I bet you're having a tough time right now/But.../you can do it if you try! [Canada]
While I was trying to figure out a way to start this blog, I went for a walk outside. This walk took me to the elementary school I went to, where I ended up in the school's pétanque court. While everything else in the school's playground was new, plastic and foreign, this court was still made from the same decaying wood I remembered. So I thought about NieR: Automata while doing what I liked doing years ago, keeping myself in balance on the wooden frames of the court.
During this recollection, a lot of powerful scenes from the game came back to mind, a lot of those being difficult to talk about without spoiling the game's story. But the game made such a strong impression on me, that I figured I would at least attempt to explain that feat. After all, it's my favorite game of the year so far. It deserves at least that much.
Some people might be turned off, looking at this game from the outside. In a gaming landscape where open-world titles are increasingly the norm, I don't blame them. But NieR: Automata doesn't do "open-world" like the others. If you compared the size of its map to contemporaries, it would look downright minuscule. But there's a reason for that. While the game does let you go everywhere without the need for a loading screen, and it does include open-world classics like vehicles (boars and moose), it doesn't do the rest like the other girls. I think the best comparison for its map design would be, of all games, larger version of 3D Mario levels stapled together. There's an order to the places you're supposed to go, and these places have clearly defined start and end points. With the exception of the starting city, which branches out into these levels, the layout of each place is a lot different compared to relatively flat cities and plains of most open-world games. There's a lot of verticality and thoughtful encounters in each area. And, of course, exploration is encouraged, as within hidden paths you can find additional weapons, materials used to upgrade your weapons, and even extra bosses.
On top of this enjoyable level design, each area is enhanced by their art direction. NieR Automata decides to go the extra mile to set the mood in each area, with a nearly monochromatic art style that shifts between each. In the entirely artificial space colony, the game becomes entirely black and white. But back on earth, you're greeted with a very green forest, a very gray city, a very blue coast, and (my favorite) a very purple theme park. And each comes with its own amazing music that really sets the tone. I think the made-up languages used for vocals are a brilliant idea, as only the emotions behind each track shine through, free from the influence of your perception of particular languages. Seriously, just listen to this!
One of my favorite things about Yoko Taro's games is the weapon system, which thankfully comes back in NieR: Automata. Each weapon comes with its own little story, which sometimes provides additional insight into the world of the game. As you level up the weapons, their own story fleshes out, a terrific incentive to make you go the extra mile collecting and upgrading every weapon. And when you add on top of these weapons with different movesets, stats and skills the varied gameplay that comes from the multiple camera angles (top-down, third-person, side-scroller, etc) and the shift to shooter gameplay during flying sections and hacking... There's a lot of game in here to sink your teeth into as you explore NieR: Automata's world.
But the strongest part of the game, to me, is its writing. The basic gist of the story is as follows: Mankind was totally roasted, and its remains lie in wait on the moon. Alien-made machines, and man-made androids, fight on Earth's surface. That plot line seems pretty crazy at first glance, no doubt about it, but the way it is presented really sets the serious tone of the narrative well. It's a very personal, and human, tale of war. Those of you who played the game's demo on PS4 and found 2B's character to be inconsistent, no worries. Her backstory is explained in the full game, and her behavior during these opening moments is justified. She's been through a lot.
The most important theme is one of purpose. Both mechanical sides, due to their newfound sentience, find themselves faced with the terrifying concepts of the purpose of their war, and on a larger scale the purpose of their existence. The different ways the machines have tried to handle their sentience, in particular, is worth paying attention to. Some create a cult, a new religion explaining their existence, and what happens to them after destruction. Others find purpose through a sense of duty. In the androids' case, this meant protecting whatever remained of humanity by waging the war on Earth's surface. For some of the machines, this meant establishing a new kingdom and protecting its king. By dedicating their lives to the protection of a higher power, the burden of finding a purpose is passed along like a hot potato. And for a small part of NieR: Automata's world, machines have found a peaceful road to purpose: through entertainment, or through helping one another.
Of course, not everyone finds a satisfying answer. Expect panic attacks, insanity, suicidal machines. NieR: Automata doesn't hold back.
One of my favorite parts about the way the story is handled, is that its core concepts would apply just as well to humanity, but is exclusively told via artificial life-forms. The similarities made me empathize with the characters. The differences made me think about the concepts in a larger scale. When the characters are faced with these classic philosophical questions, they're looking at it from an outsider's perspective, not a species who have been asking itself those questions for centuries. They end up naïvely repeating humanity's actions, without learning from humanity's errors. This angle, in my opinion, greatly helps the delivery of the story as a whole.
Despite how bleak Nier: Automata's world is, there are still parts that are cheerful, like Emil's amazing jingle. It made me think, and it made me sad... but hopefulness wasn't ever too far away. The game doesn't give an answer to the characters' quest for purpose, but multiple avenues for an answer are shown. After all, what is worth fighting for is up to each person to decide. This isn't the kind of experience that's going to be to everyone's taste, but I feel like it's one everyone should give a fair shot to.
"No matter how hard, or how painful. They never gave up. They kept fighting because they believed they could overcome someday! Isn't that right!? Even if it's pointless, you still have to do it!"