Nier, to Me

First and foremost, I must warn you that this article most certainly will contain spoilers and ending details for Nier Automata. It’s nearly impossible to divorce any discussion of the maximum value of this game from the unprecedented ending and the decision it imposes upon you.

What may seem like a gimmick if described out of context stands as a poignantly crafted climax to a strange rollercoaster of an adventure. In the concluding moments of the game, upon overcoming an unusual final challenge, the player is faced with a choice that means sacrificing all that has been gained over the course of the game. In return, the player will be comfortable in the knowledge that another player has been lent a helping hand.

Yoko Taro, creator of both Nier and previous Square Enix series Drakengard, is known for his criticisms of gaming as a culture and an industry via gameplay as an art. The man himself is a bit unusual, preferring to conduct interviews in a mask or represented by a hand puppet. He’s not your typical poster boy for the Japanese video game industry.

His previous games include the original Nier, which came in two flavors, telling two very similar sides of a story set thousands of years prior to Automata. While Automata can be enjoyed without having played the previous installment, I found it beneficial to watch videos detailing the events of Nier and other media, of which there are many, that take place in the same universe.

Nier Automata takes place in a far future where Earth has been overrun by machine lifeforms (automata?) built by alien invaders. The invasion was successful to the point that humans have fled to the moon and left the defense of Earth in the hands of an android army known as YoRHa. The story centers around two YoRHa units, 2B and 9S, and their ongoing attempt to dismantle the machine network that currently holds dominion over the Earth.

The game is completed in three playthroughs. Once you believe yourself to have completed the game and experienced the credits, you are told to play it again. Each time you experience a new story or perspective, expanding your knowledge of the history of the world around you.

2B, the android the player controls during the first run through the game, is designated as a battle type android (hence the B in her name). Her name (2B/”to be”) also reflects the existentialist themes that can be found throughout the game. We’ll go over that later. Suffice it to say, there is more to this character than meets the eye.

The player controls 9S through the second run of the game, which mirrors the first run through his perspective. 9S is a scanner android with a natural curiosity to fuel his need to seek out information. He is also adept at hacking, which plays a major part in the gameplay of the second and third run.

The third run takes place after the concurrent events of the first two runs of the game. At this point a major victory has been achieved over the machine network and the war between YoRHa and the invaders has only escalated. Also at this point the player, via 9S’s hacking abilities and inherent curiosity, has learned some devastating truths about the setting and events of the game world.

The Philosophy of Automata

The prevalence of philosophy in this game is just short of heavy-handed. Jean-Paul, a character literally named after a real philosopher, acts as one among the machine lifeforms and discusses the tenets of existentialism quite directly. The game can be played without exploring this character very deeply, but understanding Jean-Paul and his relationship with his many fans enriches the story of another character the player encounters in the main events of the game.

Much closer to the surface of the lore encountered during the main story is the series of uncomfortable truths the player encounters as the game progresses. Deep into the first run of the game it is discovered that the aliens who created the machine lifeforms have long since been destroyed, leaving the machine lifeforms alone to continue their invasion while their initial purpose no longer exists. In this way the game challenges the notion of essence and meaning by exploring the objectives of the machines once their original purpose is long destroyed.

The second challenging revelation occurs when 9S discovers that the androids share the same fate as the machine lifeforms. As he digs deeper into the YoRHa database, he is confronted with the reality that humans, as well, have been extinct for thousands of years, long before the aliens even came. It is then that the player becomes aware of the futility of the trail of violence that has decorated the adventure so far.

Over the course of the game it also becomes apparent that the machine network is evolving to emulate human behavior. It begins in awkward uncanny valley phases, machines practicing human phrases and emotions without much context, until a group of them come together to literally birth two machines in human form. The human machines begin exploring human culture and refer to themselves as Adam and Eve, despite both appearing conventionally masculine.

These revelations all occur in the first two playthroughs, leaving the third playthrough open to bring the pieces together. After shedding light on the dark secrets that plague the history of this barren future, what remains is to complete the story of the characters, all of which have lost what they believed to be their purpose. Even then the game refuses to let go of the lesson it intends to teach. The best is yet to come.

Difficulty and Subversion

Let’s take a break from discussing the plot to discuss the gameplay and inevitably weave it into a theory about the overall themes of the game. The game plays mostly like a hack-and-slash action RPG. Melee attacks are a simple button press away, requiring no cool-downs or turn orders. Meanwhile, ranged attacks are available via a droid that essentially orbits you throughout the game.

As the game progresses, you are increasingly required to time ranged and melee attacks properly while artfully dodging a bullet hell style barrage of enemy projectiles. Some portions of the game are, in fact, played entirely with space shooter mechanics that transition from 2D to 3D movement.

I’d never call myself a hardcore gamer so it’s no surprise that I struggled, but I still feel confident calling this a very difficult game. That is, unless you exploit a system built to allow the game to essentially play for you. You can install upgrades to your characters that completely automate all of your fights. Furthermore, you have access to those upgrades from practically the beginning of the game.

That’s right — you can automate almost every fight in the game so that you’ll essentially never lose. Although this feature is only available in the easy difficulty setting, it lends itself to a profound statement for players who may otherwise struggle with the chaotic war zones encountered, especially in late game battles.

I’ll be the first to admit I made heavy use of the auto-chips. As I said before, I’m not a hardcore gamer, but I really wanted to fully experience the story of the game. As the story proceeded, however, and I began to realize the futility of my mission, I was nonetheless blind to the fact that I only numbed myself to the entirely meaningless mass slaughter I had enacted.

Ultimately, when you are faced with the final battle to end all battles, your auto-chips are taken away from you, regardless of difficulty setting.

The argument regarding video games as art is that, in order for a video game to be considered art, it must make an artistic statement using a technique that cannot be done with other media. For example, Automata may provide a statement through its narrative, but practically all other forms of media can craft narrative. Where Automata succeeds in leveraging gaming for art is in the way these gameplay mechanics are inexorably linked to the themes of the narrative.

The Weight of Your Actions Incarnate

The third run of the game ends when the remaining two androids, having both lost sight of their purpose in some way, must face one another. The player must choose who to side with and kill the other. This is not the end, however, as the player must go back and choose the other side as well in order to unlock the true ending as the motives of either character are ultimately arbitrary. Herein does not lie the game’s greatest lesson.

When I first reached the ending of the third run, having chosen my side between the two androids, I told my friend who had played the game previously. He’s the one who told me I had not yet completed the game. He said, in fact, that I was “close” to beating it.

Upon completing both scenarios, you are faced with your greatest and perhaps strangest foe — the credits!

Yes, in order to truly complete the game you must destroy the names of real people who really worked on creating the thing you’ve spent hours enjoying. You fight the credits in classic space shooter style with no upgrades available. The game appears to give you no avenue to make this battle any easier. As you die repeatedly, you find yourself inching closer and closer to what seems at times like an impossible conclusion.

Then the game throws you a bone. You are offered support from others who have played and beat the game. Upon accepting this assistance, you are notified each time you are destroyed that someone’s data has been erased to protect you.

You are suddenly reintroduced to the weight of your violence. While destroying the names of real people who worked on the game, you are shielding yourself with the hard work of other real people who’ve played the game.

Several Endings, One Victory

If you make it through the grueling battle, which you inevitably will if you accept the assistance offered to you, you are posed with the question of whether you’d like to offer similar assistance to others in need. All you are required to do is delete your save data and remove every trace of the hours you spent toiling away at the game, ridding yourself of all your progress.

Having caused so much senseless destruction, you are offered the chance to make it all worth something. You are offered a chance to create your own purpose in what may be an otherwise meaningless existence. This is not only redemption but so much more. This is proof that you’ve learned the lesson of the game.

So when I confidently consented to the deletion of all my progress, I felt comfortable in the knowledge that I had made a purpose out of my actions. Despite the game’s constant attempts at changing your mind, making it clear that you can’t choose who you’re going to help and that you may help someone who doesn’t appreciate it, I had no qualms with my decision.

I now find myself telling my friend who had previously played the game, who chose not to sacrifice himself, that he is only “close” to completing the game.

To truly beat Nier Automata is to vanquish the monster of nihilism that so often walks undeservedly hand-in-hand with existentialism. The final boss is not the credits you destroy. It is the save data, the fabrication of meaning built around the lie of predestination. Once you have let go of the illusion of outward meaning, you have truly experienced everything the game has to offer.

In an unexpectedly optimistic turn of events, Yoko Taro has taught us that meaning does not have to be handed to us by others. It can be found in the hefty decisions we make day by day.

My name is Mark Thomas McLaughlin and I’d be lying if I said every fiber of my being wasn’t aching to return to the world of Automata.