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April 9, 2018

A Lickety-Split Post on NieR: Automata

You guys, I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.

I don’t know why it took me this long to start playing NieR: Automata in earnest, but now I am, and I like it a lot, and it’s great, and I’m an idiot for not getting to it sooner.  I mean, granted part of the reason was that my brother and I share a PS4, and since he was lukewarm on the game (at best) he deleted it to make space for more fighting games.  But since I got him an external hard drive for Christmas, that’s a moot point.  And now that there’s no excuse…well, I have no excuse.

This is a really cool game.  Very interesting.  And the best part is that I like it for reasons I never would have expected.


I can’t say I’m intimately familiar with Yoko Taro’s works.  I’ve read full LPs of the Drakengard games (thank you, The Dark Id), but never actually played them myself.  Meanwhile, I did own the original NieR briefly, but it was a tribute my brother sacrificed to GameStop for store credit -- well before I could beat it.  Now this sequel gives me a chance at redemption, and I plan to make the most of it.  How could I not?  It’s got the Platinum touch.

If you’re reading this, then you know Platinum Games.  I know Platinum -- the madmen behind jaw-dropping action games like Metal Gear Rising, Bayonetta, and my personal favorite, The Wonderful 101.  Coupling their gameplay expertise with the storytelling quirks of Yoko Taro seemed like a match made in heaven.  It still is.  Not even the presence of Squeenix’s logo during the boot-up phase is enough to bring me down.

But miraculously, the action isn’t the main draw for me.  That’s not to say that it isn’t good; landing a crushing blow with 2B using twin big-boy swords at once feels so right.  I won’t try too hard to compare it to other Platinum games in terms of technical quality, though I’ll admit there’s something about it that seems looser and more slippery than, say, MGR.  It’s probably because of the differences in mobility and especially the defensive mechanics; instead of hunkering down with Raiden for a parry or triggering Witch Time with Bayonetta’s well-timed dodges, 2B can dodge seemingly infinitely, so that she warps around with a constant stream of afterimages in her wake.  It’s absolutely necessary given the nature of some enemy attacks, though I do miss the parries from the days of old.

The biggest issue I have is that it’s ridiculously easy to create a broken setup -- one that makes it extremely difficult to lose.  TW101 leaned toward this a little bit, but with NieR you have plug-in chips that let you customize 2B to your heart’s content.  In my case, she’ll recover a third of her health whenever she kills an enemy -- and since there are constantly weak adds hopping around in boss fights, it’s not hard to stay topped off.  Even if you do take a big hit, you’ll automatically use a recovery item before your HP hits 0…and it’s child’s play to amass several dozen before hitting any major area.

It’d be an issue worthy of docking points in any other game, but I get it here.  Even if this is an action game, the goal of the developers is to make sure you experience as much of the world and story as possible.

And I’ve gotta say, they made the right choice.

Full disclosure: I’ve only gotten one ending so far (DON’T SPOIL ANYTHING, OR I WILL FIND YOU), but there’s a part of me that’s content just with what I’ve seen so far.  It’s a post-apocalyptic world thrown far into the future.  I’m no stranger to seeing “life past the end times” in video games -- The Last of Us is the first that comes to mind -- but here?  It feels different.  Special.  Harrowing in a way that not a lot of games have ever succeeded in reaching, but appreciable and intriguing nonetheless.  (I’m going to guess it has something to do with the City Ruins theme, because yikesy mikesy is it strong.)

Superficially, the dead world presented shouldn’t work for me.  Everything is destroyed, the color palette is muted (even the menus can’t rise above a healthy shade of beige), and there’s a ton of empty space between one mission objective and the next.  Despite that, it works.  I would much rather wander around the empty, quasi-silent world of NieR than revisit the structured, linear wastelands of The Last of Us.  Why?  Well, part of that is because the adventuring in the former comes off as more genuine; much like Breath of the Wild, you’ve got agency over what you want to do, when, and how.

But more importantly, NieR: Automata has something going for it that other games don’t -- certainly more than TLoU, if you ask me.  And that something is subtext.

I called the world dead -- and probably will again before post’s end -- but that’s a misnomer.  It’s certainly teeming with life, and not just from overgrown plants.  Not just from the wild animals trotting about, either.  Whatever quality is packed into NieR -- and to be clear, there’s plenty of it -- is owed to the cute little globe-headed robots littering the various lands.  While they’re not alive in a traditional sense, they’re doing what they can to infuse a sense of import, wonder, and intrigue into what could’ve just been Open World #859.

My interpretation of the robots (or the “machines”, as they’re often called) is that they’re looking for definitions.  For assertions of their existence, and what it means to simply be a part of the world.  It’s true that you mow them down in droves, typically because plenty will go on the attack once you walk into their field of vision.  But plenty more opt for peace.  Sustenance.  Stability.  Satisfaction.  Homes, family, friends, entertainment, the works.  In the wake of a planet bereft of humanity, they’re out to build a society of their own.

The problem is that they’re really bad at it.

In a lot of cases, the machines just don’t get it.  Flawed logic, emotional immaturity, and more are all endemic to who they are.  Some do better than others (like Pascal of the forest village), but we’re talking about a “race” whose grasp of life, and the weight behind it, virtually doesn’t exist.  There’s a bleak, pitch-black comedy behind their production of “Romeos and Juliets”, where the only solution to the abundance of star-crossed lovers on stage is to kill each other until no one remains…including having the last man standing self-destruct.  

Another machine, having realized he has nothing to offer to 2B, decides that he can only deliver something of worth by blowing himself up.  And of course, there’s an entire sequence where the machines discover religion -- and immediately turn it into a death cult, complete with suicide dives into pools of molten steel.  Again and again, their only solution to a problem is death.  That’s when their solution isn’t thoughtless, blase wandering.

At this point, it’s hard to say whether it’s a flaw in their programming, or an inability to understand because their world’s nature has left them without a stable hand to teach them.  Still, it really comes to a head when the machines give birth to Adam; once he evolves to a point where he can understand…well, basically anything, since he’s effectively a baby…he makes it his mission to learn and grasp concepts regarding the world around him.  His perspectives are distorted, no question, but he’s at least trying.

But then 2B shows up and kills him anyway, because he was holding 9S hostage to goad her into a fight so he could learn even more.  And while he did something awful, I still have to ask: am I playing as one of the bad guys?

2B, 9S, and plenty of others are YoRHa units -- androids who are many steps above the game’s machines.  And they know it, too.  2B and 9S alike are willing to deride the machines, poking fun and believing (albeit justifiably) that they don’t understand anything.  They’re idiots plagued by ancient, faulty programming -- nothing like the sleek androids tasked with missions from on high.  This is a bit of a stretch, but it also somewhat explains their character designs: dressed in ornate black attire, as if they’re ready to go to a funeral.  The flourishes therein are ways for them to assert their individuality -- their power to know tradition, yet rise above it.

It doesn’t totally explain away 9S’ shorts or 2B’s…everything…but I’d like to think that it’s a fashion statement with a purpose.  (Though to be clear, it could just be for the obvious purpose.)  If they’re dressed for a funeral, it means they have an understanding of the event’s meaning and gravitas.  They know life and death, which gives them an inherent superiority over the machines.  Yet because of their superiority, they’re unable to see everything in perfect clarity.  Unable to see the machines as they are, what they want to be, and what world they’re creating one millimeter-long step at a time.

Those black blindfolds are probably there for multiple reasons, some of which will likely be revealed in alternate routes and endings.  For now, though?  My thematic headcanon is that they’re there to keep the YoRHa androids from beholding a worldview that doesn’t fit their narrative.  Rather than accept the slow evolution of the machines, 2B and 9S are all too willing to remain ignorant and committed to their increasingly-outdated perceptions.  Because apparently, racism is easier than tolerance.

It certainly makes their jobs easier; mowing down robots by the dozen is a lot easier when you don’t have to acknowledge their sentience.  Even so, that willful ignorance does more than blind them to the truth; it strips the machines, and the world, of new possibilities.  Of a future beyond humanity and wastelands.  Whether it’s because of their myriad missions or ingrained racism clouding their judgment, 2B and 9S are all too willing to either passively watch the machines struggle, or outright erase them just because.  Are they incompetent?  Yes.  Are they struggling?  Yes.  But they’re stumbling towards a future of their own creation.

Even in the present, they’re trying to build their own cultures.  Their own societies, their own economies, their own families, and more -- slowly, and haphazardly, but progressing nonetheless towards something more.  Given that they managed to grasp the meaning behind a ruined amusement park and use it for their own purposes, I don’t think the machines are utterly hopeless.  Yet rather than observe and nurture that growth, what do we have instead?  Androids that are basically indifferent until the first ending’s final act, and all too eager to get antagonistic if given the chance.

Supposedly, it’s all “for the glory of mankind”.  But right now, I have my doubts.

…God, this is a good-ass game.

It’s a good-ass game for the obvious reasons -- the gameplay, the presentation, and the like -- but it’s also good for a nonstandard reason.  It’s something that you don’t really get out of the medium, which isn’t all that surprising given what AAA gaming has pushed on us for more than a decade.  What I like, if not love, about NieR: Automata is that there are no easy, clear answers.  Not at this point.  Every time I turn it on and progress through the story, I’m left mere moments from shouting “WHAT?!” over what transpires.  (Dat Adam birth tho.)  More than that, though, I’m in awe over what’s left unsaid.

I could be completely off-base with my theories and analysis.  I probably am.  But the fact that I’ve been challenged to come up with my own conclusions -- the fact that I even had the opportunity to do so, without getting clobbered by overwrought efforts so commonly seen in the medium -- is more than just a treat.  It’s a godsend.  And now I can’t wait to see what else is in store for me.

Hopefully it won’t take another year to do so.  2B’s a cool character, irrespective of her ass exposure.

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