Game * PlatinumGames * Robot Existentialism * 2017
I played this game three times. Then I replayed the final bit of this game twice more. In addition to this, there were three or four other joke endings I stumbled upon, and I begin with this bit of information because this is a weird fucking game and it’s hard to come at it head-on. On the surface, NieR: Automata is a Japanese action-RPG. In this game you play a ninja android named 2B. You flip around in a short leather skirt and a blindfold which seems like it would hamper your fighting ability but it doesn’t, and because it’s a Platinum game the swordplay and laser shooting and flipping around look and feel pretty good. This is important because you do a lot of this. As in most RPG’s, as you flip around and slice up hordes of enemies – in this case adorable robots – you earn experience and money and you know, video game shit. All that is fine in this game. The systems work, there is character progression, it’s a bit on the easy side which means the combat can get a little stale eventually, but none of this really matters because the reason to play Automata is to experience this bonkers story.
Here’s the initial set-up, and I’ll try to keep things simple. As noted above, you play as a combat android named 2B. This is your model number, there are plenty of other combat androids around who look exactly like you. When the game opens you are not actually doing the cool ninja fighting, you’re in your ship, and the game plays like an old school, not-quite-a-bullet-hell style shooter. As your teammates keep getting exploded because they are clearly unobservant, the game parcels out some information. Long ago aliens visited Earth. The aliens introduced a plague of machine life which rampaged across the planet, decimating humanity. Also there was a widespread apocalyptic virus, I think. Look, don’t pin me down on the details, there’s a lot going on here. Anyway, the important thing now is that humanity bailed on Earth, set up shop on the moon where the bad robots couldn’t reach them, and sent their android attack-bots to clean house for them. This android versus robot war has been raging for centuries, and it has long since settled into a stalemate. Androids, however, are programmed for loyalty and so it doesn’t occur to 2B to question any of this. She flies down with her squad to eliminate a big robot baddie.
I think that’s all I’ll say about the story above the break. Suffice to say, the same subverts your expectations along the way, and the more you play the more is revealed. I’m not going to say there are any shocking revelations – most of the story twists are pretty well telegraphed beforehand – but the story is well told and is absolutely worth seeing in its entirety. This means, of course, you have to play the game three times. And look, that sounds bad. I get it. But the second time you’re playing from a different perspective, and the third time is a whole other deal. It’s cool, don’t sweat it. So, shortly after 2B’s squad is wiped out, she’s introduced to another character, 9S, a reconnaissance model. He swoops in as support and together they blow up a whole shitload of giant robots. The rest of the game is 2B and 9S having adventures on a dilapidated, blown up, machine-infested version of Earth.
Probably the biggest knock against the game, aside from the possibility of getting burned out on the combat (which didn’t happen to me, but I can see it happening pretty easily), is the game world itself. I love the idea, considering it’s so post-apocalyptic that all the humans have to live on a moon base to avoid being caught in the android-robot crossfire. However, in practice the game world is fairly small and the environmental design team was clearly working on a budget. Running around in the world just doesn’t look great, I’m afraid. Think middle-of-the-road PS3 game and you’re close. To the game’s credit, there are some nice graphical touches that make up for this. The androids live on an orbiting space station from which they launch their raids. There’s not a lot going on up there, but when you’re on the station the game is in dreary shades sepia, which is perfect for the atmosphere. Also the menus are great in that they’re presented as your android interface. Throughout the game you’re collecting chips which you can swap in and out to provide skills and whatnot. It’s all very cool, especially when you realize that the game’s UI are technically chips which you can replace with other skills. So that’s neat. Oh, and it would be a crime not to mention the music, which is top class. It’s just really, really good throughout. Okay, I need to talk about specific things that happen in the game now.
It doesn’t take very long to start questioning the status quo of the world you find yourself in while playing Automata. There’s a centuries-long war going on, that much is clear. You’re a soldier in this war, a true believer to the point that one of your first acts is one of heroic self-destruction. Of course, you’re an android so you have a back-up personality ready to install in a new body so no harm no foul on that account. Once you’re reconstituted, you’re sent back out to the battlefield and that’s when things start to feel a little off, like maybe the protagonist isn’t seeing the entire picture here and as you see more and more of the world it becomes clearer and clearer that these androids are oblivious to the nature of their own lives. Eventually this gets frustrating for the player. Sure, you take it for granted that the player character is playing for the good team – there are some exceptions to this rule but generally most people want to feel like they’re controlling a sympathetic character. That’s tough to do in this game as you work through the story.
First of all, the machine enemies are too cute to be evil. I mean look at them. They have little round bodies and little round heads and they toddle around and are precious. Yeah, eventually some bigger machines show up and look more like sinister kill-bots, but for the most part the teeming machine hordes are cute little guys. Watching 2B and 9S mow through them like an unstoppable whirling death machine is upsetting, even before we start getting clues as to their true nature. It doesn’t take long, however, before Automata starts making the machines sympathetic. Now that I think about it, it happens in that introduction scene. The machines you’re slaughtering start asking “why?” start saying things like “help, please, stop” as you lop off adorable round heads and blow up hundreds of rotund robo-bodies. The androids dismiss all this as “huh, these robots say the weirdest random things,” because they’re conditioned to believe that robots are not sentient or intelligent. So now we have artificially made sentient lifeforms dismissing the notion that other artificially made lifeforms could have the same sentience. It’s weird.
It only gets stranger as the game goes along. Soon enough you find yourself in an abandoned amusement park inhabited by non-aggressive robots programmed to party. I suppose you could cut these fun-loving robots up if you’re so inclined – there is a point where 9S tries to convince you to kill a tank whose only crime is shooting confetti and balloons at you – but I did not do this because I’m not a fucking monster. Then there is a very good boss fight against an insane robot who is trying to be beautiful by crucifying the corpses of androids, I think? So that’s a red flag right there. What is beauty, why try to be beautiful, why would a robot want to be beautiful? Our androids are not exactly prone to reflection, never mind how much evidence the world is showing them. Even when they meet and befriend the delightful pacifist robot Pascal do they ever really begin to believe that robots are maybe not inherently evil.
The third time through Automata is where the game shifts into its final gear. The story is not finished, and this run picks up where the first two left off. All is not well after all, and there is an immediate emergency. A virus is running rampant through both machines and androids, turning them all into mindless kill-monsters. Eventually, 2B contracts this virus. She’s doomed and she knows it, and this gives way to the third playable character, A2. She’s like a rogue android who we first meet when she stabs a damn baby robot, but she’s sassy so I guess she gets a pass? Man, I didn’t realize how convoluted the plot was until I started to break it down. Anyway, A2’s whole deal is to kill as many machines as possible for as long as possible until she dies from killing so many robots. Meanwhile, 9S witnessed A2 mercy-killing 2B and is now consumed with rage and revenge to the point of being willfully ignorant and crazy. He’s annoying from here on out.
I know I should wrap this up but I need to talk about the most fucked up moment of the game because goddammit what a bummer. Pascal the friendly robot has a lovely little pacifist robot village and it’s all very cute and fuck this game because it sets me up. I’m a mark. So you visit the village as A2 and do some adorable quests for the child robots and it’s all idyllic and A2’s icy heart is melting and it’s totes obvious so of course the next thing to happen is the robo-virus hits and the zombie-bots attack and everything is on fire so Pascal takes the little kid-bots to safety and oh boy you follow to try and protect them, and you do! You save the fucking day but then you return to where you were hiding the children and they’re dead. Not because the kill-bots got to them, but because they were so scared they fucking killed themselves. What the fuck, game? Now Pascal is obviously devastated because it’s his fault because he went and taught the child-bots fear and now he can’t even deal with the sadness and guilt, so he asks A2 to either kill him or wipe his memory. I did neither, because part of being human is dealing with grief, and as I slow motion walked away Pascal says “A2 how could you?” and how dare you make me feel bad for not killing you, robot. Woof.
It’s all downhill from there. The humans are dead, and 9S can’t deal with this information. It was all a lie, his entire existence as been to protect some data on the moon. The entire message of the game seems to be “what’s the point?” Not of playing the game, but of living, of aspiring to some kind of life. Androids and robots are trying to create lives for themselves, but ultimately they fail. The “endings,” various outcomes to the narrative of A2 and 9S, are almost incidental to the overall bleakness of Automata’s tone. Sure, let’s go to the moon maybe we can make something out of this mess or maybe not whatever. At least the war, which again existed for no reason, at least appeared to have a purpose. Blow those guys up. Easy. Now that all pretense has been stripped away, what is there? This is some serious Sartre shit, and to its credit Automata doesn’t shy away from these implications. Once you’re fully self-aware, what left is there for you to aspire to? Now, if you finish finish finish the game – ending “E,” the game throws you a little life preserver in this sea of nihilism. The pods, your little buddies that fly around and shoot things for you, have also been gaining self-awareness. They pick up your pieces and back up your memories and now 2B and 9S get another shot. The point being, life has no definitive purpose, that basically there’s no fate but what you make for yourself, and if that little T2-ism sounds trite, well, it’s a far sight better than the alternative.