|The Man, The Myth, The Motherfucker. Yoko Taro. Dude's in the "Special Thanks" of his own game. Nuff said.|
I, your comedic video game writer who has kinda been missing the mark on that whole "comedic" part for a while now, suffer from depression. This depression kicks my soul in the face and makes me feel like I'm drowning in a sea of anxiety and pain. It's a lot. It's very bad.
I don't really see video games as "escapism" in the way that others might, the troubles I face in my life follow me wherever I am and there's no real getting away from that. Instead, I play video games because they are fucking rad and you get to fight giant robot dinosaurs and fuck aliens and shit. From what I've written in the past, I've said some pretty negative things about the past few years when it comes to video games. In my GOTY 2016 article, I struggled to find a 5th game that I actually liked. In no specific order on the scale. I ended up choosing FFXV which I'm now pretty sure I hate, but whatever.
Point is, these past few years have not been kind to me. But. It seems as though 2017 is pulling some "rabbit out of the hat" bullshit with some of the most fucking awesome games. Nioh, Resident Evil VII, Horizon: Zero Dawn(Which I will talk about at another time), and NieR: Automata(I'm going to be writing it as Nier from now on, fuck that random capital R bullshit).
I didn't know too much about the game going in. I played the demo, became quite confused about what the fuck was going on, but was totally sucked in. The character designs, that confidant Platinum Games gameplay, the soundtrack, oh god the soundtrack. I was even enticed by the menus. I think from front to back, the graphical design in this game is incredibly slick. I love it.
But when the game came out it was like, you know, time had passed. I was interested in other games. Could I time it so that I could get this and Mass Effect? Might I just avoid this game entirely? After all, it is a Nier game and I did not enjoy the first one. But I decided, eh, might as well. I did have a good first impression after all.
And then I got the game, and oh fuck.
The game starts with you, a badass Android lady named 2B sent on a mission to find and kill Machines. The demo prepared me for this but the game blends genres around in and out of these set pieces where at one stage you are playing a Galaga-like shoot 'em up where enemies come on screen in patterns and rain down bullet hell on you while you are inside of your cool transforming jet/mechsuit. You have the ability to move, shoot, slash with your sword, and even use missiles at some point. But to balance out the change in genre they also through in some other segments where your flying machine turns into more of a mechanized suit, and allowing enemies to come in from 360 degrees.
Using this series of genre-breaks, you make your way to this abandoned factory in the ruins of an old city on Earth. Along the way your entire crew get killed, making you the Captain, but also ensuring that you are the only surviving member of your squad. After an immediate boss battle because Platinum Games, you meet up with what will be your companion for the rest of the game, 9S(Though he prefers to be called Nines, but fuck that we're stone cold and we don't care). He is a Scanner(Hence the S) who specialize in hacking enemies and finding shortcuts through hacking other things as well.
You go through the factory cutting down any machine who gets in your way, eventually getting to the boss who completely destroyed your squad from earlier. It's a fairly standard boss but what began to stand out to me from this early point in the game, even though this is the same segment from the demo, is that everything meshes together to create an incredible scene. The soundtrack, the stakes, the over-the-top gameplay of fighting a giant industrial crane who has transformed into some giant mechanized weapon of total destruction, and the cutscenes that go along with it.
You defeat the boss while 9S becomes critically damaged and rests atop this mountain of a machine. That's when several more machines rise from the ocean and surround you. The characters deem that there is no way out of this situation alive and pull out a device called a "blackbox" which is some kind of data storage device that holds their individual unique data. Apparently you can also trigger them to explode into a massive, almost nuclear like radius that will destroy anything around. Which they do, and which it does.
The game then follows them to The Bunker, a space station resting above the Earth that houses Yorha, a specialized unit comprised of a multitude of different androids that protect what's left of humanity by engaging their machine enemies in combat.
In the world of Nier, before this game, thousands of years in the past, from what I can tell: A horrible virus or some kind of illness began spreading around the world, infecting and killing anyone it touched. So the a plan was devised called Project Gestalt, where it would separate the souls from human bodies, allowing the virus to consume the bodies and then die off organically with nothing left to consume, except for a subset of humanity that managed to escape to the Moon where they had set up a base.
9S managed, being the bro he is, to upload 2B's data to The Bunker so she could reactivate and retain her memories, although due to a lack of bandwidth he could only remember his events leading up to the initial meeting with 2B, thus not remembering that he chose to sacrifice himself like a true bro.
From here, you will eventually be sent back to Earth and the game opens up into the open world JRPG it is. And, it's a good game. The gameplay is some of the finest Platinum has done. The way you can spec your character out using the plug-in chips, allowing you to micro-manage exactly how your build will go. I personally focused on movement speed and offensive healing, allowing myself to heal a large percentage upon defeating an enemy as well as healing myself a certain amount for every hit I landed. But there are other builds. Perhaps you would rather focus on damage and critical hit rates?
Chips are basically abilities you add to a loadout, of which you get 3 to customize. You can go to certain stores and "fuse" these chips together. For example, you can take 2 "weapon damage+1" chips and fuse them together, making them +2, then take two of those and make them +3 and on and on. But you can do this for all of the chips, giving you a boost to your total HP, critical hit rate, movement speed, stagger rate, etc, etc. There are numerous chips to customize yourself with and will allow you to choose areas to specialize in and get the most bang for your buck.
You can also buy and upgrade weapons, though I honestly didn't get much out of this system because I couldn't quite find the items I needed to upgrade most of my weapons. Eventually I just said screw it and never really put the effort in to where I'm even supposed to find these items in the world, because no matter how many resources I pick up, or quests I complete, I'm just not finding them. It wasn't too much of a hindrance, though it was kind of annoying.
But aside from the gameplay, which as I've mentioned before, is incredible, the way the game surprised me the most was from the narrative. The sheer number of themes and concepts it not only explores but shoots you in the face with as if it were a double-barreled shotgun. Nier: Automata is up there with the likes of Spec Ops: The Line in which it made me feel absolutely sick to my stomach with the direction the game can go. I mean that in an endearing way.
It's tough to talk about, because the thoughts running through my mind are: Do I throw up a spoiler tag and just go deep, or keep it short and vague in hopes to entrance as many as I can to what I consider a masterpiece that will resound within the video-game-o-sphere forever.
I WILL DISCUSS IMPORTANT THEMES NOW
I read a comment on the internet recently that talked about decisions in video games. They pointed out the often ridiculousness of video game decision making, like the decisions you make in a Mass Effect and the like. It often boils down to "destroy the space nazis" OR "save the space orphans". You can't do both, so pick your ridiculously black and white chest bumping "hard" morality decision. These games often try to go deep into the philosophic and moralistic consequences of having to make hard decisions and "live with it", but they are always paper thin.
Dragon Age comes to mind and their moralistic bullshit decisions where it's like "You pick one faction to love you and then that pisses off every other faction and they fucking hate you now". Like, they stress so hard that there's no "right decision" but, by doing it in this way almost makes it completely pointless. One faction WILL love you, one faction WILL hate you. Video games.
Or take a look at Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. What was supposed to be this grim final entry into the Big Boss saga as you see the creation of Outer Heaven and the "men that become demons, burning for revenge, in Outer Heaven", but what happens? None of that. You in fact spend more time doing positive shit than doing negative shit. The Quiet cutscene where you bring her to Mother Base, Big Boss smacks his lips to the tune of "When the time comes, I'll kill her myself" as if the game had actually forgotten that "Oh, shit, we're not this deep dark game about revenge" because right fucking after that you go rescue children, extract endangered animals from warzones and collect goddamn butterflies.
The game forgets itself in the grand scheme of not pushing the revenge agenda(Revengda? I guess that's what Rising 2 will be called) on you for whatever reason. It can't decide if Big Boss is an evil tyrant willing to do whatever it takes, ala the ending speech of Peace Walker, or if he's a fucking humanitarian just trying to find his footing on an oil rig facility housing hundreds of mercenaries just looking to make a buck no matter the cost. But there is no cost. Because "war is hell" is, as it is in many video games, a paper thin echo that holds no more weight than the "10/10 GOTY - video game writer" that's on the front of the box. It's supposed to illicit a sensation from you, as you soldier on as a soldier in a warzone and have to "see good men die". But it's not real. It doesn't even try to be. It makes no effort to push itself on you. It tells you what it wants you to feel, it doesn't make you feel it.
Nier: Automata doesn't have any decision making(For the most part), but it features scenarios where the full weight of a decision is explored and expanded upon in surprisingly large fashion.
Early in the game, in the very first chapter, you are sent to the desert to kill all of the machines in the area. Upon arriving you find the machines have banded together and adorned themselves in tribal garb, including types of paints on their bodies. You are sent to kill them, but they speak of fear. They are afraid of androids. They are afraid of you. These "unfeeling" machines speak of fear and eventually, once you complete your task, one such machine begins to flee.
There is a part where as you are chasing him, he ends up running towards you accidentally, and then seeing his mistake yells "Ahh! Not this way!" but there's fear in his voice. Androids, especially B2, are build specifically for combat, to destroy these machines wherever they find them. The machines are the enemy of mankind, unfeeling, incapable of learning, but a threat nonetheless. This one is afraid. "They don't give up!" he yells as he runs away to the ruins where his people hide away, enacting their lives of machine babies in mechanical cribs, pretending(Or are they?) to live their lives like you would imagine humans to.
You arrive and slaughter all of the machines. The one that had been fleeing before jumps in and yells about how "I'll get you for this!!" for destroying his people. The anger, the desperation in his mechanical fluctuation of a voice says it all. In this moment I wanted to put down the controller and just stop playing. The small, actually kind of cute robots are smaller and a lot more vulnerable, and you have to kill every single one of them. And I did not like it.
Later in the game you come across a village in the forest. It's a village of friendly machines led by one called Pascal who have rejected the concept of violence and work together to create a peaceful life for machines. The machines assume roles in their society that look more like families than squads of murderbots. There are machines that become brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. All roles of the familial structure are fulfilled by machines who just want to live their lives and take care of their families.
You do odd jobs for these machines for much of the game, finding lost siblings, obtaining items, delivering letters and even rescuing a robot who keeps locking himself in his house because he's afraid of life on the outside. Through the game you become quite familiar with the place, the friendly nature of the quirky robots who all have something funny to say about their home. The stage even features one of(in my opinion) the best parts of the soundtrack. It's a positive and uplifting place to be.
The village is contacted later by another group of machines who have structured themselves more like a church where they worship a leader. This group also wants to declare peace and has reached out to Pascal for that reason. So you go there and scope out the joint. You talk to the inhabitants and they all speak of being glad that they can connect with other peaceful machines and cast the shackles of violence off of themselves.
Deeper into the facility however, you see that it was some kind of ruse and you are attacked by machines. But not all of them. The machines turn on themselves as well, attacking and killing the pacifist machines who cower and beg to be spared. They wish to "become as gods" and the only way to achieve this is to die, and if you won't commit suicide like the rest of them, you will instead be killed.
As you continue you eventually see machines diving into pools of lava and killing themselves in troves. The imagery is quite striking as you can imagine. "Please help us". "I don't want to die!' "I'm afraid" etc, etc. It gets very dark very fast and it's unapologetic. The cycle of violence and death is the very first thing 2B talks about as the game fades in for the very first time, and the exploration of such themes are not to be stifled by things like "But it's so sad! How can they kill themselves like this!?"
Later you arrive at Pascal's village once more to find it under attack. There is some kind of virus spreading around that turns machines into mindless zombies who feast on themselves. Machines have an equivalent to a "blackbox" just like Androids, and upon consuming that, the individual is gone forever with no chance of a backup. And this virus makes sure the machines consume that as well.
The funny little machine children, the families and parents that you have come to know quite well, in all of their robotic quirkiness, have become infected and begin consuming themselves. It's a horrible nightmare cast upon the once peaceful village that reminds you again that there are no happy endings. It's a cycle of death that revolves around all of us.
Eventually you find that not all of the villagers were killed. Pascal managed to evacuate quite a few of the children and have taken them somewhere safe from the other hostile machines. You arrive on the scene to find machine children huddling around each other, sad and quite well distraught from the fact that their entire lives had just been uprooted."Where's mom?" "I just want to go home!" "They're all dead aren't they?" That's when the action begins again. Machines are on the move to attack this facility and you must defend them. The ever peaceful and calm Pascal, however, has taken to the offensive. His village destroyed and his people killed, he has vowed revenge on the machines that threaten his very existence.
The sequence itself is incredible. You play as Pascal who has taken over the body of the same type of giant enemy crane transformer thing from the beginning of the game. In front of you are waves and waves of aerial units carrying large assault tanks to kill you, but now piloting this massive crane entity you have the firepower to put them down and protect your children.
As you finish off the last enemy, the coast appears to be clear and it's time to go back and check on the children. You walk up to the doors and they open to reveal a hoard of machine children scattered all over. Dead. Every one. There are no enemies? None had managed to breech the powerful defense of the giant enemy Pascal had taken over? What ever could have happened? It turns out the machine children were so afraid, so rattled by the experience of today that they decided not to wait for any enemies to end their lives, so they all decided to commit suicide together. Pascal becomes so upset with this that he pleads with 2B to erase his memory so he can forget this pain.
The following events are just as fucking harsh as this but I'll leave it here for now.
Yoko Taro is a genius when it comes to this. They always say in writing "kill your darlings". Yoko Taro masterfully sets up these massive moments of existential crisis by showing you these peaceful villagers absolutely massacred because that's the world they live in. Violence is right around every corner, especially for the machines who are divided into a minority who seeks peace and a majority who seeks to destroy everything and everyone.
The children cry, the machines beg of you not to kill them, they don't want to die, they are afraid. It's a story of loss, of pain, of horror. And somewhere in there is an honest story, a narrative unhindered by traditional conventions. They go deep into the darkness that most games tread near but never go deep enough. You get to see the beautiful flame of life flourish and then be snuffed out. They have no interest in telling you what to feel.
Nier: Automata is a game that goes deep into a whole host of shit. And most of everything I've talked about just here is only the first route of the game. The game tricks you into thinking the prologue is over when you can finally explore the open world, but in all actuality the actual game begins on the third play through, route C.
People are somewhat misrepresenting the game and I think it's giving it somewhat of a bad rep. You beat the game, then on your second play through you see the same events from a different perspective, with abilities just different enough to make it feel fresh as you aren't doing exactly the same things. The third play through however is the actual second part of the game and that one features the real, honest-to-god endings of the game.
Nier: Automata is a game that utilizes the medium to actually do things you can never do or see anywhere else. Aside from the fact that the narrative explores so many things so deeply, and also so well, the game takes advantage of its options to provide a gaming experience that no one will forget.
There is so much to this game that I haven't even begun to describe. It has so many wonderful moments where it just straight up breaks the genre and now you're in a sidescroller or now you're in a shoot 'em up, or now you're doing all kinds of hacking and doing all sorts of different things. The game changes it up so often that it never even has time to feel stale. And compared to something like Mass Effect: Andromeda, the fact that a major AAA title that has had 5 years of development time has done so little to innovate the genre, it makes me a little sad, but also a little happy. Yoko Taro and his team has managed to create something beautiful. No matter how sad it got, the fact that it made me feel so many feelings so strongly shows just how much control they had over their craft. And boy, do they fucking WORK IT.