NieR: Automata – Using the Full Potential of the Video Game Medium
Before we get started
I’m going to start this article off by stating a few things. One, this is me talking about an incredibly impactful video game first, and a review second. I don’t really even want this to be a review but it kind of just works out that way. Two, I have a lot I want to say about this game and I can’t fit it all into one article. So, I’m splitting this into two separate articles. The first part is going to talk about NieR: Automata’s masterful usage of the video game medium and how it became the most important game I have ever played. The second part will look into the philosophical questions that NieR: Automata poses, and my attempts to cover them all and do my best to answer them. And three, a counter-intuitive warning to give. As much as I would love for you to read my article, if even the smallest part of you is thinking about playing this game, please stop reading this article. Experience the game for yourself and be better for it. I’ll be here when you get back.
With that out of the way, if any of you are left, let’s dive in.
Video Games as a story-telling device.
One of the best things about a video game is its power to place you into its story better than any other medium. It’s a big part of the reason so many people, myself included, are so passionate for video games, because the stories they tell are our stories. Each one is unique to the individual because we are the main character. By allowing me to control the actions of a games avatar, I become a key component of the story. I am able to inject my personality onto the character I control, thus giving me a personal connection to the story. Whether the player realizes they are doing this or not, the effect is the same.
Some games take this really far, letting every minuscule detail of ones actions affect the outcome, therefore giving an even more unique and personal experience. Other games keep it basic by simply giving you control of an avatar with its own personality and emotions. There is, however, a third way to bring the player into your story. By directly, bringing them into it. No, I don’t mean by having an overused fourth wall joke where someone winks at the camera or jokingly speaks to the players. I mean a deeper sense of self awareness. A game that is aware it cannot, and would not, exist if you didn’t choose to open up its program and play through it, giving it life and meaning. A game where you make an impact on the game as much as it makes one on you.
It can be a hard concept to understand, you may be saying, “That just sounds like some hyper-meta bullshit” to yourself right now. Sometimes that is all it amounts to, but it can be so much more than that.
What is NieR: Automata?
Before we can take a step further I need to give a bit of context to you on this game. I’m going to give a brief rundown on the game and then break things up into subsections, each talking about a different piece of the game. Okay? Cool.
NieR: Automata is a Hack-n-Slash JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game) that serves as a sequel to the fourth ending of the game NieR, which is a spin-off of the series Drakenguard’s fifth ending.
NieR: Automata is also, unabashedly, a very Japanese game. What does that mean you ask? Well, it means that the main character, 2B, is a hyper sexualized dominatrix in a fetish-y maid outfit. It means that you are given the ability to manipulate the camera so you can look up her skirt and stare at her ass whenever you want. Oh, and it means that she’s a robot.
If you know anything about me then you know this is the last type of game I would ever even consider picking up. I hate Hack-n-slashes, I hate diving into the middle of an already established series, and more than anything, I hate fan service-y bullshit.
This game would frequently appear while I was browsing around steam. I saw all the good reviews it was getting, and yet I passed it up every time. It was a bunch of crap that happened to have decent mechanics and an okay story. It’s unfortunate that I felt like that because that just meant I withheld myself from an amazing experience. It wasn’t until I read a quote from Jim Sterling, a journalist I hold in very high regard, that I changed my mind. “Few games are able to showcase the power of the medium like NieR: Automata. If history forgets this game, then fuck history.” Shocked at the brazen stance he was taking for this game, I had to at least give it a chance now.
Five minutes into the game I knew I had something incredibly special on my hands.
The prologue starts you off in a spaceship, the gameplay acting as a top-down bullet hell shooter, then it becomes a side scrolling one, then a 3rd person hack n slash, then a top down hack n slash, then side scrolling platformer..You get the idea. I was blown away. Not only was this game tossing its genre around like a rag doll. It was doing so seamlessly. Transitioning from one to the next in the blink of an eye, as if what it was doing was as normal as talking about the weather. The bulk of the gameplay takes place as an incredibly satisfying 3rd person hack-n-slasher that is loaded with a wide variety of weapons and tons of combos to pull off. The core gameplay loop and crazy genre flips are an achievement in itself and that alone was enough to keep me playing.
NieR: Automata is open world, which in this day and age is far from uncommon. However, NieR: Automata puts a unique spin on this too. Most open world games are way too big and have far too little to do in them, often leaving you with a lifeless, empty shell rather than a living breathing world that they claim to be. Even when a game does try to fill their world with things to do it comes down to meaningless busy work that makes a world feel even emptier than it did before. NieR’s world is very small and compact, which is better in every way if you ask me. Each piece of it feels deliberate and intentional. The smaller scale of the world gives you a comfortable familiarity with everything around you, adding weight as you see it being changed by your actions.
As you progress through the story hacking becomes a prominent component of the NieR. It poses itself as an 8-Bit bullet hell and is enjoyable enough, if not a little repetitive. The real interesting bit, however, is not when you hack enemies, it’s when enemies hack you. In certain cases, enemies will hack into you and disable some of your abilities or UI (User interface). They are literally hacking into your game and disabling mechanics, and it makes sense. 2B is an android so it’s not far-fetched to say that the enemies have systems in place to hack and disable the androids. There are few games out there that risk screwing with the player themselves for fear of taking them out of the immersion. However, when done right, it adds to the experience in a way that only a video game truly can.
If you stripped everything from NieR: Automata down to its simplest components but kept the soundtrack exactly as is, I guarantee you the game would still be remembered for many years. The music is something to behold. I’m listening to it right now as I write this. It’s hard to put into words, so please, stop reading for a minute, find some headphones, and listen to it for yourself:
Incredible I know. This is one of the first times I have ever felt music. In this particular song I can envision the peril the hero is facing, and the fear and hopelessness they feel. I also feel their refusal to surrender, not so much from hope or determination, but by an inability to turn back. They’ve come so far that the only option they have left is to go is forward. If that didn’t sound dorky enough then let me add that this music nearly brings me to tears just through its raw emotional power, even without the context of the game behind it.
It’s not even just this one song. Every song in NieR packs an emotional punch and tells a story. Most of the stories told are filled with despair, fitting with the themes of the game. NieR: Automata uses the music to show off it technical prowess, adding vocals or extra instruments to it depending on what you are doing.
Let me start by saying that NieR: Automata has 26 endings. Many of these are jokey endings but, in order to grasp the full scope of the story you need to complete at least the first five. Trust me when I say that’s not a bad thing. Each playthrough of the game is wildly different from the next. They offer new perspectives, insights and even continuations to the story, and new gameplay mechanics to work with. I’ve never seen a game tell its story in such a way and I find it fascinating. I think the purpose of the multiple playthroughs was to also drive home that feeling that the characters are stuck in an endless loop of death and destruction.
Okay, now we’re going to get into some story spoilers, mainly from the 5th ending. If you ignored my first warning but still have an interest in playing the game then this is your last warning. From here on out we’re getting spoilery. I’m going to try my best to keep the story summary as brief as possible, which might leave you fairly confused, but that’s okay. The story is quite complex and explaining it all here would take too long, which is why the second article exists.
We start by meeting the protagonist, 2B, a rigid combat android, and shortly after, her partner 9S, a peppy scanner android meant for intelligence gathering. 2B and 9S are part of a human created army of androids, named Project YoRHa. We learn that aliens have taken over Earth, with the use of an army of machines, forcing the remainder of humanity to the moon. Earth is now stuck in a proxy war between the alien’s machines, and humanities’ androids.
The story is very philosophical, something that is pretty rare to see in a video game. Not often is a game willing to tackle such heavy ideas for fear of scaring away or boring their audiences. Multiple playthroughs of the story teach us that machines are not the brainless killing machines we once thought them to be, that both sides creators no longer even exist, and that pretty much everything we do and believe in doesn’t matter, as we will be stuck to repeat the same miserable cycles over and over.
Until the games fifth, true ending.
The fifth ending is a face-off between 9S and A2 (an older YoRHa model that gets introduced in the third playthrough) in a strangely alien tower. 9S looking to get revenge on A2 for killing 2B, and A2 having no choice but to defend herself. The fight ensues and leads to the death of both androids. As 9S takes his final breaths he learns that the tower, once believed to be a cannon aimed at the human server on the moon, is actually an Ark that is going to fire the androids data into space, in the hopes someone out there will pick it up and they can live on. 9S chooses to stay behind and finally give himself peace. Cue credits.
The True Ending
I sat there looking at my screen as the credits rolled with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. 9S felt better, sure, but everyone was still dead. Then, text appeared over the credits. It was Pod 42 and Pod 153, companion bots that shoot and give you information as you play, and they were speaking directly to me. They had found the data for 2B, 9S, and A2 was still intact, and that they, against their programming, did not want to delete it. So, instead they asked me what to do. Do I delete the data and let the cycle of meaningless war and killings continue to repeat itself? Or do I salvage the data and save these character’s I’ve become so fond of. Of course I say I want to save the data. The credits then pause, and rewind to the beginning.
Suddenly I have a ship, and suddenly the credits are shooting at me. If I want this better, happier ending, I have to fight everyone who worked on the game in order to achieve it.
This fight is insanely difficult, arguably impossible. The credits are able to take a ton of damage while firing out hundreds of shots, and if only three hit me I die. Boy do I die a whole lot. Each time I die the game asks me if this is really what I want to do. Do I want to continue to struggle and suffer through all this, is it really worth it? However, as the game keeps trying to encourage me to give up, messages suddenly appear. Messages of encouragement, from all over the world. Messages left by other players who found themselves in the exact position I was currently in. They told me to keep fighting, don’t lose hope. They had faith in my ability.
Let me tell you these messages were shockingly profound. They are limited to specific phrases that you can piece together but the effect was all the same. They honestly gave me the will to keep trying. But even with the world cheering me on, I just couldn’t do it. It was so damn difficult. Then another message appeared. One of the players wanted to help me. I accepted the help and on the next attempt there were ships flying in next to me, forming a circle around me and firing at the credits with me. Suddenly, with the help of others, I was taking down the credits no problem. I defeated the credits and got a nice cutscene of 2B, 9S, and A2 being pieced back together, with the hope of a true, new beginning.
The black credit screen then returns and asks me if I want to leave a message of encouragement for someone else. Absolutely I do. It then asks if I want to help someone else who is struggling to get through the final fight. Yes, 100% yes. It then throws a twist at me. If I want to help someone else, it’s going to cost me my save file.
I was stunned. At this point I had put about 40 hours into my game. That’s a lot of work to be permanently taken away with the press of a button. I stopped and thought about it for a long while. As much as I love this game, as much time and dedication I had put into it, and as much as I wanted to keep playing, I wanted to do this. I was willing to lose it all in order to help a complete stranger, as others had done for me.
The game proceeds to ask many times if you really want to do this. It tells me that I will never get any recognition for this, I’ll never know who I help or when, I may not even like the person I help if I actually knew them. Despite all the warnings I proceeded. My data was then slowly and dramatically erased, line by line. The pods then sadly say their goodbyes and thank me for playing the game. The main menu appears, and I have the option to start a new game, nothing more.
It was the perfect ending to a perfect game.
Every single aspect of this game has been masterfully crafted and woven together to create the perfect gaming experience. It is ingeniously innovative, wonderfully self-aware, and profoundly philosophical. This game will stand the test of time and I can honestly say I don’t think anything will ever surpass it, perhaps not until the director, Yoko Taro’s next game. Jim Sterling’s quote about the game implied that there is a chance it will be forgotten. I, however, think NieR: Automata has already solidified itself in the history books as the perfect example of the power the video game medium possesses when in the hands of someone willing to take it to its limits and break away from the norms that we have gotten so used to in games. I know that I certainly will never forget this game for as long as I live. And on top of everything…
NieR: Automata has reminded me why I so passionately love games.