Disclaimer: In drafting this post, I felt I couldn’t properly explain the significance of this game to me without delving into personal territory. Reader discretion is advised: this post contains an unusually high dosage of sentimentality. For a game with lewd robots, no less.
On a more serious note, this post will include spoilers of NieR: Automata’s story. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
I really, honestly thought that 2017 would be the year of Persona 5. And it still was, for the most part. But there was another game released around the same time (in the West, at least) that came right the hell out of nowhere and, in a lot of respects, stole its thunder.
It is a game that also features stylish mechanics and boasts a highly evocative score. It is a game with storytelling tricks (in the service of a heartfelt plot that is completely bonkers on the surface) that I have literally never seen before, and more gameplay styles than your old copy of Super Monkey Ball. It is a game that, despite its distinctly Japanese flavor, seemed to enchant critics and strike a chord with the mainstream upon its release, to the tune of two million copies sold worldwide as of September 2017.
The game is NieR: Automata.
In early June, my grandmother was admitted to the hospital with a bout of pneumonia. We were nervous about this for one main reason: she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in late 2015, and her health never really improved from there. Once she was admitted to the ER for pneumonia, she never made it back to her house. She passed away about two weeks later.
I took time off from work to visit her while she was still in a lucid state. It was not a difficult decision to make, but it came with baggage. When my grandfather passed away four years ago, my mom, my brother and I were became pariahs. The day my grandfather died, the town he lived in stopped feeling like home. My grandmother was among those who made me feel like I didn’t belong. We were able to reconcile before she died, but it never reverted to the way it was. It wasn’t difficult to take the time to see her, but it was difficult to grapple with feeling like I wasn’t welcome.
My grandmother died on a Monday, but I stayed in town through Thursday to attend her funeral. I struggled a bit to find things to occupy my time. Having recently completed Persona 5, I had no new games to play. After hearing so much fanfare about it, I decided to pick up NieR: Automata at a local GameStop. Though I knew of his previous works, Automata is the first game designed by Yoko Taro that I’ve had the pleasure of playing.
The first thing to note is that the plot – or rather, the presentation of it – is brutal. It holds nothing back in painting a grim picture of the world before reaching a beautifully uplifting conclusion. You play as androids 2B, 9S, and A2, who are battling the more alienlike machines for control of earth. Far in the past, mankind and aliens battled on earth and later retreated. In seclusion, humans and aliens developed androids and machines, respectively, to fight on their behalf. Essentially, you are participating in a proxy war. As androids, you merely act in accordance with the will of your human counterparts. You don’t allow yourselves to feel or question the nature of what you see day-to-day.
It was really unsettling in my initial attempts to play through the game. The metaphor players are initially presented with is, frankly, a bit obvious. Androids vs. machines? Aren’t they the same thing? Duh, I would often think. It wasn’t an unsuccessful facet of the story, but because it’s such a surface-level metaphor, the opening hours of the story felt unsatisfying.
No, what made it really difficult for me to play the game was your regular interactions with the machines. As you start to play through 2B’s arc of the plot, you find that the machines have grown to be expressive. They share their fears, their thoughts, their hopes, and their dreams, with you and with their fellow machines. Some machines are openly afraid and long for their friends’ company. One machine you encounter longs to be beautiful, to attract the romantic interest of another. The central conflict may make you think, “but doesn’t that make them the same thing?” The game takes its time in its opening hours to show you that, yes, it does.
In fact, there were times where I felt like I was playing as the antagonist, rather than the protagonist. The game presents the androids as not just unfeeling but actually prohibited from sentimentality by their superiors. They react quite coldly to their environment. Only rarely do they inject any sort of feeling in their actions. Upon encountering a side character for the first time – only a dismembered head with no other body to speak of – your counterpart 9S nonchalantly says to you, “This thing’s weird, 2B. Let’s kill it!” Though these moments are played for laughs, they only made my stomach churn.
Seeing the ways machines would go act out of fear also didn’t help. One point near the end of Route A takes you to an old factory, where you meet machines that have found God and organized a religion of some sort. Once there, you find that they’ve become so fanatical that they believe they will become gods themselves, and after going berserk seek to fight you. Fighting through the factory, you come across a group of machines throwing themselves in a lava pit in the hopes of becoming closer to God. At that point, I had had enough. I powered through Route A (one of five routes you must play to experience the complete ending) and put the game away for a while. So soon after my grandmother’s death, the least comforting thing was a game eager to depict death so grimly. I couldn’t handle it.
Months later, after playing through other RPGs, I felt ready to revisit the game. Having spent time away from it, I started to miss playing the game. The story could be relentless, but it was genuinely fun to play, with style in spades. Around early November, I decided to pop it back in and play it to the end.
It was difficult to come back to, but once you get past the first arc of the plot, it starts to become something different altogether. For all the darkness you encounter in the story up to the final moments (from where I picked it back up, I had to endure the destruction of countless machines, losing my entire colony of androids to a stealth virus, and discovering that the human race I’ve been fighting on behalf of has actually been long extinct), it manages to end on an optimistic note. On a blank slate of sorts, the game spins all the negativity and bleak atmosphere into a story of being able to set out on your own path, to build your own future. Your Pod partners end the game on this quote (from 13:44 if the bookmark doesn’t work):
A future is not given to you. It is something you must take for yourself.
I find that really powerful. For all the ridiculous twists and turns this game takes you on, it turns out to be a thoughtful examination of life itself. For all the reviews I read at launch, I honestly did not expect it to go that route. I just thought it would be sad while still being fun to play. For the openly critical stance it takes on many philosophers, it was refreshing that the game gave you its own perspective. Rather than just scoff at everyone else’s ideas, it’s almost like it’s saying, “well, here’s what I think.” It’s a welcome gesture.
A lot is made of NieR: Automata being a game, rather than another form of art (i.e. a movie, book, etc.). I’ve encountered thinkpieces that argue its story wouldn’t be as satisfying if it were presented in any other form. I don’t really have a dog in that race – for me, personally, a lot of what made it so resonant for me is based on entirely unique circumstances. Its ideas of forging your own path and not letting your past define your future would have spoken to me just as much had it been made in another medium.
That said, I will also remember NieR: Automata as a game that was ridiculously fun from start to finish. It can be a mishmash of all kinds of styles (over the course of the game, it alternates between top-down shooter, 3D action RPG, 2.5D platformer, and even text-based adventure, with bullet hell sequences sprinkled liberally throughout) that sometimes seem antithetical to each other. The team at PlatinumGames (renowned for their action titles like Bayonetta and the Wonderful 101) manages to stitch it together in a coherent way. It can get a little frenzied from time to time, but being over the top is PlatinumGames’ MO at this point. I feel comfortable saying that NieR: Automata is their highpoint as a studio – and as someone who loved Bayonetta, that’s saying a lot. I could handle it if the story of NieR: Automata had been told as a movie, for instance, but I can’t say my life would be much better off if a comparable game didn’t exist in its place. It’s not hyperbole to say NieR: Automata is simply unlike any game I’ve ever played before.
That’s to say nothing of the rest of the game’s components, whether the incredibly dynamic score, the fantastic character designs (from Square Enix regular Yoshida Akihiko, the man behind designs for many Final Fantasy titles, among them Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn), the surprisingly stable framerate (on my dinky PS4 slim!), the smooth controls, and the living world you play in. Everything works well on its own, but together, they create a unique visual experience separate from other action games and, given Yoshida’s pedigree, even other RPGs.
I went into this game with no expectations. By the time I played it, I thought that Persona 5 would be my end-all-be-all, given the literal years of anticipation that one had under its belt. Even with that, this complete underdog of a game came from out of nowhere and wound up being an even more memorable, thoughtful, and entertaining experience. It snatched Persona’s wig, so to speak. Personal anecdotes aside, I’m sure this game would have been just as great without my unique circumstances as it is with them. I’m thrilled to see this game get the accolades that it is – it deserves every one of them and then some.
NieR: Automata is available on PS4 (in both physical and digital formats) and PC (via digital download). It was published by Square Enix and released in North America on March 7th, 2017, and it is rated M for Mature. You can purchase it for PS4 on Amazon and for PC on Amazon or Steam.