposites of themselves in comparison to the first route, but, there is just that tiny bit of additional info that gives more depth to what you've just seen previously.
Gameplay-wise, the story advances the same way as it did in the run of 2B, but what really makes this run exceptional is all of this bonus content as 9S. Throughout 9S' run, you'll be treated to additional dialogue from each enemy that further enforces their humanity, but it's more than this. Each level has a kind of backstory that was unseen the first time around.
These backstories are told in the form of short cartoons that set the background for what you've seen before. Even more, while it's not made apparent if 9S is directly seeing these due to his abilities, or if they're being forced onto him, he (and by extension, the player) are able to learn some rather chilling details about certain characters that they meet and kill throughout the game.
The most chilling example in NieR: Automata, in my opinion, is the opera singer boss, Simone. Her backstory begins when you enter the abandoned theme park level as 9S, and you get a small tale about how she would go through the motions of beautifying herself to appease an asshole bloke machine. What makes this most chilling though, isn't the story itself, it's that after you defeat her, you are given what seems like a snippet of her memories. Looking into the mind of another person is probably a horrifying ordeal in itself, but now, you're being forced to watch how this warped machine came to be warped in the first place. She became vain in the hopes of wooing a man. She sacrificed and murdered many to attain her goal. And ultimately, it was all for nothing. Her beauty was just a mask. Behind it all was a truly monstrous character, hiding and beautifying herself to seem attainable.
She wanted so badly to create the image that she believed another wanted to see in herself. But truly, living to this ideal is a madness in itself. And through Simone's actions, we can see the futility in working hard to achieve something, only for it to blow up in our faces at the end. What is left after that besides madness and depression? Her story is truly a reflection in the hearts of some humans, and even if you yourself are not like that, there are still parts of yourself you can ascribe to this story. Perhaps it is not vanity you were seeking, but the completion of a model, or some task at work, just something deep and personal to you that didn't work out in the end. You could have ended up as Simone, murdering machines and androids as a coping mechanism. This reflection is most chilling indeed.
Nier: Automata's use of extremes in emotion are often used to amplify the feeling a scenario. But, it never quite feels like the game is forcing you to think or feel a certain way about it. At no point does 9S remark on these images in an emotive way. At no point are you told that you should feel sadness, remorse, pity or any other kind of emotion. What you feel as a player, an observer and a participant in these scenarios is entirely your own personal response.
Each of the main missions that took place in the Route A playthrough with 2B has points like this within them while replaying them as 9S in the Route B run. These extra bits of information reinforcing each scenario that much more and putting so much more pressure on the player to consider things. It's not just these scenarios on their own though, it's the build-up of each one before it adding onto the next, as well as the passive information given from side-quests, overreacting enemies, and characters that you meet along the way that really amplify everything in your mind.
What's most interesting about this mental buildup is that when you-- playing as 9S-- get kidnapped by Adam, are treated to what was going on to 9S mentally at the time. 9S, and as a result, you the player, are kind of mentally probed by Adam as a kind of torture. You're not quite sure when it is that 2B will come to your rescue, but you're also fighting for your own survival through a hacking minigame.
While this is not truly indicative of a struggle, it does massively convey the futility of trying to save yourself from your own mind while in captivity. Afterall, 9S is hacking himself in this scene. Adding onto this though, is Adams dialogue exchange with 9S. As the player now identifies with the android, the probing questions Adam throws his way also kind of plays on your own mind as a player too. To reinforce this in the strongest way, Adam's final question to you "You wish to **** 2B, don't you?" really does get into the players own head. A lot of people in forums believe the censored word is 'fuck', but the game uncensors that word in other areas. So truly, this final question pierces the players own mentality.
Much like in reality, 9S' run is filled with finding small bits of information on the world, as well as the scenarios that the game puts you through. Similarly to 9S, we as people will never know the complete and true story of something. We can only judge and react based on the snippets of information made apparent to us. How we react to that is a reflection of ourselves really, and this is something that art does. It allows us to impose our own ideals onto something, and makes us truly reflect on them. 9S' playthrough of the story achieves this well. And it is apparent right from the start of his run that this isn't just an action game, it is going to be a work of art.
The Route C,D and E Discussion
The third (and fourth) run of this game is the most important part of NieR: Automata as a work of art. It combines the feelings conveyed in both Route A and Route B and then makes you lose control of them. Everything that you've come to love and enjoy in this game crashes down around you. Everyone and everything that you thought you knew were lies.
The girl you worked so hard to save as 9S? Dead. The children of Pascals village you worked so hard to save? Murdered by machines and driven Pascal insane. The lovable 9S? Twisted by intense hatred for the girl that 2B sacrificed herself to.
It's actually this character, A2, that serves as a point of stability for the player. It is through her eyes that we come to see how twisted reality has become. As a character that had previously been in control of her own battle against the machines, waging countless excursions to slaughter them, having the player take control of her puts her into situations she would have otherwise never seen another side of. In a way, it is due to the players will that we see character arcs end the way that we do.
The loving character, Pascal, is forced to find a new home for his family of machines after they are attacked in their village by warring berserk machines. As we, the players, have become attached to the loving Pascal and his family, we are saddened to see them attacked and slaughtered, and so we opt to help them find a new home. Unfortunately, they're tracked down there too and attacked. It is here that we see Pascal and his pacifism finally pushed to its limits and he goes berserk himself. This is too strong a reflection of being pushed to the limits and something that we can all relate to.
But this relation is an opportunity for self reflection. Here we take control of Pascal himself and get to unleash our feelings upon the invading enemies. We feel completely justified in doing so, we've lost everything and these are the people responsible for it. Should they be allowed to live while the people we care about have died? No. Of course, different players will have different reactions to this, and it does truly make us question whether a persons ideals can suddenly be pushed to the side as long as it suits whatever justification we make for it in our minds.
After pushing our ideals aside and returning to check on the remaining children, we find that they too have been slaughtered. It is in this moment that we re-assume control of A2 and are given the choice on Pascal's fate. If someone asks you to end their life for them, do you accept their proposal? What is the morality in erasing another persons memories? Or do you wash your hands of it all, you've done all that you can, and leave the person in pain behind to deal with their own problems?
These are the three solutions you are given to assist Pascal in his lament. Is there a right answer here? I don't think so. I don't think there is a wrong answer either. It is what it is: a painful choice given to us under completely relatable circumstances. I suppose that many of us would choose the option that we would like done to us in that situation. I personally walked away from Pascal the first time. It's not my choice to make whether he lives or dies. He has to choose that for himself. Forcing someone else to choose your fate is completely unfair on them and puts them in a position that they never asked for.
This point in the narrative is interesting because it is a splitting point in the story. Players see the results of the world through the eyes of A2, but we can also switch to 9S at various points to get a look into his increasing despair. In my opinion, 9S is truly relatable as a character in this third arc. How would any of us react if the love of our lives was ripped apart in front of us? If given the opportunity to just unleash that sheer hatred upon the world, would we do it?
9S, in this part of the story, is the character that we want to be when we lose everything that we have. Actually, all of the prominent characters in this chapter are. But, as we control 9S, it is almost a catharsis to be able to just unleash upon the world, justified or not. Through 9S, we are given the opportunity to release all of our bent up emotions that are quite possibly just laying dormant in the back of our subconscious somewhere.
Or maybe for some of us, this is a really reflective opportunity to watch the results of what would have happened if we caved to our emotions and just let loose. After-all, every characters that does (including 9S), meets with a tragic fate when they do. Even more interestingly, we see 9S --and by reflection, ourselves-- become much more like Eve, who we had only just killed for becoming out of control much earlier. Fittingly, 9S is able to receive the same fate at the end.
I could talk all day about scenarios and how they reflect on ourselves as players, and how deeply they affect us on an emotional level. But honestly, if you've played the game, you'll know exactly what I mean already. So that brings me to the final point that I want to talk about, and that is how futile all of events in the game actually are.
Revelations, Philosophy and the Meaning of Life
Eventually you will learn the exact reasons for the war of the machines and the androids. Why it has been going on for as long as it has, and even, the truth behind the player characters themselves and their place within the world. It is not a pretty revelation, it is actually quite depressing. And even so, these characters have no idea and simply make the most out of their tortured life and find meaning within themselves and each other.
The revelation that spins everything onto its head is that the androids had long since the won war against the machines, but had kept them alive as a method of retaining a purpose within their lives. Without the purpose of protecting the last of the humans, another falsified idea, they found that androids simply stopped functioning. And so, they manufactured a prolonged war in order to keep their own race alive. What's interesting here is that after events of so long is that the machines eventually evolved more human traits and were able to reclaim ground against the androids. It seems that they were also keeping the androids alive to keep an ongoing enemy to force their own evolution.
This points to many philosophical questions about the meaning of life, the purpose of a collective people, and the purpose of the self. If it is your job to kill all the machines to protect humanity, is it right to continue fighting once it is revealed to all be a sham? If your very existence relies on a perpetual enemy, do you not just simply create more pain for yourself and others? These questions, and more, are things we ask ourselves from these revelations. We see the futility of the war through the characters in the game, which casts everything with yet another light.
Finally, at the end, you are given a choice by the revived Adam and Eve about joining a machine ark on a voyage into the stars. To start again and find a new purpose in life. Is it right to carry this war to another world? Should you stay behind to die and finally end the cycle? Or does your life have meaning as long as you have someone to share it with?
I believe that this is one of the core aspects of NieR: Automata. You need to rely on yourself, but also, you need to rely on meaning and purpose given by others. This meaning is exemplified through the end credits of the game in the final E ending. You are given the task of fighting a bullet-hell style shooter against the end credits, often being curb-stomped by the Marketing and PR department (surprise!) until you are given the option to accept help from another players data. It is okay to try to do things alone, but often, life is easier and more meaningful with another person there.
And, before doing this final battle, you are given the option to make someone elses ending experience that much more meaningful by sacrificing your own save data so that they might succeed. Sometimes, we all need someone to give us that helping hand in life. This ending sequence really does drive this point, and I believe one of the main points of the game, home.
A game as reflective and philosophical as NieR: Automata, in my opinion, couldn't be any less than a true form of art. The creator gives you this image, or set of images, to derive meaning from. This meaning isn't forced upon us, but rather, created through our own thoughts and experiences through the reflection of what it is that we're seeing and doing within the game. Everyone will take away something different from this title, and even if they don't find it as artistic and emotional as some of us have. At least they will have pretty android booty to ogle the entire way through.
One more for the booty lovers among us.
This article has been cross-posted to MCXV