This piece will spoil all of Nier Automata for you. If you care about those things, I suggest you get at least Ending E before reading it. You’ve been warned!
Leigh Alexander famously said in her “non-review” of Grand Theft Auto V that “you can do a lot of things, but not too many things. Just enough things…” It’s been a few years since then, but Alexander’s joke holds up. What’s a video game but an elaborate checklist? Fight ten monsters to grow to level 2. Find eight apples hidden around the map. Climb to the top of a mountain and light the beacon. Today’s open world games are nothing more than multiple checklists laid over acres of three-dimensional space, each point of interest carefully marked for your perusal. It says something that among the praise that greeted this year’s Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, one of the most repeated was how incredible it was that its creators let you mark your own points of interest to explore. I personally love the game’s willingness to let the world speak for itself, to allow mountains and rivers to guide your path rather than lists of menial tasks. But in the end, Alexander’s words couldn’t help but ring in my ears. You can ride a shield, dive into a lake, collect your favorite clothes and level them up. Just enough things…
You play games for long enough, and eventually you begin to resent them. Just ask Yoko Taro, the cult director from Square Enix. In the project that made his name, Drakengard, you play as a man who runs across the battlefield with his pet dragon slaughtering enemies. As the body count racks up, things get stranger. As you upgrade your weapons and unlock more endings, the story becomes more and more twisted. Every time you try to master its systems (which in themselves are supremely boring and repetitive) Drakengard spits in your face. Its spiritual successor, Nier, took this nastiness and married it to a found family of broken, flawed people you couldn’t help but love. As the secrets of Nier’s world reveal themselves, as the motivations of its monsters are brought to light, you can’t help but ask: why can’t these guys get along? But Nier’s hero is a video game character, and a killer. The antagonist is the same. One of the game’s endings grants an important side character another shot at life, but there will be no peace for Nier. Just as there will be no peace for you, the player. Complicit.
Nier Automata, Taro’s most recent game, stands as the clearest realization of his aesthetic. Since its release and immediate cult success, some have taken it upon themselves to take the game down a notch; in their defense, Automata is hardly perfect. Here’s a few problems I had with Nier Automata: the open world is filled with invisible walls that are unintuitive and poorly marked. There’s a lot of running around from place to place in the beginning before teleporters unlock. Most of the sidequests are menial fetch quests, even though the writing surrounding them can be excellent. The game takes a cue from Dark Souls and makes you recover lost chips from your corpse when you die, but considering that saves are manual I found reloading after death to be far more efficient. Fighting enemies is far more enjoyable in Automata than it is in any other Yoko Taro game (thanks, Platinum!) but not quite deep enough to bear out all 30 or so hours it takes to reach the last main ending. Even though the last third has some of the most memorable moments in the game, the levels are all either recycled versions from the first half or far less interesting challenge rooms.
But there’s something fitting about that, isn’t it? The world of Nier Automata is greatly flawed, and only becomes more so as its systems feed on themselves. As the war between the androids and the machines continues, the map warps and deforms; the happy-go-lucky hedonists of the amusement park become hungry cannibals, the hermits of the forest forsake the corpse of their king and are consumed by vengeance. Helping the locals could mean reuniting a child robot with her sister, or it could mean giving an android the means to construct his own mechanical child to keep against his will. 9S breaks down mentally around the same time that the player is made to traverse those same endless challenge rooms mentioned above; as you fight through hacking minigame after hacking minigame, plowing through waves of enemies rendered trivial by psychokinetic bullet hell attacks, the hero loses himself in cycles of hate and resentment. By the end of route D, when 9S is given the choice to travel to space with the thoughts and feelings of countless machines and leave Earth behind forever, the temptation is real. Why linger in a system that has ruined the lives of so many for no reason at all?
But Nier Automata stands alone in the Taroverse is that there is a way out. The convoluted war between androids and machines is a serpent that eats its own tail. But by blowing it up from the inside, challenging the credits sequence that taunts you time and time again, 2B and 9S’s machine assistants grant their lost owners another chance. Unless you are very, very good, this victory will be made possible by (in a reference to the original Nier’s nastiest trick) sacrificing the save data of countless other players, whose ghosts shield you from fire. Reaching the end gives you, the player, the chance to offer up the same in tribute.Initially the choice is easy. The road has been long and exhausting, battles are no longer challenging, most of the quests have been wiped from the map. It’s all numbers anyway, numbers that have aided androids and machines in mindlessly hurting each other over countless decades. Numbers that, in the long run, seem almost irrelevant. Compared to endless suffering, aren’t games silly little things?
In Nier Automata, I never had the chance to go back to the factory during Route C. I never completed the escort mission where you protect peaceful protesters, so I was caught by surprise when a friend mentioned to me how those protesters became the radicalized tank fighters you met in the desert in Route C. I never hacked into the bunny statue in the amusement park and fought it to a standstill. I never challenged Emil, the saddest and most lovable character in the series, to a fight. But I can’t find it in myself to put poor 2B and 9S into danger once again. The checkbox will remain unmarked. The game will remain unfinished. But Nier Automata is complete. Yoko Taro loves videogames, and I do too.