This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/DWpjyTw8-Pc
Welcome to my video essay on NieR: Automata. In this video, I’d like to offer my critique on a game that was lauded by critics and embraced by fans. I’m going to lay out my case for why this game is a mess of unfulfilled potential, from the poor structure to the clunky writing and characterisation, to the undeveloped themes and uninspired gameplay. But let’s start at the beginning.
For those who haven’t played it, the story of NieR: Automata is set against the backdrop of a far-future Earth in which hostile machines invaded the planet and humanity retreated to a refuge on the moon. The story revolves around three YoRHa androids — that’s the military androids that were created by humans to wipe out the machines so humanity can reclaim the planet.
NieR: Automata tackles some serious topics, like the nature of consciousness. Can robots develop consciousness, and could we tell if they had? Is it even possible to tell the difference between complex programming and genuine emotion? Consciousness is still one of the most difficult and baffling issues in psychology and it’s very hard for a story to do justice to the intricacy of the topic. If there’s a way to tell the difference between a being with consciousness and one without consciousness it’s that a being with consciousness would seem to have complexity and nuance. So I’d like to ask: how can you depict that difference if your writing has no complexity or nuance?
One of the big plot revelations in NieR: Automata is that the bad machines are actually not bad and they might even have the capacity to experience real feelings. How do we learn this? Well, only the countless identical scenes in which a cute robot appears, says “Whee, I’m good! Don’t kill me!” and then the androids say “Hey, that robot’s saying stuff! Let’s kill it!” And if you think I’m exaggerating… [montage of 10 clips of 2B and 9S quotes along the lines of “machines don’t have feelings”].
2B: “Machines are the enemy. Don’t forget it.”
How could I possibly forget it? You tell me every 5 minutes!
A lot of the story beats revolve around the YoRHa androids, struggling to perpetuate the endless war they were built for but tormented by having to die and watch each other die on the field of battle again and again. But my god these characters are so bland and poorly written. 2B’s personality is that she does what she’s told, and occasionally tells 9S to stop talking, and 9S’s personality is that he’s an annoying little dweeb. Well, until he undergoes a character transformation that makes him even more one-dimensional, but I’m jumping the gun. I can see that the game tried to humanise these androids, it really tried, but all the emotional beats land like a wet fart because the writing and emoting are so bad.
I admit, I did get pretty attached to the leader of the peaceful robot village Pascal, but let’s not pretend that’s due to anything other than the fact he’s got a cute widdle voice. Credit where credit is due though. There were a couple of moments that managed to stir something inside my cold, dead soul. One of them was the scene at the fairground in which we learn, through 9S’s hacking ability, that the hideous robot we just tore apart was driven by very human desires — out of control vanity triggered by bitterness and unrequited love. The other moment was a scene in which Pascal, unable to bear the death of all his robot brethren, asks you to wipe his memory banks and you proceed to systematically delete every one of his happy memories.
For the most part though, no one in this game about entities discovering their inner humanity has much humanity. The androids are boring and unconvincing, the machines have a kind of puppy dog cutesy-ness that wears off pretty quickly, and the writing is so heavy-handed the script feels like it was written by a robot. I mean, the way this game depicts machines gaining consciousness is to have them stand around and say “I am developing consciousness”.
The failure of this game’s narrative is what I like to think of as the difference between plot and story. Plot is all the stuff that happens, and story is the reason you care about all the stuff that happens. Plot is just a sequence of events, but story is the emotional journey it takes you on. A story works by giving you characters to relate to, some stakes that you feel emotionally invested in. But as hard as I looked, I could not find any real emotional stakes here, just melodrama in which the deeply uninteresting main characters simply say their motivations out loud and shout their feelings.
Now, I get that this isn’t prestige HBO drama, this is a Japanese action game that draws heavy inspiration from anime which, when it comes to dialogue and establishing character motivation, often has a more “tell don’t show” style of storytelling. But even within the ridiculously unrealistic world of anime, the characters still need to be engaging and have relatable moments. NieR: Automata clearly draws a lot inspiration from my favourite anime of all time, which should be awesome, but instead it’s infuriating because it only pays superficial homage to Neon Genesis: Evangelion without realising what made it work.
On the surface, the similarities between the two are striking: you’ve got a core ensemble of three characters — one guy and two girls — who pilot mechs and fight giant enemies in hyper-stylised combat sequences in a post-apocalyptic setting. But Evangelion makes us buy into its emotional stakes by having the protagonist, Shinji, be a vulnerable and believably flawed character. 2B seems to have been inspired by the character of Rei, from the look to the personality, or lack thereof. But there’s a reason Rei wasn’t the main character of Evangelion — there’s no way we’d relate to her as a protagonist. Her character works because throughout the series she can remain a tantalising mystery to both Shinji and the viewer. All of which is to say, 2B is simply not a compelling enough protagonist, and the other two aren’t much better.
Neon Genesis: Evangelion understood that robot fights don’t mean anything unless they’re based in a strong human story about the people caught up in the fighting. This is why it opens on a boy waiting by the road, and not a long shoot-out between robots A and robots B. NieR: Automata has all the trappings of an Evangelion-esque story, but unlike Evangelion, it lacks a strong emotional core to connect you to the characters and their humanity.
This lack of humanity extends to the environmental design too. The game is set in the ruins of a fallen civilisation, but not only does this not feel like a human city, it feels like it never was one. The central hub of the game is filled with identical grey blocks that don’t even have interior walls. At the opposite end of this weird uncanny valley, the environments are full of invisible walls which constantly remind you how fake this world is. This whole place looks like the kind of cheap cardboard replica city you’d stick in the background of a theatre set. The story tells me that there was a terrible war here, but this city feels so sanitised and clinically empty that I felt totally removed from the horrible events that are supposed to have taken place.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about this empty lifeless world, I didn’t care about these cringily written robots, and I didn’t care about anything that was going on in the story. I didn’t care because the game failed to make me care. For a story that supposedly deals with what it means to be human, it’s remarkable how little humanity or emotion there is to find here that doesn’t feel incredibly contrived. If had to evaluate its humanness, I wouldn’t hesitate to declare this game an automaton: it pretends to harbour signs of life, but it’s nothing but a corpse in a desert of shadows.
signs of life [A]bsent
Welcome to my video essay on NieR: Automata. In this video, I’d like to talk about how the idea of multiple playthroughs and perspectives was bungled by poor execution.
NieR: Automata’s unique storytelling twist is that there are three playthroughs, and you need to finish all three campaigns to complete the game. In each one we play as one of the three YoRHa androids — 2B, 9S and A2. This story structure allows the player to gain unique revelations that add depth and complexity to events each time you play through them as a different character. In theory. In practice, it’s a thin story that’s stretched out even more thinly by needless repetition.
In the first run, we play as android 2B as she mostly goes around murdering robots, but also meets up with an allied resistance group, discovers a peaceful robot village, and defeats some bad guys. In the second run, we play through the same timeline — this time as android 9S. And since these two characters are together for a lot of events, roughly two thirds of the second playthrough is made up of exactly the same events as the first one.
There are a few notable exceptions — there’s the fairground boss fight in which 9S’s hacking abilities allow him to access the tragic backstory of the boss character, which is a rather touching moment. There’s an additional conversation 9S has with the main villain who kidnaps him, and he also discovers a key plot twist by hacking into the androids’ organisational database. However, these additional insights are few and far between. I cannot stress this enough, fully two thirds of 9S’s entire campaign is made up of a straight re-run of the same locations, the same events, and the same dialogue from the previous campaign.
It’s common to hear people defending this repetitive story structure by saying that 9S’s playthrough gives you an important new perspective on events. But for the most part, the new perspective you get is the perspective of… standing slightly adjacent to the spot you previously were. Because the only thing better than playing through a lame fetch quest is playing through the same lame fetch quest a second time.
9S: “Man, these chores are a real pain in the butt, huh?”
They sure are.
I think there was potential here. 9S’s playthrough could have been genuinely different from 2B’s, if there was less overlap and repetition, and if the game truly allowed you to go in radical new directions with 9S’s hacking ability, which is the only way he differs from 2B. Maybe if you could hack robots at any time and not just within combat as a way to murder them, you could gain access to a lot more cool and subversive stories along the way — but as such this whole playthrough comes off as not much more than a gimmick.
And then there’s the much touted third playthrough, the one that I was promised would contain the “real” story that would leave the other two in the dust. The C route, that’s when the game really only begins. And I admit, I was hopeful. In the first two playthroughs we catch only a glimpse of the third character, A2, who appears once to say “your organisation betrayed you” and then disappears. So, I thought, cool, in the third playthrough we’ll get to play A2’s backstory, and find out why she was expelled from YoRHa, like, maybe she was a loyal soldier, but then she found out some terrible secret and she was betrayed and she fled for her life, or something awesome like that.
But no, we never get to find out what happened to her, or why she left, or any of her presumably exciting backstory, we just pick up from the present day and all we really find out about A2 is that she’s sassy and she wants to kill the machines. From everything I’d heard, I really thought A2’s playthrough was going to give me a character I could connect to, I thought it was going to be the one that made me care about everything that was happening — the apocalypse, the war, the YoRHa conspiracy, the machine uprising, but it just gives you more of the same. The same setting, the same combat, another protagonist with the same basic motivations and goals as the other two. Far from being the best of the three, the third playthrough was the most disappointing because it was the point at which I lost hope of ever connecting with this game.
Ultimately, NieR: Automata fails to justify its triple act structure. The first two playthroughs could easily be combined into one, and the third is just a continuation anyway. This is one story posing as three. I can only speculate as to why the decision was made to break up the story into three campaigns, but my guess is that it was probably a nod to the original NieR, and possibly a way to get media coverage and get people talking — “Hey, I heard the ending is a fake-out! Whoa!” Anyway, speculation aside, all I can speak to is the final product and whether it works as a story structure, and it doesn’t.
Like a lot of the other ideas in this game, the decision to present three separate stories could have been interesting but ends up disappointingly shallow and undeveloped. And speaking of shallow and undeveloped, we haven’t even talked about some of the central themes and ideas.
Welcome to my video essay on NieR: Automata. In this video, I’d like to argue that this game doesn’t do justice to any of the themes or issues it deals with.
One of the things critics and fans praised this game for was its exploration of deep and profound themes. What I’d say is that NieR: Automata is constantly touching on interesting themes, and then going nowhere with them.
Take religion. In 2B’s playthrough, we find a group of machines who, perhaps out of a desire to find some sort of order or meaning in the world, have founded their own little religion. Now, I did my PhD on the psychology of religion, so trust me when I say I am extremely on board with stories that explore how religion fulfils our social and emotional needs, and what the cost of this is. Among other things, religion provides us with a sense of belonging by promoting empathy and social cohesion among the in-group while creating hostility and mistrust towards outgroups. It can also create interesting conflicts when members lose their belief, or split off to form a rival sect. Religions also have rules that enforce a form of social power and control, so it would be fascinating to see how a new religion would have formed among these machines. You know, what rules would their religion have? What behaviours would they deem moral and immoral and how would this be decided? By whom? Would it be a hierarchical or a more equal social system and how would that social structure affect the way their society developed? Who is the out-group against which they define their in-group identity? Is there prejudice in this religion, is there discrimination? How do they deal with members who lose their belief, or question the existing rules and power structure?
I list all of these things because I really want to show just how many potentially interesting routes there were for this little story to go in, and how utterly inane what actually happens is in comparison. When we meet the machines, their religion has turned into a crazy death cult and they’re all killing themselves and each other because they believe that will make them gods.
Death cults form a tiny minority of religious groups; they do not in any way represent how most people search for meaning through faith. Religion, and what it provides in people’s lives, is so much more than a suicide cult. And I know this is getting nerdy but, I have to point this out, the machines here are actually displaying intra-group violence, despite the fact that social bonding and in-group cohesion and altruism are much more common, in fact they tend to be key elements of religious groups. This game chooses to represent the human struggle for meaning through religion by depicting the most un-representative, extreme form that religious belief can take, and not touching on any of the benefits or downsides to religion as it is actually understood and practiced in society. There are stories that meaningfully explore religion and the many ways in which religion shapes societies and lives and relationships and this isn’t it.
Let’s move on to another-[static]
I put the controller down.
The glow of the television reflects off my despairing face.
I was promised a moving story that would blow me away.
But I feel nothing.
“Is this game…kind of bad?”
The cold winter air swirls around my living room, picking up dust and pretzel debris.
“No, if that were true it would send my entire world tumbling. And make a lot of Yoko Taro fanboys very mad at me.
I should not think these things.
It is a good game.
It is a masterpiece.
A MASTERPIECE A MASTERPIECE A MASTERPIECE A MASTERPIECE A MASTERPI-[static]
Let’s move on to another wasted opportunity to explore meaning, because NieR: Automata presents itself as a story that explores the meaning of life and death.
As 9S, we hack the YoRHa servers and find out that… the humans are dead. Yes, it turns out Project YoRHa is a lie and humanity died out a long time ago. Sorry bud, God is dead and we put his corpse into a server on the moon and pretended everything was fine. In an instant, 9S realises the androids’ entire reason for existing is a lie. Then 2B dies and 9S’s only remaining meaning in life — his relationship with her — is extinguished.
This could be a great point from which to explore the myriad psychological effects of existential crisis. I mean, consider all the emotions people can go through when they lose their religious faith, or a job they’d built their whole identity around, or a loved one. Denial, fear, anger, helplessness, depression, but also recovery, post-traumatic growth, a search for a new purpose. Rather, the game chooses to turn 9S into the most insufferable little twat I’ve had to put up with in a game since this little shit.
Pod: “Alert: Excessive combat activity will put unacceptable strain on your body.”
9S: “Shut up!”
“Shut up” god this guy is the worst.
Of course, he is right to feel incredibly tormented and angry, it’s just that the way the game depicts his grief is so…let’s just say blunt that he becomes a completely one-dimensional character for the rest of the game. And instead of a sensitive and thoughtful exploration of the experience of grief and loss, we get 9S throwing a screaming, hours-long tantrum. Because…all death and no love make 9S go crazy, I guess.
This same sin of “feelings, therefore crazy” is in fact committed not once, but twice. The two initial antagonists of this game are Adam and Eve, humanoid machines created by the robots to learn about humanity and figure out how to end the war with the androids for good. When his clone-brother Adam is killed, Eve loses it and goes on a genocidal killing spree. I’m starting to think the only way Yoko Taro knows how to convey hardship is to make his characters literally go crazy and murder everything. Well that and-[clip of 2B crying cringily]
Many have said that this game is about finding meaning in life. I’m not sure I agree, considering all the failed opportunities to explore the search for meaning. There are two characters in this game who have to deal with a sudden loss of meaning, and in both cases their response is:
Eve: “Nothing matters any more!”
9S: “It doesn’t matter. None of this matters!”
They don’t struggle to find meaning in life like the rest of us do every day, they just become whiny destructive nihilists and decide there is no meaning. This is like if an angsty teen wrote a story about the meaning of life and death. It’s corny, it’s childish, and it doesn’t reflect the human experience of trying to find a purpose in life. Just like with the topic of religion, grief and existential angst are framed in these extreme, ridiculous ways with no real insight into the emotional truth behind these struggles.
Now, because I think I know what some people are unloading into the comments as I speak, let me make something clear — I am not having a dig at this game for a lack of realism. I would be an idiot if I wasn’t aware that the way science fiction works is by using unreal worlds to reflect real truths about our world, and that is exactly my point. NieR: Automata’s failure is not that it’s literally unrealistic, its failure is that it’s emotionally and thematically shallow. If you found some psychological or existential truths here, then that’s great and there are a lot of people who would agree with you. But do you know who agrees with me? Yoko Taro.
Here he is in an interview with Gematsu:
Yoko Taro: “For me, I don’t actually give it a whole lot of deep thought when coming up with the themes. There’s not really this deep theme for me personally. If the fans have read into it and attached to a certain theme, or think that there’s a certain theme to it, I think that’s great. But for me, I don’t go into it with anything pre-planned. I don’t give a whole lot of deep thought. It’s sort of on the whim, or in the moment.”
I don’t want to treat this as a slam-dunk, I mean you could argue that people can unconsciously create deeply insightful stories without even realising it, but I prefer to wield Occam’s razor here and say that Yoko Taro is just being straight-forward. And good on the guy for openly admitting he didn’t put much thought into the themes or ideas. If that’s what he says then personally, I believe him.
a sear[C]h for meaning
Welcome to my video essay on NieR: Automata. In this video, I’d like to talk about…Ex Machina? OK, you’ll have to bear with me for just a minute here, this will become relevant.
The story of Ex Machina follows protagonist Caleb, the employee of a futuristic tech company who wins the chance to meet the reclusive CEO, Nathan, during a week-long getaway at the most expensive man-cave ever built. He soon finds out that he has been selected for a very special task — Nathan has been making humanoid androids, and believes he has created one that will pass every possible test for the presence of consciousness. Caleb’s job is to determine if this android, Ava, is a fully conscious being. As Caleb and Ava bond, we learn that Nathan is a rather disturbed individual who maybe shouldn’t have the future of humanity in his grubby hands.
When it’s revealed that every single one of Nathan’s androids has been female, we’re encouraged not to accept this as coincidental but to question it — why has Nathan not made any male androids? Why are they all sexy women? Clearly, these designs weren’t neutral decisions made in a vacuum, but reflect the preoccupations and fantasies of its creator. And some of these fantasies are, well…unsettling. One of the androids is a Japanese maid who doesn’t speak English, a disturbing embodiment of the white male fetishisation of Japanese women based on the assumption that they are servile and obedient. What kind of a man, who could create any kind of person, would choose to make a mute, submissive woman who, by the way, he also uses as a fuck doll? Well, a sexist and a creep, whose perverted desire to dominate women has embedded itself into the design of his creations, a design that, chillingly, might go on to shape the future of robotics for the entire world.
And speaking of the future of robotics, enter NieR: Automata, which takes place in a future Earth populated by — and there’s no way to put this lightly — shamelessly sexualised robo-waifus in crotch-revealing dresses and high heels. It’s the sort of design the Chief Executive Scumbag would come up with if he indulged the gothic Lolita fetish you absolutely know he has. But unlike Ex Machina, there’s no questioning of the status quo here, no critical gaze turned inward. Female bodies are simply presented as something to be freely and brazenly ogled. If you use the self-destruct move, for example, 2B’s clothes get…blown off, leaving her running around in her undies. Come on, Japanese games industry, you can do better than “Hercules the explosion blew off my clothes”. This kind of portrayal of a character is downright de-humanising, because you can’t both fully respect a female character and accept that it’s OK for her to be forced into a skimpy uniform designed to allow everybody to leer at her crotch and ass.
There’s a sad irony in the fact that this is apparently a story about androids nobly realising their humanity, in which the visual design of said androids downplays their humanity and dignity.
I don’t think this clash was intentional and female objectification is certainly not rare in the world of anime and game design. I think Yoko “send nudes” Taro simply didn’t bother to interrogate his own predilection for gratuitous T&A when he was making this game. And maybe he should have. It’s not malicious, it’s just what happens when developers who haven’t examined their own biases attempt to tell a nuanced story. Their blind spots and personal fetishes end up all over their creations like a sticky gross fingerprint. Yoko Taro doesn’t seem to know whether he wants to develop the humanity of his characters or reduce them to eye candy, and the result is… a sticky mess. I’ll wrap up with this. If you want a touching story about female androids developing consciousness and questioning why they were made and what it means to be human, you should just watch Ex Machina, which tackles all those issues with infinitely more sensitivity and depth in 2 hours than NieR: Automata does in 30.
har[D]ons for machines
Welcome to my video essay on NieR: Automata. In this video, I’d like to talk about how this game is a mess of uninspired and contradictory design decisions.
One of the things the game was praised for was its “unique” and “refreshing” willingness to bend genre conventions. At times the game turns into a 2D platformer or a bullet-hell shoot em up, and there are hacking minigames and sections which resemble a text adventure. NieR: Automata sure does throw a lot of ingredients into the genre pot but the problem is they all feel rather half-baked. For example, I cannot think of a less imaginative way to represent a hacking sequence than shooting stuff in the exact same way you shoot stuff in the main game. The text adventure bits are OK, but lack they the best part of text adventures which is getting to make decisions that affect the course of the game. These 2D sections would have worked just as well in 3D, so I get the feeling the main reason they and the bullet-hell bits were included was to tug on players’ nostalgia strings by referencing retro games, which is fine — appealing to nostalgia isn’t bad, it’s just not new or inventive. I mean, Fez’s mix of 2D and 3D puzzle platforming is still far more interesting genre-wise than anything NieR: Automata does, and it was released in 2012. Also, 3D games have been including retro homages for 20 years, so… I mean, is it fun and cool? Yeah! Is it innovative or unique? Hell no.
The one time I would say the game actually innovates is during the extremely difficult ending sequence, at the end of which you can choose to have all your save files deleted to give another player out there an extra re-try as they attempt to make their own way through to the end. This is a genuinely heart-warming moment and a very clever use of game mechanics to create positive connections between players, and I wish more games did stuff like this.
But we haven’t talked about the combat, and how clever and innovative it is not. As 2B, you have two swords so combat is mostly made up of spamming two buttons repeatedly until everything’s dead, and as 9S you have one sword so you get to repeatedly spam one button. And occasionally suffer through a simplistic “hacking” minigame. I was really hoping that A2’s playthrough would mix it up with an entirely different combat scheme altogether…. But no, it’s just more spamming. Apparently you can get some depth out of fiddling with the plug-in chip system and finding timing combos, but I had no desire to put even more hours into a combat system that utterly failed to grab me.
And part of the reason it failed to grab me is that there’s nothing interesting about the structure of combat. The strategy for every combat encounter is pretty much the same — dodge when eyes flash red, spammy spammy, robot friend goes brrr, repeat for 30 hours. Enemy design doesn’t vary much, it’s mostly just different sizes of robots, and, later, the same robots but with armour. There aren’t enemy types or formations that force you to fundamentally change up your combat strategy, or make interesting decisions on the fly, beyond hack the big boys and use ranged attacks on the faraway guys. Some fights are purely made up of a dozen of the exact same enemy, which you just need to tediously cleave through.
Thank god for easy mode, the game just plays itself in easy mode, it’s amazing. See it may look like I’m playing here, but I’m actually taking a toilet break. This is me getting a coffee, here I am catching up on some reading, here’s me on holiday down the coast…good times. It’s saying something that one of the mechanics I most appreciated about this game was one that allowed me to not have to play it.
Some aspects of NieR: Automata are not only not innovative, they’re downright regressive. There’s very little auto-saving, and there are long sections of the game that don’t have save points, so if you die at certain points in the story you can easily lose a good 20 minutes of progress. This feels like game design from two decades ago, and considering all the incredible technical, narrative and design innovations happening in the industry, I can’t for the life of me figure out how a bland combat system, an occasional switch to 2D, a few top-down shooting sections and a lame hacking mini-game have managed to impress anybody.
And while we’re on the subject of unimpressive design decisions: this aesthetic. Don’t get me wrong here, there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad aesthetic. In Shadow of the Colossus, it made perfect sense that this mythical fantasy land would have a blurry, dream-like look about it. But NieR: Automata is a fairly hard science fiction narrative about a millennia-long robot war; the fights are outrageous, the dialogue is over-the-top; it’s bizarre to see this dreamy washed-out colour palette being used when there’s nothing dreamy or surreal or delicate about this story or the way it’s delivered.
The only defense of this aesthetic I’ve come across is “there’s no colour because the world ended and everyone is dead and it’s sad” but I think this is the same thinking that gave us the “brown grey shooter” era of the late 00’s. Sad post-apocalyptic worlds can be anything — they can be colourful, they can be lush and green and even bright neon. But of course, whenever there’s any criticism made of this game’s visual style there’s the obligatory chorus of, “You just don’t get Yoko Taro’s creative vision, this ain’t Breath of the Wild, it’s a sad post-apocalyptic game, go back to your baby crib for babies” — by the way, please no one tell these people that Breath of the Wild is a sad post-apocalyptic game, the irony is too delicious. The fact is, I do get what Yoko Taro was trying to do, I just don’t think “bleak therefore no colour” is an interesting artistic decision, and more importantly I don’t think the pastel colour palette is a good fit with the anime-inspired bombastic-ness of the combat and the storytelling. I think a more anime-inspired pop of colour would add a lot more visual interest without undermining the more serious themes.
And this brings me to what is probably my core problem with this game, which is that it contains a lot of neat ideas, but almost none of them are fully developed and some of them clash with each other. The music and environments are dreamy and sparse, but the action and dialogue are heavy and in-your-face. The issues it touches on are complex, but the writing and storytelling are anything but nuanced. It raises a lot of interesting themes and never follows them anywhere. It wants to send a thoughtful message but also thoughtlessly inserts crass fanservice.
There are so many ideas here that feel like they were smashed together in a haphazard way, without consideration for whether those elements would meaningfully contribute anything to the bigger picture. Here’s a 2D section because we can. Here’s a fishing minigame coz why not. Here’s a bed you can sleep in which you never have any reason to do. And to be fair, I even liked some of the pointless additions. When you die, your corpse might appear in someone else’s game and you can choose a cryptic little phrase to appear alongside your body like, “A hollowed-out doll saw a machine dancing like mad in a deserted land”. There’s no point to it aside from adding a nice poetic twist but it’s neat. When you’re selecting a weapon, there’s an option in the menu called “Story”, which gives you a tiny anecdote about some rando in the world, and it unlocks a new snippet of story every time you upgrade the weapon. And it’s nice, I mean the stories don’t mean anything but… wait a minute…
Huh, it’s 2B’s sword, and this story sounds like it’s describing her. Boy I nearly missed this entirely. Hm. Maybe I should just do a little more digging and see if there’s any other bits of story I missed.
[dramatic montage of the Nier: Automata online lore]
Well I found the lore. So much lore.
There are novellas and short stories. There’s an entire set of scripts that were written for a series of musical concerts performed in 2017. This one depicts the blossoming love between 2B and 9S, which several of the stories explain is doomed because he keeps being too clever and uncovering the conspiracy and she keeps being ordered to kill him to wipe his memory. This one has a description of her being ordered to kill him again, and again, and again, and her begging the Commander to stop ordering her to do it, and being denied. Here’s another one, in which 2B finds the site of 9S’s body and digs herself nearly to death to try and get him out.
And look, here’s that backstory and character motivation for A2 I was hoping to find in her playthrough! It’s all here. How one day, during an attack on a machine server, she found out she was an experimental “suicide bomber” model designed to die in battle, and her friend A4 sacrifices herself to blow up the server and complete the mission so A2 doesn’t have to die.
Now at last I get it. 2B only appears to have no personality because knowing she’s going to have to murder 9S again and again makes it too painful for her to have any emotional attachment to him. And 9S, naively, tragically, keeps trying to connect with her because he’s cluelessly in love with her. And A2 didn’t start out as this rage-filled person, but having to live under constant attack from the machines and her former organisation has turned her into not much more than a ruthless killer. Finally, finally this story is starting to feel like it has some texture.
SO WHY WASN’T THIS IN THE GAME?!?!
With this information, the events of the game, and the interactions between the characters, become a whole lot more meaningful. Once you know 2B’s and 9S’s backstory, and how much they really love each other, how many times 2B has had to kill him in the past, and how much it destroys her to do it, you understand the layers of emotion behind her silence. But if you just play the game, all you ever see is 20 hours of 2B telling 9S she’s not interested in chit chatting with him.
The more I find out about this game, the more completely baffled I am by it. Yoko Taro had 30 hours, THIRTY HOURS to present three well developed characters, to make me care about them, and to give them proper character arcs, and instead of doing that he chose to tell a nothing story in the main campaign, and to bury the interesting bits in Supplement G, subsection 7.
Ultimately, there are a lot of people who really like Yoko Taro’s approach of presenting a long, let’s say sparse story which requires the player to go searching for the critical missing details buried in a bunch of side materials. And I don’t even think this is an inherently bad approach if it’s done well. Dark Souls did it. But I think the fundamental difference between Dark Souls and NieR: Automata is that Dark Souls feels like a complete game. Even if you never go digging into the lore, you can play it as a dark fantasy combat-focused RPG with stunning environments and epic bosses and it’s satisfying. The optional lore is actually optional.
But with NieR: Automata, which is a story-driven RPG, the story isn’t optional — it’s just located in a place other than the actual game. And without a complete story, all that’s left is 30 hours of repetitive combat. I suppose the idea is that the gaps in the narrative will be so intriguing that they’ll motivate you to go looking for the missing pieces, but the risk of this approach is that it can just as easily motivate you to say “fuck this”. Part of it comes down to the fact that I’m 34 years old, I have a job and a busy life, and when I sit down to a 30-hour-long game, I want to be told a story, not to sit through dozens of hours of incomplete pieces of a story that I then have to go and do the extra work of putting together myself so it all makes sense. That was your job, Yoko Taro!
I cannot describe to you how angry and frustrated I was playing this game. And for ages I genuinely went a bit crazy trying to figure out why. But now I think I finally get it. This game felt like a series of promises that kept turning into smoke before my eyes.
Every time there was a story beat that seemed like it would be the beginning of an exploration of a fascinating theme, it would devolve into an over-simplified caricature of the topic. Every time the characters had a conversation that I thought was going to reveal more about them, they’d just repeat the same vapid lines again and again. Every time the perspective changed and I anticipated something new, I got more of the same.
The experience of playing NieR: Automata was like constantly grasping at a mirage, and the feeling was only intensified by all the adoring praise I was hearing. I kept waiting in vain for this brilliant game to emerge, but in the end I decided this emperor has no clothes…maybe they were blown off in an explosion.
And that’s it. That’s my take. I can now say that I suffered through dozens of hours of gameplay, I unlocked all the endings, and I dug through lore until my fingers bled, all to bring you this final ending — the one in which I put the game back on the shelf, I release this video, and I finally walk away.
at l[E]ast the soundtrack was good