Over the past month Nier: Automata has blown me away. A game that on it’s face is one where you hack robots to pieces in various fashion appeals to me, but I didn’t expect to be dragged into one of most interesting and memorable games I’d ever played. A true masterclass in story telling and emotional manipulation, by the time I had killed my way to the “true” ending, it had solidified its position as one of my favourite games of all time.
At first the game seems to be a slightly weird robot action game from the guys that brought you Metal Gear Rising and Bayonetta, and it definitely is that. The combat even feels similar at times, and whilst the third person hack and slash moments can feel slightly lacking compared to other Platinum-developed games, it’s switching perspectives between third person, top down and side scrolling game play help keep you constantly on your toes. Throw in some frantic hacking mini games and a whole bunch of robot murder and you have the basis of a solid game.
Beyond the gameplay level is where Automata really starts to shine. What starts off as a game about androids created by humans to kill machines created by aliens who invaded earth at some point in the far future after humanity has fled to the moon following a severe plague that blighted the world (you’re following, right?) ends up as a deep dive in what it means to be human, love, friendship and emotions.
The game’s core is based around the way it sets up its characters motivations. 2B and 9S, the main player characters for most of the game, are androids created by humans to destroy the machines (created by aliens) who no inhabit earth. Humanity lives on the moon, and sends androids down to earth on attack runs. As this set up unravels the decision to not go down the Spec Ops: The Line route of making you the bad guy and instead just make everything awful for everybody involved is one that helps you connect to the characters and their motivations.
Early out in the game you discover that not all the machines are mindless war machines, and that plenty of them have just started doing their best to live normal lives on earth now all the humans have run away to the moon (still following?), and the game uses the explanations for why they choose to live how they do to constantly undermine your characters original motivations. The robots who live in the woods are socialists, they observed humanity and decided that greed was bad, which leaves you feeling fairly negative about your creators. Later you read android penned criticism of the robot civilisations, apparently laughing at them for never learning and just repeatedly trying to copy humanity; they state that if they create a dictatorship and it fails they just build another one rather than changing their political systems. The satire is obvious, but the writing is such that you feel that whichever android wrote that believed in what they were writing, their conditioned hate for the machines is so strong.
“No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.” Roland Pryzbylewski, The Wire Season 4, Episode 4.
This largely how the game makes you feel by its latter stages. By this point is has become clear that continuing to murder robots probably isn’t helping anything, but they keep coming and you keep killing them because they’re in your way. You don’t feel good about it, the design on the robots is so strong that you feel for them even though they are as far from human as possible (and your android characters appear exactly as human, for all intents and purposes). By the time I was done with Nier: Automata I more glad that no one else had to die horribly, robot or android, any more.
This may feel a little vague, and that’s intentional. The best reveals and moments that poke at your heart in Nier: Automata are best experienced first hand, as each player will probably react to them differently. Some people might just decided they don’t care about the robots and continue to kill them all, some (me) might just get fairly depressed by the whole thing. Either way, it has a way of making you feel strongly about something that at the beginning of the game you just saw as a target.
I said at the beginning, this is a remarkable game. One that keeps you on your toes with it’s combat, that sets up a intriguing world, and that manages to constantly grow your connection to the characters in that world despite consistently reminding you that they aren’t human. It is immensely sad, and the repeated play through structure of the game is used brilliantly to make you suddenly feel differently about characters you previously just murdered and left for dead. It is exceptionally committed to its vision and its story, and it is all the better for it when it goes hard on the heavier philosophical elements when other games might tone it down. It tells a story only a video game could tell, and uses the tools the medium provides to create one of the best gaming experiences in recent memory.