NieR Automata: The Action RPG for Philosophy Majors and Twelve-Year-Old Boys

WTF is NieR Automata?

NieR Automata, released in 2017 by Platinum Games, is the sequel to their earlier game, NieR (sometimes called NieR Gestalt), which I never played. It’s set in a dystopian future where humans and aliens are fighting for control of Earth with different robot armies. The human-controlled robots, or “androids,” fight under the leadership of an organization called YoRHa, and battle the alien-controlled robots, or “machines,” that have taken over the planet.

On the surface, the story is about two YoRHa units, 2B and 9S, who are dispatched to fight a new breed of machine that looks suspiciously like an android. A little bit below the surface, it’s about how a series of horrifying revelations during the war’s final days gradually strip 9S of any sense of purpose, meaning, or identity, leaving him a wild-eyed madman in a doomed and crumbling world.

The story is non-linear, and designed to be experienced by looping through some of the same events twice as different characters. It’s also impossible to get a full picture of everything that happens without doing a lot of serious detective work. That said, the main idea is that the mission 2B and 9S take on seems fucked from the start, and only gets more fucked from that point forward.

As soon as they land, they learn that some of the machines are peaceful, now – or declaring themselves to be peaceful. Some of them seem to have emotions, goals, and dreams. The information 2B and 9S learn on the surface frequently seems to contradict what they’re being told by their YoRHa commanders, and their commanders increasingly order them to terminate machines and other androids without giving them a chance to talk. In the midst of all that uncertainty, the machines that haven’t declared themselves peaceful are launching a major offensive that could turn the tide of this centuries-long war.

Players cycle through the first half of the game once as 2B and once as 9S. In the second half of the game, A2, a YoRHa deserter, gets pulled into the story and becomes a playable character as well, just in time for everything to go from being kind of dark to super dark, and stay that way forever.

Gameplay involves sword fighting, firing a machine gun wildly at everything, flying 2D side-scrolling plane combat missions, having your plane turn into a giant robot that also has a machine gun and a sword, shooting squares in an arcade game, and getting more depressed and nihilistic as each new chapter of the story unfolds.

It’s a beautiful, unnecessarily complicated mess of a game that packs a huge emotional punch in spite or because of its imperfections

At its heart, NieR Automata is a literary science fiction story about our inherent need to worship something in order to give our lives meaning, and the ways we choose our idols in a world without gods. It unflinchingly – but not uncaringly – confronts the possibility that maybe life is meaningless, while still allowing for some ambiguity, and for the chance that maybe the hollow, painful, ramshackle meanings we build for ourselves are enough.

It’s a game with a very coherent artistic vision, and a series of strong choices that bring that vision to life (including a killer soundtrack that more than deserves the awards it’s won).

The game design isn’t as coherent as the themes, and NieR Automata, as brilliant as it is, is also a steep, inaccessible hill to climb, especially for casual players. It’s a game that brought me to tears because its story was so moving and well-executed, but also because I couldn’t figure out how to jump between buildings without watching six tutorials online. And, although I obviously came back, it also has the distinction of being the only game I’ve ever rage quit in my life.

The biggest issue is that the game doesn’t signal clearly or consistently to players

You can tell that accessibility was flagged as a problem at some point during development, because there are now NPC characters who exist only to serve as an FAQ for issues like not knowing how to read the map, not knowing what your objectives are, and not knowing what to do when your character dies. You can tell that this happened late in the development process, too, because the answers often boil down to “I’m sorry, but that’s just how the game works.”

To me, the issues stem from a combination of not knowing who the game is for and inconsistently signalling changes to the mechanics. My guess, based on nothing but speculation, is that NieR Automata was initially developed with experienced, committed gamers in mind – especially ones who’ve played previous titles from Platinum Games; which is not unreasonable, given that this is a sequel – but, at some point, someone wanted to make it accessible to a wider audience and extra material was grafted on to try to make it friendlier to noobs. The result is a game that tries to provide some form of orientation to players, but also does a half-assed job like a resentful tour guide who thinks you should just google everything yourself.

Examples of mixed signals I got from the game:

  • The prologue serves as a tutorial, but doesn’t teach you all of the controls and fails to mention that your character has skills, abilities, and weapons that she won’t have when the game starts. There are some extra tutorials later in the game, but none of them include important moves like dodging and jumping, or any of the more complex combat moves you can do. The standard in most other games I’ve played is that the tutorial includes everything important at some point or, failing that, there are instructions in the control menus somewhere. In NieR Automata, you just have to intuit that there are other moves the game never told you about and figure out on your own how to do them.
  • The game uses a system where you need to be in a designated save zone in order to save your game. If you die, you re-spawn in your last save zone… except when you don’t and the game instead drops you at the last unannounced checkpoint in the battle sequence you’re fighting. Or, when you lose the ability to re-spawn at all and have to manually re-load.
  • And also, during one sequence, you can save when you’re not in a save zone, just ‘cause.
  • From a story perspective, the consequences of dying are unclear. Sometimes, it’s NBD, and you download into a new body and nobody cares. Sometimes, it ends your game. Sometimes it transports you five minutes into the past for some reason.
  • We’re explicitly told that the black boxes the YoRHa models carry are used as self-destruct mechanisms, and we watch 2B and 9S use their black boxes to set off a massive explosion and kill themselves twice. If you try to use the self-destruct in-game, it doesn’t self-destruct you.
  • 9S is the only character with hacking skills, which replace the strong attack function in his control scheme. Except, there’s one instance during a boss fight where 2B randomly has to hack things, even though she never uses that mechanic again, before or after, and one instance during the story where A2 randomly has to hack things, just because.

Combat was not my favourite thing, but the plug-in chips were

In general, the combat style in NieR Automata is noisy. I don’t mean it’s loud – although it’s frequently loud – I mean there’s a whole bunch of stuff competing for your attention and most of it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a lot of chaos and frenzy and swarm attacks, but it doesn’t involve much strategy other than spamming the dodge button (once you discover it) and constantly firing your gun. Smosh Games called it “coked-up mice in a blender,” which feels pretty accurate.

On the flip side, the only mechanic that the game directly apologizes for – the plug-in chip system that serves as a way to upgrade your character’s abilities as well as tweak your difficulty level and display settings – is actually one of the high points because it allows for such a huge degree of customization. The idea is that you have a designated number of slots for plug-in chips, which you can buy or pick up from enemy drops, and you can fill them however you like. There are chips that modify and strengthen your attacks, chips that modify and strengthen your defence, chips that modify what’s displayed on your screen and how (e.g., does the map show items you can collect, does the map disappear when you’re in combat or always stay displayed), and, at some difficulty levels, chips that automate certain functions so the player doesn’t have to perform them manually. The chips have different power levels and take up different numbers of slots, which I guess could make it confusing, but it’s very straight forward and consistent compared to much of the game.

The thing I enjoyed about the plug-in system most is that it let me selectively change the features I found most annoying so I could have a better experience. I didn’t like having to fumble through the quick access menu during combat, so I used a plug-in chip that automatically applied my healing items without me having to do anything. I didn’t like having to push a button to pick up item drops, so I used a plug-in chip that picked them up automatically.

One of the benefits of this system is that it allows you to make the game either a lot easier or a lot more difficult for yourself, depending on your preference. If you want to sail through as fast as possible, you can set your difficulty to easy and load up with a bunch of chips that handle most of the hard stuff for you. If you want to make everything as miserable as possible, you can pull out all the chips and run around blind. It’s really up to you.

As much as I loved the story, it was clear that I was not the intended audience

It bears mentioning that this is one of the more crassly sexist games I’ve played. The female YoRHa soldiers are wearing horrible, impractical, highly sexual outfits, and the player is encouraged to leer at them in a really obvious, uncomfortable way. A2 is wearing what looks like the decimated remains of her old YoRHa uniform, which has become short-shorts and a halter top. 2B is wearing a white thong bodysuit under a wrap skirt that doesn’t close all the way and, if you don’t believe that this is a horrible thing to bring to combat, the wrap skirt gets shredded during a battle in the game’s first half. There’s also official DLC you can get to make her costume straight-up lingerie, in case it’s too hard to objectify her when she still has clothes.

There’s a moment that I think was intended to break the fourth wall, where one of the machine villains pretends to read 9S’ mind (or the player’s mind) and says he’s thinking about how much he wants to fuck 2B – and I was not thinking that. I was thinking how easy it would have been for her tall, impractical, high-heeled boots to be pants.

I also observed that the three playable characters are two sexualized adult women and a twelve-year-old boy whose special power is being good at video games. The women are super concerned with his wellbeing and, as the story goes on, increasingly important only because of what they symbolize to him.

I think 9S’ journey is compelling, and I appreciate that the story has been constructed so that everything about this world and its characters sheds light on his inner struggle somehow, but, in a context where the women also can’t get dressed before heading out to fight robots, it’s a little disappointing that everything revolves around him.

In conclusion, it’s an extremely mixed bag of random bullshit and meaningful content

There are things I haven’t even had time to mention, like how the game crashes on PC, or how there is – honestly and truly – a scene where two of the villains debate the purpose of underwear, but, basically, taken all together, NieR Automata is a weird, idiosyncratic game that ends up being emotionally satisfying in spite of how much it resents you for trying to play it. Figuring out what literally just happened is a job of work in itself, and so is figuring out how to jump, but, on the flipside, it’s got some pretty deep, existential thoughts to share if you can hang with it through all the weirdness.

Image: NieR Automata; Platiunum Games | February 16, 2018