Weight of the World: Thoughts on NieR: Automata
When I think about some of the games that I was excited for in 2017, I wouldn’t have counted NieR: Automata among them. Only when I’d heard the first rumblings of praise from fellow journalists and writers, among a swelling online discussion, did it ping on my radar. I’m very glad it did. A quick warning, this will go into spoiler territory, and assumes that you’ve seen all five main story ‘endings’. If you have yet to play this game and you’re thinking about it, maybe stop reading here and come back when you’re done… ok?
NieR: Automata is a third-person, character action RPG created by game director Yoko Taro and his team at Platinum Games. It’s the sequel to ‘Nier’, a game that takes part in the Drakengard universe.
Though it’s not necessarily the lore of Automata that dominates my thoughts in the days after seeing the game’s fifth, and final story-relevant ending, but the themes it explores and how it intertwines gameplay and story to probe them. It’s one of the rare games that finds a way to make these two critical elements—narrative and gameplay—work in tandem, rather than sacrificing one for the sake of lifting the other. I’m going to look at two things: how Automata uses shifting perspectives to convey context for its characters and how its obsession with philosophical meaninglessness culminates in one of the most satisfying endings to a game in recent memory.
The use of shifting perspectives is prevalent throughout NieR: Automata. It changes the camera perspective to switch up the gameplay from a 3rd-person character action game, to a twin stick shooter, to a running side scroller at a moment’s notice. It’s admirably subversive as, at any time, the view could shift and suddenly it feels like you’re playing a completely different kind of game, but still manages to ground itself within the context of the tale being told.
Flight suit combat is often twin-stick based, for example, allowing the player character to fly around on a horizontal plane while the camera ducks and weaves through the ensuing battle. Or when running through a factory with 2B and 9S, the game will become more like a side scrolling platformer. The camera is also put to great effect to show off the impressive scope of some of the game’s character designs, meaning anything from detailed close-ups to vast wide shots with towering Goliath-class enemies filling the screen.
Automata also aims to tell its story from different perspectives, doing so by making the player take control of different characters over the course of the game. This doesn’t just physically put you in their shoes, so to speak, but allows a greater insight into their perspective of the current state of things. Take the initial playthrough as 2B for example. Lots of the battle sequences see 2B and 9S getting separated, with 9S breaking away to hack something in order to turn the tide of battle.
While playing as 2B, these moments feel unexplained and a little too convenient. But from the perspective of 9S, you suddenly feel the burden of what he goes through as a Scanner tasked with breaking into the consciousness of machines, which entirely changes the context of the opening playthrough in a way that is both surprising and enlightening. Player subversion is probably one of my favourite things that Nier: Automata does on a whole.
When it comes to its themes, unlike titles who feign a resonance with modern social or moral issues, Automata doesn’t beat around the bush. It dives head first into exploring what it means to be ‘human’ while asking jabbing questions about existence and the sense of purpose. These are inherently ‘human’ questions to consider, except there aren’t any real humans in Automata; the entire philosophical investigation takes place through the eyes of androids and machines.
This puts a weird twist on the whole ‘meaning of life’ thing; these aren’t organic, living beings we’re talking about here. But watching non-human characters—who appear well aware of their inhumanity—struggle under the weight of their choices gives them a human quality that is more easily empathised with. This weight slowly transfers to the players shoulders as they gain a better understanding of what’s going on, and had a huge impact on how I approached standard open-world play. After learning of their semi-conscious abilities, I changed my tact towards the machines who were docile, ambling about meekly among their more violent allies. I left them alone, deciding only to attack when attacked. This didn’t have an explicit effect in terms of the games outcomes, but it’s still a decision I felt compelled to make. Because it felt right.
In a story that dances through the morally grey with joy at times, these moments provide real clarity for the player. Near the end of the game, the player takes control of the robot Pascal near the factory opening with an army of machines closing in. Mere seconds after spectacularly defeating the Goliath-class enemy, Pascal is trying to race back into the factory to check on his ‘children’—the small robots from his village that he had evacuated from imminent danger only a few hours before. The game ceded control of Pascal to me, and in a rush to witness the children’s fate, I held the ‘run’ button, but it wouldn’t work. Pascal’s legs, confined by their mechanical nature, would only move so fast. For this beautiful, tragic moment, the player shares Pascal’s burden of the time wondering what’s happened to his children. It turned out to be a harrowing turning point, both for Pascal and the player.
When 9S discovers YoRHa’s true nature he begins his descent into madness under the effects of a machine logic virus. Throughout the story he talks constantly about the machines speech and how it couldn’t possibly hold any meaning. He makes his mistrust of all machines, even the friendly ones in Pascal’s village, clear. He clearly sees the androids as superior in every way as they are ‘the good guys’ in this story, tasked with ridding the world of the machines in the name of Humanity. But when it’s uncovered that humans created androids using the exact same cores they had extracted from machines, this sends him over the edge of comprehension and down the dark path to eventual madness.
9S’ constant reiteration of life’s meaninglessness was a running theme for me. Any time a machine speaks, he announces that it must merely an effect of their access to old databases of human information. Despite their continually desperate attempts to prove their peaceful nature, he often flatout refuses to acknowledge it, only begrudgingly following 2B’s lead.
It all comes to a head at the very end, when 9S takes on A2 at the top of the Tower. Weakened by the effects of the machine logic virus attack that wiped out YoRHa and deeply affected by the loss of the 2B at the hands of A2—albeit at her own request after she was also infected with the virus—9S goes wild. Fueled by rage, he openly admits he wants to end everything, because it’s all “ultimately pointless”.
All the while, the two assigned YoRHa support pods—Pod 042 and Pod 153—have been communicating across a local network about both 9S’ and A2’s situation. Sustained by their main directive, ensuring the well-being and survival of their assigned units, the Pod’s go to great lengths to support the androids to where I started questioning whether their devout response to their mission was a display of consciousness instead of merely a feat of complex programming.
As both 9S and A2 are killed in ending D, the two pods begin their final objective which calls for the deletion of all remaining data relating to YoRHa, including the saved and uninfected memories of both 2B, 9S and A2. As the credits roll and Pod 042 and Pod 153 discuss their final actions, Pod 042 challenges this final directive, saying it has, through the following of its main directive, developed what it believed to be consciousness. It decides there must be another way forward, convincing Pod 153 that they should not follow their final order, but instead fight to salvage what data they can and start over again.
The Pods break the fourth wall, asking if the player agrees with their proposal, but warning that to do so would have an unacceptable level of risk. The credits are stopped, starting again from the very beginning, but this time it’s all very different.
As the credits spin up, the player is given control of the same little pip as they are during the game’s hacking sequences. The names and roles listed in the credits come to life; the words physically shooting at the player. It’s a backup YoRHa defense system, designed to destroy the Pods consciousness data, along with the data they hold, in the event of an issue occurring during this critical time.
The player fights back as the pods continue to salvage what data they can. But eventually they become overwhelmed. Hundreds of shots fill the screen, eventually engulfing the player’s pip, killing it.
Silence… then a question.
“GIVE UP HERE?” The player can select ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
I select ‘No’.
The sequence begins again. And again, the player will be overrun and killed. All the while, a song in the background plays with a simple, single voiced melody. The song is called ‘Weight of the World’. It’s gorgeous, haunting and deeply provocative, dancing around the same themes of the uncertainty of life as the game. But there is also an overwhelming sense of hope in both its lyrics and melody. A belief that if you push and fight to survive—to be—in that itself there is meaning.
The enemy fire keeps on raining down, and again and again the player is destroyed. The defense program asks again, “IS THIS POINTLESS?”
Yes, or no?
But there is something else on the screen now. A small pop-up says ‘MESSAGE RECEIVED’ and some text pops up in the background. It appears to have been put there by another player, and it’s encouraging me to keep on going.
I keep fighting. I keep dying. This goes on for a few minutes, but every time the machines asks another question, more and more messages of support from other players are popping up. It spurs me on, even as the machine’s question become slightly more pointed.
“DO YOU ADMIT THERE IS NO MEANING TO THIS WORLD?”
No. But now there’s another, different message. ‘RESCUE OFFER RECEIVED’ and a player name next to it. What? How?
I hesitated for a moment, not knowing what would happen next, but I was desperate by now.
Suddenly, the music changed. No longer was the song being sung by a single voice, but an entire chorus of voices. The single lone pip, overrun several times by this point, was suddenly surrounded by many pips—other players who had somehow offered up their aid! The credits continued to shoot endless streams of enemy fire at myself and the now eight other pips circling mine. As I fired back, the others who’d come to my aid fired in tandem, and unleash a bright flash of burning hell upon the last of YoRHa’s defensive protocols. It felt amazing.
I was suddenly struck with thoughts of togetherness. I thought of my friends and family. I thought of all the weird, wonderful and difficult times we’d overcome together. It was absurdly potent, leaving me with my mouth hung agape like a fool.
As the final ending scenes played out and I reflected on what I’d just been through, Pod 042 spoke one last time. It wanted to know if I’d like to leave a message for others who were going to go through that same fight. Of course I would. I picked a message of support from the pre-written options hoping to urge the other players to finish the fight. It could’ve been one urging them to give up, but I’m not that person.
Then the final, wonderful, satisfying blow.
Pod 042 asks if I’d like to help others in the same way I was helped through the final battle, helping them to overcome the same hardship. Absolutely, I thought, almost clicking through the dialogue too quickly. Thankfully I noticed that, in order to offer up my help to a complete stranger, I’d have to sacrifice all of save data. Literally all sign of playing the game, except for my trophy data, would be deleted. But it would be to help someone else.
It went on to warn me several times that it was serious, but I couldn’t think of a better way to cap off such a wonderfully intriguing game. I clicked through the warnings till the final one.
“You are truly—TRULY—sure about this?”
One by one, it went through each of the in-game screens, slowly fading each element into nothing, before dispatching each of my saved games in similar fashion. As the final screen faded into black, and both Pods shared with me a final few words, I couldn’t help but throw my head back in laughter. Nothing they said was funny, far from it. It was merely an outburst of pure joy.
It’s difficult to explain exactly why, but it was an immensely satisfying feeling. I felt no sadness at the loss of 40 hours of my play time, but instead an intense gratification for the journey the game had taken me on. Losing all my save data to help some random player elsewhere in the world felt like the best expression of irreverence to Automata’s starkness. It felt like the only thing to do. Because what is life if we don’t give it meaning?
NieR: Automata is a game that will be lots of different things to different people. To me, it was an expression of both the diversity of life and the sameness of its intricacies. A lesson on empathy and perspective that implored me to dissect my own feelings on prejudice, intent and significance, wrapped up in a goofy anime plotline. It is, without doubt, one of the most fascinating games I’ve played this year—if ever—and I can only recommend everyone else do the same.
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James Swinbanks is a Games Critic currently writing for GameSpot, although you’ll still occasionally see him popping up on Player 2, because frankly, he loves the smell of the place.